You were my little baby girl
And I shared all your fears.
Such joy to hold you in my arms
And kiss away your tears.
But now you’re gone there’s only pain.
And nothing I can do.
And I don’t want to live this life
If I can’t live for you.
To my beautiful baby girl.
Our love will never die.
—Sid Vicious, 1978
One of the sutures that holds together the romance of Sid and Nancy is the line “And I Don’t Want to Live This Life,” which is the title of Nancy’s mother, Deborah Spungen’s memoir about her daughter.
It is also, roughly, the name of a Ramones song about the couple, one of many tributes such artists as The Exploited, Crazy Town and Ministry have recorded about the doomed pair.
Alex Cox’s 1986 film makes no use of the line, as he would have Vicious and Spungen meeting, at the film’s end, in another dimension, and sailing off like a punk Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, in a magical car and living forever, as pretty vampires whose love is eternal.
The line is from a poem Sid Vicious sent Deborah Spungen after he murdered his girlfriend, the twenty-year-old Nancy Spungen, in their Chelsea Hotel room, on October 11, 1978 with a single stab wound to the belly.
Vicious wrote it while being held in Riker’s prison, awaiting bail.
It accompanied a long, tortured letter about how desperately he loved her, which made frequent reference to his inability to “survive” her being gone. The passive language of the sticky panegyric excludes any possibility of admission or culpability. Vicious writes as a child about his loss, as if utterly uncomprehending why his “poor baby,” his “beautiful baby,” is gone.
The cynosure of Spungen’s death is the image of her, widely available, slumped under the bathroom sink where she crawled to die, in a black bra and black panties, her blonde head drooping like a marigold; her pale body washed in blood.
This image appears on a number of fansites, one of which includes comments such as “In all honesty, I don’t think Sid did it,” a fairly conventional theory about the death of the woman hated with a terrible passion by virtually everyone she met (Malcolm McLaren refers to her as a “dreaded disease,” concocted by “Dr. Strangelove.”)
Vicious’s lovely little poem would seem to confirm his innocence, as it is a masterpiece of exclusion, or occlusion.
“Nancy” is best read as an octet (I believe that Deborah Spungen accidentally grafted the last two lines to the poem, where they were meant to be read as a formal dedication: syntactically, and rhythmically, they make no sense here.
Viewing the poem as such, we see this rhyme scheme: ABCBDED (how creepy is the last tercet.). And very cleverly it rhymes: the bluntness of the sentiment and language evoke the perfection and elegance the writer imagines in his subject and in love; while insinuating a certain sinister regard for these very qualities.
“Such joy to hold you in my arms” is a trite sentiment, yet the following verse, “And kiss away your tears” is tenderly macabre: one thinks of the arch-Romantics and their insistent fusion of beauty and cruelty, of love and death (“Love Kills” being, of course, the film Sid and Nancy’s slogan; the phrase attributed therein, to Spungen.)
As with all lyrical, Romantic poetry, the “I” of the poem transcends its subject and asserts its artistic, feeling domination: the “fears” and “tears” of the eponymous Nancy are not explained and relevant only to the speaker’s ability to diminish them in his arms and with his kisses.
In her absence, further, the speaker is bereft because of his own pain and because there is “nothing [he] can do.”
There is nothing he can do but die, as he states, far more eloquently, in the last two verses.
This shockingly adept little poem says everything it needs to, and confesses more, if slant.
Straight, is the fact that Vicious could not endure, and died himself, on February 2, 1979, of a heroin overdose.
Did he die of love? He was sleeping with his new girlfriend at the time of the overdose, and prior to meeting her (he moved fast), had broken the terms of his first bail by attacking Patti Smith’s brother Todd, after hitting on his girlfriend.
Is “Nancy” about Vicious’s love for Nancy Spungen, or about his own inability to live without their horrifying dynamic of pain and passion?
The poem suggests that the speaker is a father-figure (in the unfortunate manner of Plath’s “Daddy” however): a nurturer, whose love is predicated on soothing the anguish of the reduction that is Nancy the “baby girl.” Why does she cry so much? What is Vicious (AKA John Simon Ritchie AKA John Simon Beverly) telling us in these fugitive lines?
Deborah Spungen recalls seeing her daughter shortly before her death, and removing stitches from her ear. Her ear was ripped off, she claimed, by her antagonists, the same people who beat her black and blue, some months earlier.
The last time they spoke, Nancy admitted it was Sid who beat her, Sid Vicious, the owner of the knife that stabbed her, the fake-bottom in a heroin-addled relationship, who was always so sleepy, he seemed incapable of violence, in spite of his long history of sudden, violent attacks on any number of people including fans, including his (repeated) “baby girl.”
Stomach wounds are said to be the most painful of all injuries, and they lead the victim to seek out water, desperately, hence, Nancy beneath the sink.
Vicious never arose from his drugged stupour to give her a mouthful of water.
The year before they came to America, they visited Paris where Sid shoplifted her a set of fancy underwear.
This seems to be all he ever gave her, the underwear she was stabbed in, that looks, in the picture, like two censorious bands over her broken body.
