Biggie Smalls Said You’re Nobody
‘Til Somebody Kills You

Courtesy of Randy Key

It is dawn on Biggie Small’s deathday, and I’m sitting in the safest place in St. Louis, MO—just in case you care. I’ve been climbing in an unfamiliar arena ceiling for days now, 100′ in the air.  Steel beams and rough company.  Most people consider this to be a dangerous occupation, but apparently my walk to the hotel was the riskiest move I’ve made all night.

The television blares in the hotel lobby—the news shows a S.W.A.T. team kicking in doors in south St. Louis. A well-dressed, effeminate white man talks about how the neighborhood is really coming together through “community activism.”  Thugs wave guns at the news crew.  The two hotel security guards shake their heads in disdain.

I point to the screen and ask the motherly night clerk, Kay, “What would happen if I took a pleasant evening stroll down that street?”

“Boy, you betta not let the sun set on yo’ white ass down there.”

According to my guardians—two large black men with big flashlights and security badges—St. Louis has the # 1 murder rate in the U.S.A.  “Why do people kill each other so much?” I ask.

“You know.  Fool ganstas.  Drugs. Husbands killin’ wives.  Wives killin’ husbands.  Stoopid shit.”  My sleepy-eyed protector shrugs and sips his coffee.

This #1 status is a slight exaggeration. According to FBI statistics, St. Louis is actually just behind New Orleans in the bloody competition for “most bullet-sprayed city.”  However, East St. Louis—when considered as its own entity—is leaps and bounds beyond NOLA in the murder race, with 101.9 people murdered for every 100,000 in 2006.  (The national average is about 6 in 100,000.)  Morticians must get a lot of overtime around here.

“Yeah, people take fools to tha East Side to kill ‘em,” the security guard explains, ”and they bring they dead bodies and dump ‘em ovah here.”

“That’s what happened to my nephew,” says the night clerk, Kay. “He thought he was livin’ the life.  Drugs, gangs, you know.  They drove him into East St. Louis.  He felt that hot lead and he jumped out that car—right outta his shoes.”  Kay shakes her head sadly.  “He can’t see no mo’. Shot seven times in tha face.  But he still with us.”

Kay is paid to be nice to me, but after a couple of hours of conversation, I’m pretty sure she would be nice to me anyway.  She brings me my own urn of coffee, which is not bad for hotel brew.  She knows I have to go to work after I write this, and tells me, “Stop chattin’ and get typin’!”

It’s hard to end a conversation with Kay.  She knows more about dead rock stars than anybody I have met in months.  We talk about Sid Vicious’ murderous temper tantrum, and the brutal shooting of squeaky clean (accused rapist) Sam Cooke.  Kay talks about the Day Michael Jackson Died, and how shocked she was that the late Farrah Fawcett was immediately booted out of the spotlight the moment the King of Pop hit the hospital.  And of course, Kay is well-versed in the canonical teachings of the patron saints of the East and West Coasts, whose lyrics meet like ram horns in the Midwest.

“There’s two kinds of people: those who love 2Pac, and those who love B.I.G.”

I would have said, “And then there’s me,” but that’s not completely true.  My first deathday article was about the Notorious B.I.G., entitled “The Death Day of Biggie Smalls.”  Man, what a clever headline.

Biggie was a bright kid—an honor role student who made his mother proud.  Then he started hawking hubs, sporting furs and fedoras, and spittin’ dope rhymes.  Smart, ambitious, and fat as all hell, he soon metamorphosed from Christopher Wallace to the Notorious B.I.G.  Harlem star-maker, Sean “Puffy” Combs, got a hold of him, and B.I.G. became 350 pounds of bold lyrics and brash suicide trips.

Maintaining the morbid themes of his debut album, Ready to Die, Biggie’s posthumous release features a number of precient songtitles, such as “Somebody’s Gotta Die,” “Last Day,” “Niggas Bleed,” and of course, “You’re Nobody (‘Til Somebody Kills You)”. At 24 years-old, Biggie became a self-created emblem for ghetto violence.

Biggie represented Brooklyn at the height of the East Coast-West Coast rap wars during the 1990s. On March 9, 1997, he was killed in a hail of bullets at an L.A. intersection—six months after his friend-turned-rival Tupac Shakur was gunned down in a similar fashion. While accusations have been hurled at everybody from Suge Knight to the FBI, his murderers remain at large.  Maybe thugs were hired by Deathrow Records.  Or maybe his murder was the result of composing too many death songs—a manifestation of his morbid imagination, like in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, but bloodier.

I ask Kay what she thinks happened to Biggie.

“I think Puffy Combs had him killed.  That’s just my opinion. But Puffy be sleazy, the way he continued to capitalize on Biggie’s death.  Then he got caught up in that club shoot-up with Shyne [one of Puffy's rapper protégés, who was convicted of the shooting while Puffy walked free].  Puff Daddy probably just had Biggie popped fo’ tha money.”

She has a point. Perhaps Biggie was just a big, black piñata full of dollar bills, and Puffy came swinging a stick with no blindfold.

