Sid Vicious: Punk Music Icon

Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious was 21 when he died 2 February 1979. By most accounts he wasn't much of a musician, and his drug problems overshadowed any chance that he would become one.

He was a hothead who quickly resorted to violence –– whether pulling a motorcycle chain on a journalist or punching club-goers. He was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, although he died of a heroin overdose before he could be tried.

Vicious was unreliable, rude and quite possibly mentally disturbed. Yet 35 years after his death, he remains an icon of punk music, that rough-edged genre that openly scorned mainstream fare and featured short songs with anti-establishment lyrics. Why?

While his bass playing was lackluster, Vicious knew how to hold the instrument while shirtless and scowling. Those who knew him say he had stage presence, onstage and off.

"If (Johnny) Rotten is the voice of punk, then Vicious is the attitude," Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren once said.

Vicious, born John Simon Ritchie, "has been turned into punk's ultimate nihilistic icon," said The Guardian newspaper in 2009. Jon Savage, author of the punk history England's Dreaming, noted the many ways that Vicious "has percolated through the culture: There are Sid dolls, thousands of photos on the Internet, appearances in The Simpsons and Gavin Turk's sculpture Pop."

"Sid has become a romantic hero. Like James Dean, nobody really cares what he was like, because he took such a good picture and, according to the script, flamed out so spectacularly."

Vicious himself knew he was not long for this world. "I'll probably die by the time I reach 25. But I'll have lived the way I wanted to," he said in a 1977 interview with The Daily Mirror.

Instead of seeing that as the warning of a young person in trouble, the world seemed to embrace Vicious's nihilism. Fans cheered when he carved "GIMME A FIX" on his chest onstage. He famously wore a shirt emblazoned with a swastika. He reportedly killed a cat by hanging it, singing about it in his best-known recording, a cover of Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

"Now that punk has become mythic, so Sid has become its archetype: the heedless young man who went all the way, who told the world a brutal truth," Savage wrote in The Guardian. "The reality was far grimmer. The most frightening thing about Sid … is that he knew that he was killing himself, but that he had no power to avoid the inevitable."

Writing on WhatCulture.com last year, writer Matt Aspin listed five reasons for Vicious's enduring legacy. One was "the pogo," a dance move credited to Vicious that involves jumping up and down with your arms straight by your sides. Another was his relationship with Nancy Spungen, immortalized in books and on film, most notably in the 1986 motion picture Sid and Nancy. There also was the image. As Aspin wrote, "Sid Vicious was the trendsetter and the member of the band that everyone wanted to be like."

Musically, too, Vicious has a legacy. In his cover of "My Way," as Aspin noted, "Every line and every word not only sums up the punk ethos; it's as if the song was written for Sid himself."

The Sex Pistols only put out one studio album, but their "extremely shambolic" musical style continues to inspire, he wrote.

"Many modern era hardcore bands have taken this 'style' as their inspiration and will often play in a similar thrashy manner with minimal emphasis on musical harmony. Many of these bands list Sid's almost nonexistent style as the primary reason they formed a band in the first place. Not bad when the most he ever did with a guitar was smash someone in the face with it."

The Courier Mail of Australia noted that Vicious and the Sex Pistols are part of a "broader cultural legacy that arrives perhaps just once in a century."

"He and his contemporaries at least reminded us that music and creativity, like beauty and even ugliness, remain in the eye of the beholder," the newspaper noted. "Imagination and self-expression will always be what individuals make it." In a 2009 interview on BBC Radio 6 Music, Joy Division bassist Peter Hook said Vicious inspired him to pick up the bass. Vicious, he said, summed up punk: anarchy, wild behavior and early death.

And then there was Nancy. While a handwritten note by Vicious gave 12 reasons Nancy was great, the 21-month romance between the two was drug-riddled and dysfunctional. It ended in October 1978 when Nancy was found stabbed in the room the couple shared at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Vicious famously told police, "I did it because I'm a dirty dog."

As the BBC reported at the time, "The police, it seemed, had their man. … Vicious was, after all, the repellent face of punk rock in all its snarling ugliness. His band, the Sex Pistols, had shocked Britain with their foulmouthed rants on TV and their anti-monarchy hit, 'God Save The Queen.' He had killed his lover, it seemed, in the ultimate act of rock debauchery while out of his mind on drugs."

Vicious was arrested in December and remained in jail until February 1979. Although he had reportedly been on a detox program behind bars, the party to celebrate his release featured heroin provided by his mother. She later told the BBC, "He knew the smack was pure and strong and took a lot less than usual."

Still, Vicious was found dead the next morning. A spokesman for Virgin Records told the BBC, "In retrospect he was obviously far safer in jail where the temptations that ultimately killed him were not present."

It was an inglorious end to a short life. Speaking to BBC-6, music journalist Don Letts, who saw the Sex Pistols perform live, said it amused him to see people still wearing shirts with Sid's image.

"It makes me laugh because although he did become the poster boy for the punk generation, the reality was that Sid was a loser, and he was a victim and not really something to admire. Funny thing, time, isn't it?"

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."