The Jaw-Dropping Story Behind Sid and Nancy, Punk Rock's Most Tragic Romance

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen's tortured relationship imploded and neither lived to tell their story, but they still became the poster couple for eternal love.

By Natalie Finn Nov 06, 2021 10:00 AMTags
Watch: See Kourtney Kardashian & Travis Barker's ICONIC Halloween Costumes

If any celebrity couple was going to dress up like Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen this year, it was going to be Travis Barker and Kourtney Kardashian.

In case you didn't get the memo, Kourtney and Travis are ravenously hot for each other, their respective Instagrams packed with not particularly subtle indicators that their romance is firing on all cylinders. Subsequently, there was no question as to whether the recently engaged duo were going to go all out for their first Halloween together and, sure enough, they kicked off their celebration a week early in their punk finest. 

"till death do us part," read Kourtney's caption, the Poosh founder sporting a platinum-blond wig and mesh top, Travis doing the Vicious squint, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

The psychology behind Sid and Nancy becoming the poster couple for that very sentiment is of course fascinating and probably pretty alarming—but that doesn't change the fact that their aura has endured for 40 years. And the artistic interpretations of their star-crossed story began in 1986 with Sid and Nancy, the cult biopic starring a young and wiry Gary Oldman (in only his second movie) as the British Sex Pistols bassist and Chloe Webb as the American girl who spent her short life mired in addiction and was as hooked on Sid as she was on any other substance. 

photos
Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker Celebrate Halloween 2021

Director Alex Cox originally thought Daniel Day-Lewis would be perfect for Sid, but, he told Little White Lies in 2016, once casting director Lucy Boulting put Oldman on his radar, he realized that "Gary came from Bermondsey, where Sid was from, and was genuinely from a working class family, whereas Dan was from an aristocratic family and the son of a poet laureate."

Oldman lost 30 pounds for the role and met with Sid's mother, who gifted him her son's padlock on a chain and a leather spike bracelet that the actor wore in the film.

Zenith-Initial/Goldwyn/Kobal/Shutterstock

Though they eventually went with Webb, a seasoned theater actress, a 21-year-old Courtney Love also auditioned for the role of Nancy—and the future Hole singer impressed enough to be cast as the doomed pair's friend Gretchen. ("She looked like Nancy Spungen," Kurt Cobain shared, describing his first impressions of future bride Courtney to Come As You Are...The Story of Nirvana author Michael Azerrad. "A classic punk-rock chick.")

Talking to AnOther in 2016, Cox said he was especially fond of the scene where the couple leave a boat party on the Thames and wander the streets of London, out of their minds and with not a care in the world. "It was done in one continuous, hand-held shot, the camera being operated by [cinematographer] Roger Deakins. It's one of my favorite moments.

But in the 1994 memoir Rotten, Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) called Sid and Nancy "someone else's f--king fantasy" (though he thought Oldman was "quite good")—a take the director came to respect, telling Little White Lies that he would have done a lot differently in hindsight. Especially Sid and Nancy's "quasi-happy ending," featuring the deceased pair heading up to heaven in a taxi (which can't help but recall the end of Grease a bit).

"If I was to remake it," Cox said, "I would end it with Sid dying in a pool of his own vomit."

photos
Stars Playing Real People

But it certainly felt gritty at the time, Oldman telling the Los Angeles Times upon the film's release in 1986 that "above all else, it's an anti-drug film. Of course, we can't market it as an anti-drug film because to put bums in seats, a movie's got to have icing."

Moviestore/Shutterstock

And as far as capturing the vibe of the fringe scene the couple operated in, "People should remember that the film doesn't profess to be a history of punk," Webb told the paper. "It's the story of an intense relationship between two eccentrics. Even within the punk world, Sid and Nancy were very unconventional. Most punks sneered at the idea of romantic love, but Sid and Nancy went around kissing and holding hands. Naturally, we had to cheat a bit here and there because how could anyone know what went on between them when they were alone together? You just try to get a clear idea of the character and remain true to that spirit."

That being said, Webb continued, "It was an extremely depressing film to make and, depending on who you talk to, some people would say Gary and I were really pulled under during the shooting. The film was more or less shot in sequence and it was like being on a road trip that grew increasingly oppressive. Sid and Nancy's world got smaller and smaller, they saw other people less and less and grew increasingly obsessed with each other. Toward the end of the film, it's as if Gary and I were alone together on a filthy mattress that was like a tiny life raft."

