Sid Vicious

Sid Vicious

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Despite releasing only one album during their short life as a band, the Sex Pistols became a cultural phenomenon in Great Britain that not only defined a musical genre, punk, but also underscored the ability of rock to offer an anarchic alternative to conventional society. In a handful of vitriolic, high energy, and invective-filled rants against the British Establishment and a wide variety of social issues, the Pistols captured the imagination of the world press for a short time in the mid–1970s before internal tensions within the group and its management led Johnny Rotten ( John Lydon), the group's front man and true creative force, to walk away from the band in disgust. Today, thanks largely to the relentless marketing of his image on clothing and other items for sale Sid Vicious has become the face and symbol of the punk movement. Rock has always projected a rebel image, but past rockers like Elvis Presley in addition to defining the "look" of their generation also arguably possessed a modicum of musical talent. Sid Vicious, the spikey haired and sneering symbol of punk, could never learn to play his instrument and offered little to the band other than his well-earned outcast image that did, however, strongly connect with their fan base. The performer destined to become the icon of punk was born Simon John Ritchie on May 10, 1957, in Lewisham Hospital in London the son of John George Ritchie, a publisher's representative, and Anne Jeannette, a psychologically troubled woman whose recreational drug use further unsettled her volatile personality. Ritchie split when Sid was two and Anne married Chris Beverley. Mother and son retained Beverley's name following his death. Desperately poor, Sid spent much of his early life with Anne moving from one squalid flat to the next in the lower class environs of the city, while she barely supported them by rolling joints. Sid took to running the streets looking for companionship and entertainment which often took the form of baiting and beating up aging hippies. The 15-year-old was already sharing his mother's syringe to shoot speed when authorities sent him to a special needs school in Stoke Newington. Sid worked briefly in a textile factory prior to enrolling in a photography course in 1973 at Hackney Technical College. At the trade school, he met another disaffected teen, John Lydon, and the pair became fast friends based on a mutually rabid disdain for the British Establishment and similar tastes in fashion and music. Lydon and Sid began squatting together in various aban - doned buildings in London and when not stroll - ing the fashion trendy King's Road in Chelsea, worked the occasional odd job. Britain, then in the midst of one of its worst economic recessions since World War II, offered little or no hope to the working class, especially teenagers unable to find jobs. The kids were angry and as Pamela Des Barres points out in Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon (1996) the current music offered no alternative. Glam rock, expounded by fashion- conscious performers like David Bowie and Marc Bolan, was passe and heavily synthesized music ruled the airwaves. Early on, both friends were heavily into glam rock with Sid especially known to ape Bowie's outlandish look. During their wanderings on the King's Road, the pair discovered Sex, a fetish-wear clothing store owned by Malcolm McLaren, an entrepreneur who fancied himself a poor man's Andy Warhol. The shop featured studded fetish garb, rubberwear, tee shirts bearing inflammatory slogans, and assorted accessories like dog chains, oversized safety pins and locks. McClaren had already enlisted shop regulars Steve Jones (guitar) and Paul Cook (drums) into a band with store worker Glen Matlock (bass), but needed a charismatic front man. Enter John Lydon who, al - though not a trained singer, possessed an au - thentic rage, snarling delivery, and fuck-all attitude that made the band one of the most exciting live acts in London. Lydon was renamed "Rotten" by Jones who was disgusted by the singer's obnoxious habit of picking at his rotting teeth. At the end of 1975, the band was named the Sex Pistols and essentially launched the punk movement in Great Britain. Punk, distinguished by its simplistic musical structure and incendiary lyrics attacking societal ills, struck an instant chord with Britain's disaffected youth and as promoted by McLaren became an equally potent fashion statement. Much to the shock, horror, and disgust of Establishment British society, London streets were soon awash with knotted bands of surly teens wearing studded fetish gear held together by safety pins and bandaids. In the clubs, Johnny Rotten's shouted lyrics preaching nihilism and anarchy were punctuated by his spitting into a crowd already whipped into a frenzied state by the message and the driving beat. Sid, unable to play an instrument, was the band's most ardent fan and was credited with inventing the "pogo" dance in which he rigidly jumped up and down in time with the music to better see the band in the crowded clubs. Surnamed "Vicious" by Lydon (Rotten) after the singer's pet hamster, Sid briefly played drums of a sort for Siouxsie & the Banshees, sang in a band called Flowers of Romance, but was better known in his pre–Pistols days for the mayhem he caused in clubs. At a Pistols show in June 1976, Vicious lived up to his name by whipping music journalist Nick Kent with a rusty bicycle chain at London's 100 Club. In September of that year, he hurled a beer glass at the stage and a shard reportedly struck a female audience member blinding her in one eye. Vicious was arrested for the incident, found guilty of possessing an illegal weapon (a knife), and did a short stint at an Ashford remand center. In November 1976, the Pistols' first single, "Anarchy in the U.K.," was released to mixed reviews, but the band's