Recently, while researching a story, I stumbled upon an essay by seminal rock writer Lester Bangs, called "Bye, Bye, Sidney, Be Good," about Sid Vicious. The essay focuses on how Vicious murdered (allegedly; the case was never fully investigated) his soul mate, Nancy Spungen, by stabbing her to death, then died a few months later after a heroin overdose.
It takes some digging through Bangs' amphetamine prose, but his thesis, once you find it, is surprising: Sid Vicious was not a romantic archetype of punk ethos, Bangs says, he was just a junkie jerk. "What I do think is that Sid was just...rubbish, and not in the way the übersociety portrayed him," Bangs writes. "From all accounts I can gather, he was just an asshole." Throughout the essay, written just after Vicious' 1979 death and published in 1990, Bangs seems brutally frustrated with the Myth of Sid, but he seems more frustrated with the paradox that faces those who believe in rock 'n' roll: What do you do when what you truly believe in celebrates self-destructive/asshole behavior, and part of you celebrates that too, until you see the reality of the thing, and then it's just pointless, tedious and deadly?
Sadly, in a way, the question reminds me of Dallas musicians Carter Albrecht and Darin Archer.
Albrecht was shot in the head and killed after banging on his neighbor's door around four in the morning; Archer shot himself in the head. Both within the same 24 hours. In all seriousness, when's the last time we had a what-the-fuck moment like that?
Of course, neither Albrecht nor Archer was a disgusting pig like Sid Vicious, but in many ways, they both were prototypical rock stars. Both had some substance abuse issues—Albrecht's drug of choice seemed to be alcohol, Archer's preferred chemicals were a little more hard-core. And, true to the prototype, they both died way too young, way too tragically, as a result of dangerous dalliances. It's an age-old story, the one where the genius of talent goes hand-in-hand with self-destruction, and, in the same way Vicious' death made Bangs question his relationship to rock's traditional self-destructiveness, both Albrecht's and Archer's death should give us pause to consider the same.
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The problem is, damn, it's such a romantic ideal: Better to burn out than to fade away, hope I die before I get old, live fast die young, etc, etc, etc. In theory, I'm a believer; better that Jim Morrison died at 27 than turn into Elvis II, right? Better Kurt Cobain blast his own face off with a shotgun than end up on some VH1 Where Are They Now? special, ya know? In such light, people consider the tale of Sid and Nancy to be a dreamy one, a story about the cool beauty of self-destruction, with a punk rock fairy tale ending that takes place in scummy hotel rooms, surrounded by needles and blood. It's almost as if Sid and Nancy's admirers think to themselves, "I wish I were cool enough to die that way." Bangs admits the appeal of the myth himself. "I had caught myself, in the midst of this mountain of incontrovertible evidence of what a fuckup if not a psychopath [Sid] was, still somehow feeling somewhere inside that there was something charismatic, romantic even, about him," he says. "I hate [heroin], I think it's evil...But the hours I've put in daydreaming, fantasizing, romanticizing about it over the years."
In an odd coincidence, a couple hours after reading "Bye, Bye, Sidney," I flipped on the TV, and the first thing I saw was Alex Cox's film about the couple, called, of course, Sid & Nancy. I had turned the TV on in time to catch the latter half of the film, the part that takes place primarily in their room at the Chelsea Hotel, the exuberant fun and hope of the movie's first half chronicling the rise of the Sex Pistols long forgotten. Cox does a good job of making the stifling confinement of the room palpable, as the couple remains there for days, lights off, surrounded by garbage and cat shit and other filth, moaning incoherent conversations, nodding off, occasionally summoning the energy to scream at each other. I had to agree with Bangs—this was not a cool manifestation of punk, nihilist apathy—this was just gross and depressing. Sid and Nancy were in a prison—there was nothing liberating about it.
So thinking about all this, I've been digging around, trying to find an answer. I didn't really find one—I don't think there is one—but I stumbled upon a story by Nick Kent that helped make things a little clearer. In 2004, Kent was commissioned by the band Franz Ferdinand—guest editors of an issue of The Guardian—to write an essay about "what drives a certain kind of person to abuse themselves with drink and drugs." Kent goes through the list—Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison (whom he quotes David Crosby as calling "thoroughly unpleasant") and Vicious (whom he calls "one of the most self-destructive individuals ever to walk the planet...and a borderline psychopath")—seeking out the balance between the special indulgences of rock personas and the reality of life and death. He finds only a semi-solution. "Artistically," Kent says, "it's best approached the way David Bowie did it in the mid-1970s. His cocaine addiction turned him into a withered stick-insect...but also produced the best music of his entire career. Then he sorted himself out and became the golden-haired survivor...That's the trick, of course: to 'destroy' yourself but somehow 'redeem' yourself artistically in the process and become stronger as a result."
The sad thing is, Albrecht by all accounts had no issue with drugs, nor was he an asshole. Archer was an addict, and a more prickly type, but no psychopath, just a troubled guy. But both, as rock stars, existed in a darker world, the after-midnight world, that time when shadow selves come out and bad things can happen. If only they had figured out the trick. But, like so many others, they never did.