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INTERVIEW WITH DEN BROWNE FOR NANCY SPUNGEN BIOGRAPHICAL WEBSITE BY MOLLY JOHNSON

Den Browne, former friend and flatmate of Sid and Nancy, is currently writing a book about his life, his addiction, and his meetings with people such as Alex Trocchi and of course... Sid and Nancy.

 

Stay tuned for updates on the book, until then, read on for an insight into their daily lives...

 

Photo: by Inga from Den's radio appearance on Mining for Gold @ Reasonance FM.

 

Molly - Around what time did you know Sid & Nancy?

Den - Really we’re talking a year or so, from mid/late summer ‘77 - a bit before “Holidays in the Sun” came out, up until summer/autumn ‘78, just before they went to the States. The first few months of that time they were living at my place, as they didn’t have anywhere until Virgin got them the place in Pindock Mews around the end of the year.

Molly - Describe a typical day while Sid & Nancy were at your place.
What time did you get up and have breakfast?


Den - To be honest I don’t have many coherent memories of our day-to-day lives, but I guess they followed a pretty standard addict pattern.
We’d try & sleep in late so there was less of the day to deal with. My girlfriend & I had methadone prescriptions so the first thing for us was going down to the chemists’ in Chalk Farm to pick up, sometimes with Sid & Nancy hovering behind us if they were sick. Nancy could get very New York at such times, wanting to know exactly how long you’d be, so it was easier to say just come with us. Otherwise there was a dealer upstairs in one of the other squatted flats.
Then it was a matter of comparing needs & resources & taking things from there.

The breakfast thing is a good question. I hadn’t thought of that kind of thing & it’s opened up a whole lot of stuff.
About the only food-related memory I have of them is the first night we met, when we went for a burger at some place on Fulham Rd. We must have eaten but I don’t recall what or when. I do remember lots of coffee & cigarettes. I think Jannie & I generally lived on cheese on toast & Twix bars so maybe they did too.
Micia the cat probably ate better than we did!

Quite often Sid would go off to a group practice, which generally meant Nancy would stay with us. Sometimes if they were going to the Glitterbest offices - either on official Pistols business, but more often to hustle Sophie for money - they’d both go out.
Sometimes things would run smoothly, other times it’d be constant stress & drama.

Sid was officially on £50 a week tops, sometimes Jannie & I would be flush with money & drugs, but more often not. So there was a lot of hustling for money to score or trying to negotiate credit with dealers - that usually led to trouble as Sid didn’t like paying for drugs he’d already taken.

Generally we’d stay in - much safer (lots of anti-punk violence in those days) - & sit up getting stoned, talking, playing music or watching TV. There was a 24hr taxi account available, courtesy of Virgin Records, which was helpful - it meant that we could always get where we wanted as long as we had the money to score.


Molly - What were their cleaning and hygiene habits like? Is it true they hardly ever changed their clothes?

Den - The place was a squat, but not in the communal living sense as it had been divided into separate flats. I’d imagine it’s now super smart & expensive but I’ve never been back there since ‘78.

We had a bathroom, but the boiler didn’t work. There was hot water in the kitchen though. We had a bunch of friends who’d let us have baths round their places, same with them. No cleaning rota of course, but I remember the place being generally pretty clean and together. It certainly wasn’t the tabloid cliché of filthy junkie squalor.We were all living in one large room, so a few boundaries about stuff like clothes got quite blurred. We used to like if Sid let us wear one of his jackets when we went out to get some fags or whatever. Plus they used to have quite a lot of t-shirts & things - from Sex or whatever it was called at that time - which was pretty much for general use. They’d give us lots of Pistols t-shirts & badges which was cool. One time Sid gave me this vile pink mohair sweater with one sleeve half black. It looked shit & felt like wearing sandpaper, but Jannie & I treated it like a holy relic.

There was a launderette just down the road & we used to head down there once a week or so - Nancy used to come with us sometimes. She had a strange way sometimes of getting very into some mundane activity & she used to like talking to whoever was down there too - usually old ladies who didn’t have a clue who she was.


Molly - Did you meet their friends?

