Nancy and Sid: A punk mystery story

It seemed like a simple case of mutually assured destruction - the punk ideal bent out of shape and battered to extinction. But, 25 years on, is there more to be learnt from the death of Nancy Spungen? Deborah Orr on the life, and sordid afterlife, of a lost girl

Sunday 12 October 2003 00:00 BST

On 12 October, 1978, some time between 5am and 9am, Nancy Spungen died on the floor of the bathroom in room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York. The cause of her death was internal haemorrhaging due to a single knife wound in the lower abdomen. She was 20 years old.

Her body was discovered by her partner, a young man whose name was John Simon Ritchie, but who was far better known as Sid Vicious, bass player with the Sex Pistols.

He claimed that he had no memory of what had happened to cause her death. Nevertheless, when he was arrested shortly afterwards, Sid Vicious admitted, after a fashion, to killing Nancy. "I did it," he told the police, "because I'm a dirty dog." This version of events has become the accepted one, even though Sid Vicious was never tried for the crime or convicted of it. He was charged with second-degree murder, and immediately released on $50,000 bail. On 1 February 1979, Sid died too, overdosing on heroin supplied to him by his mother, Anne Beverley.

There is a genuine possibility that Sid might not have murdered Nancy. Various drug dealers had been in and out of the room during the night of 11 October, and the police ascertained that the couple had been robbed of $1,500. Some believed that Nancy had been killed in a fight with a dealer, while others suggested that she had died as part of a botched suicide pact. Mrs Beverley even claimed that she had found a handwritten note to that effect in her son's pocket.

These were the ideas that the record company defence team charged with getting him off the hook were working on in the days and weeks after Sid's bail hearing. Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, was heavily involved with the attempt to free Sid, and had all kinds of plans for comeback gigs, benefit concerts and even an album recorded by Sid and others, featuring gristly covers of such - under the circumstances - tasteless standards as "Mack the Knife". McLaren's then partner was the fashion designer who made her name with the rise of punk, Vivienne Westwood. She, for her part, brought out Sid Vicious T-shirts sporting the slogan, "She's dead, I'm alive, I'm yours."

There was a charge of nihilistic opportunism around Nancy's death. Nobody on the punk scene in London or New York cared about her loss at all. Yet the few people who cared about Sid in any way, cared mainly for his worth as an object, a symbol and a commodity. As a man facing a murder charge, Sid Vicious was someone who could be exploited - or even, in order for the Sex Pistols mythology to continue, someone who had to be exploited.

The proposition was that Sid embodied in some way the meaning of punk. At least, that's how it had to be presented, as long as he was alive. Nancy, on the other hand, stood for nothing. Nobody who knew her, it seemed, liked Nancy. Everybody in punk's little world blamed her for Sid's parlous state in the months before and after her death. She is dismissed as a freeloader, a whiner, and, hilariously considering the postures of punk, an aggressively rude young woman. Nancy had come over to London from the New York punk scene, bringing with her a taste for heroin that the innocent bin-linered gobbers of the Kings Road hadn't yet developed. She, like an incubus, is blamed for that corruption too, as if those little punk boys would never have been able to work out for themselves what it was that the Velvet Underground were singing about.

Having tried to latch on to various members of the London punk scene - which despite its worldwide infamy was tiny - she'd finally succeeded in getting her claws into Sid. The reason for Sid's gullibility in the face of this teenage harridan was not, legend had it, his straightforward shallow stupidity, but his wide-eyed openness as an idiot savant. The truth was, though, that the whey-faced lad was all idiocy and no savant.

It should be noted at this point how closely the punk mythology was at this time tracking the conventional mythology of rock stardom, even though it was supposed to be partly about rejecting those values. When John Lennon had broken with the Beatles, and started using heroin, this was reckoned to be entirely the work of Yoko Ono; and so it was with Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.

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Those who claim that punk changed the music industry need only look at Kurt Cobain. He may have killed himself and not his wife, Courtney Love, but there are some who believe their relationship was ill-suited. But whose fault is that? The men who choose these partners do so of their own volition, and as a consequence of their own needs.

Sid chose Nancy every bit as much as she chose him, and in respect of their dangerous, destructive co-dependency, he and Nancy were ideally suited. Both disturbed, both impressionable, and both embroiled in a manipulative scene that most other people understood much better than they did, they were a couple of accidents waiting to happen. It is well documented that Sid was brought up fatherless at a time when this was not so commonplace, and by an addict mother as well. But Nancy's extenuating background circumstances (more of which later) were less well rehearsed as the time.

Psychologically flawed, to say the least, Sid and Nancy were obvious candidates for the kind of chemical-cosh drug-use that would later be diagnosed by the medical profession as "self-medication". While the official line was that Sid's friends wanted to get him away from Nancy, the reality was that Sid was already a liability, even in a group that aimed to shock above all else. He had been a late recruit to the Pistols, contributing nothing to their powerful yet silly fist of anthems, and helping to make the Sex Pistols collapse under the weight of their own dysfunctional absurdity. It was perfectly convenient, for all concerned, for Sid and Nancy to wander off and have their accidents together, out of everyone else's way.

