The Tragic Life And Death Of Sid Vicious

Sid Vicious. There may not be a more recognizable name in punk history. Known to many as the ultimate punk rock icon with his spiky jet black hair, signature padlock chain, rail thin physique, and nihilistic persona strumming a bass onstage, Vicious was one cool dude. Or was it all just an act? 

Like many music icons who died too young, the Sex Pistols bassist was a tortured soul who carried enough demons to fill a tour bus. From a tempestuous public love affair with punk groupie queen Nancy Spungen, to multiple arrests, including for her murder, Vicious lived fast and hard, and unfortunately only did so for 21 years. 

He’s become a bit of a romantic legend along the lines of James Dean, known for inventing weird cultural phenomena like the pogo dance and saying things like, “I’ve only been in love with a beer bottle and a mirror,” but the mental anguish and disturbing pedigree behind the man remained an enigma to his fans. 

The truth is that Vicious’ life was turbulent from the moment he left his mother’s womb and would stay that way until his death. From drug abuse, to self harm, to reckless and sometimes violent outbursts, he really could have used a good therapist. But his life circumstances panned out in such a way that he never really stood a chance. Read on to learn about the man behind Sid Vicious. 

The early days of John Simon Ritchie

Before he became the Prince of Punk, Sid Vicious was just John Ritchie (or John Beverley) from Lewisham in southeast London. His upbringing was incredibly unstable. His mother, Anne Beverley, had a heroin and opiate addiction and exposed her son to drugs at a young age. Only child Ritchie and his mother moved to Ibiza with the promise of reuniting with his father, but that never materialized. Beverley made a living selling marijuana for a time and would use young Ritchie to smuggle drugs from Spain back to England. Ritchie also had a disturbing and concerning habit of strangling animals in his youth. 

When Ritchie was 16, Beverley kicked him out of the house. In a Guardian interview with Beverley in 1988, she recalled the incident. “I remember saying to him: ‘It’s either you or me, and it’s not going to be me.’ He said: ‘I’ve not got anywhere to go,’ and I said: ‘I don’t care.'” 

Ritchie met John Lydon in school as a teen, and they became close friends. Lydon would, of course, eventually become The Sex Pistols frontman, Johnny Rotten, and the one responsible for Ritchie’s rock persona. Lydon alluded to Ritchie’s mother as an “oddball hippy.” 

John Ritchie, Vivienne Westwood and Chrissie Hynde

Chrissie Hynde has been a London expatriate for most of her life, but before she was the lead singer of The Pretenders, Hynde was trying to scrounge up a plan to stay in the country. She made a habit of hanging around Vivienne Westwood’s boutique, SEX, in London, where she met John Ritchie. She, Ritchie and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) became friendly, and she became part of their punk circle in the 1970s. 

A young Hynde tried to convince Ritchie to marry her for a work permit. “It was a sham to keep me in the country,” Hynde admitted in an interview. “I did pay Sid like two pounds or something because that’s just how Sid was. He wouldn’t do anything for nothing. But it was a lark. That’s the way we were.” 

They never tied the knot, however. When they arrived at the registrar’s office, it was closed. “The next day wouldn’t work,” wrote Hynde in her memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, “as Sid had to go to court for putting someone’s eye out with a glass.”

Hynde confirmed that she had gifted Ritchie his trademark padlock, which he often wore onstage and was wearing on a chain around his neck the day he died. 

Sid Vicious is born

John Lydon had a pet hamster named Sid (named after Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd). While he and John Ritchie were hanging out, the hamster bit Ritchie. He then said to Lydon, “Sid is really vicious!” Lydon dubbed Ritchie’s famous nickname after that. 

At the time, Ritchie and Lydon were living with two other Johns, and they dubbed themselves the “Four Johns.” No wonder a nickname was in order. 

Ritchie and Lydon met at a technical college in 1973 and became very close. Ritchie became a fan of rock acts like David Bowie and T. Rex and emulated their unique fashion. Lydon recalled Ritchie’s obsession with fashion in an interview. “It would be midwinter and bitter cold outside. He wouldn’t wear a jacket because he would buy this new shirt or something. He had to be seen in this shirt,” Lydon said. 

“Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten” weren’t exactly positive influences on each other. Not only did they play with fire when it came to hard drugs, but they had a strange habit of burning each other with cigarettes, according to PopMatters

Flowers of Romance and Siouxsie and the Banshees

According to PopMatters, Sid Vicious got his start playing in the band Flowers of Romance with a member of The Clash, Keith Levene. He also played drums for Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first gig at the 100 Club Punk Rock Festival in London. At one time he had his eye on becoming a frontman. 

