The Deaths of Sid and Nancy

This was published in a 2007 special edition of Time Life magazine, entitled "The Most Notorious Crimes in American History". The writer is not credited in the article.

They say there's someone for everyone. The brief, intense romance of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen seemed to affirm that adage - in a terribly sad way. And the spectacle of Sid and Nancy as they sped along a downward spiral in the late 1970's served to support another rule of thumb: The public cannot help but watch, open eyes covered by splayed fingers, as celebrities' lives crash and burn.

The setting for this psychodrama was the punk rock scene in New York and London. Bands like the Ramones, The Clash and The Damned were proud to be loud and rude - but the kings of outrage were the Sex Pistols. Dressed in tatters held together by safety pins, their hair dyed and spiked, they were the epitome of British working-class nihilism. The group's lead singer was John Lydon, better and much more appropriately known by his stage name, Johnny Rotten. In 1976, their first single, 'Anarchy in the UK', led to a raucous, obscenity-laced TV appearance, decried in the Daily Mirror in the headline THE FILTH AND THE FURY. The episode propelled them to fame in their homeland, where they were revered and villified in equal measure.

John Simon Ritchie, a nineteen-year-old Londoner, was an old friend of Lydon's. So when the Pistols lost bassist Glen Matlock in 1977, Lydon brought in Ritchie and rechristened him Sid Vicious, which was also the name of the Lydon family's hamster. Sid wasn't much of a musician, but his grungy looks and belligerent attitude worked well onstage. He further endeared himself to fans with what The New York Times felicitously called a "particularly rabid series of offstage carryings-on." The nineteen-year-old American Nancy Spungen became part of said shenanigans soon after meeting Sid. A problem child "almost from birth" (as her mother would later write in her memoir), Nancy left the family's suburban Philadelphia home and become a heroin addict and sometime stripper. She went to England hoping to hook into the punk scene. Sid was her ticket to ride.

But that ride was about to veer off course. In January 1978, the Sex Pistols essentially disintegrated during a two-week US tour that was marked by constant infighting and regular disappearances by Sid. At the final gig in San Francisco, Lydon quit the Pistols. The band's tour manager, Nils Stevenson, said that in this period Sid grew to "dislike everything - except heroin and Nancy." By the summer of that ill-fated year, the lovers had shacked up at New York's Chelsea Hotel, the eternal bohemian haunt of everyone from Mark Twain to Janis Joplin.

For Sid and Nancy, the Chelsea became a house of horrors. As both sank deeper into drug dependency, Sid turned violent, to the point where, according to a fellow Chelsea resident, he beat Nancy with a guitar on more than one occasion. Not only did she stay with Sid, she bought him little tokens of her love - like a knife she gave him to fend off thugs.

On October 12, police were summoned to the Chelsea after someone reported trouble in Room 100. They discovered Nancy, drenched in blood, under the bathroom sink, a fatal knife wound in her abdomen. Sid was found wandering the halls in a drugged stupor when he was arrested for murder.

Out a day later on $50,000 bail, his already-miserable life came completely undone. His mother's arrival from London and methadone treatments for his addiction couldn't keep Sid from several suicide attempts. "I want to be with my Nancy!" he reportedly screamed after the first try.

In December, he landed back in jail after attacking rocker Patti Smith's brother with a broken bottle. On February 1, 1979, he was again out on bail and reunited with Mum. It has been alleged that to celebrate his freedom, she bought him some heroin. About thirteen hours after his release, the 21-year-old was dead from an overdose. The medical examiner ruled it an 'inadvertant death'.

It certainly seems, in retrospect, an unavoidable one. The story of Sid and Nancy was a tragedy from hello and doomed to end viciously.

Michele Mahler