Den - Nancy had quite a few American girlfriends who’d come over from New York & tended to hang out with the Heartbreakers, & they’d come round quite often. That’s how I got to meet Johnny Thunders a couple of times.. There were a few other friends of Sid’s who’d come by sometimes, but I don’t really recall them that much.

Molly - Did you ever meet Malcolm McLaren or the other Pistols?

Den - No, they kept those scenes very separate & we never met any of the other guys or McLaren. At first we’d drop hints in the hope of getting asked along to rehearsals, but soon realised it wasn’t going to happen. Sid wasn’t socialising with the others by then, & I think that was really the period when he & Johnny Rotten were starting to drift apart and fall out over group issues, drugs, Nancy...

Molly - What TV shows did you watch?

Den - Well, TV was a lot different back then - it generally all finished around midnight… We used to watch “Top of the Pops”, very much in the sense of checking out the competition & generally abusing and ridiculing most of the people on the show - Sid could be very funny & sharp at such times.

I guess the Whistle Test or something similar must have been on, as I have a very clear memory of Nancy almost throwing up at the sight of Lynyrd Skynyrd doing an endless version of Freebird.

Otherwise - the occasional film, but as there was no chance then of anything like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (their favourite) being on, choice was limited.
There was a Barbara Dickson show on ITV we used to watch as it was one of the few late programmes on, but it usually degenerated into Sid & Nancy arguing over the Wee Colleen’s (my rather unfunny nickname for the wholesome Ms D) possible sexual interests & abilities.

Molly - Did Nancy read any books?

Den - Nancy would read just about anything. We’d get NME & Melody Maker every week & you always knew that once Nancy had got hold of them you were in for a long wait. She’d read every word. She was always pretty media-savvy & really wanted to absorb & understand what was being said about the Pistols, the scene, and of course her & Sid.

As for books, she was really into Sylvia Plath & American poets like Anne Sexton & Elizabeth Bishop. Sometimes she’d get into trash & true crime, but usually it was fairly serious stuff she’d pick out, things I had from my English degree days - she really got into books like Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” & Mervyn Peake. One of her favourite books (and mine) was Hubert Selby Jr's "Last Exit to Brooklyn".


Molly - Did Nancy ever talk about her family & her time in New York?

Den - Yes, quite a lot - childhood tended to be a recurring theme with both of them when we were up talking late. Although their backgrounds were pretty different, they both had a lot of anger at their families & a strong sense of being like two small children who’d been betrayed by their parents & only had each other to stand against the big bad world.

She’d also talk a lot about her early days in New York & some very heavy abusive scenes. She was totally frank about her sex working days, & I’m sure that was when she really got into heroin as a way of coping and escaping (interestingly most of these stories involved Debbie Harry, but I guess we’d better not go there!)

And of course she’d had her groupie phase, were the dancing/stripping had been something she did to survive & hated, she was really pretty proud of having hung out or gone on tour with people like Aerosmith & Blue Oyster Cult. Plus, she was really tight with all the main players on the early New York punk scene, especially people like Richard Hell & Tom Verlaine, as well as the Dolls/Heartbreakers crowd.
She used to have a huge photo album with Bob Gruen photos of her with Steven Tyler & co, so it was all true. I wonder what happened to that book?!

Molly - What did your friends think of them?

Den - Very good question & quite complex… Obviously it’s a bit exciting when suddenly you’ve got a bona fide punk rock star living at your place - like Tony, a Jamaican mate who lived round the corner, accosting me in the street: “Wha’appen? Mi ‘ear you have whole bunch of Sex Pistol in your yard!” & roaring with laughter. But soon we started to notice people who we hadn’t seen for ages turning up & basically just wanting to gawp at Sid & Nancy, so they’d have a great story for the office next day or whatever. Then people who weren’t even friends started turning up on some pretext… That clearly wasn’t on & couldn’t continue, especially after one episode nearly turned violent with some guy who was being a real prat.

So apart from a couple of people we knew were discreet, we tended to keep it to just the four of us after that. Don’t forget that we were a good five or so years older than them, so quite a lot of our friends were more old hippie/uni types who didn’t understand punk & didn’t know how to relate to someone like Sid or Nancy.

