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One of rock-n-rollâ¿¿s most harrowing cautionary tales, Sid Vicious was the bassist for the groundbreaking punk group the Sex Pistols at the height of its popularity, shortly before its members parted under a cloud of animosity and ugly onstage behavior, perpetrated largely by Vicious himself. A dedicated fan of the Pistols in their early incarnation, as well as a close friend of frontman John Lydon, Vicious was selected to join the group shortly before the release of their debut album, Never Mind the Bollocks Hereâ¿¿s the Sex Pistols (1977). That he was largely unable to play the bass and too wracked with drug illness to perform on the record was of less importance than his image as a seemingly insane force of mindless violence, perpetrated as much upon himself as anyone around him. In doing so, Vicious embodied the mainstreamâ¿¿s deepest fears about punk rock as an anarchic, even apocalyptic force bent on destroying the fundamentals of modern civilization. In reality, Vicious was a dense, pitiable wretch pushed into heavy drug use by his harpy-like girlfriend, rock hanger-on Nancy Spungen, whom he may or may not have killed shortly before his own fatal overdose in 1979. For fans of junkie chic and...
One of rock-n-rollâ¿¿s most harrowing cautionary tales, Sid Vicious was the bassist for the groundbreaking punk group the Sex Pistols at the height of its popularity, shortly before its members parted under a cloud of animosity and ugly onstage behavior, perpetrated largely by Vicious himself. A dedicated fan of the Pistols in their early incarnation, as well as a close friend of frontman John Lydon, Vicious was selected to join the group shortly before the release of their debut album, Never Mind the Bollocks Hereâ¿¿s the Sex Pistols (1977). That he was largely unable to play the bass and too wracked with drug illness to perform on the record was of less importance than his image as a seemingly insane force of mindless violence, perpetrated as much upon himself as anyone around him. In doing so, Vicious embodied the mainstreamâ¿¿s deepest fears about punk rock as an anarchic, even apocalyptic force bent on destroying the fundamentals of modern civilization. In reality, Vicious was a dense, pitiable wretch pushed into heavy drug use by his harpy-like girlfriend, rock hanger-on Nancy Spungen, whom he may or may not have killed shortly before his own fatal overdose in 1979. For fans of junkie chic and punk excess, Vicious was an iconic figure who lived life according to his terms; for others, he was an emblem of the dead end awaiting those who blindly followed the fashion of the times and those who sought to exploit it for their own ends.
Depending on the source, he was born either Simon Ritchie or John Simon Ritchie on May 10, 1957 in the Lewisham district of South London, England. He was the son of John Ritchie, a guardsman at Buckingham Palace and a semi-professional jazz trombonist, and Anne McDonald, who dropped out of school to join the Royal Air Force. Shortly after Viciousâ¿¿ birth, she took him to Ibiza, Spain, where, as she understood, her husband would support them financially until he was able to join them. Neither the checks nor John Ritchie ever materialized, and McDonald soon took up with Christopher Beverly, who settled with them in Kent in 1965. However, Beverly died from cancer shortly afterwards, and Vicious and his mother were reduced to living in a rented flat in the low-income, conservative town of Tunbridge Wells before moving to the East London borough of Hackney. There, McDonald indulged a recreational drug habit in which her son often joined her during his teenaged years.
By all accounts, the pre-fame Vicious was a sweet but hapless individual, lacking in both book and street smarts, and easily swayed by dominant personalities. Like many rootless young men, he fell in love with the volume, abandon and confident swagger of rock-n-roll, but lacked any sort of substantial musical ability with which to exploit it. He instead became something of a hanger-on, busking with fellow outcast John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, who gave Vicious his stage moniker. According to popular legend, "Sid Vicious" was inspired by an incident in which Lydonâ¿¿s pet hamster, Sid, bit Vicious. The pair was also habituÃ©s of a London boutique called Sex, owned by designer Vivienne Westwood and impresario Malcolm McLaren. There, the Sex Pistols were born from McLarenâ¿¿s attempt to form a punk band after failing to bring the American glam group the New York Dolls to mainstream success. Vicious was not part of the original lineup, which consisted of Lydon, guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Glen Matlock and drummer Paul Cook. He instead served as one of the fledgling groupâ¿¿s most visible supporters, garnering a reputation as a trendsetter through his "pogo" style of dancing, which was soon emulated throughout the punk scene.
During this period, Vicious was also a member of Flowers of Romance, a sort of in-name-only group, in that it never performed live or released any recordings, but played drums for Siouxsie and the Banshees during their improvised debut at the 100 Club Punk Festival in 1976. His appearance there was noted more for a mindlessly violent incident in which he hurled a beer glass at the stage, which shattered and left a patron partially blind, resulting in Viciousâ¿¿ arrest. Drugs and alcohol often made Vicious cruel and even dangerous, as NME scribe Nick Kent discovered in June 1976. A former member of the Sex Pistols in its earliest incarnation, Kent was severely injured when Vicious, goaded by McLaren or other members of the group, struck him in the head with a bicycle chain.
