By Larry Jaffee
A friend recently mentioned that one of his now-grown daughters was named “Sidney” after Sid Vicious. I immediately chimed in that I once was in an elevator with Sid while I was covering his murder trial on November 21, 1978 for a long-gone fanzine called Imagine. Out on bail, he was getting arraigned that morning at Manhattan Supreme Court.
It was just me, Sid and his lawyer in that courthouse elevator. Sid succumbed to his heroin addiction on February 2, 1979. Earlier that day, he was released from prison.
The morning of the arraignment was a complete media circus. All the tabloids, paparazzi, radio and TV correspondents were there in force to report on the British punk rocker, formerly of the notorious band the Sex Pistols, who allegedly killed his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen.
Before the hearing began, a bunch of reporters realized that Sid’s mother, Anne Beverley, was in the hallway waiting to enter the courtroom like everyone else. She darts into the ladies room. I distinctly remember one female reporter following Beverley into the restroom, probably thinking “I can get an exclusive; you boys are stuck out here. Hah!”
Once the court session began, the prosecution made its case against Vicious, who pleaded not guilty. (As you can read below, the original had a straight news angle. Apparently I hadn’t thought to write it in a feature style.)
After about 90 minutes, the judge adjourned for lunch. After gobbling down a hotdog on the street, I hustled back up the stairs of the courthouse.
I just missed a packed elevator; everyone else made it in. Another one just showed up, and I was the only person waiting for it, and hear someone yell, “Hold that elevator!” And in walks a guy in a business suit, who I recognize to be James Merberg, the defendant’s attorney, and none other than Sid himself. The doors close.
Sid appeared to be going through withdrawal symptoms, although I previously hadn’t been around any recovering heroin addicts. He was perspiring heavily, and had quite a lot of acne on his face. He was a few inches taller, and less than a year older than me. His lawyer notices Sid’s punk-style necklace, which might have been made out of razorblades, shakes his head (perhaps thinking, how did I did not see that earlier; not going to make a good impression on the judge), and tucks it under his client’s button-down shirt.
With being the only reporter present (even though I was still in college), I figure I can’t let this opportunity go. I think [wisely] against enquiring, “Did you do it, Sid?”
Instead I blurt out, “Sid, have you heard the new Clash album? (Give ’Em Enough Rope recently had been released.) Before he could respond, Sid’s lawyer tells him not to answer. I’m thinking, “Oh man!”
The doors open, and fairly sedate compared to the morning. The afternoon court session was mostly a procedural non-affair (I think I did a pretty good reporting job), and contained none of the color of the morning. A court date was set for a pre-trial hearing on December 12, which as far as I know didn’t take place because Vicious was already imprisoned at Rikers by early December for cutting up Patti Smith’s brother Todd with a broken glass at the club Hurrah’s.
In retrospect, I am impressed by some of my courtroom reporting and original interviews, such as the cop who arrested Vicious, the Chelsea Hotel manager, and Nancy Spungen’s high school classmate, who I knew from Hofstra University. But I am a little embarrassed by my attempt at a sociological summation in the final paragraph.
(The text of the following article appeared in the January/February 1979 issue of Imagine, a music fanzine published by Gorman Bechard, who later became a novelist and filmmaker, whose movies include the well-received 2011 documentary about the Minneapolis garage band The Replacements called Color Me Obsessed. More information at www.gormanbechard.com.)
(apparently Gordon didn’t believe in headlines)
“And now the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
You can’t say I’m not too clear
I’ll state my case to which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
To each and every highway
And that more than this
I did it my way”
– Sid Vicious, summer of 1978
by Larry Jaffee
Sid Vicious, bass player for the now-defunct, notorious punk rock band, the Sex Pistols, pleaded not guilty on November 21; at his arraignment to the charge of second-degree murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
Miss Spungen was found dead in the couple’s Chelsea Hotel room in lower Manhattan on October 12. Police said the 21-year-old Vicious called them at about 11 a.m. to say he found his girlfriend dead.
Spungen was found in a pool of blood wearing black lace panties and a bra, propped against a bathroom wall, with knife wounds in her stomach.
World-renowned attorney, F. Lee Bailey, has been commissioned to handle the defense for Vicious, whose real name is John Simon Ritchie. However, Bailey’s associate and senior member of his staff, James M. Merberg, appeared with Ritchie in court at his indictment and arraignment. According to Merberg, he “will continue to handle the case and Mr. Bailey will not be called in for the trial.”
“Our defense cannot be disclosed but I can say that it is a point away from Mr. Ritchie,” Merberg added. The possibility of a third party involved in the murder is being looked into by Bailey’s private investigator, Andy Tuney, who as a Massachusetts state police detective helped crack the Boston Strangler murder case in the early sixties.
