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(Credit: Press / Far Out)

Music

Childish jokes amid serious issues: Jah Wobble remembers Sid Vicious

In a recent interview with Far Out, John Wardle, the artist more commonly recognised as Jah Wobble of Public Image Ltd, described Sid Vicious’ early days in London: “[In his childhood] he lived in the old Covent Garden, he went to school in Piccadilly Circus, and then him and his mum went off to Ibiza … she was on drugs,” he said after a pause. “And a lot of people on heroin apparently went to Ibiza at that time,” he added. After spending some time in Ibiza, they came back and he lived with his mother in Tonbridge Wells, and then Bristol for a while, before returning to London. Wardle continued: “So when he came back to London, he had this Bristolian accent and he fell in with some people that I’m friends with”. 

Shortly after moving back to London, Sid was kicked out of the house by his mother. As Wardle recalls: “She kicked Sid out, she’d had enough of him and said ‘sling your hook!’ He said ‘Where shall I go mum?’ She said ‘I don’t care, just sleep on a park bench for all I care!’ … well he actually ended up round my mate Terry’s [mother’s house] for a few days so he could sort himself out,” Wardle explained, before adding: “By the time I met him, he had a social worker, and he was homeless”. It was around this time that Vicious would spend time sleeping rough and hung around Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s clothing store, SEX. Of course, Sid Vicious always had a penchant for clothing as a means of standing out from the crowd.

In 1973 Vicious met John Lydon at Hackney Technical College and it wasn’t long before the ‘Four Johns’ gang was formed. The group consisted of John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), John Wardle, John Grey and Simon John Ritchie (Sid Vicious). After his homeless spell, Vicious moved into a squat with the Johns. At the time, Lydon had a pet hamster that he named Sid after the ex-Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett. After an incident involving Sid getting bitten by the hamster, his response was “Sid is really vicious!”. Finding it funny that his friend could be harmed by his pet that he would later describe as “the softest, furriest, weediest thing on earth”, he began to nickname Ritchie “Sid Vicious”.

Vicious was into his fashion and music; he and Lydon would often busk for money playing Alice Cooper covers with Sid bashing away on a tambourine – people would regularly pay them to stop playing. Vicious’ fashion sense was always particularly loud and seemed to foreshadow elements of what was to come with the dawn of punk when the Sex Pistols began. In the interview with Far Out, Wardle described a time in the early ‘70s when Sid and their friend Vince had attended a gig together: “There’s a picture knocking about of Vince and Sid at a Roxy Music concert, and I think Cosmo Magazine interviewed them and said – these two amazing looking young guys before punk! – ‘What do you do?’ And Sid said he was an art student and Vince said ‘I do nothing!’”. Indeed it would seem that the scruffy clothed aesthetic would follow the group on into the early days of punk and seemed to symbolise the anarchist movement the Sex Pistols would later spearhead as one of the most historically significant bands in history. 

As well as being good-humoured and mischievous, due to his “very dysfunctional childhood”, as Wardle put it, Sid had some very serious psychological damage and suffered from depression. When I asked Wardle for the funniest memory of his days as Sid’s friend, he explained that the anecdote he was about to tell was somewhat bittersweet. He replied: “Oh very simple this … right, this is terrible really because I did a Suicide Prevention Course just this week, so this is terrible now looking back. The funniest thing was just me and him. He was seeing a psychiatrist, this was around 1975-ish sort of time in the summer. In north London the bloke had a clinic, I think attached to his house, where he saw clients.” He continued, explaining that Sid had approached him following a session with the psychiatrist: “He said ‘my shrink wants to meet you’, I said ‘why’s that?’ and he said ‘I’ve been thinking of topping myself, and he thinks that if he meets you, because you’re my mate, and he thinks that you’re like me (…) he thinks that you can help talk me out of suicide.’ So we both saw the opportunity for a bit of fun”. 

Upon meeting with the psychiatrist, the shrink spoke to the pair of young rascals together in an effort to help Sid overcome his suicidal thoughts. Wardle continued: “The shrink said ‘John, I know you’re really good friends with John [Sid], and I know a bit about you, that you play football, you’re into movies, you’ve got a girlfriend and that you’re involved in life. So I’m really glad that Sid is hanging out with somebody who’s…” John suddenly cut out of the story and said: “I’ve just suddenly realised, for the first time ever … he obviously saw me, as the most normal person that Sid knew … not casting aspersions on any other people, including the other John’s. But this (regarding himself) is an exemplar of normality? (he chuckles)”.

Continuing the story, Wardle adds: “So he’s talking to me about Sid taking his own life which is crazy, and he asked: ‘could you be of some help to him?’”. Wardle said in response to the psychiatrist: “Well I don’t really know if it is worth Sid continuing to live from where I’m standing” and “Sid looked at the bloke and said ‘See, see, even my friends think I shouldn’t live’, and the poor bloke looked horrified and was really upset as you would be. So we just did this deadpan thing and then left, then we walked off down the road, [we were] laughing. But actually, chillingly now, when you look back … many a true word said in jest”.

It has been 43 years since Sid Vicious was found dead by his mother on the morning of February 2nd. Sid had just been released on bail after being charged with the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Sid allegedly awoke from a drugged stupor to find Nancy dead on the bathroom floor of their New York hotel room with a stab wound to her abdomen in October 1978. 

Sid’s death just three months later was caused by a combined drug overdose involving heroin and quaaludes at a party celebrating his bail. He had been released on bail into his mother’s custody. There are contrasting theories surrounding Sid’s death. According to his mother Anne, it was suicide and she claimed that before his cremation she had found a handwritten note in the pocket of Sid’s leather jacket that read: “We [Sid and Nancy] had a death pact, and I have to keep my half of the bargain. Please bury me next to my baby. Bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots. Goodbye.” Some people, however, question the validity of Anne’s sequence of events due to her famously strained relationship with her troubled son.