One day this month, 30 years ago, John Simon Ritchie, otherwise known as Sid Vicious, woke up dead. He had spent the previous evening shooting heroin in celebration of his release from Riker’s Island after an assault charge. Sometime during the night, his heart stopped. He was 21 years old.
No one can say exactly when Punk Rock was born and exactly when it died. Still, the death of Sid is as good an endpoint as any. Sid Vicious was punk. He couldn’t play the bass much and could barely hold a tune. He was a drunken dope fiend given to fits of violence who, most likely, killed his girlfriend — the now-famous Nancy — with a stab to the gut. In short, unbeatable credentials.
Sid’s swan song, his final fuck you to the world the rest of us live in, was his cover of Frank Sinatra’s classic “My Way.” Sid starts the song with a deep-voiced, cracking, mocking parody of Sinatra. After the first stanza, the music kicks in and Sid switches to the whiny snarl that was his signature.
Sinatra’s original song (written by Paul Anka as Frank’s final apologia after a rough and tumble career) had something of a punk rock spirit itself. It’s the song of a tough guy who, at the end of it all, is rather proud of himself for sticking to his guns. And he knows that you’re proud of him, too.
Sid’s version of the song is, shall we say, more troubling. Though it is true that Sid would soon be dead, the song, in his hands, can’t possibly sum up a long career or a vindication of anything. Vicious changes the lyrics accordingly. For example, in the beginning of the song, where Sinatra sings, “My friend, I’ll say it clear,” Sid amends it to, “You cunt, I’m not a queer.”
In perhaps his most thoughtful re-write, the Sinatra lyrics “Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew/ When I bit off more than I could chew,” become in Sid’s version “There were times, I’m sure you knew/ When there was fuck fuck fuck-all else to do.” At the end of the pre-MTV-video of the song, Sid pulls out a revolver and randomly shoots several members of the audience before flipping us all off and leaving the stage. His way indeed.
This brings us to the dreaded and usually unhelpful word, nihilism. Nihilism is one of those phenomena often pointed to and rarely found. An absolute lack of belief, a complete denial of meaning is a hard thing to maintain. So-called nihilists are usually nihilists to a point. They don’t want to go all the way because there is no end game for nihilism — the dead end of it is the whole point. So nihilism becomes a tool for critique, critique of outmoded ways of thinking, of corrupted society, of hypocrisy and so on. Even the punk of Sid’s band, the Sex Pistols, was generally a nihilism of critique. Don’t fool yourself, they were saying, this society is a sick joke. But the door was always left open for doing something about it.
For whatever reason, Sid Vicious was willing and able to take it further. He lived, and inevitably died, at the farthest darkest edge of punk: utter emptiness, true nihilism. When Sid Vicious screams “My Way,” he is referring to the abyss. There is no way there, and he knows it. The abyss, nevertheless, is seductive, precisely for being so absolute. That darkness is a darkness that no one could face for very long for the simple reason that there is death in there. It is a hole in which go all the things that make it possible to actually live a life. Nothingness.
So, in a way (and probably despite himself) Sid Vicious was a serious dude. He went there. He hit the far wall of the most unbearable thought. And, I suppose, he did it his way. • 9 February 2009