The folly of youth and the ashes of love…it all sounds quite lovely, right? Romeo and Juliet, the “27 Club,” drugs, self-destruction, etc, etc. Another synonym for all of this? Bullshit, horsepuckey, lies, lies, lies, and more lies. Don’t listen to it. Not an ounce, gram, frame, or note of it. Not only is it pat, which is automatically offensive, but it is also a lazy excuse for preventable damage. Romanticism can be a captivating aesthetic but can also grow sick when used exclusively as a coping mechanism.
Cue up the bad and sad world of rock and roll mythology starring Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Theirs was a relationship that already gained Romeo & Juliet-esque status before the bodies were fully rigored and cold. Speaking of the original ill-fated star-crossed lovers, what the hell is wrong with us as a species when we use two kids who ended up killing themselves due to some Hatfield vs McCoys-level shenanigans as some kind of benchmark for true love? Do you know what’s really sexy? Like full on velvet-lusciousness sexy? Staying alive and not dying in vain.
Getting back to Sid and Nancy, very few couplings in punk, if any, gained as much notoriety and exposure as these two. You have the rail-thin sneering bad-boy bassist from the Sex Pistols hooking up with a brash and brassy blonde American groupie who inspired even stronger reactions from those around than poor Sid. Add in heroin, key public appearances, including one on the bonzo-gonzo-doo-dada 1979 Michael O’Donoghue film, Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, Nancy’s murder, which may or may not have been committed by Sid, and then Vicious’ death via overdose and you have a story that is riveting and more than a little sad.
Scraping off years of tabloid grime, rock & roll mythos skeeze, and the fantasy elements from Alex Cox’s narrative film, Sid & Nancy (1986) to try to get to the actual heart of the matter is not an easy task. Julien Temple’s excellent and arguably still the best punk-related documentary, The Filth & The Fury (2000) has come closer than most, but young filmmaker Danny Garcia has put his hat into the ring with his 2016 film, Sad Vacation.
Right off the bat, for those of us who are ardent old school punk lovers, big points have to go to the title alone, which is a reference to Johnny Thunders (one of my punk art heroes) tribute song to his late friend with his song “Sad Vacation.” The song mentions both the Flowers of Romance and “Belsen Was a Gas,” with the former being a reference to a band Sid was a member of when he wrote the latter. (“Belsen Was a Gas” would go on to be performed by the Sex Pistols and, most, unfortunately, notorious bank robber Ronnie Biggs with a bastardized version of the band. The less said about that version, the better.) I know there’s at least one live show where Johnny dedicates the song to “Seymour Ventura” which, I could be wrong, was Thunders’ possible reference to Sid. Speaking of The Heartbreakers, we do get a brief glimpse of the band’s co-lead guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist, Walter “Waldo” Lure. (Forget Sid and Nancy, where’s the documentary on that cat?)
This is tied to one of the film’s biggest strengths, which is the impressive list of interviewees that appear, including the aforementioned Lure, the late and always great Leee Black Childers, Howie Pyro, Sylvain Sylvain, Andy Shernoff (of The Dictators fame), the criminally underrated Jim Skafish, and one of the most notable women from the original LA punk scene, Hellin Killer. This is also the first punk related music documentary I have seen in a long time that does not have Henry Rollins and his vast array of pithy analogies. (For the record, I do like Rollins but good gravy, the man has been in more documentaries than Greg Ginn’s had lawsuits.)
Sad Vacation takes the approach less like a music-based documentary and more of a tale of true-crime, complete with a Dateline-esque narrator. Given the circumstances surrounding Spungen’s death and the fact that the investigation pretty much died the moment Vicious left this plane of existence, that makes sense. Was Sid innocent or guilty? Was there a suicide-murder pact? There are a number of questions that get looked into throughout though, and understandably, with no real clear answers. Of course, getting clarity into a decades’ old case that was surrounded by a haze of drugs, fame, and tabloid sensationalism is just a few millimeters away from getting gold from a turnip.
Mercifully, Garcia does keep away from the proceedings feeling too predatory and iffy, unlike the mondo-necrophiliac-snuff of Lech Kowalski’s Johnny Thunders film, Born to Lose, and veers a good clean distance away from exploitation. Though for better or worse, while Born to Lose is a film I never want to see again, it was viscerally compelling and did reveal some potential new information that, to quote the late Willy DeVille in that film, “…could get legal.” We don’t really have that with Sad Vacation. Granted, we also don’t have seeing one of the interviewees’ freshly departed corpse either, so perhaps it is all for the best.
There is a keen approach at trying to evaluate both Sid and Nancy’s relationship and their demise from both sides of the coin. Some paint Sid as a sweet-soul who was nipped at and swallowed by both the machine and a neglectful parent, while others talk about a shady character who would erratically erupt into threats and violence. This objectivity is by far a strength here and refreshing to see a lack of any blindsided agendas. Same for Nancy. She was an incredibly bright and strong woman, but also possibly a drug-filled and fueled harpie that used Sid.
So which is it? Which one is the truth?
Sad Vacation doesn’t tell us. Smart. It’s smart for two simple reasons: reality is often in a hazy-gray middle and truth is dead. Rozz Williams knew it and now we all do too. Okay, it’s not totally dead but is just resting and pining for the fields. Human communication is just one big game of Rashomon, with narrators varying wildly on their reliability. This can be accidental, depending on the quality of one’s memory and ability to look truly outside themselves and their perspectives. It can also be on purpose, with one changing the narrative to better fit whatever goal they are aiming for. Now, none of this is defeatist, but more of a buyer beware warning for life. It’s easier to paint things in black and white, with Sid being a hero, Nancy the villain, vice versa and verse vica. But existence is rarely so simple, so doubly good on Garcia and company for taking what was more than likely, a less easy route.
The real question that comes to mind, especially seeing some of the incredibly storied and talented figures that are interviewed here, is why another film on these two? There was a 2009 documentary called Who Killed Nancy? which delved into the same subject. There has been so much speculation over the years, with the main takeaway being sadness. These were two kids who died way too young, leaving behind friends and loved ones who miss them as human beings, not as punk rock martyrs.
At this stage in the game, I would kill to see a thorough film on the LA Punk Scene (with no Rollins, but plenty of Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Alice Bag, Pleasant Gehman, Jane Wiedlin, Hellin, any surviving members of both the Screamers and The Weirdos, Tito Larriva, etc etc), or af ilm about The Dictators or Skafish. If you want some real true crime, what about the still wholly unsolved murder of Peter Ivers? Ivers was a man who was beloved by pretty much everyone, lived clean and was taken out in an especially brutal manner. He was the host of New Wave Theater (please baby Jesus, someone get the rights sorted out and release all existant episodes on DVD/Blu Ray), which gave TV exposure of such seminal punk and new wave acts like The Plugz, 45 Grave, The Angry Samoans, and Killer Pussy. Ivers was also an underrated musician and songwriter, including penning “In Heaven (Everything is Fine)”, which was famously sung by the lady in the radiator in David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
That said, if you’re a big fan of Sid and Nancy, as well as true crime, then Sad Vacation is a solid effort in the journey to your metaphorical alley. For music fans, there isn’t anything featured that you won’t already know, but it is nice seeing some of the genre’s more underlooked figures get to be seen and speak.
With the tale of Sid and Nancy both, maybe the best thing we can collectively do is take the romanticism of addiction, hard drugs, and the soullessness of fame, shove it on the metaphorical funeral pyre and watch it all burn.