Sex Pistols
Photo: Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway) / Billedbladet NÅ/Arne S. Nielsen / Wikimedia Commons

So Tough: The Boy Behind the Sid Vicious Myth

The punk rock version of James Dean, Sid Vicious solidified his fame by dying young, leaving behind memories of his notorious behavior and the mystery of his girlfriend’s murder.

One evening as a friend and I were ordering coffee, the young barista behind the counter noticed my Sex Pistols T-shirt. “Oh, I’m in love with Sid Vicious,” she confided. “Have you ever read the book 12 Days on the Road? I fell in love with him after reading that book”. As soon as I was away from the counter, I explained to my companion just how disturbing the young woman’s admission was. Among the many unflattering anecdotes about the Sex Pistols bassist that appear in the book is one in which, while going through heroin withdrawal, he simultaneously vomited and defecated on a groupie as she was performing oral sex on him.

While stories like these are in no short supply, neither are fans like the barista, who continue to idolize Vicious — a junkie, accused murderer of his girlfriend, and by all accounts unable to play his instrument — nearly 23 years after he died of an overdose. The punk rock version of James Dean, Vicious solidified his fame by dying young (at age 21), leaving behind memories of his notorious behavior and the mystery of girlfriend Nancy Spungen’s murder. Although he contributed little to punk music, Vicious remains its most famous name, and his cult has only grown thanks to T-shirts and posters bearing his likeness and slogans like “Don’t let them take you alive” and “Drugs Kill”, especially the iconographic 1986 film Sid and Nancy.

Besides being a wildly inaccurate depiction of the punk scene, the Alex Cox cult hit upset Vicious’ bandmate and friend Johnny Rotten, who said, “The chap who played Sid, Gary Oldman, I thought was quite good. But even he only played the stage persona as opposed to the real person” (Lydon, 150). But just who was “the real person” anyway? Reminiscences of friends and acquaintances offer endless contradictions, alternately portraying him as slow, intelligent but inarticulate, sensitive, destructive, kind, angry, passive, and violent. About the only adjective that can be irrefutably applied to Sid Vicious is “troubled”.

Given the turbulent nature of his childhood, it’s little surprise that Vicious was unable to cope in the adult world. Born John Simon Ritchie on 10 May 1957, Vicious was the son of Anne Beverley, described by Johnny Rotten as “an oddball hippie”. Left to raise the boy alone after splitting with his dad, Beverley moved frequently and drifted from job to job. At one point, she and young Simon lived on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where it is said she made a living by selling marijuana. Upon returning to England with the financial assistance of the British High Commission, Beverley became involved with hard drugs. After a brief marriage to Oxford student Chris Beverley, Simon’s mother worked a succession of jobs in several different towns. Finally, the two settled in Hackney, London, where, at a state art school, Simon first met Johnny Rotten, then known as John Lydon.

By that time, Simon had developed a love for glam rockers like David Bowie, Roxy Music, and T. Rex, and adopted their outrageous, effeminate style of dress. According to Rotten, Simon was a follower, not a leader, when it came to fashion, and he was dead serious about his looks. “It would be midwinter and bitter cold outside. He wouldn’t wear a jacket because he would buy this new shirt or something. He had to be seen in this shirt” (Lydon, 60). Ironically, it was Simon’s wimpiness that got him his aggressive-sounding stage name; Rotten dubbed him “Sid Vicious” after a pet hamster that had bitten his father. Once punk came along and gave him somewhere to channel his anger and frustration, however, Vicious’ name took on a much more literal flavor.

The seeds of the British punk movement were sown in 1975, when Rotten (vocals), Glen Matlock (bass), Steve Jones (guitar), and Paul Cook (drums) formed the Sex Pistols at the prodding of boutique owner Malcolm McLaren, who acted as the band’s manager. Sid, although not yet part of the band, made an impression at their gigs by “inventing” the pogo dance; in an attempt to get a better view of the stage, he would jump straight up and down. Sid also made a few attempts to play music himself. He acted as drummer for Siouxsie and the Banshees at their debut gig at the 100 Club Punk Rock Festival in 1976. He also had his own group, the Flowers of Romance, with Keith Levene (later of PiL), future Slits members Viv Albertine and Palmolive, and Adam Ant guitarist Marco Pirroni, among others. According to Pirroni, however, “They never got together on any one occasion, ever. There were originally fifteen people in this band, and I never actually met the others until years later” (Lydon, 224).