The accidents, when they came, were spectacular. But they were also so predictable that no one - neither the insiders on the punk scene who knew them, nor the outraged denizens of middle England and middle America - batted an eyelid.

Conspiracy theories abound in most celebrity deaths, when they are high on profile and low on evidence. But no one expounded passionately held theories about Sid and Nancy. The chances are that he killed her, probably without meaning to, and that he killed himself in just the same spirit. No conspiracies at all - just two drug-addled, sordid, nasty, cock-ups. Maybe, just maybe, it had not been quite like that. But nobody in the world could see any virtue in dwelling too much on the details. Few people even saw virtue in dwelling on the big picture.

John Lydon, who as Johnny Rotten had been in the Sex Pistols with Sid, had been friends with him for years. But when asked about Sid and Nancy in interviews as he promoted his new band Public Image Ltd, he replied: "Don't care. I don't see why I should have any feelings at all."

Later, talking about Nancy, whom he despised, Lydon said, disparagingly: "Her parents took her to see a psychiatrist at the age of four. Go figure." His implication was that Nancy was a nasty piece of work because she'd been over-indulged by middle-class liberal American parents. The truth was that Nancy had been taken to a psychiatrist at four because she was disturbed from an early age.

A full, if partisan, history of the short life of Nancy Spungen can be found in an odd biography written by her mother, Deborah Spungen, and called And I Don't Want To Live This Life. In it the reader is told of Nancy's traumatic birth - she was born cyanotic, with the umbilical cord wrapped round her neck, and with a rare form of jaundice that meant she needed blood transfusions shortly after her birth.

Only recently has scientific research pointed to the idea that babies born with a lack of oxygen can be at a high risk of developing aggressive behaviour or suffering mental disabilities. This would be no great news to Mrs Spungen though, because she believed there was something wrong with her daughter almost from the moment she brought her home.

Nancy as a baby cried constantly and hysterically, and at the age of three months old was prescribed strong sedatives. The girl seems to have been on some form of prescription drug or another for the rest of her childhood, as her mother took her again and again to doctors, citing all kinds of difficult and worrying behaviour, and being told that there was nothing wrong.

Nancy suffered from frightening tantrums, was a danger to her siblings - who both grew up to be perfectly well-adjusted adults - and even used to attack her babysitters with scissors. Her mother, who now has a masters degree in social work, suggests that Nancy displayed symptoms of personality disorder or even schizophrenia. Nancy, she contends, was let down by the medical profession, the education system and social services. If these sound too much like the excuses of a parent who failed, it ought to be remembered that psychiatric services in the 1950s and 1960s, when Nancy was a child, are now widely acknowledged to have been basic and brutal, with the "spare the rod, spoil the child" mantra still very much in evidence when dealing with "difficult" children.

None of this turns Ms Spungen from victim into hero. It is quite impossible to revise this young woman's life in a manner that offers her a more "positive" role in the chamber of rock'n'roll horrors. However, it does suggest that early punk culture's nihilism was indeed what it appeared to be to the "straight" world - a kind of pitiless shelter for the disturbed and the sick.

A quarter of a century on, it is widely understood that punk has been among the most influential of youth movements. Less freely admitted is the fact that this influence was entirely malign. Not that this is any sort of revelation. Even at the time, many of those broadly sympathetic to the counter-culture understood that there was no excuse, except mental illness, for the sort of blank, negative anger that the Sex Pistols sold. Here is the late, great music critic, Lester Bangs, writing shortly after Nancy's death: "Sid and Nancy were possibly two of the most pathologically tortured humans on the face of the earth. The heroin didn't stop Sid from acting out, whether he actually did kill Nancy or not."

Historians of punk do acknowledge the horrific end of Sid and Nancy as a watershed. But the consensus is that the deaths of the couple marked a dead end for the dark, nihilistic side of punk. The received wisdom is that after Sid and Nancy, punk went mainstream, sold out and started chasing money and success, at the expense of the moral values - such as "authenticity" or "honesty" - initially expressed in the anarchic movement.

The truth instead is that the mainstream went punk. Punk's political equivalent, neo-liberalism, acted out in its disdain for the very public services that Mrs Spungen accused of letting down her daughter. In both Britain and the US, the twin cradles of punk, as victim-blame increased and social support dwindled, drug use became endemic among the vulnerable. Nancy's nasty little story thus became the sort of tale that was familiar to many.

Those "post-punk" groups who politicised themselves as part of the left - who took part in the Rock Against Racism movement, who began writing explicitly political songs, and who went on to establish themselves as musicians of talent and note - all these are portrayed as being part of the positive legacy of punk. Instead, they were instinctively reacting against it - "punk" only in so much as the skiffle groups of the 1950s were "punk", with their message that anyone could form a band and express themselves. Punk was a catalyst for an interesting musical rearguard action, of which John Lydon himself was a perfect, if gnomic, example.

But its major legacy was to marginalise for ever any idea of a genuine youth culture, and embrace instead a fake youth culture marked by commodification, exploitation, and shallow, high turnover.

On the night after Nancy's death, the king of US television hosts, Walter Cronkite, heralded the news with the triumphant comment: "Punk rock died before Sid Vicious did." What a shame he was wrong.

Lester Bangs is quoted from 'Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste', published by Serpent's Tail

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