Thirty-eight years ago today, on Oct. 12, 1978, Nancy Spungen—girlfriend of the late Sex Pistols frontman Sid Vicious—was murdered in Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea. She was 20 years old at the time of her death, primarily known for being a groupie and a heroin addict. And if that were really all she was, no one would remember her. But she was more than that: She was the patron saint of anyone who has ever felt that their existence on earth was God’s terrible mistake. And that is a great many more people than anyone is comfortable admitting.
There are several theories about the circumstances of Nancy’s murder. Most believe that Sid Vicious (né John Simon Ritchie) stabbed Nancy during a drug-addled fight. Others say that Nancy was one-half of a murder-suicide pact in which Sid committed the murder part, but neglected to follow through on the suicide. Sid himself died four months later, in February 1979, from an overdose while awaiting bail pending his murder trial. He had made the unbelievably tacky move of writing letters to Nancy’s mother, Deborah Spungen, after Nancy’s murder, including one that concluded: “Thank you, Debbie, for understanding that I have to die. Everyone else just thinks I am being weak.”
Bad plumbing is the explanation for most of world history, actually
This year marks the 40th anniversary of two seminal events in the history of the United Kingdom. The first is the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer having to ask the International Monetary Fund for a bailout loan in Sep. 1976, largely considered modern Britain’s most financially embarrassing moment pre-Brexit. The second is the Sex Pistols’ release of their first single, “Anarchy in the UK,” in Nov. 1976. The two events are not unrelated. The orc that was punk rock could only have arisen from the mire that was the economic climate of the UK in the 1970s, and its concomitant maladies.
It’s hard to imagine now, but the UK of the ’70s in some ways resembled a developing nation. Flushable toilets were not universal. Rolling blackouts were common. The currency was volatile. And severe inflation and striking crippled the nation. Food rationing from World War II had extended until 1954, just two decades prior. This atmosphere of agony underpins the main difference between American and British punk. American punk was the very picture of rosy health compared to its British counterpart. American bands like the Ramones and the New York Dolls were canny about career advancement and were decent musicians as well. Meanwhile, Sid Vicious, as with many UK punk musicians, pretty much refused to rehearse.
Say what you will, punk is British at its core. Nancy Spungen knew that. That’s why she left America for England in 1976, and that’s where she met Sid.
It’s not quite normal to believe that, if you are unhappy, the problem lies in the country in which you are living. But there is a subspecies of chronically dissatisfied human that believes geography is the root of all problems; I myself have been known to expatriate and repatriate in response to discomfort. That is one reason, among several, that I have always found in Nancy a sort of kindred spirit.
The greatest boon of all
Nancy Spungen brings to mind that line from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus: “To have never been born is perhaps the greatest boon of all.” I have often wondered why the ancient Greeks were more realistic about that kind of thing, and why modern people don’t generally go around admitting that such thoughts cross their minds fairly frequently.
I first discovered Nancy in 1983, the year her mother Deborah Spungen published a memoir called And I Don’t Want to Live This Life. It was basically one long wail of “What did I do to deserve this?” I was 11 years old at the time, and my parents closely monitored my reading. But we did get the Chicago Tribune, which published a review of the book that year. Later I would read the book in full, and I was fascinated to learn that, according to Deborah, Nancy seemed to know from the moment she was born that she didn’t want to live. Nancy screamed so incessantly as a three-month-old infant that a pediatrician prescribed phenobarbital. She made her first suicide attempt at age 11.
To the casual onlooker, I am the very last person in the world that anyone would suspect of identifying with Nancy Spungen. I’m a classic overachiever. My appearance is conservative and groomed; I’m basically obedient and respectful. And yeah, I’m Asian-American, which I’d love to pretend is an irrelevant detail, but we all know that “post-racial” is a bunch of BS and that to most Americans, the idea of my being an admirer of Nancy Spungen’s is ethnographically impossible. But Nancy and I do have a few things in common, including: ordinary bourgeois upbringings; a peculiar hybrid accent that floats in the middle of the Atlantic; and being unexpectedly Jewish, though in my case I ran toward the faith, while Nancy ran away.
Moreover, the way Deborah Spungen described child Nancy was not dissimilar to myself as a child–so verbally advanced that it was considered a serious problem and not adorable at all.
All children have violent thoughts and fantasies; any shrink will tell you that. But most children aren’t able to articulate them at age two, as Nancy was. I was far less precocious than she, but by age eight I made great advances in a short story genre that I invented—in which a little girl becomes orphaned after her parents die in a violent natural disaster, thus vastly improving her life. Unlike Nancy, however, my susceptibility to social conditioning was enormous and my survival skills were excellent. So I stopped writing fiction altogether and did not pick it up again for another 20 years.
Depression, they say, is anger spread thin. Anger is spread thin for just about everyone I know. Nancy’s anger, however, was not spread thin.
The willingness to die is not something to be advocated, but such willingness is indicative of an unhealthy society. The death wish is very real and very universal. Punk acknowledged this in a way that no music movement—before or since—ever did.
I certainly don’t envy Nancy. But one has to marvel at a person so unafraid to admit to entertaining the thought that life is not for everybody.