subsequent profanity-laced appearances on British television and in outrageously controversial press interviews brought them to the fore of British popular culture and launched scores of punk bands. By February 1977, the tension between lyricist Johnny Rotten and bassist Glen Matlockmingly too fond of melody) reached a crisis. Malcolm McLaren, unwilling to anger the incendiary front man whose vision had made the Sex Pistols a controversial success, fired Matlock. Rotten immediately suggested his friend and fellow-squatter, Sid Vicious, to manager McLaren as a replacement. Who cared if the 20 year old could not play bass? He could learn (but never did) and what was more important was that Sid Vicious had the quintessential punk look. Whip thin from copious drug use, spikey black hair, snarling upper lip, and outfitted in ripped clothes from McLaren's Sex boutique held together by bondage straps and accessoried by Nazi regalia, Vicious was the embodiment of image over talent. Rotten was frankly political and his rants against the Establishment were genuine cries of anger from Britain's disadvantaged lower class. Vicious cared nothing for politics. He did, however, live to shock and McLaren saw that his "dangerous" look and persona played well in the press. Shortly after joining the Pistols, Vicious met Nancy Laura Spungen, a troubled 19-year-old American who reportedly had come to Britain for the express purpose of becoming the girlfriend of a punk star. Born cyanotic, a so-called "blue baby," the infant's blood had to be immediately changed in an effort to stabilize her central nervous system. Later diagnosed as a schizophrenic, Spungen was unable to adjust to simple changes in routine and was frustrated by tasks as mundane as dressing or undressing. Spungen, her tenuous mental state exacerbated by an IQ of 150–160, had been in an out of mental institutions and special schools since the age of 11. Turning her younger siblings onto pot at an early age, Spungen was shooting heroin at 15. She enrolled at the University of Colorado at 16, but left after a semester and relocated to New York City to work as a go-go dancer. In the Big Apple she told anyone within earshot her dream was to become a rock star's girlfriend and bragged she had already bedded every member of Aerosmith, Bad Company, and most of the Allman Brothers. She followed the New York Dolls to London where she hooked up with Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers. In early 1977, repulsed by Johnny Rotten who considered her a heroin addicted slag, Spungen set her sights on Sid Vicious. The pair became inseparable especially after Spungen turned him onto heroin. The rest of the Pistols openly despised the woman to whom they referred to as "Nauseating Nancy." Spungen's omnipresence combined with the bassist's psychological dependence on her drove a wedge between Vicious and the rest of the band. Tellingly, none of the Pistols even visited Vicious during his hospitalization for hepatitis in April and May 1977. At his first live show with the Pistols on April 4, 1977, it became instantly apparent to the band and its management that while Vicious looked the part of a punk rocker, he could not play his instrument. His sincere attempts to learn the bass were undermined by heroin addiction and drunkenness at recording sessions to the point fired former bassist Glen Matlock was hired to lay down tracks on the Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols album released in October 1977. As the Vicious-Spungen relationship continued to spiral uncontrollably into the depths of hopeless heroin addiction, band members and friends did their best to break up the pair and get the bassist off junk. By June 1977 when the Pistols released their hit song, "God Save the Queen," timed to coincide with the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the band took the dramatic, but necessary step of often not even plugging in Vicious's instrument during live shows. For his part, Vicious posed with the instrument, sneered, and insulted the audience. Nevertheless, when Never Mind the Bollocks was released it shot to Number One in the U.K. although it was banned by many national discount stores. On the strength of the album, McLaren decided to exploit the band's notoriety with an ill-conceived tour of the United States. Prior to leaving the U.K., Spungen was informed she would not be allowed on the trip. On January 6, 1978, the Sex Pistols kicked off their U.S. tour in, of all places, Atlanta, Georgia. The audience, in fact most Americans, had little in common with the band or its politics of rage against the British Establishment. Still, reviewer John Rockwell of The New York Times reported the crowd enjoyed itself and described Vicious as "scrawny and scowling, but in a somehow sweet and alluring way." Peeved that Spungen, his emotional support and main source of heroin, had been banned from the tour, Vicious spent much of his time trying to score drugs in the Deep South with disastrously embarrassing results. Unreliable and acting increasingly strange, he showed up moments before a gig in Memphis with "I Wanna Fix" freshly carved in his bloody chest. As his relationship with band members, most notably Rotten, progressively deteriorated so did his onstage behavior. In Austin, Texas, he unwisely shouted at the audience, "All you cowboys are fuckin' faggots," and assaulted a photographer with his bass. Not surprisingly, he and the band were pelted with beer cans and bottles. Off-stage was worse. Road stories abound of Vicious' drugaddled escapades with groupies and rednecks. By the end of the 14-day tour in San Francisco on January 17, 1978, Rotten announced he was through and quit the band unable to stand his former mate's behavior or rein in his visceral hatred of Malcolm McLaren. The opportunistic manager was already busy collaborating with director Julien Temple on a fictionalized filmic account of the band, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. In the movie, Vicious sang three cover songs including a disturbing rendition of Frank Sinatra's hit, "My Way." Reunited with Nancy Spungen, the pair set up house in New York City ultimately settling in the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street. A well-known residence for artists, the hotel's first few floors were little more than crash pads for junkies. Sid and Nancy lived in Apartment 100 on the ground floor. The musician briefly formed a band, managed by Spungen, called the Idols with two former members of the New York Dolls. The live album, Sid Sings, was released in 1979. Unable to play his own instrument and hopelessly inept at writing new material, Vicious earned drug money playing Pistols tunes at local clubs. A documentary shot in London at the time, Lech Kowalski's DOA, featured an interview with the drug-addled pair professing their undying love while Vicious, holding a hunting knife, nods off into unconsciousness. In New York, the couple tried unsuccessfully to wean themselves from heroin dependence by enrolling at a local methadone clinic. Frequent arguments instigated largely by Spungen ended in brutal beatings dished out by her stoned lover. Mutually depressed, addicted to drugs, and psychologically co-dependent, Vicious and Spungen vowed in a quasi-suicide pact that neither would long live without the other. On the morning of October 12, 1978, Vicious, 21, awoke from a druginduced stupor to find the dead body of his lover, Nancy Spungen, 20, in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor. Death was attributed to a single knife wound in the lower abdomen. Vicious called police and during questioning admitted he could remember little of the evening due to his drug use, but allegedly did confusedly confess to stabbing his lover of 18 months because she failed to score heroin. Vicious was arrested and held pending charges, but released days later after Malcolm McLaren persuaded Virgin Records to put up $50,000 bail. Depressed over Spungen's death and perhaps attempting to make good on their death pact, Vicious half-heartedly attempted suicide at the Seville Hotel on October 22, 1978, by using a razor blade and a broken light bulb to slash his wrist. The cuts were minor and while Vicious did not require medical attention, he was admitted into the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital for a two week period of observation. In November 1978, the bassist pleaded innocent to an indictment charging him with murder and "depraved indifference to human life" in the death of Nancy Spungen. Many friends believed Vicious when he insisted he had not killed Spungen and they offered alternative theories as to who did. The most popular (and one that Malcolm McLaren hired a team of private investigators to pursue) posited an angry young drug dealer who had killed her in a deal gone wrong. This view was lended credence by the fact that a large sum of money known to have been in Room 100 was missing after her body was discovered. However, the constant flow and type of clientele and narcotics into the Chelsea Hotel made leads difficult to pursue. Others speculated Vicious and Spungen, both terribly depressed, had decided together that night to end it all. Spungen made good on her part of the deal while Vicious failed. Still shooting heroin, Vicious spent some of his time awaiting his upcoming trial for second-degree murder hanging out in nightclubs. On December 5, 1978, Todd Smith, brother of New York punk star Patti Smith, took a few swings at Vicious after the drunken musician propositioned and felt up his girlfriend at Hurrah's, a second-floor bar at 62nd Street and Broadway. Vicious responded by breaking a beer bottle on a table and using a shard to slash Smith across the forehead. The assault resulted in five stitches for Smith and bail revocation for Vicious who for a second time was forced to undergo the painful process of heroin detoxification while incarcerated on Rikers Island. Remarkably, bail in the amount of $60,000 was reinstated and on February 1, 1979, Vicious was released into the custody of Anne Beverley. The concerned mother traveled to America in support of son Sid during his legal and drug troubles, but also had been reportedly motivated to make the trip by the $10,000 the New York Post had paid her for exclusive rights to her story. Sid, accompanied by Anne and his girlfriend, 22-year-old actress Mi - chelle Robinson, celebrated his release at a party given by the younger woman at her Greenwich Village apartment on 63 Bank Street. Shortly after midnight, Vicious shot up heroin purchased by his mother to commemorate his newfound freedom. The ex–Sex Pistol seizured, but was seemingly okay according to the guests who left the party. Anne Beverley confiscated the remainder of the heroin, but sometime around 2:00 A.M. Vicious found the junk in her purse and injected it all. Later that day, February 2, Anne and Robin - son found Sid's nude and lifeless body lying faceup in his bedroom. While debate raged over whether the punk star's death had been accidental or intentional, the New York state medical examiner offered a plausible solution. Vicious, his system heroin-free thanks to the prison's detoxification program, had lost his tolerance and could no longer process the narcotic. The body of Sid Vicious was cremated on February 7, and Anne Beverley later spread her son's ashes over Spungen's grave at the King David Cemetery in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. In 1986, the couple's doomed and sordid love affair was the subject of a well-re - garded feature film, Sid and Nancy, starring Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb. In 2006, the Sex Pistols, against the wishes of its remaining members, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Published 2 years ago

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