Byline: Dana Wood
With a finger in nearly every cultural pie of the last 20 years, Malcolm McLaren may be the world’s foremost dabbler. A little music, a little fashion, a staggeringly fruitless attempt at filmmaking — such are the activities that engage this middle-aged Renaissance man. Particularly one who is as notorious for being notorious as for anything he’s actually done.
After settling into an armchair in New York’s cozy new Inn at Irving Plaza, McLaren holds forth on all manner of topics, not the least of which is “Paris,” his latest musical effort. While he’s managed and produced work by such punk purveyors as the Sex Pistols, Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow, on “Paris,” McLaren steps up to the microphone himself for the first time.
A funky, jazz-informed tribute to the City of Light — McLaren’s home base for the last few years — the album features contributions from some of his newfound Parisian pals, including Francoise Hardy, Loulou de la Falaise and that icon of iciness, Catherine Deneuve.
“Catherine really loved the record,” says McLaren, in a voice so soft, so demure a visitor is forced to lean forward to catch the words. “Of course, I think she especially liked her own song. It was something new for her. For those reasons, I think she felt — dare I say it — cool. You don’t expect someone like Catherine Deneuve to be on a record.”
Or McLaren either, lately. His Byzantine musical career hasn’t attracted much attention since the 1984 release of “Fans,” his operatic opus, which has achieved cult status.
But the past 10 years have emboldened McLaren — thus, his vocal debut on “Paris.” While he can’t actually be accused of singing, McLaren does give in to a sort of animated warbling. And in the true spirit of a man who once sprang another abysmal vocalist — John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, frontman for the Sex Pistols) — into public being, McLaren wouldn’t dream of apologizing for his atonality.
“I didn’t think it was out of the ordinary to not sing very well,” he says with a shrug. “I also thought I was in very good company. There are a lot of French singers who don’t sing well.
“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” McLaren adds. “It’s really about what you have to say. It’s about the love of making mistakes, the love of being personal and pretentious and not desperately trying to be disciplined and professional.”
When it comes to music, discipline and professionalism are clearly not the sharpest suits in McLaren’s closet; he admits to finding it “very scary” having to work hard as a musician, being tethered to the studio for days on end and, finally, being utterly responsible for the outcome.
After all, McLaren’s musical heritage runs more to just winding up people like Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and letting them happen.
Thus, as his attention span precludes his returning to the recording studio any time soon, McLaren has immersed himself in other endeavors. A film project on the life of Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant — which is loosely based on a history of the group, “Hammer of the Gods” — is slowly, painfully morphing into existence. Not that McLaren is holding his breath.
He spent a good chunk of the Eighties working for Steven Spielberg, who hired him to develop music-oriented projects. Nothing came to fruition, admits McLaren. As a result, he is now skeptical regarding “Hammer of the Gods.”
“It’s only at the stage of corralling the director right now,” he says. “So I just struggle on and do other things while I’m struggling.”
Like designing clothes; for the umpteenth time, McLaren has jumped back into the fashion fray and seems eager to cast himself as one of fashion’s Deep Thinkers. Even so, he’s amazingly sketchy on the details of his eponymous new collection for men and women that’s sold only in Tokyo so far.
“It’s very existential,” he says. “It’s invisible at times and it’s trying very hard not to scream.”
He’s also eager to open a new retail shop.
“By living in Paris and going to the shows, I slowly got seduced back into it,” he says. “But I think fashion has taken a curious turn. It’s a television spectacle now, which has changed the whole notion and given it a kind of importance and newsworthiness it hasn’t had the since the Fifties or early Sixties.
“But, at the same time, it has become voyeuristic,” he adds. “Because if people watch it enough and read about it enough, to some extent they don’t have to wear it; they’ve already consumed the idea.”
And that, says McLaren, is especially true when certain silhouettes make their second or third trot down the runway. “I don’t understand all the pantomimic attitudes about reviving the 18th century,” he allows. “Of course they had wonderful cuts then. I mean, I love John Galliano, but to talk always of the 18th century is a load of frippery. There’s no real cause, no ideology. And I’ve always thought that with any great designer, the way they survive is that somewhere, at some point — perhaps not always in their life — they’ve had an ideology. And it was that ideology, if they were clever and articulate enough, that came through.
“Those are just a few of my personal thoughts on the topic,” McLaren says, reaching for his last sip of Earl Grey. “I actually think about these things.”