By 1977, the Sex Pistols had risen to infamy on the strength of their single "Anarchy in the U.K." and profanity-laced appearances on television, which generated a firestorm of controversy among Englandâ¿¿s middle- and working classes. Protests over the Pistolsâ¿¿ lyrics and vile off-stage behavior â¿¿ much of it heavily hyped and even fictionalized by McLaren â¿¿ led to their dismissal from the label. The Pistols were also undergoing internal strife during this period in the form of mounting tension between Lydon and Matlock that eventually resulted in the bassist quitting the group. Lydon immediately recommended Vicious as his replacement, despite his lack of musical talent. McLaren immediately sensed a promotional coupe in Vicious: his knack for casual violence would generate even greater attention from the press, and his addled brain and compliant nature would make him easy to control. In February 1977, the Sex Pistols announced that Vicious had joined the band. He dutifully learned rudimentary bass by playing along to records by the Ramones, but his greatest contribution to the group remained his reckless behavior.
Shortly thereafter, Vicious and the Sex Pistols set out on tour with the Damned and the Heartbreakers, an American punk group featuring Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls. Trailing behind the Heartbreakers was Nancy Spungen, a deeply disturbed drug addict and former sex trade worker-turned-groupie whose desperate affections were largely rejected by the rockers she favored. She had traveled to England in pursuit of Heartbreakers drummer Jerry Nolan, who forcibly ejected her from the groupâ¿¿s retinue. She then turned her attentions on the Sex Pistols, but after being cruelly dispatched by Lydon, found a sympathetic ear in Vicious. She, in return, introduced him to heroin, which blossomed into a full-fledged addiction within months. Vicious contracted hepatitis from using dirty needles, forcing Steve Jones and former Pistol Glen Matlock to record his bass parts on the groups debut album, Never Mind the Bollocks Hereâ¿¿s the Sex Pistols. He became increasingly unstable, struggling with bouts of suicidal depression between furious brawls with Spungen that left one or both in pools of their own blood. McLaren and the band attempted to separate the pair, but such efforts only drew them closer. They became inseparable, locked in mutual self-loathing and unquenchable cravings for drugs.
The Pistols managed to pry Vicious loose from Spungen prior to their 1978 tour of the United States. Cut off from his main supply of heroin, Vicious spiraled into withdrawal hell, picking fights with audience members and mutilating himself both on and off the stage. At a truck stop in Oklahoma, he was challenged by a patron to prove his toughness; Vicious gouged open his own hand, let the blood drip into his breakfast cereal, and finished eating it. By Jan. 16, 1978, the Sex Pistols had imploded due to tensions between the band members. Jones, Cook and McLaren headed to Rio, stranding Lydon in Los Angeles with no means of getting back to England. Vicious nearly died of a heroin overdose, and slipped into a coma while heading to New York and Spungen. In the months that followed the Pistolsâ¿¿ demise, Vicious attempted to launch a solo career with Spungen as his manager. His iconic rendition of "My Way" for Julien Templeâ¿¿s "The Great Rock Nâ¿¿ Roll Swindle (1979) had to be recorded line by line due to his drug sickness. He then briefly joined Johnny Thunders in The Living Dead, but proved so addled that his bandmates turned off his bass amplifier. He later cut the album Sid Sings (1979) with The Idols, which counted The New York Dollsâ¿¿ Arthur Kane and Jerry Nolan among its members. For a brief moment, it appeared that Vicious might actually achieve success on his own.
That slim hope was shattered in the early morning hours of Oct. 12, 1978, when Vicious awoke from a drug-induced stupor to find Spungen dead from a knife wound on the bathroom floor of their room in the notorious Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan. The murder weapon was Sidâ¿¿s own knife, which he had either purchased himself or received as a gift from Spungen. He was summarily arrested and charged with her murder, but was unable to give a definitive account of the events leading up to her death. After being released on bail, Vicious attempted to commit suicide, which earned him a two-week stint in Bellevue Hospital. After his release, he severely injured Todd Smith, brother of punk poetess Patti Smith, which sent Vicious to Rikers Prison for seven weeks. He entered a methadone program during his incarceration and emerged from prison drug-free. However, at a dinner celebrating his freedom, Vicious received heroin from his mother, and set out on an all-night binge. On the morning of Feb. 2, 1979, Anne McDonald found her son dead of an overdose. He was cremated, but his final wish â¿¿ to be interred next to Spungen â¿¿ was denied. She had been buried in a Jewish cemetery, where the non-faithful could not be laid to rest.
In the years that followed Viciousâ¿¿ death, numerous theories came to light about the truth behind Spungenâ¿¿s murder. In his confession, Vicious stated that the couple had argued over heroin, which resulted in a physical altercation that ended when he stabbed her. Both believed the wound to be minor, but in reality, it caused considerable blood loss and eventual death. However, his recollection was severely hampered by his mental and physical state, and those close to Vicious refused to believe that he could have committed such an act. Other theories suggested that an unknown party, possibly the dealer who delivered Viciousâ¿¿ final score, was responsible for Spungenâ¿¿s killing, but no conclusive evidence was ever presented to support the idea. The multiplying rumors and conspiracies helped to make Sid Vicious a posthumous legend, a true example of punkâ¿¿s live-fast-die-young credo to millions who sought to emulate his cadaverous cool. However, no amount of hero worship or detective work could obscure the fact that Viciousâ¿¿ life had amounted to little more than a handful of live performances and a paralyzing addiction that claimed not only his own life, but the life of the person he loved the most.
By Paul Gaita
Filmographyclose complete filmography
CAST: (feature film)
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