Sometime on October 12, 1978, a yell echoed out through the halls of the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York. Anonymous and disembodied, it failed to attract anyone’s attention, but ultimately the hotel’s guests would find out it came from Nancy Spungen, girlfriend to Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. From there, all hell broke loose.
Even today, Nancy Spungen’s murder stands as one of the most contested deaths in popular music: Did Sid do it? Wasn’t there a drug dealer stopping by? And what about that shady Rockets Redglare character? The speculation, even 30-plus years later, doesn’t seem to have an end.
Luckily, Sherrill Tippins' new book, Inside the Dream Palace, about the storied history of the Chelsea, aims to close the door on that particular mystery with a look at Spungen’s murder. Out this week via Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Tippins' book examines several angles in Spungen's death, placing it squarely in the midst of New York's most important pop culture events of the 20th century. And we as Philadelphians ought to take note—after all, Spungen was one of us.
Born to Frank and Deborah Spungen in 1958, Nancy came into the world at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Following a difficult birth that almost resulted in the young Spungen’s death, her parents took her home to Lower Moreland Township in Montgomery County, where her mother owned an organic food market and her father worked as a traveling salesman.
The ever-present “chip on the shoulder” Philly is associated with is immediately apparent in Nancy, growing up a troubled kid that threw fits constantly from the start. It was if she was out to get revenge on a world that hadn’t even done anything to her yet, eventually leading to the prescription of a liquid barbituate that ultimately changed nothing.
So, her parents shipped her out to Connecticut’s Devereux School at age 11 after she was expelled from public schooling. Eventually, Spungen graduated from Devereux early, only to be diagnosed with schizophrenia at 15. Two years after that, she moved to New York and then London, where she started up her relationship with Sid Vicious.
The two quickly became addicted to a slew of drugs, eventually landing them in room 100 at the Chelsea after the Pistols broke up in 1978. The rest, as they say, is history. At the time of her death, she was 20.
Traditionally, Pistols fans view Spungen as the Yoko Ono of punk rock, thanks to the constant bad press she received during her time with Vicious. But, if we’re to take Vicious' connection with her seriously—and, by all accounts, we should—her effect on what ultimately become known as undiluted punk rock should not be understated.
Think of it like this: Sid was enamored with Nancy since the day they met, forging a romance—however tragic and ugly—for the history books. She was, by Vicious’ own admission, his reason for living. So, in that sense, without Nancy, there is no Sid—only John Simon Ritchie, a geeky South East London kid.
And, as the history goes, without Sid, there can be no Sex Pistols, no matter what John Lydon (who, you might note, is still humping accomplishments he made 30 years ago) says. Without the Pistols, there’s no one to antagonize the Ramones, and without that, there’s no punk rock.
Ergo, without Philadelphia, punk rock doesn’t exist. Nancy, for all intents and purposes, wouldn’t be Nancy without us. She’s now buried in the area, a headstone in a Montco Jewish cemetery bearing her Hebrew name. But, then, you wouldn’t expect to get Nancy without Sid, would you?
Following his death in 1979, Vicious’ mother, Anne Ritchie, requested that her son be buried next to Spungen in Montgomery County. The Spungens of course refused, leaving Anne to come up with a new plan to put her son to rest. But, as we’re talking about Sid Vicious’ mom, it should be obvious she didn’t take the Spungens’ advice to stay away.
Instead, she booked a flight to Philly, traveled to Nancy’s grave, and scattered Sid’s ashes over the love of her son’s life’s grave. Ever since then, Philadelphians have been breathing in small amounts of the most anarchic musician ever to live.
And that, of course, is about as punk rock as a city can get.