And, she pressed, "I also hope it's clear that I found nothing cool about Sid and Nancy. Their lives were completely pathetic. Still, we intended for the audiences to sympathize with them. We certainly did."

photos
TV Shows & Movies About Unhappy Marriages

Because the real Sid and Nancy may have been madly in love, or whatever, but they were also heroin addicts. And as much as Cox thought he was hammering home their self-destruction in his original vision, he ultimately didn't commit to the hardest truth in the finished product.

Which is that there wasn't really anything glamorous about Sid and Nancy, even though their style soon became an immediately identifiable snapshot of a certain sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll lifestyle. Easy to imitate with leather jackets and ripped tights to feel young, in love and on the edge for a night, the rest of the story is really too dark for anything but a cautionary tale.

But how did these two souls, destined to be inextricably linked for eternity, even meet in the first place?

Simon John Richie hailed from southeast London. He met John Lydon in school and that's who gave him his nickname, inspired by John's vicious little finger-biting hamster, Sid.

The boys did some sidewalk busking together, but Sid wasn't invited to join the Sex Pistols until 1977, as a replacement for outgoing bassist Glen Matlock. The volatile, squirrely 19-year-old wasn't a trained bassist, or a particularly talented musician, but as the band's manager Malcolm McLaren once said, "If Johnny Rotten is the voice of punk, then Vicious is the attitude."

Richard E. Aaron/Redfern

Nancy was born across the pond in Philadelphia, the eldest child of Deborah and Frank Spungen, Ivy League graduates who knew they wanted a family but hadn't planned to start when Deborah was still finishing up at Penn. But she graduated on time, when Nancy was 4 months old, and she and Frank went on to have another daughter, Suzy, and a son, David.

Through the prism of tragedy and a mother's sorrow decades later, Deborah remembered Nancy, even as a baby, having "discomfort inside her. She was never content, never relaxed. She had an unbelievable amount of energy, most of which she consumed by crawling...She hated confinement."

Seeking to distinguish her daughter's short, tumultuous life from the more sordid groupie junkie narratives in circulation, Deborah wrote in her 1983 book And I Don't Want to Live This Life: A Mother's Story of Her Daughter's Murder that Nancy "had wanted to die since she was eleven years old."

She had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts at an early age, cutting herself with razor blades before descending into heroin addiction as a teen. And Deborah wrote that she "really knew" that Nancy would die young—but she thought drugs would kill her, that a call from the cops would come, but it would be about an overdose. "Nancy would be in a bed in a private room, conscious," and the family would have a chance to rush to her side to say goodbye. "Nancy's death was dignified in my fantasy," she wrote.

photos
Celebrities Who Were Murdered

Nancy moved to New York in 1975 and fell in with the burgeoning punk scene, becoming an Almost Famous-reminiscent fixture at gritty, grimy clubs like CBGBs long before they were culturally renowned spots where something important happened, offering up drugs and, sometimes, sex for access.

Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"There were only, like, 200 people," journalist and critic Legs McNeil told New York magazine in 2008. "So you met everyone pretty quickly. It wasn't a scene that anyone wanted to be a part of."

"Nancy had one of those passions for rock and roll that very few people have," he continued. "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."

But after two years of hard living in New York, she took off for London, where she met Sid and was glued to his side by the time the Sex Pistols embarked on their first and only U.S. tour in January 1978. Which Nancy was banned from, the majority of the "God Save the Queen" rockers having taken an immediate disliking to her.

In his 1994 book, John Lydon referred to her as "that beast" and a "spoiled cow." But he wasn't being "vindictive," he assured. Rather, "She was a very self-destructive human being who was determined to take as many people down with her as possible. Nancy Spungen was the complete Titanic looking for the iceberg, and she wanted a full load."

Artist and writer Leee Childers, a tour manager for New York-based punk band The Heartbreakers, told Legs McNeill for his book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk that Nancy "was a very, very, very, very, very, very bad influence on people who were already a mess. She was a troublemaker and a stirrer-upper."

photos
Stars Celebrate Halloween 2021

Yet Sid, who drank heavily and used other drugs (if not heroin) before he met Nancy, didn't exactly treat his soul mate like a princess. Nora Forster, John's wife since 1979, is quoted in his book saying, "Sid totally believed in her. He beat her up so badly sometimes. He was dependent on her. 'Look, you work now. You go hooking. I need some money.' God, the way he would talk to her in the clubs...If John talked to me in public like that, I would have hit him."

Personal demons and brash stage persona aside, Sid was said to be quite shy in reality, and hardly had any experience with women before he met Nancy.

"Nancy could be a pain in the ass but she had a heart of gold," photographer Bob Gruen, who chronicled the Sex Pistols' tour, is quoted in Rotten. "I have nothing against her. She was nice to me and a lot of the other guys.