If Sid’s onstage contributions to the burgeoning London music scene were minimal, however, his offstage antics made plenty of waves. His friend Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders recalled, “I’d seen Sid pull a long link of chain out of his jacket and spin it around to clear an entire dance floor. If anyone got caught in the chain, it was tough shit” (Lydon, 131). At the 100 Club Punk Rock Festival, Vicious allegedly threw a glass at the Damned while they were performing. When it shattered against a pillar, sending glass shards into the face of the lead singer’s girlfriend, Vicious was arrested. Most famously, he beat music journalist Nick Kent with a bicycle chain at a 100 Club Sex Pistols gig for criticizing the band in print. What is most telling about the incident is that none of the accounts of it include any mention of what Kent actually wrote; it is Sid who gets the attention, just as he would have wanted it.

As aggressive as he was towards others, Vicious was equally abusive to himself. Rotten’s friend John Gray recalled that when he would visit one of the squats Rotten and Vicious shared, “Sid would strangle cats and slash himself with an old Heinz baked beans tin lid” (Lydon, 65). During that period, Rotten and Vicious also burned themselves with cigarettes. Rotten’s father also witnessed such incidents, and attributed them to Sid’s desperate need for attention: “If he was sitting here and no one was taking any notice of him, he’d cut his hand or something to attract attention. You’d have to take your mind off everything else and look at him” (Lydon, 49).

Sid’s self-destructive habits also extended to drugs; he had been mainlining speed from the time he was still living at home. Gray recalled seeing him shooting up and asking where he’d gotten the stuff, only to be told it was “me mum’s”. New York punk musician Dee Dee Ramone concurred that Vicious was taking drugs intravenously even before he joined the Sex Pistols. During the Ramones’ first visit to England, Dee Dee, no stranger to depravity himself, seemed taken aback by what he witnessed: “Sid pulled out a set of works and put a whole bunch of speed in the syringe and then stuck the needle in the toilet with all the puke and piss in there and loaded it. He didn’t cook it up. He just shook it, stuck it in his arm, and got off” (McNeil, 232).

Still, many others remember the Sid of that period fondly, including Steve Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees, who said, “Actually, before he got deeply into drugs, he was one of the funniest guys. He had a brilliant sense of humor, goofy, sweet, and very cute” (Lydon, 185).

Photographer and former David Bowie associate Leee Black Childers, who briefly attempted to manage the Flowers of Romance, got a first impression of Sid as being very vulnerable. The pair met at a Christmas dinner at journalist Caroline Coon’s house. A homesick American, Childers started crying when he heard a Jim Reeves song playing on the stereo and walked upstairs to discover Sid in a similar state — “this little guy, just sitting there crying” (McNeil, 262).

That would all change in the spring of 1977 when Vicious was invited to replace Glen Matlock, whose more conventional musicianship had clashed with Rotten’s confrontational politics from the start of the Sex Pistols’ career. While Rotten seemed to believe the bass player job would provide Sid with some direction (as well as giving him an ally in the band, since Cook and Jones were close friends), his own mother saw the inherent danger in inviting such an unstable, volatile personality into the band. Rotten recalled, “When I got Sid into the Pistols, my mum sighed. ‘What kind of wicked reasons have you got behind that?’ I didn’t have any wicked reasons at the time, but I think my parents spotted it as a bad move” (Lydon, 197).

Certainly, Sid’s addition was not a brilliant move from a musical point of view, since he didn’t even know how to play bass. As Marco Pirroni saw it, “After that, it was nothing to do with music anymore. It would just be for the sensationalism and scandal of it all. Then it became the Malcolm McLaren story…” (Lydon, 229).

Indeed, McLaren was initially thrilled about adding Sid’s fiery personality to the Sex Pistols, saying, “When Sid joined he couldn’t play guitar but his craziness fit into the structure of the band. He was the knight in shining armor with a giant fist” (Bromberg, 134).

While Sid had shown a predilection for violence and drugs before joining the Sex Pistols, being in a successful band gave him carte blanche to go out of control. “Up to that time, Sid was absolutely childlike. Everything was fun and giggly. Suddenly he was a big pop star”, Rotten remembered. “Pop star status meant press, a good chance to be spotted in all the right places, adoration. That’s what it all meant to Sid. I never dreamed he would perceive it that way. I thought he was far smarter” (Lydon, 144). Adoration — and significantly more trouble — came in the form of Nancy Spungen, an American music fan who had traveled to London from New York to be where the “action” was. A heroin addict with a history of severe emotional problems, Spungen’s main ambition at the time was to become the girlfriend of a rock star. With Vicious, she not only fulfilled her goal but also found someone whose dependence on her gave her a purpose.

