The entire pathos of punk in the 1970s – the clothes, the music, the attitude, the excess, the animalistic urge, everything – can be summed up in two words: Sid Vicious.
Sid Vicious started life as John Simon Ritchie in Lewisham, a district of southern London. Rumor has it that when Vivian Westwood suggested to Malcolm McLaren that he get a guy who hung around the Sex boutique named John to be the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, she was not talking about John Lydon, but Sid Vicious. When McLaren booted out Glen Matlock from the bass position, he recruited Vicious despite the fact that he had never played bass.
In fact, Sid’s bass skills were so lacking that he only actually plays on one track of Never Mind the Bollocks, that being “Bodies,” and on the rest Steve Jones plays both bass and guitar. But according to Keith Levene, he picked it up with alarming speed because of his incredible focus. One night he sat down with the first Ramones record, playing to it over and over again through the night. In the morning, he was a bass player.
The movie Sid & Nancy, directed by Alex Cox, is one of the only silver screen depictions of Sid. The titular roles are played by Gary Oldman as Sid and Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen, Sid’s girlfriend. After an initial meeting where Nancy (already a junky) is supposed to score some drugs for Sid, Nancy then introduces Sid to heroin before they have sex – all with a very bored Johhny Rotten in the room. From then on, they’re a pair. The only thing that separates them is the Sex Pistols going on a tour of the United States. And all along, they’re going in a wide and uncontrollable downward spiral; things get bad, then real bad, then real bad, and then the absolute worst.
The film has been the subject of a lot of controversy; Johnny Rotten in particular says it romanticizes heroin addiction, playing as merely the catalyst for the love that existed between Sid and Nancy. The famous scene at the end where Sid gets in a cab and finds Nancy (no longer gross and desiccated but in a white dress) and they go riding off in the distance is said by many to be the epitome of irresponsible filmmaking.
I respectfully disagree. The centerpiece of the entirety of Sid & Nancy is the love between the two central characters. Yes, they were heroin addicts, but I think the film is suggesting their love couldn’t really be complete and functional until they were off of heroin. Now, that point came after they were both dead, but in that, the film might also be suggesting that love is bigger than our temporal world. And as for romanticizing heroin use, you only have to look at any moment from the entire rest of the movie to see that heroin use is bad news. According to Sid & Nancy, there is absolutely nothing glamorous, fun or minutely redeemable about heroin.
I want to make something very clear, though. Sid and Nancy loved each other, but everything about that was horrible. There is much to be said about the positive and transcendent nature of love, but we almost always forget that love, like anything else in the hands of humans, can be an extremely negative force as well. The love between Sid and Nancy didn’t get them anywhere they wanted to go, but instead took them to increasingly worse and worse places. The same energy that fueled their love for each other also fueled their addictions. What’s worse, their individual addictions became more than the sum of their parts when added together, much like a marriage. It even fueled an apparent suicide pact they had forged. What Sid & Nancy brings out for me is that love is incredibly powerful, and just as it has the power to heal, build and create, so does it have the power to completely destroy.
Nancy Spungen died in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan from bleeding to death from a stab wound to the stomach. It’s not certain, but Sid probably murdered her. He woke up from a drug stupor to discover her body on the bathroom floor, blood all over the hotel room. Of all the ways of murdering somebody, Sid’s murder of Nancy is the least malicious and most tragic. In the police interviews, Sid himself said, “I never stabbed her. I loved her, but she treated me like shit.” He later said he didn’t remember what happened, but she may have fell on the knife while he was holding it. What it really comes down to is that I don’t believe for a second that Sid had murder in his heart, at least not the cold-blooded, purposeful taking of a life which we stereotypically think of as murder; he just wasn’t capable of it.
Ten days after Nancy’s death, Sid tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists. He was taken to Bellvue Hospital to recover, and made bail from his murder arrest in February of 1979. The day after he got out of jail, Sid and his mother Anne were at a party to celebrate his bail. Anne gave him a fatal dose of heroin at that party, as she admitted to journalist Alan Parker near the end of her life. According to a suicide note left by Sid, he was fulfilling a suicide pact with Nancy. The whole story is just very, very sad, in every sense of the word.
Sid’s life and death represented the life and death of punk music, or rather punk in its Platonic, virginal form. Sid was more than just the bass player for the biggest punk band that ever existed – Sid WAS punk. After Sid, there was no more punk. I think something was lost that the music world can never get back. Blink-182 and NOFX and Rancid and Less Than Jake can put on a good show and rock as hard as the day is long, but they’re not punk. Nor should they be. Sid is dead, punk is dead, and it’s time to move on.
Next: bound for hell, and loving every second of the trip.