Legs McNeil never slept with Nancy Spungen, but he knew her. Everyone on the punk scene did. “There were only, like, 200 people,” he says. “So you met everyone pretty quickly. It wasn’t a scene that anyone wanted to be a part of. There was no velvet rope at CBGB.”
In the mid-seventies, McNeil was a staffer at Punk magazine, the snide but influential trash ’zine that gave the music its name, and Nancy was a groupie, trailing after the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers. “Nancy had one of those passions for rock and roll that very few people have,” he says. “She knew everything about every album. Groupies in those days were different. They were a part of the scene. Everyone was treated the same. The roadies were treated the same as the rock stars. The groupies were treated the same as the rock stars. It was completely democratic.”
Nancy, set loose in New York City in 1975 at the age of 17, intuitively understood this delicate equilibrium. The punk scene was made up of outcasts, misfits, and social rejects; they all found each other on the Lower East Side and banded together. “We had an office called Punk Dump,” McNeil recalls. “It really was a dump. It was a storefront on 30th Street and Tenth Avenue, right under the el, where you go into the Lincoln Tunnel. There’d be these long traffic jams, and there’d be transvestites giving blow jobs to car johns from New Jersey who’d think they were women. We didn’t have a shower in the office, and Nancy would let us come over. She lived on Eighth and 23rd. It was a nice old basement apartment—I think her mother was paying for it. She’d make us scrambled eggs and talk.”
Sitting at a back-corner table in the courtyard of Yaffa Café on St. Marks Place—one of the few restaurants left in New York where he can smoke—McNeil, now 52, pulls another cigarette out of his pack and inhales deeply. “I liked Nancy,” he adds, a drip of sentimentality in his nicotine-rasped voice. “She could be very, very nice.”
The words hang in the air, defiant, paradoxical. McNeil liked Nancy, the doomed sweetheart of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious who died 30 years ago this month in a pool of blood under a bathroom sink in the Chelsea Hotel; Sid, her accused murderer, OD’d four months later while awaiting trial, leaving her case forever unresolved. Nancy, the Times Square stripper and prostitute so reviled by Vicious’s bandmates that they banned her from their ill-fated twelve-day U.S. tour in 1978 (lead singer Johnny “Rotten” Lydon described her in his 1994 autobiography as “screwed out of her tree, vile, worn, and shagged out”); Nancy, a child so disruptive that her mother disavowed her in the 1983 memoir And I Don’t Want to Live This Life: A Mother’s Story of Her Daughter’s Murder.
Nancy Spungen doesn’t come up much anymore, and when she does, it’s as a rock-and-roll footnote, a tabloid grotesque wedged between the Son of Sam in ’77 and John Lennon’s murder in ’80. She resurfaced in the nineties as the role model for Courtney Love, the next generation’s peroxide parasite, arguably as reviled by the indie-rock scene as Nancy was by the punks. “She looked like Nancy Spungen … a classic punk-rock chick,” Kurt Cobain told Michael Azerrad in Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana.
McNeil’s unbegrudging compliment presents Nancy in something approximating three dimensions, something more than a cultural cipher and a groupie from hell. Something more than the female half of Alex Cox’s 1986 losers-in-love saga Sid & Nancy, which portrayed Nancy staggering through the streets in search of a score, screeching “Siiiiiiiiid!” in an impossibly grating voice, while her beau crashes through glass doors and nods out in burning hotel rooms.
The real Nancy was prettier and softer than Chloe Webb, who portrayed her in Cox’s film. You can find a series of grainy black-and-white clips of her on YouTube, from an obscure New York cable talk show taped less than a month before her death on October 12. You’re struck by how shockingly close to adolescence she was, chewing a wad of gum and self-consciously flipping her hair; she was only 20 when she died. Sid is next to her: At one point he removes his leather jacket, nearly clocking her in the face with his elbow, as if he’s forgotten she’s there. Seated next to him at a long table are Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys and Cynthia Ross of the B Girls. They’re here, presumably, because punk has been building momentum. Though the Sex Pistols imploded after their disastrous U.S. tour, the biggest bands nurtured in the CBGB scene—Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie—all have record deals, though none has yet scored a hit. Vicious, Bators, and Ross are there as emissaries from a scene the larger world—New York above 14th Street—doesn’t yet understand. Nancy isn’t introduced at the start of the segment. She’s not in a band and clearly doesn’t count.