I’ve always been curious about being in a band. The camaraderie, the conflict, the unwashed glamour, and the power of performance have eternally fascinated me. My brief, aborted attempts at bandom, fortunately, never made it out of the practice room. My guitar skills were mediocre, my singing voice was not even remotely dynamic, and my attempts at songwriting were self-conscious and stiff. I realized that making music with others—music that people actually want to listen to—requires an almost masochistic inclination to give control over to something larger happening in a room with the people you’re making music with. Not everyone has the power or inclination to give over to something like that—and to do it in public, repeatedly. Sadly, I’m not possessed of that inclination. I am, however, unable to stop thinking about it. What could it have been like if I’d been a little better, a little braver, a little more tenacious?
If I couldn’t be a guitarist, I decided to write a novel about one—someone overcoming the obstacles to performance, someone giving herself over to the thing in the room. Part of my journey writing the book involved an investigation into the lives of women who made it work. Reading about these women seemed natural at the time—research, since I was writing this book about a girl in a band. But it would be dishonest to say there wasn’t more to it, that I wasn’t constantly analyzing a missed opportunity.
Over the course of one summer, I read Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless, Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Throwing Muses mastermind Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, and finally, monumentally, Deborah Spungen’s biography of the short, incandescently tragic life of her daughter, Nancy—of Sid and Nancy—in And I Don’t Want to Live This Life.
When I first left home, I shared the lurid curiosity of any teenage New York City transplant about Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungen, and The Sex Pistols. The intensity of their relationship, the glamour of their international affair, even the drugs, all of it seemed mythic and tantalizingly bold. I only knew Nancy as a part of Sid—this wild, irresponsible American shoving her way into the world of the most famous band in the U.K.–kind of like a punk rock Wallis Simpson. I knew that their love was, well, vicious, and that it ended in Nancy’s murder at the Chelsea Hotel in the room she and Sid shared. I knew Nancy from photos, where she glared into the camera with smoky eyes. There was something fascinating about her in these images—a girl who seemed simultaneously fierce and wrecked.
I was delighted when Nancy and Sid popped up in Clothes, Music, Boys, and in Reckless. These books revealed flashes of the kinds of people Sid and Nancy were—grotesque, endearing, fucking crazy. But Albertine’s recollections of Sid are also poignant and intimate—she beautifully translates for us the shorthand of her own relationship with Sid, one that should seem familiar to many: that brief, daily, sexually-charged-but-celibate intimacy of a young adult friendship. Most moving is Albertine’s sharing of a letter Sid wrote her from jail, when she tells us his handwriting is childish, the i’s dotted with little circles. Her recollections of Nancy are surprising in that they are equally fond—the fondest portrayal of Nancy I’ve seen anywhere.
Hynde’s memoir includes an account of Nancy that does not disappoint, one that seems a more familiar fit in existing Spungen folklore. Hynde’s recollection features Nancy’s repeated, violent demands for a cream-cheese bagel. Hynde makes Nancy sound difficult, shrill, and effective. Still, Hynde is not cruel in this portrayal. Rather, she is earnest, waving an accurate snapshot of those times. Sid, a friend so friendly he offered to marry Hynde for U.K. citizenship, appears all over the place—I’m not sure how he was so ever-present considering the briefness of his life, but he is. He plays a role for many of these women; Viv’s bestie, Hynde’s prospective fiancé, Deborah’s daughter’s killer.
Brownstein’s rock memoir, which takes place later, contains no Sid and Nancy anecdotes, but it is one of profound and palpable loneliness. The event she describes with the most emotional heft is the death of a beloved pet. There is a sincere loss here, and the depth of sadness we feel for Brownstein grows sharper due to its ordinary, near-mildness on the tragedy scale. Brownstein attempts to distract us in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl with the scrim of her cleverness. In these distractions, she makes herself known to us, her readers and fans, as if to say “Keep watching.” There is something else there, something more important, between this loneliness and these Eddie Vedder anecdotes. I wondered if Nancy’s self-destructive and sensational behavior was also a scrim of some kind. What would we have seen if we’d had the opportunity to keep watching?
The aim of each of these women, perhaps of every artist, is a longing to be understood, to make some seemingly unknowable part of the self known. In varying degrees, the women telling these stories have achieved that—all but Nancy Spungen. Perhaps this is a result of Nancy ousted from the place of storyteller. Nancy was never able to achieve any sort of understanding as an artist, despite her desire to do so. Her mother, Deborah, explains how music-mad her daughter was, and how she’d call from Europe when she first began living there to tell her family that she’d been recruited into a French girl band. “But,” Deborah tells Nancy (and us) “you don’t even play an instrument.”
Nancy’s mother Deborah’s contempt and frustration are palpable throughout her book, but perhaps they are at their peak in her dismissal of her daughter’s musical ambition; what can you possibly be thinking? You can’t do something like this. This isn’t you. The wild irony here is that Sid Vicious was also wholly unable to play an instrument, yet rocketed to fame as a musician, was and arguably still is, the face of an entire music movement. Maybe it’s unsurprising that Sid seems to be the only one who ever understood Nancy, and the fierceness of their attachment—described by Albertine and Hynde, too—seems almost necessary.
It’s startling that even Nancy’s mother sees her, in retrospect, as the foil to something or someone else. We all know her only in relation to Sid, as his victim and provocateur. I kept wondering, what would Nancy’s story be, about her relationship with an artist, about those dreams of being an artist herself? I wondered if it would be anything like Kim Gordon’s story, an artistic life that was so often reactive—performance as a lashing out against her abusive brother, a foil for her ex-husband Thurston Moore, a source of contrast—the lone girl in the band. Even though Kim lived and Nancy didn’t, were they somehow alike? Thrashing out to be heard in response to—or in conversation with—something forceful and immutable?
The most upsetting portion of Deborah’s account of her daughter’s life is her description of Nancy’s funeral arrangements. That image of Nancy, the shock of white-blonde hair, the heavy eye make-up and torn stockings, the way we all picture her, well, that’s how she looked when she died. Deborah was so convinced that this was not the real Nancy, not the “chestnut” haired Nancy she’d known. Deborah had the mortician dye Nancy’s glorious, uber-blonde hair back to brown. Instead of allowing her daughter the dignity of her final choice about her body to override whatever was going on in her own heart and in the hearts of her family, Mrs. Spungen hired a man to dye the hair on her daughter’s corpse. This depth of misunderstanding among her own family, the indignity of her final appearance in this world, was, for me, the most painful moment in my reading of these often heartrending stories.
Ultimately, I believe it is the fear of this kind of colossal misunderstanding that brought all of these women into the practice room, and out of it. Certainly stranger and perhaps less reckless accounts could have been set before us, but I think they would all lead to a similar conclusion. And really, that’s all we’re looking for, as people reading about artists. What makes them work? How do they wrangle and manage their power? And are they just like us, or are they much, much more?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.