Vicious held a grudge toward Dave Vanian, who he claims sabotaged his audition for lead singer of the band The Damned. He would attempt his first assault of many on Vanian, throwing glass at him while they were performing onstage. Unfortunately it missed Vanian and hit a girl in the audience instead, blinding her in one eye. He was arrested and sent to Ashford Remand Centre. 

Unfortunately, the remainder of the time Vicious spent getting in trouble and partying took away from his chance of developing into a good musician, which apparently he wasn’t. “Sid really didn’t have that much talent, and he spent a lot of time messed up,” according to The Vintage News

Sid Vicious' drug addiction

Sid Vicious’ experience with heroin started with his mother, who according to Johnny Rotten, gave him a bag of it for his 16th birthday. Horrified by the exchange, Rotten became concerned about Vicious, who assured him his mother “meant well” and “knew that heroin helped him relax” (via History Collection). 

Vicious’ drug addiction only grew worse over time, and he even mixed an injectable form of amphetamine with toilet water in an incident with Dee Ramone from the band The Ramones. The two entered a bathroom “completely covered in vomit,” and Vicious nonchalantly stuck his syringe into the toilet bowl and drew water from it, followed by injecting its contents. 

What’s quite possibly the most tragic fact about Vicious and his mother is that it’s been reported by multiple sources that Anne Beverley likely gave Vicious the heroin he overdosed and died from. Beverley admitted years after Vicious’ death that she administered the dose to her son. Was it by request or simply an accident? The world will never know. 

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

A Sex Pistol with hepatitis

According to Punk77, Johnny Rotten asked Sid Vicious to join the Sex Pistols when Glen Matlock left the band in 1977. Vicious was in the band, but he couldn’t play well and had no bass guitar experience. Guitar player Steve Jones would later admit to recording Vicious’ parts in the studio. In reality, Vicious only played on one track on the band’s signature album Never Mind the Bollocks because during recording he was hospitalized with hepatitis C, likely due to his intravenous drug usage. 

The band had managed to secure a number one single in the United Kingdom but were widely banned in the country due to controversial songs like “God Save the Queen.” As a result, the group headed to America. Vicious was only in the Sex Pistols for a year and change as the band split after their first and only United States tour in 1978. Vicious was known for getting mixed up in violent antics with fans, even once hitting someone over the head with his bass (via All That’s Interesting). 

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen

Nancy Spungen dropped out of college and moved to New York City at age 17, wheedling her way into the emerging punk scene as a groupie of sorts. According to punk journalist Legs McNeil, she “embodied the nastiest parts of the scene.” 

The former go-go dancer met Sid Vicious in London two years later, and they traipsed around the U.S. and U.K. together with the Sex Pistols, and after the band split she acted as Vicious’ “manager.”

Spungen was unapologetic about supplying the bands she hung around with drugs and for not being a cookie-cutter model type like most groupies. “In order to be a groupie you had to be tall and skinny and have fashionable clothes…. And then here comes Nancy,” photographer Eileen Polk, who knew Spungen, told New York magazine. “She had mousy brown hair and she was a bit overweight. She basically said ‘Yeah, I’m a prostitute and I don’t care.'”

While the couple were joined at the hip, most people were turned off by Spungen’s behavior. In a memoir written by Spungen’s mother, she admitted that her daughter had been a problem child who was in and out of mental hospitals and boarding schools before moving to New York. “Our morality meant zero to her. She would simply step over the line, draw a new one, and then step over that,” her mother wrote. Spungen likely suffered from more than one mental illness. 

Sid Vicious' solo path to destruction

According to the Guardian, the Sex Pistols broke up in 1978 after their show at Winterland in San Francisco, Calif. Sid Vicious had a brief solo career, which included recording lead vocals on a few cover songs for the soundtrack of film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, including “My Way.” 

“After some obnoxious faux-crooning, Sid tears through the song with punk aplomb,” writes Open Culture, calling his version of the Sinatra song “a sneering piss take.” 

Owned by Tommy Dean Mills, a newly revamped Max’s Kansas City reopened in 1975 and became the club that acted as a new age haven for the growing NYC punk movement, reported Rolling Stone. With Nancy Spungen by his side as his manager, he performed with musicians from The Clash, The Damned, and the New York Dolls, among others. His shows at Max’s Kansas City drew large crowds from loyal Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious fans, but apparently the performances were pretty disastrous. 

