by BJW Nashe

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen’s death-trip punk romance culminated in her murder in October, 1978, followed by his death from a heroin overdose in early 1979. For thirty years, the prevailing view held that Sid, the troubled Sex Pistols’ bassist, was the one who fatally stabbed Nancy in their room at Manhattan’s infamous Chelsea Hotel. In 2009, a documentary film called Who Killed Nancy? was released, which drew upon “new evidence” to show that Vicious was most likely innocent of the murder. Several news outlets followed up with stories questioning the established version of events. The main point was that Sid was too incapacitated from drugs to kill anyone on the night of Nancy’s death, so comatose from the massive dose of sedatives (30 Tuinals) he had gobbled that he couldn’t even lift a knife, let alone stab anyone.

sidSo Sid’s legend no longer includes murder. His reputation as a punk icon should survive this relatively minor setback. There’s still plenty of bad behavior on his resume. Sid remains a potent symbol of anarchy and rebellion. Yet make no mistake: the reality of his short life in the limelight was marked by absurdity. He was a bit of a joke. His real name wasn’t Sid, it was John Ritchie, and he wasn’t particularly “vicious.” He grew up as a shy misfit from London’s working class. He became a rock star even though he couldn’t play music. He hardly contributed anything at all to his band’s hit album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. During the recording, Sid was hospitalized with hepatitis. He was famous simply for being famous — the biggest rock star of his era, based solely on his image as the ultimate nihilistic rebel. In the end, despondent over the death of his beloved Nancy, and horrified at the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars, Sid didn’t even have the guts to commit suicide. In a gruesome twist, he had his own mother administer the fatal dose.

deadIf the incompetent Sid Vicious didn’t kill Nancy, who did? We’ll probably never know for sure. All we know is she was found lying dead in a pool of her own blood, clad in her black bra and panties, on the floor of the couple’s hotel bathroom. The murder remains shrouded in mystery, clouded over by the hazy recollections of seedy drug addicts and punk rock bottom feeders, many of whom are by now either dead, or too damaged to provide much reliable testimony. Journalist Alan Parker, the director of Who Killed Nancy?, points out that there were fingerprints from six other persons found at the scene of the crime, yet none of them were interviewed by police. Parker claims that a likely suspect is a shady character named “Michael,” who presumably robbed an unconscious Sid of several thousand of dollars of cash he had in the room, and stabbed Nancy in the process. One suitably odd character, a fixture on the scene at the time, was a sometime actor and full-time addict known as Rockets Redglare. Redglare once told a journalist that Nancy was killed during the making of a snuff film. Just imagine the price this foul item would fetch on the murderabilia market. Rockets is long dead from liver failure, however, and he was never a very reliable source of information.

girl“Who killed Nancy?” Perhaps the more interesting question at this point is “Who was Nancy?”  Nancy Spungen tends to get a bad rap as the insufferable groupie from hell who sank her claws into the great Sid Vicious, the iconic “James Dean of Punk,” and then dragged him to his doom. Anyone who sees the Alex Cox film Sid and Nancy is unlikely to forget Chloe Webb’s shrieking, obnoxious portrayal of Spungen. Yet this is a cinematic caricature, containing only partial truth. Take a closer look, and a more complex character emerges. One of the best pieces of writing on Nancy is Karen Schoemer’s October 19, 2008 piece for New York Magazine. [http://nymag.com/arts/popmusic/features/51394/] In Schoemer’s reassessment, Nancy emerges as a more compelling, albeit disturbing, embodiment of pure punk rebellion and martyrdom than does Sid Vicious, or any of the other Sex Pistols. For Nancy, as well as other women on the scene such as Patti Smith and Deborah Harry and Penelope Houston, one can argue that the stakes were considerably higher than they were for the men. And for Nancy, who didn’t play in a band, to nonetheless become a major player on the scene is fairly remarkable. Nancy is the first superstar groupie. She’s worth paying attention to.