Kerstin Rodgers/Redferns

He told New York in 2008, "I remember talking to Sid on the bus, and he really seemed to care for her. He didn't have any anger or hatred toward her. Sid very much loved Nancy. They seemed to communicate and connect."

The Sex Pistols, however, imploded and broke up after two weeks, even returning to the U.K. on separate flights.

Sid and Nancy went to Paris, where he recorded his biggest solo hit—a cover of the Frank Sinatra-crooned standard "My Way"—and then moved back to New York, where they settled into the storied Chelsea Hotel, a magnet for artists and derelicts of all stripes, on Aug. 24, 1978. Nancy wanted to get married, but Sid checking them in as "Mr. and Mrs. John Ritchie" was as far as they'd get.

Sid attempted a solo career, with Nancy calling herself his manager and complementing his violent, drug-addled behavior with her own.

photos
Musicians Performing Live on Stage

"She was highly intelligent and very aware," musician, actor and Summer of Sam screenwriter Victor Colicchio, who also lived at the Chelsea at the time, told New York of Nancy.

"She could spot someone conning her a mile away," he said. "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."

Watal Asanuma/Shinko Music/Getty Images

In September 1979, Nancy appeared on a local New York talk show with Sid, and while eloquently extolling the ongoing popularity of punk in the United Kingdom in response to the opinion that the genre was dying, she ended up in what today sounds like your average Twitter exchange come to life. The show took callers, and one woman denounced Sid as "a spoiled brat, and his girlfriend..."

Nancy replied, "What about me, duckie?"

To which the caller said, "You're an a--hole, ya blonde bitch!" Nancy fired back, "Oh, yeah? Come here and say that." And the woman repeated, "You're an a--hole!" Then Sid finally perked up and threw in, "Not as much of an a--hole as you are, you f--king cow!" 

Music-wise, Sid wasn't much of an attraction on his own. He made a couple futile attempts to get clean, but he and Nancy mainly holed up at the hotel. According to Sherill Tippins' 2013 book about the Chelsea, Inside the Dream Palace, one night they fell asleep and a lit cigarette set the mattress on fire.

The manager Stanley Bard, son of hotel co-owner owner David Bard, moved the couple to Room 100 on the first floor, the "junkies' floor," to keep a closer eye on them, but he recalled not being all that worried. Meanwhile, despite Sid's waning popularity and the couple's dwindling financial resources, friends, fans, hangers-on and various unsavory characters would visit at all hours, some invited, some not.

In early October, Sid was rumored to have received $25,000 in royalties and an uptick in his and Nancy's drug use followed. And on the night of Oct. 11, 1978, a bunch of people came and went from their room, according to Tippins.

And then the truth becomes unknowable.

Allan Tannenbaum/IMAGES/Getty Images

At around 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 1978, Nancy was awake, pleading with a fellow addict pal to hook her up with some opioid painkillers. Per Tippins, artist Bernard Childs, who was staying in the room across the hall, heard a faint cry in the night, but didn't think much of it. Others in the hotel said they heard a woman's moaning coming from Room 100 at 7:30 a.m.

And at almost 11 a.m., someone from outside the hotel called the front desk and said, "There's trouble in Room 100." After a bellman went to go check, another call came from the room, a man telling the desk clerk, "Someone is sick. Need help." 

When paramedics and police arrived, Nancy was lying on the floor of the bathroom, clad in a black bra and panties, a trail of blood leading from the bed to where she was, partially under the sink. The 20-year-old had been stabbed in the stomach and was dead at the scene.

photos
Celebrity Deaths: 2021's Fallen Stars

According to police, Sid tearfully said at the time, "I killed her," but he was also heard muttering, "She must have fallen on the knife." A blood-stained hunting knife was found among the couple's drugs and paraphernalia.

Sid was arrested and charged with her murder, but was released on $50,000 bail under the agreement that he check in with detectives every day and go to a methadone clinic to seek treatment.

A few weeks later, he sent a letter to Nancy's mother, Deborah, who wrote in her 1983 book that the "depth of his emotion, his sensitivity and intelligence were far greater than I could have imagined."

According to the book, Sid wrote: "Oh Debbie, I love her with such passion. Every day is agony without her. I know now it is possible to die from a broken heart. Because when you love someone as much as we love each other, they become fundamental to your existence. So I will die soon, even if I don't kill myself. I guess you could say that I'm pining for her. I could live without food or water longer than I'm going to survive without Nancy."

Toward the end of the letter, Sid declared, "It made me so happy to give her love, and believe me, no man ever loved a woman with such burning passion as I loved Nancy."