Vicious’ music career would soon come to an end, however, in 1978. 

Nancy Spungen's murder and Sid Vicious' attempted suicide

In October 1978, Sid Vicious woke up in a drug-induced haze at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where he found Nancy Spungen dead in the bathroom from a stab wound. Vicious was the obvious and immediate suspect. 

Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren expressed doubt that Vicious could have done such a thing and described the night of the incident to The Guardian. “Sid was the sucker. The stupid, clumsy fool that night at the Chelsea Hotel. He passed out on the bed, having taken fistfuls of Tuinal. All around him, drug dealers, friends of Nancy came and went from room 100.” In the documentary, Who Killed Nancy?, McLaren shares that he believes Spungen died in a fight with a party goer. “Money was stolen and Sid’s knife … was taken from the wall where it was hung and seemingly used by someone defending themselves in a struggle with Nancy. Nancy was no pushover … Probably, she caught this person stealing money from the bedroom drawer,” he said. 

According to The Independent, Vicious was seen wandering the hallways when he was arrested and charged with her murder. Though Vicious had initially confessed, he later denied it, claiming he had been asleep when it happened. 

Ten days after her death, Vicious attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, as reported by the Guardian.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Sid Vicious' assault charges on Todd Smith

Soon after Nancy Spungen’s death, Sid Vicious was arrested again for the assault of Todd Smith, singer Patti Smith’s brother and road manager, at a Skafish concert in a New York dance club. Unprovoked, Vicious “suddenly smashed a beer bottle right across Todd’s face,” and Todd didn’t fight back (via the Skafish band blog). Vicious was dragged out of the club after the attack. He was sent to Rikers Island metro jail for 55 days, where he was forced to detox.

Johnny Rotten revealed in an interview years later that Mick Jagger had paid for Vicious’ bail and legal fees from his murder charge. Jagger also provided Vicious with lawyers. Rotten expressed admiration for the Rolling Stones frontman, saying, “There was activity behind the scenes from Mick Jagger, so I applaud him. He never used it to advance himself publicity-wise,” as reported by Ultimate Classic Rock.  

Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, on the other hand, didn’t get involved in Vicious’ many legal and criminal battles, according to Rotten. 

Sid Vicious' overdose

Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose on Feb. 2, 1979, just a year after Nancy Spungen’s death in New York City. At the time of his death, he had been living with his current girlfriend, Michelle Robinson in their Greenwich Village apartment, as per the New York Daily News

His mother had stayed overnight in an adjoining room and is widely speculated to have given him his lethal dose of heroin. The postmortem medical examiner estimated that the heroin in Vicious’ system was 80% pure. He was still under indictment for murder when he died. He had ultimately attempted to plead insanity in his murder trial

Johnny Rotten later admitted that he felt responsible for his friend’s death, knowing he was a heroin addict and inviting him into the Sex Pistols.

Vicious’ mother would also die of a heroin overdose at the age of 58 in 1996. 

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Nancy' Spungen's family's grave refusal

After Sid Vicious died, his mother found a note in the pocket of his jacket that said he and Nancy Spungen had made a suicide pact. “We had a death pact, and I have to keep my half of the bargain. Please bury me next to my baby in my leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots. Goodbye,” the note read.

Vicious was cremated in New Jersey, but Spungen was buried in a Jewish cemetery, which made the logistics challenging. Vicious’ mother reached out to Spungen’s mother requesting to scatter Vicious’ ashes over Spungen’s grave, but she was denied. While a romantic story has circulated that Vicious’ mother defied Spungen’s mother’s wishes and scattered his cremated remains over Spungen’s grave anyway in Philadelphia, what’s more likely is a much more fitting and depressing tale. 

When Johnny Rotten was asked why Vicious doesn’t have a gravesite for fans to visit, he explained that Vicious’ mother wanted to bring his urn from New York back to England. According to Rotten, Anne Beverley smuggled a heroin stash in her son’s urn. But it gets worse. Once she landed at Heathrow airport in London, she apparently got nervous about going through security. So she stashed the heroin and her son’s remains down an air conditioning vent. And that’s how John Simon Ritchie, aka Sid Vicious, departed this earth. “To this day Sid is floating around somewhere in Heathrow,” Rotten said

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