 

Juliet From Hell

legsNancy Spungen was a middle class Jewish girl from the suburbs of Philadelphia. She was highly intelligent, but psychologically and emotionally troubled. Her family didn’t know how to handle her. Nancy was evidently one of those people who seem to have been put here for the sole purpose of raising holy hell. As a child, she screamed and yelled until she got her way. Her parents would give in just to get some peace and quiet, or because they were incapable of seeking alternative solutions. Nancy once attacked her mother with a hammer. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic at age 15, and spent time in a mental hospital. The psych ward didn’t help much, and probably only made her more rebellious. Let’s face it: girls who are “different” in some way have typically been pressured to conform, through outright coercion or with more subtle forms of bribery, rather than encouraged to express themselves via suitable means (art, music, writing, or whatever). As a society, we have made considerable improvements in this regard, with further progress yet to be made. In the sixties and seventies, however, many American girls still found themselves boxed into fairly rigid social and familial structures. As the hippie movement crashed and burned, suburban middle class life remained stifling and restrictive for young women. I’m not trying to blame society, or the Spungen family, for Nancy’s “problems.” I’m just trying to situate her behavior in its proper context.

In any case, Nancy found her upbringing stultifying. As a teenager, she proved to be utterly unwilling to pursue life as a “conventional” American female. In 1975, at the age of 17, she took off for New York City to fling herself into the hard rock scene. She lived on the Lower East Side, and trailed after hard-partying bands such hookas the Heartbreakers and the New York Dolls. She worked as a stripper and a prostitute on Times Square, then used the money to buy drugs for the musicians she pursued. She soon gained a reputation for wild, reckless behavior. By most accounts, she prowled the groupie scene like a wild, rapacious animal. Nancy didn’t play the standard, submissive groupie role. She was aggressive and in-your-face. She refused to hide her sex-for-money work (other groupies tended to avoid such activity, or keep it secret). Nancy didn’t reject one code of behavior — that of her suburban upbringing — in order to run off to the rock and roll circus, only to conform to another code of behavior — the one pertaining to groupies. Nancy rejected all codes of behavior. She probably didn‘t even know about Crowley, but she instinctively understood his maxim, “Do what thou will, shall be the whole of the law.” Conformists among the rocker/groupie scene naturally came to loathe her. She was too punk even for most of the other punks — some of whom were merely posers, or simply not as extreme as Nancy. Nancy was gonzo. She slept around, got wasted, pushed people down stairs.

In 1977, having worn out her welcome in New York, Nancy traveled to London to dive into the exploding punk rock subculture. There she located a prize suitable for her groupie ambitions. The prize was Sid Vicious, the bassist of the Sex Pistols. One can assume that Nancy, by this point, could eat punk boys like Sid for hotbreakfast. Yet the two clicked in a deeper way. Supposedly a virgin before he met Nancy, Sid quickly fell in love with her. To seduce Sid, Nancy had to be more than just a she-devil. She was quite intelligent, for one thing. Sid came to rely on her brains and her street-savvy as he shambled his way through life as a newly famous rock star. Nancy supposedly could glean whether a person was a con artist or a phony right away — something which Sid struggled with. And Nancy herself was no faker. A lone interview clip — one of the few bits of footage of Nancy that survives from that pre-digital era — is very telling in this regard. While Sid and a member of the band Dead Boys goof around and mumble incoherently, Nancy comes across as a far more spirited and articulate spokesperson for the punk movement. She’s quick-witted, argumentative, and rude. And she’s committed to the lifestyle. The rebellion is not part of some “act” for her. She’s not posing. She’s also not content to sit on the sideline. She’s as important to the scene as Sid. And why not? It’s not as if Sid had some great musical talent she was lacking. Punk in the early days tended to knock down barriers between bands, groupies, journalists, and fans. It was all one big scene. Of course, that would change in time.

