Recording artist, manager of the Sex Pistols, provocateur, fashion designer, impresario — Malcolm McLaren, who died of cancer April 8th at 64 was all those things. He was also, briefly, the manager of the New York Dolls just before their breakup in 1975. Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain spoke with Rolling Stone about his encounters with McLaren. “I always thought the most important member of the Sex Pistols was Malcolm McLaren,” Sylvain says. “When they got back together in the ’90s, I thought, ‘They’re missing their most important star, and that was Malcolm.’ ”
When did you first meet McLaren?
It was at a clothing trade show back in 1971 in New York City. I had a knitwear company, and he and Vivienne [Westwood] were down at the end of the hallway with their clothing line Let It Rock, which was basically rockabilly clothing. Malcolm had this long blond pompadour, long sideburns and white baggy pants. He was like Jerry Lee Lewis, really cool looking. On the last day of trade shows, designers sell their samples, so I said to David Johansen and Johnny Thunders, “You gotta come over.” So we bought some things from Malcolm and Vivienne and invited them down to see us at the Mercer Arts Center. He fell in love with the New York Dolls, and we fell in love with them. Vivienne would tell us, “You boys look so much better in women’s clothing.”
How did he end up managing the Dolls later?
In 1975, I saw him at the Chelsea Hotel and I had a long face. He asked me what was going on and I said, “Things aren’t going so good. We’re about to break up.” He was really sad and said, “I’d love to help you guys.” He became our personal manager. He got us a loft on 23rd Street in Chelsea and we started practicing and writing songs and came up with the red-patent-leather show. We all started wearing red — red shoes, red pants — and Malcolm said, “Why don’t you put up a red flag?” Which was a brilliant idea. Of course, it was the final blow of the New York Dolls. A famous New Yorker said to me, “Now you’re gonna do the Communist thing?” No one really got it. It was art for art’s sake.
Why did Malcolm champion the Dolls so much?
Because it was raw. It was a slap in the industry’s face. He saw that in us. He saw that you didn’t have to be a great singer or to be like Jeff Beck to call yourself a guitarist. It was the love of different and weird. And, if you’re not weird, maybe you should be! Malcolm didn’t follow the crowd — that wasn’t him.
What happened after the Dolls collapsed during that tour?
We were in Florida and they all went home, and me and Malcolm were left down there. He rented a Plymouth station wagon for the tour, and I said, “Have you ever been to New Orleans?” We drove there and went to clubs and record stores. Somehow he called up Allen Toussaint and we managed to meet him at his studio. There Allen was, playing the piano and saying, “If you boys ever need a recording studio, think of us.” It was just amazing what Malcolm could do. When we got back to New York, we went to the warehouse he had with Vivienne. They were into their bondage trip — a lot of rubber and all kinds of stuff. I took him around to my friends. We went to Debbie Harry’s house and sold her stuff right out of the back of the station wagon, like spiked high-heel shoes and black patent leather. He was a great salesman.
Is it true he wanted you to front the Sex Pistols?
He said to me, “Don’t worry.” He said the Sex Pistols were gonna be my band and he wrote me this seven-page letter that’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He said, “This is gonna be your band! It’s going to be called the Sex Pistols!” He had some photos from a photo booth and on the back of them he would write things like, “We’re thinking of calling this one Johnny Rotten. He can’t sing, but he can definitely sing better than David Johansen!” I just never went, basically. I signed to RCA and had my own band. I used to describe that letter to my friends and they would say, “Sylvain’s full of shit.” When my mom died in 1991, I found it while cleaning her apartment in Brooklyn. On the back he wrote, “Please give this to your son, from a friend in England.”
What was McLaren’s contribution to punk?
He loved Richard Hell’s ripped T-shirt and the whole attitude. When he went back home to London, he packaged it and introduced it to the whole world. He knew you had to package things and impact them with the whole five fingers. He did that so well and so naturally. We might’ve discovered it and invented it, but he put it on the map. I was in China recently and there were all these punk shops. Can you imagine that ever being? If it weren’t for Malcolm, that wouldn’t have happened.
So what his legacy?
He had the goods, as they say. In the clothing business, you have to be five years ahead of yourself and come up with tomorrow’s goods today. You have to be able to read the future. He did that so well. And what I learned from Malcolm is: If you don’t toot your own horn, no one is gonna do it for you.