On the morning of February 1, 1979, Sid Vicious was released on bail from Rikers Island prison, New York, pending trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. She had been stabbed to death in their room at the Chelsea Hotel the previous October; Sid was the only serious suspect for her killing.
Within 24 hours he too would be dead. The cause of death would be recorded as a heroin overdose; his mother, herself a heroin addict, claimed he had killed himself deliberately, as part of a suicide pact with Spungen. He was 21 years old.
Whilst in Rikers, Vicious had attended – and completed – a forced detoxification program. Almost the first thing he did after leaving the prison was score heroin, before heading to Greenwich Village, where a party to celebrate his release was held.
Nobody saw Vicious die. Photographer friend Peter Gravelle, from whom Vicious bought the fatal dose, later claimed he had left the party at 3 am, with the former Sex Pistol still very much alive.
“The next day,” he said, “I got woken up by a flatmate telling me that my friend’s face was all over the newspaper. I ran out, picked up a newspaper and Sid was dead.”
He also said he did not feel guilty about giving his friend the drug that killed him, saying: “If he hadn’t got it from me, he would probably have got it from someplace else. Sid took a lot of chances. But he was too young to die. I never expected him to die.”
Gravelle may not have expected it… but in retrospect Sid Vicious’s early death was inevitable. The previous two years had been a whirlwind of increasing violence, chaos and despair: it was never going to have a happy ending.
The man the world knew as Sid Vicious was born in South London to a fractured family and christened Simon John Ritchie. Estranged from his father as a young child, his mother Anne’s second husband Christopher Beverley died when Simon was just eight, and by the time he was 16, she had become disastrously addicted to heroin – often injecting the drug in front of her son, and even encouraging his own burgeoning amphetamine habit.
That same year, Anne kicked him out of their council flat, and now calling himself John, he met John Lydon and his friend, an irrepressible and occasionally volatile younger boy called John Wardle. The three Johns soon became virtually inseparable, living in squats and spending their days hanging around Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Chelsea clothes store, SEX.
During this time John Ritchie became Sid, supposedly after an incident where he was bitten by Lydon’s hamster of the same name, and Wardle got a new title too – Jah Wobble, after a drunken and stoned Sid’s slurred attempts to pronounce his name.
In 1975, increasingly entranced by the energy and attitude of the kids hanging around his shop, McLaren formed the Sex Pistols, with Lydon – now rechristened Johnny Rotten – as singer. Sid, who according to some accounts auditioned for the band himself, immediately started his own outfit, the Flowers of Romance, with Viv Albertine, who would later join the Slits, and guitarist Keith Levene, who, along with Jah Wobble and Lydon, would form Public Image Ltd after the break-up of the Sex Pistols.
Spearheaded by the Pistols, the punk explosion of 1976 was everything the rootless, unloved, restless Sid had been looking for, perhaps without even knowing it. To his eyes, punk not only gave him the freedom to behave as he pleased, but even legitimized the very worst of that behavior. He took Malcolm McLaren’s artful, disingenuous slogans – anarchy, destroy – at face value, and now calling himself Sid Vicious, threw himself headlong into becoming a personification (or pastiche) of the movement, a clown prince to some, a savage to others.
Writing in his autobiography Dark Luminosity: Memoirs of a Geezer, Jah Wobble remembered Vicious as “a bit of a lost soul.”
“It was like a large chunk of his personality was missing, or was at least very stunted,” he says. “It was as if that part of us that empathizes with people, and demonstrates and expresses compassion, was missing in him.
“However, he was far from being an Antichrist, or from being a terminal bore, for that matter. And he did have a sense of humor, which is often a powerful redeemer in my eyes. Sometimes he was like a lost little boy. Predictably, though, as soon as he realized that he had your sympathy, he would try to take advantage of your better nature… You could say that he already had a junkie’s needy mentality.”
Wobble also recalled the first time he visited Anne Beverley’s flat.
“His mum was banging up heroin and he was banging up speed. I was only sixteen, but I knew full well that your mum shouldn’t be getting you on to needles. Even then I knew that it probably wouldn’t be long before he followed her example and went on the smack.”
Stories of Vicious’s out-of-control behavior during punk’s wild early days are legion – throwing a glass at the stage during a Damned gig and blinding a woman in the eye; attacking NME journalist Nick Kent with a bicycle chain at the 100 Club; assaulting veteran BBC DJ and Whistle Test presenter Bob Harris with a broken glass… and so naturally, given his taste for cheap publicity, it was almost inevitable that McLaren would insist Sid joined the Sex Pistols too (at the expense of original bassist Glen Matlock).
