When Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen arrived in New York in 1978 their reputations preceded them. The Sex Pistols had gone their separate ways, but the aftershocks of their existence were still being felt both sides of the Atlantic. Countless bands were being formed, inspired by the Pistols' DIY philosophy. In tribute to their disreputable heroes, teenagers were dying their hair, shredding their clothes and developing antisocial habits. These two hopeless junkies were seen as punk royalty.
Sid and Nancy booked into the Chelsea Hotel, erstwhile home of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen and Jimi Hendrix.
There they became locked in a sordid world of drug addiction and mutual self-destruction. They frequently beat one another and burnt each other with cigarettes. On one occasion they had to move rooms after setting fire to their bed.
Eileen Polk was working as a photographer in New York at the time, and had become friends with many of the leading lights of the music scene. She knew Debbie Harry and Frank Zappa and had dated Dee Dee Ramone and the New York Dolls' Arthur "Killer" Kane. She took her camera with her wherever she went, and had gained the trust of those she photographed.
"You met people and then started photographing them rather than jumping straight in there like a paparazzo," she recalls. "I wasn't making much money out of it but I knew I was documenting something that wouldn't be around for long. I knew that one day these pictures would be very important to people."
Polk first met Nancy on the underground scene in New York in 1975. "She worked as a topless dancer and hung about with bands," Polk remembers. "She was pretty honest about what she was doing. She was a groupie and had drugs to offer them. But it didn't take long for her to wear out her welcome."
The following year, Nancy went to London where she started her relationship with Sid and introduced him to heroin. When the Sex Pistols split, the pair relocated to New York and Polk was welcomed into the fold. She remembers Sid as "being weak when it came to drugs but fearless when it came to performing and being an icon. He wasn't afraid to wear those clothes and stand up to those who criticised him. But he also had severe mood swings, even before Nancy died. He could be really funny, making obscene gestures and generally goofing off. The drugs probably induced some sort of depression, but I think he had problems even without that. Nancy definitely had some sort of mental illness and you're attracted to people like you. Whatever Sid had, I wouldn't want to give it a name."
Nancy was found dead at the Chelsea Hotel on 12 October 1978. She had been stabbed in the stomach with a hunting knife. Vicious, who was found wandering the hallways in an agitated state, was arrested and charged with her murder. Though he initially confessed to the crime, he later denied it, claiming he had been asleep when she died.
"I saw him at [the legendary punk club] CBGB's after he was let out and he had this blue-green complexion and looked all puffy," says Polk. "He was cutting himself really badly as well, even more than usual. He lost all warmth and spontaneity. He just looked so sad, it broke your heart."
In the end, Polk was among the last people to see Sid alive. It was four months after Nancy's death, and he had been back in jail after assaulting Patti Smith's brother Todd with a beer glass. While in prison he had completed a course of rehab and had then been released on bail. By way of celebration, his mother Anne Beverley decided to host a party.
"It wasn't a wild night, it was just dinner with a few friends," explains Polk. "I didn't take pictures that night as I knew Sid was in a fragile state and I didn't want to exploit that. I think Sid's mother was trying to keep him out of trouble but that clearly wasn't his fate. It got late and the guys with drugs showed up, and the rest is history."
Sid's mother found him dead the next morning; he had overdosed on heroin. It was reported as an accident though many assumed it was suicide. Sid had tried to kill himself several times since his arrest, and on one occasion, after trying to throw himself out of a window, complained that he hadn't kept to his part of the bargain.
"The word was that he and Nancy had made a pact, but who knows?" says Polk. "Nancy's murder was never thoroughly investigated. There were a lot of dangerous people hanging around them both back then. If he hadn't died and the case went to trial he may well have been acquitted.
"Sid may have put the needle in his arm but I think to blame him for everything that happened in his life is wrong. There's a whole chain of blame, from his childhood and his mother's drug habit to the band and Nancy. To my mind, he was pretty much doomed from the start."
Sid Vicious: No One is Innocent, featuring the photographs of Richard E Aaron, Jorgen Angel, Janette Beckman, Adrian Boot, Peter Gravelle, Eileen Polk and Virginia Turbett, is at Proud Camden, London NW1, from 4 June to 11 August, 020-7482 3867, www.proud.co.ukReuse content