Nancy Spungen’s brief yet eventful life rose to spectacular publicity through her three-year participation in the punk scene in New York and London, her relationship with Sid Vicious, the bassist of the Sex Pistols and her murder in the Chelsea Hotel room they shared on the night of October 12, 1978.
Spungen was born in Philadelphia. She encountered significant complications at birth and, as a child was prescribed pharmaceuticals from an extremely early age to control behavioral outbursts and physical and mental discomfort. She both succeeded and failed in educational environments. While she was skipped forward in public school due to her exceptional intellect, she was expelled at 11 years old for behavioral transgressions. This pattern of success and expulsion continued in her later years in private school and then at the University of Colorado, Boulder where she was accepted at 16 years old and then expelled shortly after for selling drugs to an undercover agent and for stashing some stolen skis in her dorm room.
At age 17, Spungen returned to the east coast, moving to New York to follow her interest in punk music and punk bands. She wrote several reviews of punk bands for a downtown newspaper but was unable to turn that into a sustainable job. Spungen made money as a dancer in various clubs.
Spungen’s participation in the punk scene has been described in great detail by various friends and enemies and she is most often derided and maligned in these reports. Though the punk scene itself was predicated on countering the conservative social, political and behavioral norms of so-called mainstream society, Spungen also encountered fierce sexism and patriarchal hierarchies that persisted from mainstream society into the punk scene. While tons of men in punk were using and/or selling drugs, having sex with multiple people and wearing clothes or clothing items that offended normative values (including Vicious himself who often wore t-shirts or patches with Nazi or anti-semitic language and iconography) Spungen’s drug habit, sexual practices, clothing and behavior were constantly brought up, lambasted, used against her by others in the scene and even paraded as an excuse for wanting to hurt, injure or kill her.
Her refusal to conform to accepted ways of looking, being and acting, it seems to me, as damaging as it was to her personal survival, remains important because it holds open a space and place for other non-conforming explosions to follow. She carved a path of resistance that begs critical questions. Why, even though we celebrate certain forms of acting out, are there so few places and spaces for a woman who acts out as thoroughly as Spungen did? Is there really nowhere for such a woman to thrive?