I don’t know if it took a bullet to make Biggie a legend, but his death certainly seems fated in retrospect.  Even orchestrated.  I recently saw his image displayed at the acclaimed “Who Shot Rock n’ Roll?” exhibit when it passed through Columbia, SC.  Taken a few weeks before his death, the photograph features B.I.G. in silvery black-and-white, standing in funerary attire among a hundred thousand anonymous tombstones.  The message: Everyone dies, but celebrities get to keep their faces.  Would Biggie have faded into a featureless grave if his life had been spared?

Kay snatches up my printout of last year’s Biggie Smalls article and starts reading.  I’m apprehensive at first, but she loves it.  She even reads this passage aloud:

“Released two weeks after his death, Life After Death sold over ten million copies.  P-Diddy crawled out from that blood-splattered Californian intersection like an Alien chestburster and grew into a hype-spinning monster that still stalks the earth in search of more dollars.”

She especially loves the ending, and I’m thinking, thank God somebody does.

“As long as there are fools, they will imitate their heroes.  And as long as their heroes portray braggadocious murderers, fools will continue to kill each other like morons with sharp sticks.

“So I’m throwing on my cream suit and hat, and heading out to the club.  I’ll love it when you call me Big Poppa.  And if you point a gun at me, I suppose I’ll throw my hands in the air, like I’s a true player.”

© 2011 Joseph Allen

February 2: The Death Day of
Sid Vicious

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin at DREGstudios

John Simon Ritchie’s career with the Sex Pistols only lasted nine months, but through the miraculous power of media spin he was transfigured into the original punk rock martyr—Sid Vicious, dead at 21. Smeared across pop culture’s porcelain temple on February 2, 1979, he is immortalized in black leather, oily spiked hair, and dripping bodily fluids.

Next to him, rendered in blood-spattered stained glass, resides the junk-adled groupie who dominated him in life and defined him in death—”Nauseating” Nancy Spungen, dead at 20. Sid and Nancy. For three generations, vast segments of our disaffected youth have followed in their staggering footsteps, slamming syringe plungers to a rock n’ roll soundtrack and smashing up their little corners of an unbearably boring society. Oi! Oi!

The Sex Pistols left an indelible stamp upon the soul of punk rock. The genre’s grim sarcasm doesn’t gnaw much harder than vocalist Johnny Rotten’s “Bodies” or “No Feelings.” Their one true album, Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, is an enduring classic of cocky rebellion—for which Sid Vicious deserves no real credit, except for his sneering face. The bass guitar was, quite literally, a mere prop for his nihilistic persona.

The only song that Sid is remembered for is a garbled rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” This satanic dirge pays homage to the unrepentant ego at death’s door, and Vicious gave it a convincing go. The irony is that between Nancy’s nagging and the Sex Pistols’ manipulative manager, Malcolm McLaren, Sid Vicious did almost nothing his own way.

It’s not that Vicious’ image was a total fabrication so much as carefully cut fodder for the hype machine. Sid was raised by a junkie mother in the dregs of working class London, a scrawny misfit whose utter defiance was bullied into him by neighborhood toughs. He was born with a photogenic chip on his shoulder, and after his first gig with the Sex Pistols in April of 1977, Malcolm McLaren made sure the bulbs kept flashing.

While friends remember Sid as a scrappy little wiener, popular mythology emphasizes his assault on NME journalist Nick Kent with a motorcycle chain, his reputed mugging of an old lady at knife point, and the Texas crowd member who got his dome cracked by Sid’s bass guitar. Every snot glob dangling from Sid’s nostril, every self-induced laceration gushing over his torso, and every needle jammed into his arm was another photo op. Angsty teenagers still tack the posters up on their walls, many of which feature Nancy’s scowling, yet cherubic face beside him.

By all accounts—even her own mother’s—Nancy Spungen was a neurotic pseudo-nymph with a screeching voice and a sweet tooth for brown sugar. Of course, she had her shining qualities too. Unfortunately, no one remembers what they were. Leaving her comfy Jewish home at age fifteen, Nancy chased the dragon to New York City, where she took up the world’s oldest profession. She promptly wormed her way into the hip cliques of CBGB’s thriving punk scene, who quickly found her annoying and pushed her back out.

Rejected by the outcasts, Nancy followed an oozing trail of punk rock cock all the way to London, intent on nailing the New York Dolls’ drummer. She wound up with punk’s hottest poster boy instead. Jaded beyond their years, each found something new in the other. For all of his bravado, Sid was still fresh meat between the sheets, and Nancy had never been with someone who actually enjoyed her company before. He became a man and she became a lady as the cameras clicked on their heels.

It’s unclear whether Sid ever learned to play his instrument, but it was his energetic stage presence that counted. The musicianship problem was solved by turning down his bass and putting a session player backstage. After blowing England apart, the Sex Pistols hopped across the pond for an American tour in January 1978. Even without Nancy, it was a disaster. Tour highlights include Sid overdosing, going into a dope coma days later, and then carving “GIMME A FIX” into his torso when forced to detox. During their final, lackluster performance in San Francisco, Johnny Rotten growled, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and stormed offstage. The Sex Pistols broke up soon after. Nancy stepped in to manage Sid’s solo career, which lasted all of ten minutes. By late 1978, Sid and Nancy were slumming around New York on royalties, where they would soon perform their gutter rendition of Romeo and Juliet.

