Take your partners

The nearest I got to any seriously engaged reading during my three years at Cambridge was probably every Thursday when NME came out and, in the company of friends and a pinch or so of grass, we gathered in my room in South Court and subjected each article to the sort of analysis we should have been applying to Samuel Richardson or the Paris commune. It’s hard to imagine now, but NME in the early and mid-1970s was a pretty cutting-edge publication, on the look out for music that would meet its journalists’ (and readers’) intellectual needs and more than fed up with the bombastic, overweening, cod-classical trash – Yes, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, (shudder) Queen – available at the time. So all our ears pricked up when news filtered through of a band, except we didn’t refer to them as a band, called the Sex Pistols. Long before they’d recorded anything we followed their antics and the antics of their manager, Malcolm McLaren, including his attempt to resurrect the New York Dolls, an act of such majestic awfulness they could neither survive nor be allowed to die. I never heard the Sex Pistols live – their first gig was a few months after I’d graduated – but I saw Johnny Rotten once, thrillingly, outside a pub in Charlotte Street and I managed to acquire a tee-shirt from Sex, with a hardcore gay orgy silk-screened on the front – a tee-shirt I still have but, unsurprisingly, no longer wear.

A couple of years later I was visiting an aunt of mine in the Midlands. Steeleye Span were playing in town that evening and, for old times’ sake, I went to their concert. It was the night Elvis Presley died but that isn’t why I remember it. I remember it because the concert I didn’t go to that evening was one of the dates of the last (real) Sex Pistols tour in the UK. I didn’t go because they were performing under a different name to avoid being banned, and I couldn’t have read my NME closely enough that week; I’d slipped out of the loop. In those years, I saw pretty much everyone on the punk and post-punk scene, from X-Ray Spex and Siouxsie and the Banshees to the Buzzcocks and Generation X to Wire and the Gang of Four, but I still regret missing the Pistols for Maddy Prior.

I was in Portugal when Sid Vicious OD’d on heroin, two months after the death of Nancy Spungen. A voice on the BBC World Service announced that Mr Sidney Vicious had been found dead at the age of 21, etc. I wanted to shout out that Vicious wasn’t his real surname but found myself crying instead. It was a low point in my life and it felt as though something messy and possible, some sort of dirty inchoate hope for a different sort of future, had been definitively stifled. By the time I was back in Britain, the world had changed, or mine had, and I found myself wearing a suit and working for a medical publisher’s near Tottenham Court Road. The man I was working with, it turned out, had shared a flat with Malcolm McLaren and an actress, I think a midget, who’d worked in The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. He shook his head when I asked him what it had been like. When I insisted, he mouthed the word ‘drugs’, and shook his head a second time.

And that slight degree of separation was as close as I got to McLaren, apart from buying his music when a lot of other people had probably stopped. Which doesn’t quite explain the sadness I felt this morning when I read that he was dead. It’s not like the death of Sid Vicious, but something has gone, a smidgeon of naughtiness and fuck-you-allness that won’t come back easily or be found in quite the same guise as it was in McLaren’s joyfully sleazy post-situationist stance, and a wide-open and essentially generous eye for the main chance in a world that tends to seize its opportunities, and then close them off, in a meaner and somehow more self-interested way than he did.

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