This really is the heart - literally - of my position with Nancy. I always liked her & was much closer to her than I was to Sid. She’d been through a lot of crap, found it hard to trust people, & had had to develop a certain exterior as a survival mechanism & exaggerate some aspects of her character. Unfortunately, people who weren’t bothered about really getting to know her took this as the whole person. Add that to the English stand-offish thing where a lot of people have a problem about a woman being loud, no bullshit, & in your face… I’m not turning her into some kind of saint though - for example, she could be quite racist at times & we had arguments about that, or come out with rather adolescent stuff like “The Nazis were cool, man”. And like any of us, she could be a pain in the arse sometimes but I’d say she was one of the most honest people I’ve ever met.

As I think I said in the Mudkiss interview, the whole view of her as the Punk Yoko Ono who came from NYC & destroyed our good English punk boys is way too simplistic as well as wrong. Scratch any of the Nancy haters & you’ll find a nasty mix of sexism, anti-Semitism & xenophobia just below the surface..

Molly - Some of the “Nauseating Nancy”-people make out that she was really promiscuous?


Den - I don’t really accept that. It’s too judgmental anyway. I mean, “Young woman enjoys sex”?! - big deal, that probably covers about half the planet. But, even in their terms, I wouldn’t say that was true of Nancy when I knew her.

Molly - What was Nancy like in arguments?

Den - What do you expect? Wouldn’t give an inch ever!
Nancy was very feisty in an argument but also very articulate, & could develop and explore whatever it was & explain her point of view. Sure, if the other person was being ignorant, loud or abusive she could do that, too. But you learnt after a while that if it was about books, tv or music facts, she tended to be right. All that reading…

Of course things were different when it came to her arguments with Sid. A lot of the time she’d start them, doing this real Lady Macbeth thing of goading and taunting him as a wimp & a failure.
Looking at it now, there was a very unhealthy dynamic going on where they’d humiliate & insult each other, leading to total depression & then coming back up out of it & refinding each other emotionally, if that makes sense.
There’d also be quite a lot of talk about self- harming - if you’re upset or angry its better to hurt and cut yourself than do it to someone else etc. It’s still an area I haven’t completely understood or come to terms with, as I feel now
that a true friend shouldn’t just sit by & go “Oh that’s their business…” when there’s physical & emotional violence going on.

Molly - Did you ever witness any violence? Were there ever rows with dealers?

Den - In view of how things ended, this is really too big & central a subject in their lives to get into here. This is the section of my book that I’m writing at the moment, as I felt the whole issue of violence around both of them needed to be tackled head on & away from the main narrative. There’ll be a similar section on drugs.

I witnessed quite a lot of violence between the two of them, & again it was nearly always tied in with very complex dynamics in their relationship. As I say, we could really do a whole interview just on this subject.

There was also the alcohol factor - Sid on drugs was nearly always ok, whatever the quantity - but one bottle of Pils & he’d turn into this nasty, leery, argumentative guy who you’d do best to avoid. I’d say that side took over towards the end when he was numbed-out on methadone most of the time.

There were any number of scenes with dealers. At first I’d thought being a punk rock star would mean being given endless freebies & turn-ons by fans & dealers. In fact it was the exact opposite - people would try to charge him more, plus he soon started getting a bad reputation for not paying his drug debts. I ticked him a few grams once, thinking that I was a mate & he’d do the right thing. I soon learnt different! The last time I saw Sid was a petty argument over drugs that suddenly started to feel uncomfortable. Nancy made sure I got out of their place alright. It wasn’t long after that when I heard someone had od’d in their front room & I took that as a bit of an omen to stay clear. Plus my own problems were starting to take over by then.

Molly - Did Sid ever talk about his childhood, his mum and his drug use before Nancy came along?

Den - At the time we met, they were staying at his mum’s place in Dalston & hating it. Nancy & his mum didn’t get on at all & Sid couldn’t stand her boyfriend, an old hippie who spent all day eating cornflakes & playing Jefferson Airplane albums.

I don’t think I can recall Sid ever saying a good word about her. He used to say that his main memory of being a small child was of her pushing him away so she could have another fix.


Molly - Do you know when Sid first took smack?