He was sent back to Rikers Island on an assault charge on Dec. 8 after smashing a glass in the face of rocker Patti Smith's brother Todd at a bar.

On Feb. 1, 1979, Sid posted another $50,000 in bail and gathered with a few friends and his mother that night at the Greenwich Village apartment of 22-year-old aspiring actress Michelle Robinson (alternately referred to in reports from the time as his new girlfriend or, as police called her, a "lady friend"), to celebrate his release after 55 days behind bars. 

He had been in a detox program while in jail, but earlier in the day he'd asked a friend, photographer Peter Gravelle, if he could get his hands on some heroin. After shooting some of that, Sid took several Quaaludes to help him sleep. His mom, Anne Beverley, found him dead in bed the next morning. He was 21.

According to numerous accounts, Anne had been a heroin addict before Sid ever started using, and on that night, Sid had asked Peter for drugs because the stuff his mother had already procured was "s--t heroin," the Death of Photography author told Louder Than War in 2019. (Anne died of a suspected drug overdose in 1996.)

"Me and Sid had a hit and it was f--king strong stuff," he recalled. "He was quite strung out and I panicked a bit as he had turned blue. You have to think he was clean at the time so you can imagine how his body was not conditioned for the usual stuff." But Sid was "eventually OK" when he left.

"The next day I got woken up by a flatmate telling me that my friend's face was all over the newspaper," Peter had said in the 2009 documentary Sid: By Those Who Really Knew Him. "I ran out, picked up a newspaper and Sid was dead." His guilt eased over the years, though. "If he hadn't got it from me, he would probably have got it from someplace else. Sid took a lot of chances. But he was too young to die. I never expected him to die."

In her book And I Don't Want to Live This Life, Deborah Spungen recalled getting a call from Sid's mother shortly after news of his death broke. It was the second time they'd ever spoken, the first being when Anne called Deborah after Nancy was killed to offer her condolences and insist that her son couldn't have done it.

Deborah wrote that she told Anne she was sorry that her son was dead, to which Anne replied, "Thank you. Our children were very special children. I suppose this is the way it was meant to be. You know, no one else understood them except you and I."

And then, Deborah continued, Anne asked her if she could have Sid buried next to Nancy. Her answer was no and she got off the phone as quickly as she could.

Mike Lawn/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But though the general takeaway from the Sid and Nancy saga, especially decades later, is that he fatally stabbed her, Anne wasn't the only one who didn't think her boy was capable of such a thing. Or at the very least that he couldn't have possibly wanted or intended to kill her.

He did confess, reportedly telling police he did it "because I'm a dog. A dirty dog."

But "I think when Sid awoke stoned out of his mind and realized she was dead, he might have assumed he did it," photographer Eileen Polk, who hung out with Nancy in the mid-'70s, told New York. Musician Howie Pyro, who was out with Sid hours before Nancy died, mused to the magazine that it was possible Nancy stabbed herself for attention, thinking Sid would come to her rescue, but he was too out of it to help her. Several people in Room 100 the night of Oct. 11 recalled seeing Sid take as many as 30 tabs of the barbiturate Tuinal, enough to kill him, let alone keep him comatose for hours.

Gary Oldman told the LA Times, "Alex had originally written the final scene as a suicide pact, but after all the research I did, I was convinced it wasn't a suicide pact and that Sid didn't murder her." Added Chloe Webb, "Given their personalities and the way they lived, the random drug taking they indulged in, it was an accident waiting to happen."

And there's the faction that puts the onus on Nancy no matter what happened.

Peter Gravelle told Louder Than War, "Nancy basically f--ked up his life around this point. I wasn't there when she died but there are many takes on what happened. I just think Sid had this thing about her and was dragged in by a nasty piece of work who sealed his fate."

And their former Chelsea Hotel neighbor Victor Colicchio told New York, "I don't think he would've killed her unless she told him to."

John Lydon wrote in Rotten, "I knew in my heart that Sid didn't kill her. I think he got set up." With Nancy around, his former band mate was "into chaos for the sheer hell of it."

But thinking they had their man, authorities didn't pursue any other leads, and their case died with Sid. As did punk in its original, rawest incarnation.

Victor explained, "The music was catching on, bands like Talking Heads were breaking out. A lot of us were thinking, Hey, we may not have to get regular jobs. A lot of it hinged on Sid. He seemed to be the last one carrying the torch. When he died, we all felt like it was over. A couple of bands didn't even want to gig. What was shunned was now persecuted. It was almost as if the war was over and we'd lost."

But punk enjoyed a second (and third, and fourth) life, not least in part due to more mainstream disciples like Blink-182, with Travis Barker on drums. And the ballad of Sid and Nancy plays on.