The Final Hours Of Sid Vicious
On the morning of February 1, 1979, after completing a detoxification program, Vicious was released from Rikers Island. He arrived in Manhattan, and by chance, met his friend Peter Gravelle. Vicious asked Gravelle to find him some heroin. Gravelle brought $200 worth of the drug to the apartment of Michele Robison at 63 Bank Street, where he joined Vicious, Robison, and Vicious' mother, Anne Beverley, Jerry Only of the band Misfits, Eileen Polk, Jerry Nolan, Ester Herskovits, and Howie Pyro.
Gravelle said that they sat around doing drugs, and he left at 3:00 a.m. Only said that he and Anne Beverley made dinner, and that he, Polk, and Pyro left early, when the drug use began. He noted that Vicious was already nodding off, but Gravelle said that Robison gave Vicious four quaaludes to help him sleep. Vicious died in the night of a drug overdose. Robison and his mother discovered his body the next morning.
Anne Beverley claimed that Vicious and Spungen had made a suicide pact and that Vicious's death was not accidental. She produced a handwritten note, which she said she found in the pocket of Vicious's leather jacket,
reading "We had a death pact, and 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."
According to Deborah Spungen, Vicious wrote a letter to her when he was last hospitalised, saying approximately the same thing. "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 was Jewish, and is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Pennsylvania. As an inter-faith burial was not permitted, Vicious's body was cremated
Less than four months after the death of Spungen – Vicious stood accused of murdering her in the bathroom of their suite at the Chelsea Hotel. But four decades on, what really happened in Room 100 still remains unclear.
Born John Simon Ritchie in Lewisham was only 21 when he died.
Vicious had been held for assaulting Patti Smith’s brother Todd with a broken bottle while out on bail following his arrest on suspicion of murdering Spungen.
She had died of a stab wound to the abdomen on 12 October 1978. Vicious’s fatal relapse at his release party meant he would never be convicted of her killing – although the certainty he was responsible has long lingered.
And Vicious did initially confess to the crime, declaring “I did it … Because I’m a dirty dog”, before retracting his statement, saying he had been asleep when it happened. The quantity of barbiturates he is known to have consumed that night – 30 Tuinal tablets, a powerful sedative – would certainly support the argument he was “out cold” at the time.
The morning had began as always. The residents tended to sleep late, but a few lumbered across the street for a swim at the Y or went for coffee at the corner diner. At about eleven o’clock, the clerk at the front desk received a call from outside the hotel. A man who did not identify himself told the clerk, “There’s trouble in Room 100.”
The clerk sent a bellman to check out the situation, but before he returned, another call came in from room 100. “Someone is sick,” a different male voice said. “Need help.” The bellman entered the room and saw, to his horror, Nancy’s blood-smeared body in only a black bra and panties lying face-up on the floor, her head under the sink and a knife wound in her lower abdomen. A trail of blood led from the bathroom to the bloodstained, empty bed. The bellman ran downstairs and told the desk clerk, and he called for an ambulance. The paramedics confirmed that Nancy was dead, and the police who accompanied them soon found a bloodstained hunting knife with the couple’s drugs and drug paraphernalia. They found Sid, too, wandering the hallways, crying and agitated, obviously high. When his next-door neighbour came out of her room to see what was going on, Sid reportedly said, “I killed her . . . I can’t live without her,” but he also seemed to mutter through his tears, “She must have fallen on the knife.”
Once the news broke in the press, the Chelsea Hotel was besieged by reporters, its residents cornered and questioned. One obliging friend of the couple claimed that Sid was known to beat Nancy with his guitar occasionally and had once held a hunting knife to her throat. Inside the hotel, the rumour mill churned.
Many have speculated the whole tragic episode was the result of a botched suicide pact, the couple romanticised as punk’s very own Romeo and Juliet.
Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, admittedly never an entirely trustworthy source, remained unwavering in his defence of Vicious, criticising the police investigation into the incident and telling The Daily Beast in 2009: “She was the first and only love of his life ... I am positive about Sid’s innocence.”
An alternative case has been made by Phil Strongman in Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk (2007), arguing that one Rockets Redglare – a bodyguard, drug dealer and hanger-on who died in 2001 – could be the true culprit, stabbing Spungen with a bowie knife after she confronted him about his stealing from Vicious.
Redglare, Strongman says, was heard boasting openly about committing the murder to fellow revellers at CBGB’s, New York’s punk mecca.
And it’s true that cash was certainly lifted from Vicious’s room that night. He was in the money: he had recently capitalised on his notoriety by releasing a cover of “My Way”, vandalising Frank Sinatra’s signature song and bankrolling his appetite for narcotics with the proceeds.
But at the same time, there were questions about the mysterious Michael—now checked out of the hotel—who some said was later seen with a wad of cash secured with Nancy’s purple hair tie. It was hard to settle on a theory, some darkly joked, since just about everyone would have relished killing Nancy. A few even believed she killed herself, part of a suicide pact that Sid had been too stoned to complete.
The only people uninterested in pursuing these questions, it seemed, were the police, who remained convinced that Sid was their murderer even after he retracted his confession, claiming he couldn’t remember anything. Contemptuous of Nancy and satisfied with the story of a punk gone mad, they closed their eyes to the obvious holes in their case. In the meantime, Vicious, released on bail with the fifty-thousand-dollar bond provided by Richard Branson of Virgin Records, descended into a deep depression as the reality of his lover’s death sank in. Dazed and shaking, his eyes glazed over, Sid wanted only to attend Nancy’s funeral. Every day without her was agonizing, he wrote to her mother, and each day was worse than the one before. When Barry Miles spotted him upstairs at Max’s Kansas City in late October, it was obvious that Sid was back on smack. It was a horrible sight, Miles later wrote: “fawning punks, all trying to buy Vicious drinks or hand him drugs while he staggered about, puffy-faced, one eye almost closed, barely able to mumble.” Finally, ten days after the murder, Vicious tried to slash his wrists with a broken light bulb and was carted off to Bellevue screaming, “I want to die!”
