There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Anyone seeking proof that life imitates Repo Man—director Alex Cox’s 1984 spoof of the Los Angeles hardcore scene—need look no further than Page 174 of Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs. There, a friend of Crash—the punk legend whose wasted stage antics, utter indifference to his own physical well-being, and suicide at age 22 made him America’s answer to Sid Vicious—recounts an encounter that Crash and two friends had in a UCLA parking garage. On their way to an X show, they ran into a pair of foreign gentlemen who, horrified to discover themselves in the presence of bona fide punk rockers, fell unbidden to the cement and meekly offered up their wallets, pleading, “Don’t hurt us!” The amused punkers, not being the types to look a gift wallet in the mouth, graciously accepted these offerings, then, before parting, decided that they had to do something bloodthirsty to justify all the fear they’d inspired:
So we all checked our pockets, and I was like, “Pop Rocks! I have Pop Rocks!” So we told them, “You will now snort the Pop Rocks.” Sure enough, they snorted the Pop Rocks—you could actually hear them blowing off up in their sinuses…
True or not, this charade of play-acted menace on one hand and real terror on the other goes far toward explaining why punk may well be remembered as the last kind of music to matter. Punk actually had the capacity to outrage and terrify the normals—which is what attracted so many semi-fucked-up kids, such as Los Angeles native Jan Paul Beahm (aka Bobby Pyn, aka Darby Crash), in the first place.
Former Germs drummer Don Bolles, Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey, and co-author Brendan Mullen offer in Lexicon Devil a long overdue look at one of punk’s most enigmatic figures—the punk who would be Fuhrer. This oral biography—which takes its title from one of the Germs’ best songs—compiles the recollections of Crash’s friends and associates, and forms a kind of companion piece to 2001’s We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk. The books even share a co-author in Mullen, who founded the Masque, the underground club/rehearsal space that was the ground zero of the L.A. punk movement.
Crash’s home life sounds anything but idyllic. One friend described the future Germ’s mother as “a hideous monster”; another described her as a “Divine-like” personage who would barge into Crash’s bedroom while the two of them were naked and “blazing on acid” to growl, “Do you want some potato chips?” (Crash loved taking LSD—he once told an interviewer that his idea of fun was taking 10 hits of acid, drinking a six-pack of beer, and going swimming at night off the Santa Monica Pier, because you could “just swim and it doesn’t matter if you live or die or anything…”)
Crash seems to have been a curious admixture of mid-’70s California space case—a la Jeff Spicoli—and manipulator—so calculating that one of his school friends described him as “a fledgling Charles Manson.” He worshiped David Bowie, dug Queen, and—prepare to be shocked, all you punk-rock kids—plastered the walls of his room with posters of Peter Frampton. Yet he was also obsessed with fascism, Scientology, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and his dream was to one day be the head of his very own fascistic cult. He liked to tell people, “The ideal leader would be… me.”
Fortunately, Crash sublimated his “weird aspirations of fascist rule world domination” in punk rock, the advent of which caused him to tear down his Frampton posters and change his name from Paul Beahm to Bobby Pyn. Inspired by the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Damned, the 18-year-old Crash and longtime pal Georg Ruthenberg (aka Pat Smear) decided to form their own band. (Like Crash’s, Smear’s prepunk tastes were decidedly outre; he genuinely adored Queen and Yes, and liked to mortify more orthodox punkers by playing Yes songs note for note. He demonstrates the trick on the “Roundabout” intro to “No God,” the 1978 song that Slash Records released with “Lexicon Devil” and “Circle One.”)
They started out with the name Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens but changed to the Germs because, according to Crash, “We wanted to have T-shirts printed, and we didn’t have enough money for that long of a name.” The early Germs combined utter ineptitude and lots of onstage havoc, and quickly gained a reputation on the Hollywood punk scene as a sort of joke band. (The live “Sex Boy,” the B-side of “Forming,” the band’s 1977 debut single, offers a good example of their total disregard for musicality.)
But it wasn’t until 1978, when Arizonan Jimmy Giorsetti (aka Don Bolles) stepped in to play drums, that the band actually began to cohere. When the Germs released their debut album, (GI), in 1979, punks in America and England took notice. Produced by ex-Runaway Joan Jett, (GI) is a snarling, nihilistic, and yet surprisingly musical classic, one that stands up well beside the best of the Stooges, Ramones, and Sex Pistols.