In addition to intelligence, Nancy also possessed some measure of kindness, to go along with all the vitriol. Certain punk insiders, such as Legs McNeil, author of the punk history Please Kill Me, have pointed out that Nancy, contrary to popular belief, could be a warm, friendly person. McNeil says that while Nancy’s ill-tempered rages were hard to ignore, this aspect of her personality was over-emphasized and exaggerated — probably because she was a woman. Plenty of the guys on the scene were just as deranged as Nancy. She was no worse than Dee Dee Ramone or Joey Ramone or Stiv Bators or Johnny Thunders. Punk rock was not exactly teeming with stable, well-adjusted, polite over-achievers. Mentally ill drug addicts were everywhere. They were all crazy, but most of them were nice at least some of the time.

 

No Future

Sid and Nancy’s tumultuous romance scandalized the music world. They were the Bonnie and Clyde of punk, Romeo and Juliet from hell. The term “dysfunctional co-dependency” doesn’t begin to capture the depths achieved during their downward spiral. They took drugs, they fought, and they took more drugs. Sid made igenough money for both of them to become seriously addicted. Their lifestyle made a complete mockery of terms such as “relationship” and “career.” They made a spectacle of themselves wherever they went. Their reckless self-destructiveness knew no bounds. Johnny Rotten sneered about having “no future.” Iggy Pop sang a song called “Death Trip.” Sid and Nancy actually took the death-trip. They were what “no future” looked like back in 1978. For many, it was a repulsive, shocking thing to witness. Yet for millions of disaffected youth, Sid and Nancy presented a seductive image of pure rebellion. They were the face of the new “Blank Generation.” They were against everything.

pistWhen the Sex Pistols embarked on their brief, incendiary tour of the United States, mainly playing gigs in the Deep South, Sid’s bandmates forbade him from bringing Nancy along. Again, as a woman she was too punk for the punks. Sid spent the tour stumbling through concerts, dressed in leather pants and a dog collar, his shirtless upper torso and his bare, skinny arms bleeding where he’d slashed himself with razor blades. At one point, he carved the words “Gimme a Fix” in jagged letters across his chest and stomach. The tour ended with a show at Winterland in San Francisco. It was the band’s last show. At the height of their fame, the Sex Pistols simply called it quits. Johnny Rotten’s famous last words onstage were, “Do you feel cheated?” While the others went straight to the airport to board a plane back to London, Sid headed across town to a shooting gallery in the Haight, where he supposedly overdosed on heroin. He survived, this time.

saluteSid and Nancy eventually settled back in New York, where Sid planned to launch his solo career. Nancy lorded her success over the scene that had spurned her. Now she was more famous than any of the New York Dolls and their groupies. But the drug abuse was way out of hand. She and Sid holed up in Room 100 at the infamous Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. The Chelsea, a longtime bohemian stronghold, had once been the home of luminaries such as Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe, who both wrote and drank their way to an early grave there, as well as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who found the old hotel inspirational and convenient. Andy Warhol’s experimental film Chelsea Girls captured the place in all of its late sixties, speed-freak, transvestite glamour. By the late 1970s, the hotel was a run-down, drug-infested flophouse.

The Chelsea Hotel was perfect for Sid and Nancy, who mainly laid around in bed, nearly comatose, as couriers delivered them drugs. Occasionally, they ventured out to Max’s Kansas City, where Sid fronted an all-star punk band including Mick Jones, Johnny Thunders, and Richard Hell. Nancy sometimes joined him onstage. For even the most hardcore punk fans, Sid’s junkie act, as he nodded off and slurred his way through sloppy punk cover-songs, was growing tiresome. Attendance dwindled. Sid had some success with a new single, his recorded version of “My Way,” in which he ironically made a mess of the tune made famous by Sinatra. By and large, though, Sid’s solo career was going nowhere.