Before Spungen, Vicious had limited experience in matters of romance. Like his self-esteem, Sid’s sexuality was fluid and unformed. Leee Black Childers recalled having conversations with Vicious about his sexual orientation: “I thought that he would have sex with me, but the next morning he’d freak out: ‘What have I done, am I a queer?'” (McNeil, 264). As in his relationship with Spungen, however, Vicious seemed drawn to Childers more out of a need to be protected than anything blatantly sexual, sleeping in his arms “like a little baby”, but never consummating the relationship.

Sid’s ideas about the opposite sex seemed contradictory and confused. Former bandmate Viv Albertine called Vicious one of the least sexist people she knew, but an anecdote from Chrissie Hynde tells a different story. Trying to obtain the British equivalent of a green card, Hynde was trying to talk Johnny Rotten into marrying her so she could remain in the country. Overhearing the pair discussing the subject one day, Sid gave his unsolicited opinion: “Sid stood up and said, ‘I know! You want to marry John because he’s going to be a famous rock star! And then you’ll get pregnant, and then you’ll….'” According to Hynde, “He went on and on, describing this absurd scenario — something like a seventies groupie girl might think. Everyone was horrified that Sid would have such a straitlaced idea” (Lydon, 138).

With Nancy, Sid alternated between playing the gentleman and the brute. Once, when Spungen was ill, he acted as her nursemaid, feeding her and calling her mother with daily updates on her health. Nancy’s mother, Deborah Spungen, recalled Sid being very polite and shy during their phone conversations, and when the pair visited the Spungens at their Philadelphia home, Sid was subdued and childlike, even letting Nancy cut his meat for him. At other times, however, Sid would physically abuse Nancy, a fact confirmed by Johnny Rotten’s wife, Nora. Vicious was once arrested after beating Nancy in a London hotel room (which prompted McLaren to briefly throw him out of the band), and during her final phone conversation with Deborah Spungen, Nancy admitted that a number of beatings she’d claimed to have received from street thugs had actually occurred at the hands of Sid. Vicious didn’t mind participating in Spungen’s self-degradation either. He once told Rotten that he watched her perform oral sex on a stranger in the alley behind their house, a service for which she earned fifteen pounds.

Many of Vicious’ friends, however, gloss over his physical abuse because Spungen was so verbally abusive herself and because they hold her responsible for introducing Vicious to heroin. Judging from his mother’s history of drug abuse and his own practice of injecting speed, however, it seems that Vicious might have found his way to hard drugs even without Spungen’s influence. There’s no denying, however, that Sid and Nancy’s co-dependent relationship kept them both hooked. Rotten hoped that the Sex Pistols’ American tour, which would separate Sid from Nancy, would give his friend the opportunity to get straight. Instead, it turned out to be one of the vilest displays of rock ‘n’ roll excess imaginable, not only sending Sid straight down the tubes but effectively putting an end to the promise that punk held.

The January 1978 tour, consisting mainly of stops in America’s Deep South, did get Sid some much-needed supervision. Warner Brothers employee Noel Monk, who headed the road crew, was determined to keep Sid straight if only so he’d fulfill his contractual obligations. Unfortunately, Sid also encountered a number of disturbing American fans and groupies who encouraged his self-destructive behavior, which soon became part of the live show. After being head-butted by one such fan at the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, Vicious, never one to be upstaged, put on his own spectacle. “With blood trickling down his cheek and down his bare sunken chest toward his black jeans, he rips a pus-soaked bandage off [his] arm, revealing a deeper laceration. He throws the bandage into the crowd and smiles wider while the devoted rip it to shreds, hungry for a special souvenir” (Monk, 15).

As much a part of the show as his antics were, they didn’t stop when Vicious was out of the spotlight. At a truck stop en route to San Francisco, he outdid some rednecks who questioned his toughness — by plunging a steak knife into his hand and calmly proceeding to eat his meal. Offstage fights continued as well, although they were sometimes the result of Sid’s strange way of bonding with others. According to Noel Monk, Sid challenged one of his bodyguards to a fight, and after being beaten up, said, “You’re good enough. I like you. Now we can be friends” (Monk, 66). During a play-fight with photographer Roberta Bayley, Vicious broke her nail by kicking her, something he’d promised not to do just minutes earlier. Monk noted, “He wants to relate to people and he thinks the only way to do it is to fight them. He’s capable of promising something one second and forgetting it the next” (Monk, 139).