“Nancy” is better than most criminals’ poems, better still because of its admissions (constructed by way of omission) and because of the promise it makes.
In “Nancy,” and after so many years, the object rises and asks the speaker to honour all of his fatuous claims.
And he did, in the arms of someone else, as his, as Sid and Nancy’s love died with its murderer.
QUESTIONS FOR LYNN CROSBIE
LH: Lynn, you’ve published–at last count–nine collections of poetry as well as several novels. You also write a wicked weekly column in the otherwise dry Globe & Mail. Your recent piece on Locklear depicts the double-bind of celebrity women and hints at the sublime problem of physical embodiment and love of rock and roll and the spotlight. An earlier piece on Paul Newman points out the difference between being a great actor and a great movie star. But this territory is also explored in your creative work. I’m wondering if you see a split at all, and whether you would describe yourself as a poet, writer, journalist, public figure, commentator, enfant terrible, all or none of the above? Something else entirely?
LC: I am so many years past being an enfant anything. And it is a term I don’t like for its reductive qualities and ability to evoke very old bilingual “Bad Boy” commercials. After working in so many genres for so long (I am a professor also, so there is the lecture, the lecture voice), I do feel it is that old Doris Lessing/The Golden Notebook business of having worked toward finding one voice. That said, writing, say, a fashion article about Botox and my crippling love affair with the same is different than writing a poem about, oh I don’t know, being crippled by Botox. I like to think there is now one voice with many regional accents.
LH: I wouldn’t describe you as a formal poet, but that would be a mistake on my part it seems. Recently I rediscovered some of your earlier work, pieces such as “Carrie Leigh’s Hugh Hefner Haikus” in which you knit a series of haiku together maintaining a deceptively simple narrative. Is form something you think about when you think of writing poetry? Is that ultimately the only difference?
LC: I don’t know how anyone writes poetry without submitting to at least one of its formal attributes. I think my work, all of it, most closely resembles the skeleton of the English sonnet, state, restate, stamp and twist. I think the envoi has had the most formal influence on me, other than the complex “I” of lyrical/confessional poems.
LH: Your work has consistently engaged in contemporary subjects, and most often subjects that are on the edge. Further you are able to imagine yourself in places few would want to imagine–the mind of Paul Bernardo or Karla Homolka for example. Is this an essential aspect of art for you? Is there a time or space in which you aren’t pushing yourself toward an edge?
LC: No, because sitting down and being, essentially, leashed to one’s chair, is so shockingly boring and unnatural, I need a variety of distractions to keep me here. There is also my sense of writing against the wave of what enervates and murders writing; that is, stasis and consensus.
LH: It’s telling I think that you chose a song lyric to read for your contribution here, and I love that you did. Where does such a category fit in to the world of Canadian poetry, or does it? And I guess I’m not just speaking formally here, but in terms of the lyric voice in the poem–the troubled brilliance, the punk God, the odd circumstances the pair find themselves in, again, difficult territory.
LC: It is not a lyric but an actual poem Vicious wrote. It fits in because I am a Canadian poet writing it, and the last time I checked, we are allowed to wander across the border if our documents are up to date. I was young once. I faintly remember how love kills; I strongly remember Sid and Nancy, as the criminals of my youth (as Bonnie and Clyde or Ian Brady and Myra Hindley may have been for others.)
LH: There is much discussion these days on the question of mentorship and writing, particularly for women. Have you had a mentor?
LC: No. I have no mentor, and if I have been one, I regret it. These relationships are always poisoned when the mentoree develops a mind of his or her own. My mentor is the world, as it reveals itself to me like a burlesque queen.
LH: What are you reading now? Do you have a particular attitude or habit of reading?
LC: I read every night for hours. I always have and am almost blind. One habit I have is to read things that can in no way unduly influence me when I am writing. Another is to pile stacks and sub-stacks by my bed, of books I pick through, and others I tear through. Right now I am reading a book about dogs, (rereading) the Ian Curtis biography and one about Marilyn Monroe who is on my mind. Also, way too many magazines, Derek McCormack’s new book, a not-so-good Rebecca Miller and have dragged out a dictionary of literary criticism and a plain dictionary, as words have begun to evacuate.
LH: What is the last book you read that blew you away?
LC: A book of photographs of Harlem funerals. A collection one of my students made of poems and pictures about wasps and maggots. An article in Radar about Eminem. Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. Chekhov’s short stories. A story in the tabloids about a violent woman arrested in a chicken suit.
LH: Wish list for a strand of Can Lit? An ideal world?
LC: A strand? In this ideal world, we imagine our country as an aesthetic map. And travel, and travel in our minds, are not reproached for not being 100% proof Giller. We sit on the empty chairs at PEN benefits and ask, What about us? We expect the unexpected and bear arms. We are less obsessed with injury than love. We are surprising.
Lynn Crosbie is a Ph.D in English Literature who is currently teaching at OCAD University in Toronto. She writes a weekly column about pop culture for the Globe and Mail and is working on a collection of tiny, evil stories.