 

Death

sodeadOn the morning of October 12, 1978, tragedy struck. Sid woke up from a deep drug stupor and found Nancy lying on the bathroom floor, stabbed to death. Sid called the police, who showed up and charged him with the murder. The knife definitely belonged to him, recently purchased on 42nd Street. Sid made conflicting statements to the cops. He said he stabbed Nancy during an argument, but that he didn’t want to kill her. He said she accidentally fell onto the knife. Then, he said he simply couldn’t remember what happened.

If Sid had been out of control before, now he truly fell apart. Ten days after Nancy’s death, he attempted suicide by slitting his wrist with a smashed light bulb. He spent some time in the mental ward at Bellevue Hospital. On December 8, he was arrested and charged with assault after an altercation with Todd Smith (Patti Smith’s brother) at a concert by the band Skafish. For this, Vicious spent 55 days at Rikers Island. On February 1, 1979, he was released on bail.

sid3To celebrate his release, on February 2, Sid Vicious attended a macabre dinner party at the New York apartment of his new girlfriend, Michele Robinson. Sid’s mother, Anne, herself a long-time addict, showed up to the gathering. Sid, who had undergone methadone detoxification at Rikers, was craving dope, and convinced his mum to score for him. Unaccustomed to his typical large dose, and surprised by an unusually pure batch of heroin, Sid overdosed at midnight. He was revived by his companions. He and Michele reportedly went to bed some time near 3:00 A.M.

What happened next was subsequently pieced together by police and the press. Apparently Sid, his death wish unabated, wanted another dose of heroin. Michele wanted no part of it, and left the room. Sid summoned his mother, who later confessed to journalist Alan Parker that she administered the fatal injection to her son. Parker surmised that she did this because she knew Sid didn’t want to face the horrors of a murder trial, and a likely return to prison. She allegedly found a note in Sid’s leather jacket that explained the death pact he had made with Nancy: “We had a death pact, and I have to keep my half of the bargain. Please bury me next to my baby. Bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots. Goodbye.”

Whatever the rationale, the end result was that Sid Vicious was found dead on the morning of February 3. He couldn’t be buried next to Nancy, because she’d been laid to rest in a Jewish cemetery. Instead, Sid’s body was cremated and his ashes were scattered over Nancy’s grave.

 

No Moral to the Story

sid1Sid and Nancy both died too young — she was just 20, and he was only 21. What can we reasonably conclude about this unholy pair? I’d like to think that even if they were a joke, they were a serious joke — the kind of deadly serious, sick joke often needed to shake society from its doldrums. The fact that neither of them had any real marketable talent, yet still achieved great fame and influence, only adds to their punk appeal. “Talent” was just another elitist concept to tear down, smash apart, or deconstruct. As personifications of subversion, Sid and Nancy posed a symbolic threat to the established order — both within the music business and extending outward to society at large. Nancy in particular took punk rebellion to new levels of outrage, especially for women involved in rock and roll. Rock stars often get praised and rewarded for being nonconforming outsiders. Nancy shows us that the groupies and strippers and hookers who are so integral to the scene are often the ones who are truly living on the edge. Usually, they don’t become stars. Nancy did, so she deserves extra credit. She was outrageous.

ancy1Even if Sid and Nancy were a sick joke, I’d like to think they were more than just fools. I’d like to think that they did exactly what they wanted to do, and died exactly as they wanted to die. If that doesn’t please us, so what. Rehab and recovery and responsibility wasn’t in the cards for them, which is too bad. But I see no need to moralize about Sid and Nancy. They had a death pact. They never hurt anyone other than themselves. They certainly never claimed to be “role models.” Rather than judge them, I prefer to view them as fascinating creatures, part of life’s rich pageant. They became famous, and went viral, because we ultimately derive spiritual depth and power from the mad, crazy ones among us who cannot be controlled, and who refuse to play by the rules. Sometimes we need outrageousness, especially when it comes to art and music. We need it more than we need a “moral to the story.” And we need it more than we need to solve a thirty year-old crime.

So we might as well let Nancy’s murder serve as the final outrage: it will most likely remain unsolved forever.

 

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