Deborah Spungen, Nancy’s mother, arrived in New York from Philadelphia stunned by the news and grieving, though, as the mother of a heroin addict, not really surprised. Still, she was appalled by the detectives’ obvious assumption that a girl like Nancy was just another piece of female refuse in a city that had seen more than its share, that she’d deserved what had happened to her, and that she should now be swept off the streets and forgotten. It was a sentiment echoed in the British tabloid headline “Nancy Was a Witch!,” in the cruel jokes at her expense on "The Tonight Show" and "Saturday Night Live," and in the unending stream of hate calls the Spungens received at home. It was a strange world in which the victim of violence could inspire such loathing, Deborah reflected. Something about an unprotected young woman out in the world, refusing to obey the strictures placed on others, always had and apparently always would provoke society’s rage.
Whatever the truth, Vicious and Spungen have become as inseparable in death as Cathy and Heathcliff – not least as a result of Alex Cox’s 1986 biopic Sid & Nancy, starring Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb. That film speculated that Vicious did stab her, albeit while keeping it ambiguous as to whether it was intentional or accidental.
Vicious on Nancy's death
Their outlaw image has been reproduced ever since, almost to the point of meaninglessness. Today, their importance as icons far outstrips Vicious’s minimal accomplishments as a musician. McLaren called Vicious “the ultimate DIY punk idol: someone easy to assemble and therefore become”.
John Lydon, the Pistols’ snarling frontman, expressed his regret at ever having drafted his childhood friend into the band, remarking in 2014: “He didn’t stand a chance. His mother was a heroin addict. I feel bad that I brought him into the band, he couldn’t cope at all. I feel a bit responsible for his death.”
Rumour has it that it was Vicious’s mother, Anne Beverley, who had supplied the heroin that killed him and it was her who found his body the next morning, lying on the floor next to a needle and a charred spoon.
Described by Lydon as “an oddball hippie” in Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1993), Beverley had separated from Vicious’s father and moved around a lot during his childhood, including a spell in Ibiza where she reportedly sold cannabis to make a living. She finally settled in Hackney.
A vain but unpredictable adolescent in thrall to Eddie Cochran and glam rock, Sid Vicious was given his name by Lydon in honour of the latter’s pet hamster; both were prone to bite.
In punk’s earliest days, Vicious was a regular at Oxford Street’s 100 Club, known for clearing the dance floor by swinging a bike chain, throwing drinks, and apparently inventing pogo dancing by leaping up and down on the spot to get a clearer look at the stage.
He was the original drummer for Siouxsie and the Banshees at their first gig at the venue and was one of the many members of the aborted Flowers of Romance, a band that might have amounted to a super-group had it ever got off the ground; its members included Viv Albertine and Palmolive of The Slits, Keith Levene who was later in Lydon’s Public Image Limited, and Marco Pirroni, guitarist to Adam Ant.
Joining the Pistols in 1977 gave Vicious an outlet for his anger. The band’s meteoric rise, and fall, from the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall to their final show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, was as brilliant as it was brief.
The Sex Pistols, a runaway train of engineered chaos and anti-establishment provocation steered by the extremely canny McLaren, allowed Vicious to indulge his every primal instinct for an audience of enraptured teens drawn to his sneering persona. The drug-taking wasn’t the half of it; his self-destructive, attention-seeking behaviour even stretched to self-harming with the serrated lid of a Heinz Baked Beans tin, while he and Spungen would burn each other’s arms with cigarettes.
Accounts of what Vicious was really like vary depending on who you ask. Stories of his physically abusing Spungen, vomiting on groupies, strangling cats, and brawling with rednecks on the Pistols’ disastrous US tour certainly abound. But others who knew him tell a different story. Steve Severin of the Banshees has commented that “he had a brilliant sense of humour, goofy, sweet, and very cute”.
Spungen’s middle-class mother, Deborah, recalls him as being endearingly shy, childlike and inarticulate when he visited her at home in Philadelphia. And he was certainly desperately in love with her daughter. In her own book about Sid and Nancy, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life (1983), its title one of Vicious’s own lines, Deborah records him telling her tearfully over the phone from prison: “I don’t know why I’m alive anymore, now that Nancy is gone.”
And what of Nancy? The 20-year-old is usually written off as a destructive junkie, a low-life chancer and a bad influence on everyone she met. Spungen was to the Pistols what Yoko Ono had been to The Beatles and Courtney Love would be to Nirvana, the argument goes. Worse, she was a contaminant, importing heroin chic from New York to London when she followed another punk band, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, across the Atlantic. But there is more than a hint of misogyny in such dismissals.
She is also now believed to have had an undiagnosed psychiatric condition. Her mother’s memoir describes Spungen’s disturbing behaviour as a child, from threatening her siblings during temper tantrums to attacking a babysitter with scissors.
Ultimately, Sid and Nancy’s grotty demise stands as a cautionary tale, warning that the ruinous nihilism they came to represent amounted to little more than a dead-end. Their defiance led them only to a darkened room at the Chelsea Hotel, and a spiral of mutually-assured destruction.
The post-punk and new wave movements that Lydon and his peers went on to embrace were far more optimistic, joyous and experimental, entertaining grander visions of a better world – something that Vicious and Spungen seemingly couldn’t imagine, and tragically never saw. The “no future” refrain from “God Save the Queen” proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the young lovers.