From the vault-- Buffyverse
Posted on 21 April, 2019 by Administrator
Marti Noxon, A Buffy Bestiary (season 2 featurette).
Poem written by Sid Vicious after the death of Nancy Spungen.
NYPD Detective Gerald Thomas, on Sid Vicious’s confession to Nancy Spungen’s murder.
The BtVS characters of Spike and Drusilla were initially intended as vampiric versions of the real-life punk-rock figures Sid Vicious, known primarily as the Sex Pistols bassist (although he appeared on few tracks, since he had little prior training with the instrument) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, a former stripper and prostitute who had met him in the punk scene and whom he had named his manager. Both Vicious (born John Ritchie, although he sometimes went by John Beverley, after his stepfather) and Spungen had long histories of emotional and family problems: Vicious’s mother, who eventually followed him in dying of a heroin overdose, threw him out of their house when he was 16 (more on that subject later), and Spungen’s mother wrote a memoir entitled And I Don’t Want to Live This Life (after Vicious’s poem) detailing Nancy’s problems, including a violent assault at 11 and a schizophrenia diagnosis in adolescence. They were inveterate addicts, and both engaged in public outbursts of violence. When police found Spungen dead of an abdominal stab wound in their shared hotel room at the famous Chelsea Hotel, they, and much of the public, regarded it as an inevitable and cautionary consequence of the couple’s irregular lifestyle. Not only did it seem simple– Vicious must have stabbed her in a drug-addled rage, a crime to which he apparently confessed under questioning–, it carried a narrative piquancy, especially after Vicious himself died of a heroin overdose while awaiting trial. The lovers who had lived too hard and too fast and ultimately killed one another with their twisted love became the tragic face of punk rock for decades.
The truth, however, was more complex. For example, Vicious was on drugs at the time of his confession, made it only after leading and bullying questions, and later retracted it. The police made no effort to investigate any of the other six people whose fingerprints appeared in the apartment, even though the couple’s money was missing and, according to witnesses, “a drug addict called Michael, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, visited the couple and was later seen with a wad of cash tied with Spungen’s purple hair tie.” The prosecutor was blatantly prejudiced against Vicious, describing him as “the inept Vicious” and having “no value to the community.” While Vicious’s prior criminal activities (mainly drug offenses and bar fights) were extensive and real, they do not prove that he committed the specific crime of murdering his girlfriend. Some of the best-known “facts” of their lives become questionable on closer examination, while some of the odder stories turn out to be true, and seem to have informed BtVS’s story as much as the popular legend.
Note: I have linked to several sources on the case. Some of the many links will be used multiple times; however, due to the unwieldy nature of this post, I have not always hyperlinked their later uses. Where there are conflicting accounts of Vicious and Spungen’s lives, I have attempted either to note the discrepancies or to discard such details as unreliable.
First, I should add my disclaimer WRT the most notorious and obvious claim, that Vicious murdered Spungen. I have no firm opinion on his guilt or innocence, only on the fact that the investigation, due to bias, failed to prove either. Perhaps a thorough, impartial study, undertaken when the evidence was fresh, would have exonerated Vicious; perhaps it would have damned him; and perhaps it would have left the matter unresolved. Since no such investigation occurred, we’ll likely never know. I categorize his culpability as part of the legend, rather than as either myth or fact.
Nonetheless, I consider it relevant. A possible reference to it occurs in the season 5 episode “Crush,” when Spike, infuriated by Drusilla’s faithlessness and now in love with Buffy, captures Drusilla and offers to stab her with a wooden stake. Drusilla laughs maniacally and claims that “the pixies in my head” warned her of Spike’s changing loyalties, one of many echoes of Spungen’s real mental illness. As it happens on the show, Drusilla escapes and leaves Sunnydale, both she and Spike survive, and Spike goes on to have an even more complicated relationship with Buffy.
As for incidents aside from the murder, their probability is often debatable as well. Personal conflicts, promotional interests, the gullibility of the press, and, especially, the ubiquity of narcotics use in the late-1970s punk scene make disentangling fact from fiction a challenge. If anything, I would say that Spike and Drusilla resemble what Sid and Nancy wished they were. In reality, despite their outrageous antics, Vicious and Spungen spent most of their time absorbed in drug-centered domesticity at the Chelsea, usually high and estranged from Sid’s former bandmates, although both did maintain odd connections with their mothers and with each other.
In season 2, Spike and Drusilla’s relationship mirrors Vicious and Spungen’s in a fairly straightforward manner. Both characters are emotionally unstable, with Drusilla suffering from psychosis as well, yet they are deeply attached to one another. Spike, in particular, fawns over Drusilla in between his bouts of rage, and attempts to comfort her when she falls victim to unpleasant delusions. When Drusilla asks him to kill Buffy for her, he responds, without hesitation, “I’ll chop her into messes.” Although this event could be tailor-made for the show, it may also have been inspired by a real-life incident of violence. Dead Squirrels member Victor Colicchio once recounted:
“Knight in rusty armor” is a good way to describe Spike’s relationship to Drusilla as well. As the show progresses, it becomes clear that he was an improbable–perhaps, except as a factor of her madness and/or Sight, inexplicable– choice for transformation: A bad poet, a hopeless romantic, and a mama’s boy, with no special skills. Even the name “Spike,” which the Watchers attribute to his habit of “torturing his victims with railroad spikes,” is hinted to really derive from jokes about his terrible poetry.