Unsurprisingly, Vicious’ broken promises included fulfilling his obligations to the band. After the first show of the tour, in Atlanta, he disappeared to look for heroin. He was later found in a hospital, where he’d been admitted after carving “GIMME A FIX” on his chest with a knife. Within a few hours of arriving in Memphis, the tour’s next stop, Vicious was gone again, this time lured away by a promise of heroin from
High Times publisher Tom Forcade. Hoping to film the Sex Pistols for a documentary, Forcade used Vicious as collateral to ensure that Noel Monk would honor his request for access to the band. A confrontation between Monk and Forcade at the latter’s hotel room was interrupted when Vicious made his presence known by attacking a security guard at the pool outside. Shaken by the display of violence, Malcolm McLaren refused Monk’s request that he intervene. With no one willing to rein him in, Vicious was free to destroy himself.

The mostly disastrous tour ended in San Francisco on January 14, 1978, with a much-anticipated show at the Winterland. What should have been the band’s introduction to a large American punk audience turned out to be their final show. After playing a lackluster set during which the foursome hardly looked at one another, Rotten summed it all up with the famous words, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Punk magazine co-founder Legs McNeil was one of many who felt cheated not only by the Sex Pistols, but by the punk movement in general: “It just felt like this phony media thing. Punk wasn’t ours anymore. It had become everything we hated” (McNeil, 334). The Sex Pistols effectively ended after the Winterland show, although Malcolm McLaren briefly trudged on with Steve Jones and Paul Cook in order to finish their film, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Although Vicious shot some sequences for the film in Paris, he spent most of his time after the Winterland concert doping it up with Spungen in London, then in New York. The freakish twosome garnered a lot of press attention on both sides of the Atlantic, establishing their legend even before their deaths. As Spungen’s mother said, “The press portrayed Sid and Nancy as Romeo and Juliet in black leather, roaring into hell” (Spungen, 303).

Nancy managed to set up a few solo shows for Sid at Max’s Kansas City and in her hometown of Philadelphia. Despite having an all-star backing band, though, Sid was a failure, his nasal imitations of Johnny Rotten drawing catcalls from the crowds at Max’s. Sid and Nancy’s dismal final days in New York appear to be portrayed fairly accurately in the film Sid and Nancy. On September 27, 1978, Spungen’s father delivered some of the couple’s belongings to their room at the Chelsea Hotel. When he arrived, he found Sid and Nancy in the kind of desolate state depicted in the movie — in bed, watching cartoons in the dark, surrounded by dirty clothes and garbage, and too strung out to notice his presence.

On October 8, Nancy called Deborah Spungen, complaining that she was experiencing problems with her kidneys and asking for money. As was their routine, Mrs. Spungen instructed her daughter to see a doctor and have the bill sent to her parents. Before Nancy could reply, the usually complacent Sid took the phone and started hurling abuse at Deborah Spungen, demanding to know, “How can you do this to your own fuckin’ daughter?” (Spungen, 338). When Nancy called back later for what would be her final conversation with her mother, she was more calm and reasonable than she’d ever been. She told her mother about the beatings, explaining that Sid had been depressed and “not himself”. Nancy then asked Deborah Spungen to look into getting the two of them into a detoxification center. Before hanging up, Nancy seemed to be tying up loose ends, asking about her grandmother and sending a message to her father that she loved him.

While out with friends on October 10, 1978, Nancy purchased a knife for Sid. The following night, at least two different drug dealers visited the couple’s hotel room, the last claiming to have seen Nancy alive at 4 or 5 a.m. on October 12. Several hours after that, the front desk at the Chelsea received a call telling them someone was injured in Sid and Nancy’s room. When emergency personnel arrived, they found Nancy Spungen slumped over in the bathroom, dead of a stab wound to the stomach, seemingly administered by the very knife she had purchased. In statements to the police that he later retracted, Vicious alternately claimed that he’d argued with Nancy, that he wasn’t in the room when she was killed and did not stab her, that he did stab her, and that he was “a dirty dog”.

Sid was arrested for the murder but was released a few days later on bail provided by Virgin Records’ Richard Branson at the prodding of Malcolm McLaren. The former Sex Pistols manager also secured famed attorney F. Lee Bailey for Vicious’ defense. However, his motives for helping Sid did not seem entirely altruistic. After announcing that the Sex Pistols would reunite to record a Christmas album to benefit Sid’s defense, McLaren started selling T-shirts in his clothing store bearing the slogan, “I’M ALIVE. SHE’S DEAD. I’M YOURS” (Bromberg, 192). Joining in the tasteless exploitation, the owner of the Philadelphia nightclub Artemis promised to honor the singing engagement that Nancy had booked for Sid before her death.

