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The Day Punk Died

Sid and Nancy, taken in September 1978 at CBGBs.  

But of the four of them, she’s the only one up to the task of serving as a spokesman for and defender of punk rock. As a shirtless Sid belches and flicks boogers, and Bators and Ross mumble and pout like eighth-graders in detention, Nancy fends off a series of live callers whose remarks range from insulting to deranged to incendiary. “In England, almost the whole business is punk,” she retorts to one caller who claims that punk rock is on the decline. “You should have seen the year-end polls in the newspapers. The Pistols swept all the polls. They got best new group, best album, best live group, best guitarist, best drummer, on and on and on.” She scowls when another caller dismisses Sid’s music as “derivative.” “He’s about as original as you can get,” she snaps. “He’s not derivative of anything. If you don’t believe me you can ask the old-wave musicians in England, because they believe the same thing.”

“I think Sid is hot,” purrs a sultry female voice.

“Well, you better keep your fucking hands off him, dearie, or I’ll kill you,” Nancy replies.

Another woman calls in. “Sid Vicious is a spoiled brat,” she snarls. “And his girlfriend—”

“What about me, duckie?” Nancy answers, coiled and ready.

“You’re an asshole, ya blonde bitch,” the caller says.

“Oh, yeah? Come here and say that,” Nancy says.

“You’re an asshole!” the woman yells.

Sid, who’s been sitting there with a hangdog expression, finally rouses. “Not as much of an asshole as you are, you fucking cow!” he bellows.

“Cow!” adds Nancy. But she’s smiling. She loves a fight. She settles back into her chair, fluffing her hair again. “You jealous or something? Huh? Oh, I bet you’re so jealous, sweetheart.”

Loud, yes. Obnoxious, yes. But that was the point. The first wave of punk directly confronted a culture it despised. And Madonna hadn’t come along yet to turn bitchy aggression into an art form. “You’ve got to remember, Donny and Marie were on TV,” says McNeil. “We were tired of being nice. It was like, fuck you. The left had become as oppressive as the Republicans. They invented that political-correctness stuff. Punk was supposed to piss off everybody and make people think.”

Nancy was no more messed up than anyone else on the scene, says Legs McNeil. “Joey Ramone pulled a knife on his mother. We were all a little disturbed.”

If you believe Deborah Spungen’s memoir (the Spungen family declined to be interviewed for this article), Nancy devoted her life to pissing people off. Born in 1958 and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, she was difficult from birth: impossible to console, prone to tantrums, hostile, insatiable, demanding, and a bully to her younger sister and brother. “A 7-year-old ran our household,” Deborah writes. “When she wanted something, no matter how big or small, she hollered and screamed and backed us into a corner until we were the ones to back down. We gave in to her. Why? Because there was absolutely no peace in the house until she got what she wanted.” When she was a bit older, Nancy attacked her mother with a hammer. The family brought her to a succession of doctors, psychologists, and clinics; at 11, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, although Deborah says the doctor didn’t disclose the diagnosis to the family. At one point, Nancy was committed to a mental hospital, then sent to a boarding school for troubled kids, before arriving in New York City at the age of 17. By that point she was already taking drugs and sleeping with musicians. “It seemed as if every week she got wilder, further and further from our control and our sense of right and wrong,” Deborah writes. “Our morality meant zero to her. She would simply step over the line, draw a new one, and then step over that. We were also revolted. It was ugly and distasteful and we hated to see such a bright child throw her life away—trash it, really. But we were powerless to stop her.”

Nancy’s New York friends feel that her intense discord with her family factored deeply into her problems. “Like most kids who are 17, basically her statement was, ‘I hate my family,’ ” says photographer Eileen Polk, who hung out with Nancy at clubs and parties. “All the things that she loved and thought were important in the world, they told her were stupid. I think she had a really stifling middle-class upbringing.”

But as McNeil points out, punk—like any great rock-and-roll movement—would be nowhere without repressive, disapproving parents. “Nancy was no more fucked up than anyone else on the scene,” he says. “She wasn’t any more fucked up than Dee Dee [Ramone] or me. Joey [Ramone] was paranoid schizophrenic. Joey pulled a knife on his mother. We were all a little disturbed.”