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The Day Punk Died

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The body of Nancy Spungen is carried from the Chelsea Hotel on October 12, 1978.  

From the time of her arrival in New York, Nancy used drugs to meet musicians. She was blatantly honest about it: She bought drugs for the bands, Polk says. She was honest about being a prostitute as well, which I thought was refreshing. The punk scene, like any other scene, had its little hierarchies. There were groupies that had been around for a long time because of their looks. In order to be a groupie you had to be tall and skinny and have fashionable clothes. There were a bunch of girls like that on the scene. And then here comes Nancy. She’s not trying to be cute or charming. She wasn’t telling people she was a model or a dancer. She had mousy brown hair and she was a bit overweight. She basically said, Yeah, I’m a prostitute, and I don’t care.’ 

But Nancy was too extreme even for a movement centered on extremeness, and she never gained the acceptance she craved; she was an outcast among outcasts, nicknamed Nauseating Nancy behind her back. It was jealousy, says Roberta Bayley, who worked the door at CBGB. There’s no more competitive thing than who can fuck these musicians. Maybe Pamela Des Barres tells the story of female solidarity, but there was a lot of backstabbing. According to Polk, The other girls shunned her and were mean to her. And that made Nancy worse. She became vengeful. She kind of reacted to them putting her down by doing even worse things. The only people who didn’t shun her were the guys that were getting drugs from her.

By the spring of 1977, Nancy had worn out her welcome, says former Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome. She took off for London, following Heartbreakers Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, but even her reliable targets were tiring of her. London scenester Bebe Buell says Nolan (who died in ’92) tried to shake Nancy: I remember Jerry saying to me, If this chick Nancy Spungen tries to find me, please don’t tell her where I’m staying.’ He was trying to dodge the bullet.

Then Nancy found her twisted Romeo. Working-class, musically challenged, highly impressionable, and enamored of the New York punk scene, Sid Vicious was the bass player for the biggest band in England, and already the walking epitome of punk nihilism. If Rotten is the voice of punk, then Vicious is the attitude, Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren famously decreed. Both knew no limits. Photographer Bob Gruen accompanied the Pistols on their U.S. tour. I remember talking to Sid on the bus, and he really seemed to care for her, Gruen says. He didn’t have any anger or hatred toward her. Sid very much loved Nancy. They seemed to communicate and connect.

I was there in a club when some girl offered Sid her number, says Victor Colicchio. Nancy said, Push her down the stairs.’ And he did. He was a knight in rusty armor.

But the Pistols broke up at the end of their American tour. Back in London, Sid attempted a solo career, with Nancy now calling herself his manager; by the end of August 1978, they returned to New York, moving into the Chelsea Hotel. When she came back with Sid, it was like she had triumphed, says Polk. She had shown everybody that she really had what it took to become this famous groupie. Some people were outraged by it. They just couldn’t believe that she had succeeded in her quest.

Victor Colicchio, an actor, screenwriter (Summer of Sam), and member of a short-lived seventies band called the Dead Squirrels, also lived at the Chelsea. He saw Nancy’s good side, despite her spiraling drug problem. She was highly intelligent and very aware, he says. She could spot someone conning her a mile away. She had good insight into people. She was aware of phonies and fakes and users. She did display that wild, crazed behavior, but it wasn’t her total being. I saw both men and women pushing past her, not acknowledging her, talking to Sid. I think a lot of her nastiness and temper tantrums were rooted in that. I was there one night in a club where some girl offered Sid her number. Nancy said, Push her down the stairs.’ And he did, without a second thought. He was a knight in rusty armor.

By this time, the drugs were taking over. There’s a famous clip of Sid and Nancy from the 1980 documentary D.O.A. Sid’s nodding off, and Nancy’s snapping at him to wake up. They’re like the Honeymooners, says Roberta Bayley:  Wake up, you knucklehead! We’re on TV!’ It’s so sad, it’s funny. Even the hard-core drug users began to avoid them. Sid and Nancy as a couple were going down the toilet, and everybody could see it, says Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. To hang out with Nancy and Sid was to make a grievous mistake for your own health. I took lethal doses of everything known. You couldn’t call the kettle black. Mine was jaw-droppingly black. But I’m still here. They’re not.


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