Sid, meanwhile, alternated between mourning and living up to his wild reputation. It was reported that he told his arresting officers, “You can’t arrest me. I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star”, and while being escorted out of the Chelsea Hotel in handcuffs, he threatened the press, “I’ll smash your cameras” (Spungen, 358). Shortly after being released from Riker’s Island, however, Sid phoned Deborah Spungen and told her, “I don’t know why I’m alive anymore, now that Nancy is gone” (Spungen, 381). Soon after, Vicious sent Mrs. Spungen a rambling, passionate letter in which he mourned for Nancy, and included with it a poem that contained the lines “And I don’t want to live this life / If I can’t live for you” (Spungen, 391).

On October 23, Vicious slit his wrists and attempted to jump out the window of the hotel room he was sharing with his mother. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital, from which he phoned Deborah Spungen two days later. The two had a brief conversation during which Sid begged Mrs. Spungen to come visit him. Soon afterward, she received a final letter from Sid, full of hints as to what might have taken place on the last night of Nancy’s life. “We always knew that we would go to the same place when we died”, he wrote. “We so much wanted to die together in each other’s arms. I cry every time I think about that. I promised my baby that I would kill myself if anything ever happened to her, and she promised me the same. This is my final commitment to my love” (Spungen, 395). Although some friends of Sid’s speculated that a drug dealer might have murdered Nancy for money, she had made numerous suicide attempts in the past, and her mother had no trouble imagining a scenario in which Nancy challenged Sid to prove his love by ending her misery.

After a few weeks at Bellevue, Vicious was again released. This time, instead of wallowing in misery, he started partying again. On December 6 or 7, Sid got into a fight with Patti Smith’s brother Todd at a nightclub after lewdly grabbing his girlfriend, and ended up back in Riker’s on felonious assault charges. McLaren, preoccupied with his own legal matters and feeling it was best for Sid to dry out, was initially hesitant to bail Sid out. He eventually did put up the money, and Sid was freed once more on February 1, 1979.

That night, Vicious celebrated his release at the apartment of a new girlfriend, actress Michelle Robinson. Although he had been clean for nearly two months, Vicious took a shot of heroin that his mother had purchased. The next morning, Anne Beverley discovered her son dead of an overdose in Robinson’s bed. It was not until after his cremation that Beverley discovered a suicide note in the pocket of Sid’s leather jacket. Ever the fashion plate, Sid made sure his desired burial attire got as much attention as his motives: “We had a death pact. I have to keep my half of the bargain. Please bury me next to my baby. Bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots. Goodbye”.

Naïve fans viewed Sid’s death as the ultimate act of rebellion and punk ideals, a sign that he was willing to be punk’s sacrificial lamb. Those closer to the situation, however, saw the stupidity of such an interpretation. Glen Matlock likened the fascination with Sid to that of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, noting, “In reality, these people are the losers. They’re the party-poopers” (Matlock, 180).

Patti Smith’s guitarist/collaborator Lenny Kaye saw Sid’s fall as symbolic of the death of punk itself: “[W]hen things start to fall apart, you look at situations like Sid — as I’m sure the hippies must have looked at Altamont — as ‘Here’s our symbol'” (McNeil, 353).

Looking back, it’s easy to point fingers at those who could have prevented Sid’s demise. While Anne Beverley’s negligent parenting and Malcolm McLaren’s philosophy of destruction certainly contributed to Sid’s problems, it is doubtful that even they could have stopped him from self-destructing. For his part, Johnny Rotten tried to get Sid involved in new musical projects and even attempted to get in touch with him after Nancy’s murder (an effort that was thwarted by McLaren and Beverley). As the one who probably tried hardest to save Sid, it is little surprise that he has given the most thoughtful comments on the subject of his friend’s death. What might come as a surprise, though, is the sweet optimism of the man who once sang, “Get pissed, destroy”: “This is all I have, life…. And to die over something as vaguely childish as rock ‘n’ roll is not on. Even though there’s a lot of popularity in Sid’s character, the people who buy the Sid myths… [t]hey’re wasters…. I’m not part of that. I never was. I’ll always go out and make sure it gets better. That’s the difference between the Sid fanatic and the John Lydon Appreciation Society. Life and death! There’s nothing glorious in dying. Anyone can do it” (Lydon, 271).

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on PopMatters on 8 November 2001 as part of our “25 Up: Punk’s Silver Jubilee” series.


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