The fact that he couldn’t actually play bass didn’t matter one jot. He looked amazing, he acted atrociously, and he generated the kinds of headlines that not only made the Pistols the most notorious band in the world, but also ensured they sold records. To use another of McLaren’s slogans, he epitomized the mantra: “Cash From Chaos.”
Meanwhile, given free rein – and even encouraged – to behave just as badly as he wanted, Vicious derailed spectacularly. The sneering, spiky-haired, skinny boy in ripped jeans, with a padlock around his neck and broken glass carved into his bare chest, may have looked great on the posters and promo shots… but nobody, it seemed, paused to consider the effect the sudden and explosive attention was having on an already-disturbed young man barely out of his teens.
Vicious was publicly self-destructing… and nobody, least of all Sid himself, seemed to want him to stop.
“Is it any wonder that Sid wanted fame (or notoriety) at any price?” says Jah Wobble. “He would do anything to get attention. And, let’s face it, he cracked it: in terms of twentieth-century iconography, Sid’s cartoon-like image is right up there, almost on a par with Marilyn Monroe’s up-skirt shot.
“Sid’s narcissistic attitude foreshadowed the postmodern zeitgeist of our age that is epitomized by the kitsch, dumbed-down attitude which pervades much contemporary culture… everything is crap and nothing is sacred. Nothing is of substance, and nothing is worthy of being revered or discussed deeply, or indeed taken seriously.”
When it finally came, the tipping point for Vicious would be threefold… and, like so much else in his life, would happen in a rush and a blur of lies, lust, betrayal and violence.
In 1977, shortly after joining the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious met Nancy Spungen. The 19-year-old groupie and former sex worker had arrived in London in tow with Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, and, allegedly after being rejected by Johnny Rotten, had soon latched on to Vicious.
Spungen was unlike anyone Vicious had ever known. The brash American exuded a worldly sexual confidence beyond her years – and Sid fell head over heels.
She was also a heroin addict… and soon so was he.
Now further enabled by Spungen, who insisted to Vicious that it was he, and not Rotten, that was the real star of the Sex Pistols, he derailed still further. On tour in America in January 1978, Vicious attacked members of the audience with his bass, and during their Dallas show, carved the words “Gimme a fix” in his chest with a razor.
The American experience was too much for Rotten. On January 14, after playing San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, the singer quit the band, telling the audience: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
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Without the Sex Pistols – and now cut adrift from childhood friend Lydon – Vicious was left in the sole care of Spungen, who promptly declared herself his manager, and after moving to New York, promised to launch his solo career.
A handful of singles (the Eddie Cochran covers “Something Else” and “C’mon Everybody”, as well as an inspired take on Sinatra’s “My Way”) had been recorded during the filming of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, but, those aside, the “solo career” amounted to little more than a few shambolic New York gigs for groupies, hangers-on and junkie friends. The rest of their time was spent scoring heroin, shooting up heroin, or trying to find the money to buy more heroin.
Sid Vicious, the narcissist who “wanted fame (or notoriety) at any price” had found more fame and more notoriety than he could have dreamed of... and had nothing to show for it but scars. By the autumn of 1978, barely a year after he had joined the Sex Pistols, he was one of the most famous – and certainly the most recognizable – men in the world… and at the same time utterly, fatally, washed up, barely able to leave his dingy room in the Chelsea Hotel, living only for his next fix.
And then, on October 12, 1978, the final act. That morning, Nancy Spungen was found by hotel staff dead on her bathroom floor, stabbed in the abdomen. Vicious was immediately arrested. He claimed not to remember anything, then said he killed her, then that she fell on the knife by accident, then that someone else must have done it.
Arrested and charged with second-degree murder, he was released on $50,000 bail (paid for by the Sex Pistols’ label Virgin Records); but in December was arrested again after assaulting Patti Smith’s brother Todd with a broken bottle, and this time sent to Rikers Island. Fifty-four days later he walked out; by the fifty-fifth he was dead.
If Sid Vicious’ short, inflammatory, life is, as Jah Wobble says, a foreshadowing of “the postmodern zeitgeist of our age [where] everything is crap and nothing is sacred,” then, in his blazing narcissism and willful self-destruction, he has somehow also become a symbol to millions of the fatal glamor of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll itself.
Murder charges and a spike in the arm make for a squalid ending to Sid’s story. But they have also become a central part of 45-years of mythologizing around him. For better or worse, Sid Vicious continues to fascinate, like few rock stars before or since.
There is a coda. After his death, Vicious’s mother Anne Beverley maintained that his final, fatal overdose had not been accidental – and produced a handwritten note which she said proved it. Despite it all, the words remain oddly touching:
"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.”