(Who was neither, but I’m just being deliberately oblique.)
When I was around 20 I studied popular music at Liverpool University, and I first learnt about Punk. I’d been aware of it for years, but never really got it. So I learnt about the New York Dolls and Television and CBGBs, and the Damned and Souixie and the Banshees and the Sex Pistols. And I learnt about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon. Sid and Nancy.
I read Johnny Rotton’s autobiography and lapped it all up. And from that learnt that Sid and Nancy had been romanticised into this punk legend – mainly because of their deaths (Nancy was found dead from a stab wound in their hotel room, Sid was charged with 2nd degree murder and then died of a heroin overdose on bail), but really Sid was just a massive poseur and Nancy was really really fucking annoying and everyone hated her.
I knew that Punk was basically a religion for most of the music business at the time, particularly journalists, and I felt “I’ve got to know all this stuff”. And there was a lot of information you had to know, and so I sort of crammed it like exam revision.
Twenty years later I’m looking at a laptop screen and I see that there’s a series on Netflix that mentions ‘Sid and Nancy’ in the title, and I start thinking about them again. I vaguely have a sense of what kind of person ‘Sid Vicious’ (John Simon Ritchie) was, but I know next to nothing about Nancy Spungeon. Sure, the punk writers nearly all seemed to suggest she was a waste of space, but ex-punk music journalists are, along with religious disciples and financial advisers, amongst the least reliable sources of information in the world.
Nearly died in the womb. Born to a middle-class Jewish American family. An academically gifted child, but violent. Beat up her sister, but very caring to her brother. Diagnosed with schizophrenia aged 15. Started university at 16. Arrested for drug possession and expelled. Take all those elements and mix them with puberty and it’s understandable why she might move to New York and get involved in stripping, prostitution and drug dealing. Where she chases lead singers of punk bands. Ends up with Sid Vicious, another troubled teenager, and thus becomes famous. Vilified by the tabloids. Beaten up by her boyfriend. Gets into heroin. Stabbed to death at 20 years old. And preserved in amber at a stage of her life when most of us are at our most confused and unstable.
When I was 20 I suppose at the back of my mind I wondered whether any part of me would be punk at the age of 40. Or do you just give up, like the guy said in Trainspotting: you get old, you can’t hack it anymore.
And so here’s the difference between being a 20 year old man and a 40 year old man that I find interesting (and I mention the gender because my experience was that punk seemed to matter much more to 20 year old men than 20 year old women – although obviously Nancy proves that wasn’t always true).
Today, I can still appreciate the good things about Punk: the energy, the DIY creativity, the need for a short sharp shock of negativity to correct the woolly bullshit that was the legacy of the hippy movement.
But already, just with a morning’s Wikipedia-ing, I find that the story of Nancy Spungeon, the real person behind the legend, is more interesting to me than the whole Punk movement. Not as a punk villain or a tragic victim of a Fairytale of New York, but as someone who seemed to spend her short life battling some pretty terrifying inner demons.
And perhaps this is why ultimately I can’t help but find Punk boring now: because it’s only interested in the cartoon. A bunch of kids in an art school scene tried to turn themselves into pop music superstars by creating their own myths, and it worked! And of course those involved must have found that the most exciting thing in the world. But it was all a pose really. A paper tiger threat. Except to Nancy Spungeon, perhaps, who’s life really was as smart and as chaotic and as criminal as Punk pretended to be. And sadly, because her life actually took place in the real world, it wasn’t just a cool costume she could buy on the Kings Road and then sell at auction twenty years later. She couldn’t just walk away from it.
And who knows, if her luck had been just the smallest bit different perhaps she’d be settled into late middle age now, looking back on her late teens, when she hadn’t yet learnt how to deal with all the stuff that was making her crazy. Because many people with mental illnesses do find medical treatments that can keep the illnesses in check. That’s the part that the legend misses out. Her death wasn’t an inevitability. For every tragic Rock & Roll martyr there are so many near misses who tell the younger generation that they weren’t prophets to some nihilist cause, they were really just lost and confused. And the process of getting over that confusion is more interesting than the confusion itself, because being lost and confused is easy and finding a way over it is hard. And perhaps for some people, like Nancy Spungeon, it’s harder than it is for the rest of us.