In a rebellious music scene fueled by drugs and chaos, two names have become synonymous with the punk era. Even though their time in the spotlight was extremely short-lived, these two troubled lovers are icons of the punk rock music scene.
One was a member of a groundbreaking British band that helped kickstart the punk movement, the other a drug-addicted American from a middle-class, suburban family. Together, the couple lived fast and died young. They are also at the center of the greatest punk rock whodunit of all time: a murder that continues to puzzle the public to this day. The story of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen is a punk rock tragedy.
Vicious and Spungen grew up with an ocean between them, but the two seemed destined to come together. Vicious was born John Simon Ritchie in 1957 and raised in London.
He began showing up at punk shows in the city starting around 1975. Spungen was born in 1958 and grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She had a troubled childhood and was known to have frequent outbursts from a young age. After she was expelled from school at the age of 11, Spungen’s parents sent her to a boarding school in Connecticut, where she graduated early but was also diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Spungen ended up in New York where she became immersed in the burgeoning punk scene and developed a fondness for hard drugs like heroin – a habit that Spungen sometimes worked as a prostitute to support. Spungen had a bad reputation in the punk scene and people avoided her if possible. She was even called “Nauseating Nancy” behind her back.
In February 1977, the Sex Pistols fired their original bass player, Glen Matlock, and replaced him with the 19-year-old Vicious. Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten and Ritchie had been friends for years, and it was Rotten who gave his pal the name that became iconic and the chance to make it famous. Vicious was not a proficient musician. In fact, he could barely play the bass at all. It was his look, his attitude, and his unpredictable behavior that made Vicious a perfect fit for the Pistols.
Johnny Rotten looked back on bringing Vicious into the band years later: “I’m sorry, God, for the day I brought Sid into the band. He felt so isolated, poor old Sid, because he wasn’t the sharpest knife on the block. The best aspect of his character, which was his humor, just vanished the day he joined the Pistols.”
In 1977, Nancy Spungen followed members of the Heartbreakers to London, and it was there that she met Vicious. The two became an item and were soon inseparable, with a mutual love for heroin and debauchery. But Spungen had an abrasive personality and was reviled by many people she came into contact with – including Vicious’ bandmates.
In January 1978, the Sex Pistols embarked on a chaotic two-week tour of the United States before playing their final show on January 14 in San Francisco. Three days later they split up and went their separate ways.
Vicious tried to carve out a solo career with Spungen acting as his manager. He recorded some material for an album and played live shows around New York City. The couple moved into the iconic Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan in August 1978, their lives a blur of drugs and erratic behavior.
The relationship came to an abrupt halt on October 12, 1978. The previous night, Vicious and Spungen had had guests coming in and out of their room at the Chelsea, and witnesses reported seeing Vicious take as many as 30 Tiunal tablets, an amount that would knock most people out for hours.
The details of the night are blurry, but there are some certainties. Around 2:30 a.m., Spungen asked Rockets Redglare, a man who sometimes worked as Vicious’ bodyguard, to score some Dilaudids. Around 7:30 a.m., people heard moaning coming from Vicous and Spungen’s room. At 10 am, Vicious called the Chelsea’s front desk to ask for help. Nancy Spungen, only 20-years-old, was dead from a stab wound to the stomach. She had bled to death on the bathroom floor.
Vicious was arrested for Spungen’s murder. He apparently confessed to the police that he was responsible for his girlfriend’s death, but many friends and acquaintances have serious doubts about Vicious’ guilt. Some think it was a drug deal gone bad. Others argue that Spungen was so volatile that she might have stabbed herself to prove a point, and when Vicious emerged from his drug stupor, he immediately assumed he was responsible.
Another theory posits that Rockets Redglare, the drug dealer who delivered Dilaudid to Spungen that night, killed Spungen when Spungen tried to stop him stealing money from the hotel room. Redglare died in 2001.
Whatever the truth, Vicious was charged with Spungen’s murder and released on $25,000 bail. Shattered over the loss of his beloved girlfriend, Vicious attempted suicide ten days later by slitting his wrist. While out on bail, Vicious was arrested for assaulting Patti Smith’s brother, Todd Smith, with a broken beer bottle at a concert. Vicious spent nearly two months in jail before he was released again on February 1, 1979.
The night of his release from jail, Vicious and some friends had a party at the Greenwich Village apartment of Vicious’ new girlfriend, Michelle Robinson. Vicious’ mother was visiting New York and scored some heroin for her son. The next morning, Sid Vicious’ mother found her son dead. He was 21. The cause was a heroin overdose.
After Vicious was cremated, his mother claimed she found a handwritten note in his clothes about how he and Spungen had made a suicide pact, but it remains unknown if Vicious’ death was accidental or intentional.
We may never know who killed Spungen, but the love story of Sid and Nancy will live on as a twisted tale that helped define the punk era.
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