Sid Vicious is one of the most notorious characters in the whole of rock history. A confounding figure that is in some parts tragically flawed, misunderstood, and the product of a broken background, and in others, a violent lunatic who shouldn’t have been given the platform he earned when he joined the Sex Pistols. Since his death on February 1st, 1979, Vicious’ story has passed into legend due to films such as 1986’s Sid and Nancy and the 2009 documentary Who Killed Nancy?
Infamously, his girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found dead in their New York hotel room due to a stab wound to the abdomen after Vicious woke from a drug-induced daze on October 12th, 1978. Thought to have bled to death, Vicious was the prime suspect and was quickly arrested and charged with Spungen’s murder.
He gave conflicting accounts of what had happened, saying that the couple had fought the night of her death and initially said, “I stabbed her, but I never meant to kill her”, before changing his statement claiming he didn’t remember what had happened. At one point, he even claimed that Spungen had fallen onto the knife that killed her.
Only ten days after her death, Vicious tried to kill himself twice. Despite that, he managed to get put on bail for Spungen’s death, and on the night of December 9th, he found himself watching lauded glam-punk band Skafish playing a show at the New York club, Hurrah.
What went down is one of the most contemptible points in his storied life. Patti Smith’s brother, Todd, was working for the band that night, watching the stage in case any equipment malfunctioned and was there in case anything else went wrong with the show. At the time, he was Patti Smith’s road manager and was working the show as a favour to the band as Patti was not out on tour at the time.
According to the band’s frontman, Jim Skafish, who gave his detailed account of events through his blog, Vicious stood right at the front of the crowd and stared the band out. During their set, he started making gestures, the type of which have been unspecified, at the band’s guitarist Karen Winner. Later on in the set, he noticed the band’s drum tech Tara, and started getting weird, and made what was apparently a flirtatious gesture by repeatedly pinching her.
It turns out that Todd was dating Tara at the time. He approached Vicious, and, by all accounts, cooly asked him to wait to flirt with her until after the show, as the pair of them were currently on duty doing their jobs watching the stage for the band. Per any who have made an account of the night, Todd was as cool as ice and not territorial in any way.
Then Vicious was, well, vicious. He smashed a beer bottle across Todd’s face. Given that it was at the height of punk, the band carried on playing, and according to Skafish, this was ironic as they were playing their “rather sedate” track ‘She Lives For Love’. The unprovoked assault meant Todd had to be rushed to hospital and receive multiple stitches.
This account of how Vicious attacked Todd has also been corroborated by legendary Punk magazine journalist Legs McNeil, who asked Todd about the incident at the funeral for Patti’s late husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5 in 1994. In an extensive retrospective for VICE he explained all. After asking Todd about it, he said: “Todd laughed and immediately started telling me about that night when Sid said something to his girlfriend, and he said something back to Sid, and then Sid clocked him with a beer bottle”.
Then what happened is brilliant. Skafish’s road manager, Jimy Sohns, the former frontman of legendary Chicago rockers, The Shadows of Knight, jumped from behind the mixing desk – as he was also on sound tech duties that night – and punched Vicious in the face. He “strong-armed” the Sex Pistols bassist and flew him down the flight of stairs that led up to the venue. Skafish recalled: “Amidst the unpredictable insanity, we completed our performance that night, as usual”.
Vicious was charged with assault and arrested. He was sent to the horrific Rikers Island jail for 55 days and underwent an enforced programme of detoxification from heroin. He was finally released on bail on February 1st, 1979, and the day later, he’d be found dead.
Interestingly, his bail was originally set for $50,000, which was the equivalent to $178,000 in today’s money, but it was lowered after protracted court hearings and legal negotiations. Malcolm McLaren, the manager of Sex Pistols, managed to raise the money, and then the bond was paid for by Virgin Records. Pistols frontman, John Lydon, has even claimed that Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones paid for Vicious’ lawyer, and in a 2013 interview with The Daily Record, honoured him for never seeking praise for his altruism.
This is just another story that sheds light on the real Sid Vicious. Seemingly doomed from birth, he was never far away from trouble. It would have been eye-opening to have heard his account, but life did its thing and left many questions from his life unanswered, particularly that of the circumstances surrounding Spungen’s death. As more information has come to light over the years, it’s become increasingly hard not to label Vicious as simply a thug.
Watch Sid Vicious’ last interview below.