A week after he was arrested Vicious tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrist. He was quoted as having said, “I want to join Nancy and keep up my end of the pact.” He spent time in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital, following his suicide attempt, and was released in the custody of his mother, Mrs. Ann Beverley, on November 6,
according to Mr. Walsh, public relations director of Bellevue (didn’t think at the time to get his first name apparently).
Vicious was released on $50,000 bail, posted by his record company, Virgin Records, and is supposedly working on a new record to help pay for his medical and legal bills. At the time, he was living in a Manhattan hotel with his mother.
Sgt. Thomas Kilroy, of the Third Homicide Zone, who made the arrest, was quoted as having said, “After an investigation, Vicious admitted killing Miss Spungen during a dispute.”
However, when this reporter recently spoke with Sgt. Kilroy, he denied ever
The murder of Nancy Spungen is shrouded with mystery, The couple was known
for their infatuation with knives. Both were admitted heroin addicts, According
to Kilroy, Vicious was “high” when he was arrested.
The blonde Miss Spungen, of Huntington Valley, Penn., reportedly met Vicious while the Sex Pistols were touring the United States and she was working as a dancer. She was a girl with a history of personal problems, and attended Devereaux, a school in Philadelphia for students with emotional problems and high intelligence. A classmate of hers who was in a punk rock band and a student at my college told me, “Nancy was the most hateful person I’ve ever met.”
Vicious and Spungen were inseparable since they first met. At the time of her death, she was considered his manager. Prior to her death, Spungen had booked him to play a solo concert in Philadelphia, but it was cancelled due to the prevailing circumstances.
At his arraignment on November 21 at the Manhattan Supreme Court, Vicious, accompanied by his mother and Merberg, met a barrage of television crews, reporters and photographers and a few token punks when entering the courtroom.
Vicious appeared tense and troubled with signs of mental depression. He hardly looked his 21 years oldand even revealed a slight case of acne on his face. Dressed in a grey trenchcoat, worn blue jeans, black loafers, a ragged chain necklace, and a hospital band around his wrist, “the inept” Vicious, as the prosecutor put it, for the most part remained silent, and only occasionally spoke to his mother, while waiting for his case to be called.
The prosecuting attorney, Sullivan, stressed that Vicious was a drug addict and “had no value to the community,” during his opening remarks. “Mr. Ritchie has a record of misdemeanors back in England, including an assault on a police officer, which consequently led to his ‘Vicious’ nickname,” said Sullivan.
Merberg’s defense revolved around the fact the Vicious had been on a methadone program at the Lafayette Street Clinic regularly and is showing signs of improvement. “His dose has decreased from 90mm to 45mm since he began the program,” said Mr. Merberg.
Vicious pleaded not guilty in an unintelligible voice before Acting Justice Betty Ellerin. She continued bail at $50,000 and set three conditions for Vicious to adhere to: “(1) Continue to report daily to the methadone clinic before 2 p.m., (2) report daily to the Third Homicide Zone officers before 1 p.m., and (3) do not leave the confinements of the New York City limits.” Justice Ellerin set December 12 to begin pre-trial motions.
The landmark Chelsea Hotel in lower Manhattan has been for years a haven for artists, writers, and musicians. Stanley Bard, hotel manager, described Vicious and Spungen as “both nice and polite people. When they came back at 3 a.m., it might have been a different story when they were under the influence of something. But they were never seen much.”
According to Bard, the Chelsea Hotel has not turned into a tourist attraction and punk hangout since the murder.
The Sex Pistols were the epitome of the punk rock movement. They played arrogant and crude music and maintained the image to go with it. The band broke up in the midst of their first American tour, possibly due to all the media hype that followed them wherever they went. Vicious replaced Glen Matlock in February 1977. He was quoted in MELODY MAKER as saying “I don’t understand why people think it’s so difficult to, learn to play guitar. I found it incredibly easy. You just pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music.”
Vicious made news the same day that lead singer Johnny Rotten announced he was leaving the group, when he collapsed on a plane from Los Angeles, apparently a victim of alcohol and pills. He had a hit single in England this summer with a mock version of the Frank Sinatra standard, “My Way.”
Prior to Spungen’s death, Vicious was working on a film about the Sex Pistols with their former manager, Malcolm McLaren. The films will be called THE GREAT ROCK AND ROLL SWINDLE , and according to McLaren, it will show why Vicious was as outrageous as he seemed when he performed with the Pistols.
The Sid Vicious case is unfortunate and pathetic, but so was the media hype that prompted and exploited the punk phenomenon. Vicious was confronted with the hypocritical problem of becoming successful, which went against all of the real British street-kid’s values. As evidenced by Vicious, punk rock has indeed taken its toll.