This is another possible take on a Sid-and-Nancy story. During opening remarks in the murder case, the prosecutor stated that Vicious had previously committed “assault on a British police officer, which led to his ‘Vicious’ nickname.” As it turns out, he probably received the nickname as a joke, referencing then-friend and future bandmate John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten)’s hamster, “Sid.” His associates found the addition “Vicious” comical because, despite his self-destructive nature (he had already discussed suicidal urges with a therapist), they still considered him, as Slits guitarist Viv Albertine says, “kind of sweet really.” At this point, he may have posed a danger to himself, but was essentially harmless to others.
That didn’t last: In another interview, Albertine noted that:
For a physically unaggressive guy, that sounds a lot like physical aggression; however, the discrepancy does remind one of Spike’s paradoxical nature.
Vicious was also considered an improbable star by many of those who knew him, better at striking poses than actually playing instruments. Whether he possessed any serious musical gifts, or the other Sex Pistols just carried him along due to his ability to craft a compelling stage persona, remains a matter of considerable debate. He certainly didn’t have any great talents as a public speaker. In a TV interview taped less than a month before her death, Vicious appeared sophomoric at best, incoherent and useless at worst, belching and picking his nose on-camera, while she defended the punk scene, discussing newspaper polls and calling Vicious “about as original as you can get.” Of course, she also fell into railing at the callers. To a woman who declared, “I think Sid is hot,” she replied, “Well, you better keep your fucking hands off him, dearie, or I’ll kill you.”
The nature of Spungen’s mental issues is another unresolved question. I’ve seen varying claims on when she received her diagnosis of schizophrenia, perhaps due to a lag time between the actual diagnosis and her mother’s learning of it, but her mother’s claim that it existed seems clear enough. Whether or not it was “classic” schizophrenia is a different question. She was born with severely lowered oxygen levels, something modern psychiatrists now associate with mood disorders and behavioral problems; and she suffered from obvious issues even as a young child, well before the typical age of schizophrenia onset. In her mother’s words, “A seven-year-old ran our household. […] Because there was absolutely no peace in our house until she got what she wanted.” She spent time in a mental hospital and a school for troubled adolescents before running away for good at age 17. The perceptions of those who knew her differed wildly. Lydon called her “screwed out of her tree, vile, worn, and shagged out,” but Punk magazine staffer Legs McNeil stated: “I liked Nancy. She could be very, very nice.”
In fact, one of the things that Lydon objected to most seems not to have bothered Vicious. While Lydon mocked her for being “shagged out,” Vicious wrote a love letter– which rivals any of Spike’s compositions in its ineptitude– in which he complimented her for being “[a] great [h]ustler.” Perhaps he, like photographer Eileen Polk, found her honesty refreshing:
It’s possible to see some of this in Spike’s attitude toward Drusilla: “She may not have had a bleeding idea what was in front of her, but at least she was honest about it. That was virtue!” (”Entropy.”)
To me, the most surprising aspect of their stories is their relationships, separate and together, with their mothers. (In a possible coincidence, the commentary for “Lies My Parents Told Me” gives Anne as the name used for William/Spike’s mother in the shooting script; Vicious’s mother was named Anne Beverly.) Although Vicious’s mother threw him out at 16, they also frankly discussed his sex life, and she sometimes provided him with drugs. (Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols’ manager, claimed she transported them in her vagina; however, his fondness for lurid press makes this somewhat questionable.) His friend Pamela Rooke believed their odd relationship was a factor in his affair with Spungen: “Sid didn’t have any normal, ordinary relationships, and I think the sex part overtook him. I always saw him being the child to Nancy as mum. She was one of those doting people, and he had never had that in his life.” (Emphasis added.) Spungen’s mother, Deborah Spungen, never decided whether or not Vicious was the culprit in Nancy’s murder, yet conversed with him several times after her death, and, according to Deborah, “[H]e never said anything about it happening at all.” That they had such conversations is doubly surprising given that Deborah also said Nancy accused him of beating her a few days before she died. Would the audience have “bought” similar details if Whedon had invented them? Probably not.
I’m not sure what the takeaway from this mix of urban legends and bizarre facts is, or even if there is any, other than that the truth can be the most surprising part of a case. It certainly inspired a brilliant onscreen relationship. The reality was just as tragic, but perhaps more incomprehensible, and far more sordid. Tragedy is prettier on fictional vampires than on real humans; it is not necessarily any simpler or less shocking. And, sometimes, maybe, people have reasons to choose it for themselves in real life.