Shouldn’t We Pick Our Heroes More Carefully?

Easy Rider - Hopper insisted that he was the sole creative force behind the film

The death of Dennis Hopper and, earlier in the year, Malcolm McLaren, has got me thinking; why do we celebrate so many people who don’t really deserve it? Dennis Hopper could be a very fine actor and admittedly he was a counter-cultural icon for a time owing to the success of Easy Rider, but I have doubts that he was ever truly a ‘rebel’.

In fact, it could well be argued that he was part of Hollywood’s establishment, not unlike Jack Nicholson, who is also considered a rebel despite there being so much evidence to the contrary (both men relied on their ‘crazy’ routine for a large proportion of their career, although Nicholson doesn’t quite so much now). If it was left to Hopper, Easy Rider may never have been finished and this is quite clearly documented in Peter Biskind’s book, ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’. The film was way overdue and it was left to Donn Cambern, the film’s editor, to make something coherent out of the miles of celluloid that had been shot for it. This had to be done behind Hopper’s back, since he was such a control freak and he seemed reluctant to ever complete the film.

Despite this, Hopper was more than willing to claim that he was the sole creative force behind Easy Rider, and he was unwilling to share any praise lavished on it with anybody else. Also documented in Biskind’s book is Hopper’s casual violence towards his girlfriend of the time, and this was common in his relationships; he may well have cleaned up his act in that regard in recent years, but it was about time. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances; his enormous drug and booze-intake, but I doubt that most people who have experienced abusive relationships would particularly feel sympathetic to him about that – that’s usually one of the reasons, isn’t it?

Malcolm McLaren - Rock Management's answer to Rupert Murdoch

All of this may sound like I’m intent on denigrating him, but I do actually do enjoy many of his films and am more than willing to admit he was a very talented man; I’m simply saying that he was deeply flawed and that we shouldn’t just turn a blind eye to that now that he’s passed away. Dennis Hopper is a prime example of how youth culture can be exploited and that rebelliousness can be manufactured. Even if Easy Rider had been an idealistic project at the time, it was quickly co-opted, copied and merchandised, in the same way that the image of a genuine revolutionary, Che Guevara has been used to sell everything from T-shirts to vodka.

None of this was ever lost on Malcolm McLaren who was well aware of how rebellion could be very commercial. McLaren is still regarded by some as genius, a rebel and an iconic figure in his own right, despite the fact that he was a blatant capitalist and exploiter of other people’s talent. He was also very possibly amoral; he exploited the fact that Sid Vicious was uneducated and vulnerable, actively encouraging him to be violent and take drugs, vicariously wanting to fulfil some kind of rock ‘n’ roll fantasy and financially benefit from the results. Yet, the most damning thing about McLaren is that he seemed to think any kind of controversy was fair game for exploitation, even flirting with child pornography in his marketing of Bow Wow Wow; this should have placed him beyond-the-pale to any sensible individual, but his reputation still seemed to remain intact – ‘naughty old Malcolm, what a card, eh?’ His kind of management put Colonel Tom Parker in the shade, and just because he could justify it by intellectualising it, using ‘situationist’ references, he seemed to be able to gain plaudits from people who really ought to know better.

The one thing McLaren and Hopper had in common (and at least Hopper had talent and charisma), was that they were both very good at managing their image and they were both self-serving, particularly McLaren. Neither of them were really admirable people – there are plenty of people out in the real world doing far more admirable work. Working-class history is absolutely full of quite selfless individuals, willing to sacrifice a great deal for the betterment of others and the generations that followed; why not learn our own history and find our own heroes rather than rely on these manufactured, media-constructs? Surely that would be healthier than admiring the likes of these two.

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