But things went downhill from there. Crash’s drug problems—never one to say no to an illicit substance, he graduated from LSD and pills to full-blown heroin addiction—alienated his friends; he pissed off Smear and bass player Lorna Doom by insisting that Bolles be replaced by a total beginner. Then, to cap things off, he returned from a 1980 trip to London—one of his few trips out of the state of California—dolled up like Adam Ant, complete with face paint and a mohawk, which for some reason he insisted on referring to as a Mohican. Faced with an incompetent for a drummer and a drug-addled, Mohican-wearing Adam Ant clone for a lead singer, the Germs disbanded. Other than a few shows in San Francisco, they’d never played outside the L.A. area.
Following a stint as the leader of the short-lived Darby Crash Band, Crash reunited with the Germs for one glorious show at the Starwood Club in Hollywood, on Dec. 3, 1980. By all accounts, the show was an utter triumph. Yet four days later, Crash and a female friend, Casey Cola, both wrote suicide notes, then shot up what they expected to be lethal doses of heroin. Cola survived; Crash didn’t.
Crash almost assuredly assumed that his death would solidify his legend. Unfortunately, the day after he killed himself also happened to be the day John Lennon was murdered. In the hullabaloo over the ex-Beatle’s killing, Crash’s demise hardly made a splash, except to his friends, most of whom had grown almost resigned to its inevitability.
As Lexicon Devil makes clear, perhaps the saddest irony of Crash’s abbreviated existence is that, although he thought nothing of jumping barefoot into broken glass or shooting up with puddle water, he lived in desperate dread of being outed as a homosexual. While his fear was understandable—the late ’70s were a very different time, and the punk/hardcore scene was notoriously homophobic, with anti-gay statements the norm from bands like Fear, not to mention the Germs themselves—there’s something pathetic about Crash’s tortured inability to come to terms with his own sexuality. In the end, he didn’t give a shit what society at large thought about him, but was mortified that the Huntington Beach skinhead homophobes who idolized him might discover he was a fag. Many think this was a crucial factor in his decision to commit suicide.
Lexicon Devil is subject to the strengths and weaknesses of its format. Mullen, Bolles, and Parfrey attempt to channel a flood of voices—complementary and contradictory—into a coherent and chronological narrative stream. No attempt is made to establish the truth of a situation; rather, participants, from male hustlers to X’s John Doe to Kim Fowley, the legendary impresario responsible for the Runaways, are all allowed to present their versions of various events, Rashomon-style. The results are sometimes amusing—just about everyone under the sun takes credit for placing the Germs’ circle logo on (GI)—but just as often frustrating. Ultimately, wading through nearly 270 pages of one- and two-paragraph soundbites can grow tedious, even when the subject is a spellbinding mess whose every stage show became, in fellow punker Rik L. Rik’s apt description, “Just…like an Evel Knievel spectacle. Only Darby never made the canyon.”
To make matters worse, many of the anecdotes in Lexicon Devil appeared first in We Got the Neutron Bomb. As a result, anyone tempted to tackle both books should expect to suffer frequent jolts of deja vu. (On the positive side, the book is stuffed with cool photos. Why, there’s even one of notorious Hollywood Squares “pink triangle” Paul Lynde, who makes a surprise cameo appearance in the book.) Maybe someday somebody will do Crash—and L.A. punk in general—the favor of attempting to sift through the anecdotal evidence to write an objective appraisal. Unfortunately, Lexicon Devil is not that book. It’s an entertaining data dump (the Pop Rocks story alone makes it worthwhile), a Please Kill Me for folks who prefer L.A. nihilism to New York art posturing.
Poor Darby. He wanted his death to be an apotheosis, a grand gesture that would place him on a punk-rock pedestal. Instead his legacy lives on in the antiseptic corridors of America’s malls, emblazoned—a frozen image of self-immolating rebellion—on the T-shirts and buttons of the little punks who seem to spring, God bless them, like weird flowers from the irradiated soil of the American suburbs.
As for the Germs’ lasting impact, it depends whom you talk to. The ever-cynical Fowley says, “Darby was very likable, and from somewhere within his stupor he wrote some nonsense songs that if you were on heroin in the Midwest, you might enjoy.” Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, on the other hand, says, “The Germs wrote and played the best punk rock songs of all time.” Somewhere in the middle ground, truth is cowering and offering up its wallet. CP