Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ghosts of the past, circa 1978

Well, this is interesting:

The October 1978 slaying of Nancy Spungen, the Huntingdon Valley-raised punk-scenester, is the topic of an upcoming documentary. "Who Killed Nancy?" by Alan G. Parker, due out early next year, explores the possibility that Spungen was killed by someone other than boyfriend Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, who was charged in her death but was never tried, because he OD'd on heroin only months later.

Nancy Spungen's murder was a minor obsession of mine during, and for a good while after, my punk phase. I think it partly derives from how reading into the history of punk rock's birth clued me in to how the Alex Cox movie got so much factually wrong (former Sex Pistols lead singer John Lydon termed it the "fantasy" of "some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era").

Working at a library gave me a chance to dive into the newspaper and magazine archives and pull up the press coverage at the time. The story got a lot of play in New York, naturally, and Nancy's local origins guaranteed front page treatment in the Philly papers as well. I'm sure the London tabloids had their coverage, too, but obtaining the appropriate microfilms through interlibrary loan would have cost me. If I were writing a book, that would have been one thing, but shelling out the amount of cash in question just to satisfy my curiosity was definitely a no-go.

What I found interesting, however, was that out of all of the coverage the murder received, only two pieces cast any doubt upon the official NYPD version of events. The first was a few paragraphs in the New York Times that reported that F. Lee Bailey was taking point on Sid's defense. While not itself an indicator of innocence (Bailey was also part of OJ Simpson's "Dream Team", after all), it at the very least indicated to me that Sid had a stronger case than might be believed from reading the rest of the coverage.

The other item was a feature article from an issue of Rolling Stone that came out the following year. It remains the only truly skeptical piece that I've uncovered regarding the whole affair. While it did little to exonerate Sid himself, as I recall, it did point out that alternate scenarios and motives existed. First and foremost was robbery. The Chelsea Hotel was, after all, full of junkies, any of whom might not have been above lifting some fenceable memorabilia from a minor celebrity in their midst. Indeed, one was found to be in possession of exactly such items, claiming them to be gifts from Sid and Nancy a few days before Nancy's death.

There's more, of course. It goes into the relationships Sid and Nancy had with their fellow tenants and, of course, each other. The vibe of the piece isn't so much "Sid didn't do it!" so much as "Hey, wait a second, have you considered -?".

We'll never know for certain, of course. It's about as cold as a case can get by now. But I'll be interested to see if this documentary uncovers anything new.

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