Published on February 14th, 2017 | by Robert Barry Francos0
Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy
After his excellent Johnny Thunders music documentary, director Danny Garcia is back with a movie called Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy.
I’ve certainly been in the same room with Sid and Nancy, especially the latter considering the sheer number of times I’ve seen the Heartbreakers (Johnny Thunders, Walter Lure, Billy Rath, Jerry Nolan; definitely not Tom Petty), Nancy’s band of choice before latching onto Sid. But my strongest connection and contributing memory is leaving a show to head to Brooklyn (if I remember correctly, the bands were The Fast and Crayola) in the late 70s, and seeing an inebriated and stumbling Sid kicking a guy passed out on the sidewalk. Needless to say, I walked on, without talking to him. About a year later, he and Nancy were legends and newspaper fodder.
It makes sense that this documentary was made by the same people/director (Danny Garcia) as the excellent Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders, because the Heartbreakers were a key catalyst in the lives of Sid and Nancy. Y’see, Nancy Spungen was a Heartbreakers’ frenemy/groupie who joined in with the band in its proclivity for hard drugs. These bits of fact, mentioned as raindrops at the beginning, including the elements of the Heartbreakers going to London to tour with the Sex Pistols, thereby opening up an opportunity for Nancy to go to the UK to get herself a Sex Pistol (much in the way the story goes that Linda Eastman did the same with the Beatles, and ended up with Paul, also the bassist).
There is a bit of irony in the whole story of these two bands, as the Pistols famously wrote a derogatory song about the Heartbreakers (or New York Dolls, depending on how you read the lyrics) in a song called “New York” (“You’re just a pile of shit / You’re coming to this / You poor little faggot / You’re sealed with a kiss”) to which the Heartbreakers responded with their own “London Boys” (“You’re telling me ‘shut your mouth’ / If I wasn’t kissing, you wouldn’t be around / You talk about faggots, little momma’s boy / You sit at home, you got a chaperon / You need an escort to take a piss”); you didn’t think in-song insults started with rappers, did you? After all that, Thunders and Vicious became good buds at some point.
The introduction of these elements led to a drug shitstorm that would rock the music scene as the Heartbreakers (and Nancy) introduced the use of heroin to Punk’s British Second Wave. Nancy, of course, latched herself onto Sid, but with all the tenuousness of the violence and mind/physical altering substances of their relationship, it’s hard to argue that they loved/needed/were dependent on each other (much as Linda and Paul were an actual couple beyond how they met). With Nancy holding the needle and the dime, she brought Sid into a world he may never have explored (though that is debated in the film), and eventually to New York.
The film demonstrates through a large number of oral history interviews that there are varying memories and opinions about what would happen between the death of Nancy on October 12, 1978, and that of Sid on Feb 3, 1979 (exactly 20 years after the crash that took the life of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. The Big Bopper Richardson). The general consensus seems to be that Sid could be a sweetheart or a terror, depending on the day or what was flowing through his system, but Nancy was just a horrendous human due to mental problems, substance abuse, and a “whiney” voice that could shatter glass. Her mom, Deborah, tried to explain it in a defensive and angry, self-serving auto/biography, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life (the book goes unmentioned, and Debbie is only brought up once).
To get down to the nitty-gritty, the film is extremely well put together with a very limited budget. I have always enjoyed different theories types of documentaries, that doesn’t try to come any real conclusion by itself, or have an answer in mind, and that uses the interviews to support ideas, rather than coming to one on its own. While one of the two trailers included in the extras claims it does, I’m happy to say it doesn’t really. However, it does posit a bunch of credible theories and lets the viewers come to its own possible choice of solution. The latter part of the film sometimes feels more like a murder mystery than a narrative, which I believe is a plus.
There are so many people from the period present, especially in the New York Scene of the 1970s, from fans to musicians, that experienced the Sid/Nancy phenomenon first-hand. Some include Walter Lure, Rockets Redglare, Cynthia Ross, Donna Destri, Lenny Kaye, Andy (Adny) Shernoff, photographer Bob Gruen (who went on the bus with the Pistols for their U.S. tour), the late-great Leee Black Childers (who owned a leather jacket back then I truly envied), Howie Pyro (of The Blessed and D Generation, and who infamously snorted some of Sid’s ashes), Hellin Killer (one of the people who was with Sid the night he died), Sylvain Sylvain, and so many others. It also includes the one person I really wanted to hear, which was “Neon” Leon Matthews, a musician (who I saw perform a few times) and fellow Chelsea Hotel resident that disappeared for a number of years after Sid died, only to resurface decades later in Europe. For a long time it was believed he held the key to the answer to what happened that night, and I am really grateful to be able to hear his side of it.
Wisely, the interviews are intercut and short, so no single story going on long enough to become burdensome to anyone who doesn’t really know these people talking about their affiliation to these two desperate and media-legendary victims. Also, the stories themselves are interesting and keep apace. Hearing the differences in opinion and events makes for conversations on what happened with the viewers going after the film ends. My only gripe is that the names are only shown the first time the talker is presented. I knew most of them, but the few I didn’t got lost on me as I heard more of their involvement. Also, it is a pleasure that everyone who talks had some direct action in the events, rather than hearing from journalists who report their indirect opinions on second-hand stories.
As for the budget, well, it’s pretty easy to see the constraints, and I’m saying this as a positive considering the achievement and fascination of the film. For example, we see a B-roll of the Pistols playing live, and the Heartbreakers’ “All By Myself” is playing on the soundtrack. In fact, there is no Pistols music at all. There are some pretty infamous clips though, including the drugged out Sid & Nancy in bed from the film D.O.A. (1980). The big head scratcher for me is that we don’t hear Johnny Thunders’ elegy for Sid, for which this film is named.
So, yeah, the director/producers certainly achieved what they set out to do, and it makes sense that they preceded this with one about Thunders. I’m really looking forward to what’s next (I’m hoping one about Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys, though I haven’t heard anything about it).
Who know what would have happened if Sid had cleaned up. Would he be famous rather than infamous? Ponderous thoughts.