Den - From reading things like John Robb’s excellent “Punk Rock: An Oral History” & a few other recollections from people on the early London punk scene, it’s clear that there are conflicting views and versions on this. Some people say that Sid used to shoot up sulphate & be ok on it, but lost it once Nancy (or Johnny Thunders) introduced him to fixing H.

My recollection though is that Sid was always adamant that Nancy hadn’t got him into doing anything he wasn’t already doing, which I took as meaning that he’d taken/injected heroin before he met her.


Molly - Did Sid & Nancy do any other drugs?

Den - They’d take most things if they were around, apart from smoking hash. So there’d be bits of speed or coke, sometimes weed, but mainly opiates for obvious reasons.

Molly - Did you ever think, or guess, or realise, that Nancy was ill? Did you ever think she was acting strangely?


Den - I’m not quite sure here what you mean about Nancy being “ill”, & I certainly never thought of her as strange, then or since.

In some ways she was a natural survivor who’d come through some tough shit at a pretty young age, but at other times she’d go into a kind of little girl thing of not really looking after herself & wanting other people to take care of her.

She had quite bad asthma attacks but was always losing or forgetting her inhaler... We had to call an ambulance a few times, or otherwise it was up the road to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. She had an abscess on her leg which she’d never get properly cleaned up & that was a problem too.

Molly - Did you recognise the Nancy you knew in her mum’s book? The anger fits etc...

Den - It’s so long since I read that book - I’m going to have to check it out again.
When I did read it, I found it very intense & emotional, but my main impression was that there was a big difference in what I’d heard from Nancy about her childhood & upbringing & what Deborah Spungen was saying.

But I certainly could equate the angry, permanently unhappy child with Nancy. I could identify a lot with her experiences as my upbringing was very similar - well-off & well-meaning parents, nice things & nice house, but love was always very conditional, & with parents who were very conventional & emotionally restricted, only interested in me when I was a Good Boy doing what they wanted.

She’d been through all that too. That was certainly where a lot of her anger at her parents came from - the American Dream type obsession with possessions how many cars you had out the front - social status, impressing the neighbours, and so on. She felt all that as being totally stultifying & claustrophobic.
It was like a rage to have some real spontaneous feelings & experiences & to not be just another token of your parents’ success.


Molly - What was Nancy like when she wasn’t on drugs? (In the Record Mirror interview from early 1978, Sid & Nancy claim to have been off heroin for a while)

Den - I have to say I take that with a pinch of the proverbial … sure, there were times when she, all of us, couldn’t score or didn’t have money & would be clucking for a couple of days.

She & Sid would get so desperate they’d make a whole masochistic ritual of shooting up plain water. But as far as deliberately getting off drugs, I don’t think so.

Around the time of that interview, Virgin had started getting worried about the drug-related craziness around their new investment & fixed them up with a private doctor & a huge methadone script. Equally, it was very much the kind of head game they were into with each other - to say “Let’s get clean” & then see who cracked first. They had a pretty fatalistic attitude to their habits, the whole “Born to lose” thing…

Well, as I said a while back, they both had to get pretty media-savvy once the tabloids started pursuing them, & doing “exclusive” interviews was also a good way of getting cash to score. Nancy was smart enough to know that the papers wouldn’t be interested in basically printing the same story over & over - especially once the Pistols weren’t functioning any more - and that a new angle had to be found.
As we see to this day, not mentioning any names of course, it’s “My drug hell” + a bit of repentance is a great newspaper favourite & always sells.

Molly - And finally - what do you think Nancy’d have made of Amy Winehouse?

Den - (Laughs) I doubt that she’d have had much time for Amy’s music. I have a feeling she’d have dismissed her as a bit of a lightweight wannabe. Nancy had a very sharp intelligence for detecting any fakery in people, & I think she’d have found Amy W too contrived & calculating in her image. But there’s a chance there might be some solidarity & shared experience there. If they’d met, I’m sure it would either have been a party or a cat-fight!

 

Copyright ©2009 Den Browne/ nancys.110mb.com

Thanks to Molly Johnson/ Johnny Green & Inga for the photo of Den

 

CHECK OUT MOLLY JOHNSON'S SITEhttp://nancys.110mb.com