No one doubts Sid and Nancy’s true love for one another. Beneath the manic consumption and mutual violence, there was an undeniable sweetness. Those black eyes and busted smoochers? They was jus’ love pats, mate. The throbbing, abscessed puncture wounds lining their veins? Relationships are built on intensely shared experiences, right? Through highs and lows, uppers and downers, black spikes, bleached bangs, and bloody leather—these crazy kids were made for each other.

So why did Sid stab her to death and then jab a fatal dose of smack a few months later? Well, it’s complicated. First off, no one really knows who killed Nancy. On the morning of October 12, in Room 100 of the grimy Chelsea Hotel, Nancy was found in her undies on the bathroom floor, having bled to death from a single knife wound beneath her navel.

Sid was the only person there when police arrived. In fact, he was the one who called them—after he went out to score some dope, anyway. The hotel scene was shady, the official statements were incoherent, and possible motives abound. If Nancy was anywhere near as shrill as her portrayal in the 1986 film, Sid and Nancy, I wouldn’t put it past Mohandas Gandhi to stick a knife in her gut, if only to shut her the fuck up.

In the beginning, everyone thought Sid did it. He told the cops as much, stating: “I stabbed her, but I didn’t mean to kill her.” Then later, he insisted he didn’t do it. He had eaten handfuls of Tuinol—a potent barbiturate—and passed out. In the end, he didn’t remember what happened.

According to interviews in the 2009 documentary Who Killed Nancy?, a third party was with the couple that night. Sid had recently received $25,000 for his recording of “My Way,” and there was cash all over their hotel room. When the cops arrived, the money was gone. Perhaps the mystery visitor killed Nancy and snatched up the loot as Sid snored.

To add another candlestick to Colonel Mustard’s drawing room, Sid’s mother claimed to have found a note in Sid’s jacket after he died, which described a suicide pact between him and Nancy. This raises the possibility that Nancy stabbed herself—presumably because she could no longer stand the sound of her own voice.

Whatever the case, Sid was charged with second degree murder and the judge set bail at $50,000. McLaren paid the money through Virgin Records, and Sid hit the streets. Within a week he was in Bellevue Hospital with a pair of slit wrists. His mother flew in to console him—with some soul-soothing smack—and McLaren made up t-shirts to sell in his London boutique that read: “I’m Alive. She’s Dead. I’m Yours.”

With his badboy image now solidified by a murder rap, Sid was swimming in New York floozies. His ego must have been on fire the night he assaulted Patti Smith’s brother. Sid was chatting up Todd Smith’s girlfriend at a Skafish show, when he decided to pinch her. Todd protested, so Vicious broke a Heineken bottle and proceeded to stab him in the face. Sid spent 55 days in Riker’s Island Prison before he was released on February 1, on another $50,000 bond.

Who knows what happened in those 55 days behind bars. Perhaps Sid did some deep soul-searching. Maybe he realized the life-shattering implications of an impending murder conviction. It’s also possible that larger, more formidible predators took Sid’s “punk” identification to its logical conclusion and did their own brutally deep searching of his soul. After 55 days of that, who wouldn’t seek some hardcore relief?

Whatever happened, Sid made the most of his first night of freedom, enjoying a spaghetti dinner with family and friends at his new girlfriend’s Greenwich Village apartment. Heroin users say that spiking a good hit is like returning to the comfort of the womb. How appropriate then that the perpetually infantile Sid Vicious got his last shot from his mother that evening. Lab results suggest that her love was as pure as the driven snow. Sid was pronounced dead on February 2, 1979 from “acute intravenous narcotism.” The groundhog must not have seen his own shadow that day, because Sid’s mother claimed to have spread his ashes over Nancy’s snow-covered grave. She went on to kill herself with an overdose in 1996. Never trust a junkie.

However tragic, Sid’s passing provided powerful inspiration for the music world. Nearly two years later—the day before John Lennon’s assassination, in fact—sado-punk Darby Crash paid homage to his hero with a fatal spoonful. In ’93, scumfuck rocker GG Allin went out the same way, breaking his vow to blow himself up onstage. The next year, death star Kurt Cobain kissed the hot end of a shotgun. He and his wife Courtney Love consciously fashioned themselves after Sid and Nancy, though Kurt was arguably late on the draw. (Coincidentally, both Kurt and Sid killed themselves after touring with the Buzzcocks, as did Joy Division’s rising star, Ian Curtis. Perhaps they should have called themselves the Buzzkills.) Most importantly, Sid Vicious’ decadent icon provides fashionable validation for thousands of unsung throw-away kids who shuffle off this mortal coil year after year, with a needle in one arm and a blue middle finger thrust to the world.

© 2011 Joseph Allen