And I Don’t Want To Live This Life
for Nancy Laura Spungen (February 27, 1958 – October 12, 1978), and for A.F. & L.A.
I fell in love with Nancy Spungen soon after I got into punk. I admit that when I first read about her, I believed the awful things that everyone said. She was a groupie, a bitch, a junkie slut. She ruined the Sex Pistols by getting Sid hooked on heroin, she killed Sid with sex and drugs. But after a few months, I started thinking—Wait. What? Wait, I thought—he killed her. Heroin may have killed him, but she didn’t; she was already dead, stabbed by her boyfriend. No one knows if it was intentional, or just the end result of a dangerous game played in a drugged-out haze, but either way, he killed her. And wait, I thought—it’s not like Sid didn’t already have problems, and he was a grown man who could make his own choices. She may have offered him heroin, but he chose to use it. It’s not like she held him up at gunpoint and said: “Shoot up or I’ll shoot you.” Wait, I thought—how misogynistic is it, to think that he was not responsible for his own actions? How misogynistic, to always blame the woman for what the man does.
That’s ultimately what changed my mind about Nancy, when I realized all the misogyny bound up in the ways people talked about her. I thought—what if the situation had been reversed? What if she had been the one in an infamous punk band, and Sid had been the groupie who offered her heroin? What if she had stabbed him, and then died of an overdose? What would people have said then? I knew the answer—they still would have blamed her. It was her own fault for getting mixed up with a guy like that, they would have said. And obviously she was already damaged, after all she killed him, they would have said. Because it is always the woman’s fault, never the man’s. Men can’t help themselves. Women should know better. I thought of Yoko and Courtney and how the narratives people told about them were similar—Yoko ruined the Beatles. Courtney caused Kurt to kill himself. The same old story, again and again. Poor hapless Adam meets temptress Eve. Eat, she says, and he does, and destruction is brought upon them.
After I realized all that, Nancy became my favorite. I didn’t even care so much about Sid anymore, or at least, I only cared about him in relation to Nancy. I read everything I could find about her, even if most of it was negative. She became my icon. It’s not that I wanted to be like her—it was more that I felt I already was like her. And I started to find other young women who also loved her. Where the rest of the world despised her, we were like a secret Nancy Spungen Fan Club, defenders of our damaged goddess.
I read this quote, recently—
History has somehow managed to depersonalise Nancy and reduce her to just a sum of negative quotes. For a lot of people noticeably young women (and that’s not being judgmental, its a fact) they identify with that Nancy went through and her aspirations; that here was a damaged ill girl from birth who loved rock & roll and who lived a lifestyle and loved a man and who ended up dead because of it. (source)
And I thought—yes, that’s it exactly. Nancy was mentally ill. She had a troubled life. The only peace she ever found was through music, and she wanted to get as close to the music as possible, so she became a groupie. She slept with Johnny Thunders, followed the New York Dolls to London, and there met and fell in love with Sid. And yes, despite everything, I do believe she and Sid were truly in love. And these were all reasons why I loved her, why other girls I knew loved her—she was ill, messed up, on drugs; she had an abrasive personality and wasn’t conventionally beautiful, yet she still managed to get close to the music she loved, and to find love.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to her if she’d come of age about fifteen years later and could have been part of the riot grrrl thing. Maybe she still would have done drugs and slept around, but maybe she would have found empowerment in that. Maybe she would have written SLUT on her skin in red lipstick, worn a slip dress and ripped fishnets, and started a band of her own where she could sing about the radical possibilities of pleasure. Maybe she would have gotten treatment for her mental illness, gotten off drugs, started a zine about reproductive rights and safer sex. Maybe she’d still be alive.
As it is, though, she died at age 20, and I’ll defend her until the day I die. Nancy Spungen wasn’t a role model, but she was an icon. She wasn’t a musician, but she was a rock’n’roller, a punk. She wasn’t in a band, but she made her mark on the scene. She was reviled, but she’s never been forgotten.
She’s a legend.
We wanted to be beautiful, but on our own terms. Beautiful but also dangerous and wild. We didn’t want to attract nice boys who would keep us quiet, who would tell us to change our ways. We wanted boys who were as bad as we were, who would think our shaved heads felt like velvet, who would see our peroxided hair as heavenly clouds of spun-sugar gold. We wanted boys who would jump in the pit with us, who would think our ripped fishnets and blood-speckled skinned knees were sexy. We wanted boys who did drugs and loved the dark torn edges of the night. Only that dirty-sweet Sid and Nancy romancing could satisfy girls like us. Nancy, Nancy, she was our sister and our queen. Crazy, abrasive, drug-addicted, not conventionally beautiful, but she found a rockstar bad boy who wrote odes to her intelligence, her fashion sense, and her beautiful wet pussy. We wanted that. We wanted the Sids to our Nancys.
Then it turned out the bad boys were just nice guys with leather jackets and bondage pants; it turned out they were afraid of our darkness and our wild, dangerous beauty. They wanted us to stop skinning our knees, stop breaking things, stop doing so many drugs. And they didn’t want to be Sid, they didn’t even like Sid. They told us Sid was an idiot junkie and Nancy was just another groupie slut. They told us our obsession was unhealthy. They didn’t see that it was love. So we loved each other, instead; decided we’d be both Nancy and Sid.
We gave each other padlocks that we wore on chains around our necks, wore until the metal oxidized and tinted our skin green. We gave each other pairs of handcuffs which we then pried apart, each keeping one half on our belt loops or wrists, like punk rock friendship bracelets. We made each other mix tapes that had Sid’s version of “Somethin’ Else” on them. We gave each other tattoos of safety pin-stuck hearts and I Love Sid, did the tattoos the hardcore way—carved the words and symbols into each other’s flesh with razorblades, poured ink into the wounds. We shoplifted gifts for each other, from Walmarts and Targets: lipsticks so red Nancy would have envied them, pairs of lacy leopard-print underwear. We made jokes: “No one ever said ‘I want to be a junkie when I grow up,’ but I did.” We made suicide pacts: if our parents, our boyfriends, the world ever tried to keep us apart, we’d end it all. Because we didn’t want to live this life if we couldn’t live for the bad girls we loved, the wild girls who saw the beauty in our dark, sparkling hearts.
Jessie Lynn McMains is a poet, writer, zine-maker, and small press owner. She’s also a queer womxn (she/her or they/them pronouns), a mama to two wild kiddos, and a witch who practices a blend of paganism and folk Catholicism. Aside from words, music is her favorite thing in the world. She’s also obsessed with tarot, the Midwest/Great Lakes/Rust Belt, ghosts, and the undying spirit of punk rock. Someone once referred to her as the Debbie Harry of poetry, and she still thinks that’s pretty rad. You can find her website at recklesschants.net, or find her on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram @rustbeltjessie.