Interview with Den Browne

Writer DEN BROWNE was living in Camden in the Summer of 1977, when SID VICIOUS and NANCY SPUNGEN came knocking at his door. A simple deal turned into a lengthy stay until they moved into their new house in Pindock Mews, Maida Vale. In June 2013, DEN had a chat with BRETT DUNFORD via Facebook and discussed the time he shared with them and his efforts to write a book on the subject.

LOVE KILLS: Hello, Den. So the first question will always be how did all begin? How did you find yourself in the position of living with Sid and Nancy?

DEN BROWNE: In the late Summer of ’77, I had a flat in a squat in Eton Avenue (Camden). I had a serious habit at the time and had just been fired from my job for being absent too much/being too stoned when I was there/expenses "irregularities." There were several dealers in the house. Sid and Nancy had come round to score from Gerry Cullen, who was a total prick and made a living as a runner for the main dealer in the house, Michael. They rang my bell by mistake and there was mutual addict recognition. I told them not to bother with Gerry and sorted them out, so they came down to my flat to have a hit.

We went out for a meal and heard about their accommodation problems (crashing on his mum's sofa in Dalston), so we ended up back at my place and they just kinda stayed. My girlfriend was away in Crete trying to get off gear at the time, so it was good to have some company too.

LK: So to offer them a place to stay certainly indicates to me that they were nice people. How were they as flatmates? Were Sid and Nancy the same shambolic mess that we see in their interviews and depicted in Alex Cox's movie? I'm guessing not.

DB: They were on their best behaviour as it was a big improvement on the Dalston sofa – nice flat, dealers on tap without having to go outside. Nancy loved my books. Since then I've read that they did a similar scene at Nick Kent's place and quite a lot of other sofa surfing. Most of the time, they were fine, very respectful and generally quite considerate. After Jannie came back from Crete there were basically four of us living in one big room, and that kind of scene won't last a day if people don't get on and look out for each other a bit.

LK: Being “sofa surfers", you must have sat indoors a lot talking and watching television/listening to the radio. Do you recall any regular conversation patterns or any discussions that stand out in particular?

DB: A lot of the time it was the usual stuff about music and drugs, plus when you're smacked out you'll watch any old shit on TV. Played records most of the time – Sid would usually get his bass out when I was playing any reggae. Funnily enough now you mention it, I don't remember us ever putting the radio on.

Jannie came back after they'd been with me a couple of weeks, so I'd got to know them a bit by then. She and Nancy really hit it off, and after that there'd often be quite intense all-night stoned raps about parents, childhood and life stories. Nancy had this thing that I reminded her of Lance Loud in NYC and would call me Lance sometimes when she was gouched out, much to Sid's amusement. Of course, it’s one of the main problems I’m having to deal with in my own writing: I can't pretend to recall conversations verbatim thirty-five years later, but I can construct a reasonable facsimile from memory.

LK: That brings me to Nancy. From all the interviews I've seen, I think she comes across as intelligent and polite. I haven't heard a bad story about her from the people I've spoken to either, yet I’m constantly deleting troll messages at the Facebook page. What's your opinion of her?

DB: I saw Nancy as one of those archetypal people who are very intelligent, articulate and sensitive (yes, really!), but who also have a big tendency/potential towards depression, substance abuse, etc., which probably sums me up pretty well too. She could be a pain in the arse but so can I – English people seem to really have trouble with that sort of assertive woman, who isn't quiet and deferential. A lot of the time, I felt it was partly a survival mechanism, but also a bit of a test to see how you'd react.

One recurring problem, though, was she'd always be losing her asthma inhaler and there'd be huge dramas calling ambulances or trying to drag her up to the Royal Free Hospital. A major part of my writing agenda is to rehab her rep a bit, which should get all the haters heading my way, but I've nothing to lose and really don't give a ####.

LK: And of Sid and Nancy's relationship? What were they like as a couple? Did you see any "love in the house?"

DB: Well, that's the big one! Yeah, there was love there, but being a bit older and wiser, a lot of co-dependency too. I think it was a bit similar to my relationship at the time – you can be mad in love with each other, but with Jan and I we mainly brought out the worst in each other. Also saw a lot of bad shit and violence.

LK: I've heard there were domestics. What do you think instigated those episodes?

DB: Generally not very much in terms of causes. Quite often drug-related or lack of drugs/money to be precise. But it just seemed to be part of their scene to sometimes really spoil for a fight and then make up afterwards (or not). Nancy could really goad him when she wanted to. It does bug me now that we took the attitude of "Oh, that's their scene, nothing to do with us" – I think it was a bit of a cop-out and I hope I'd react differently if any of my friends started knocking the shit out of each other in front of me.

LK: Now, you say this was in the summer of 1977? One of the biggest speculations about Sid is the time that he first started using heroin. Would you say that by the time he was staying with you, he was a veteran user?

DB: Yes, he was well experienced in my honest opinion. It usually takes people a while to 'progress' to fixing and then a further time to get proficient at it (I'd stuck to snorting for the first two to three years I was doing it before Jan and I succumbed to the needle). Two of the things I remember Sid always saying about drugs were that he'd been fairly regularly shooting up wiz/sulphate before meeting Nancy, and he got really angry at all the people who were saying she'd got him into 'h' (words along the lines of "Nancy never got me into anything I hadn't been into before anyway.") The other indicator is the sheer volume of his intake. Where Jan and I would tend to check the strength first and generally try to make it last, if they scored a gram they'd just hit it up all in one go, half a gram each - not the act of a novice, I'd suggest.

LK: So tell us about your book. How long has it taken, your reasons for writing it, and when you plan on finishing/releasing it?

DB: It’s taken a ridiculously long time for all kinds of reasons. I got off junk in '85 and for a long time didn't want to revisit or celebrate those scenes in any way. Also I'd put my family through it a bit, so I didn't want to go public with that kind of thing, but anyone who might have been upset has passed on now. I was also doing a mainstream job with Greenwich Council, so didn't really want to go "Hey, wanna hear about when I was a junkie?"

Then, later when I did try to write something, it either came out feeling wrong (I even tried doing it as a graphic novel once!) or I'd think "Who'd want to read this anyway?" then one day in 2005 I heard some prat on the radio saying Sid didn't know one end of his bass from the other – well, I used to see him practise most days. Anyway, I started posting a reply and suddenly I knew I'd found "my voice" for telling the story.

Since then, I've got side-tracked by other stuff – family things, major back trouble, other writing like Mudkiss or my short stories, doing some things on the radio… or there are wild cards, like a close friend dying of cancer last summer at forty-eight. I just didn't feel like doing all the death and addiction stuff then. A lot of it doesn't come easy and can be very painful to revisit – as I'm sure I've said elsewhere, it's essentially a very sad story, as practically all the young people in it – apart from me – are dead now. I have to be in the right mood to put myself into a certain mental space to write that stuff and it takes a while to get back from it. I've also had a couple of bad PC crashes and lost stuff there, ending up with scattered bits of two or three drafts. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be easier to start from scratch...

Reasons for writing it: act of exorcism. I love marginal stuff, the idea of being like a little foot-note to the scene, and a growing dissatisfaction and anger as time's gone on about how the punk story's been presented and dumbed down into simplistic caricatures, and of course to put in a good word or two in for Nancy along the way.

LK: I appreciate you being real about this. So, when you finally get the book out, I take it we can go for round two?

DB: Any time, mate. You're clearly doing it for the right reasons.

© Brett Dunford/Love Kills