Strange Notes: The Story of Darby Crash and The Germs

He was Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious rolled into one. A befuddled punk prophet with a brilliant mind whose rise was as shocking as his fall. As lead singer of the Germs, Darby Crash presided over the birth of the L.A. punk scene in 1977 and signalled its demise with his suicide three years later.
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He was Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious rolled into one. A befuddled punk prophet with a brilliant mind whose rise was as shocking as his fall. As lead singer of the Germs, Darby Crash presided over the birth of the L.A. punk scene in 1977 and signalled its demise with his suicide three years later.

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His was a vision of chaos that would never come to pass. But in their brief three-year career, the Germs released one fiery punk classic in the 1979 Joan Jett-produced album G.I. and a handful of raucous singles.

The Germs started out as nothing more than a name scrawled on a ragged, self-made t-shirt worn by buck-toothed Bowie freak Jan Paul Beahm and his rangy mixed-blood sidekick Georg Ruthenberg. Beahm would later rechristen himself as Darby Crash. Ruthenberg would reinvent himself as Germs guitarist Pat Smear. But back then they were just two teenage tearaways from West L.A. who met through a mutual speed dealer and both attended Santa Monica’s University High.

At IPS, the school within the school that both Beahm and Ruthenberg were enrolled in, the curriculum was based on Scientology training techniques. Language was used as a means to retool potential followers in subtle ways,  implanting a strangulated grammar and lingo specific to members of the cult. Although utterly disinterested in learning during his time at IPS, Beahm became obsessed with the idea of using words to manipulate others, initially drawn to the connections between the Scientology mumbo-jumbo with the discombobulated cut-up phraseology he heard on his favourite album, David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars. Could rock and roll, he thought, be used to program and control people just like religion.

Beahm and Ruthenberg were also obsessed with The Family, Ed Sanders largely-fictional account of the Manson Family murders. They identified with the killers; inspiring them to bruing their own brand of terror to the high school by roaming the hallways with X’s scrawled on their foreheads with magic marker (in the vein of Manson Family members). “The teachers were attempting to brainwash us, while teaching us brainwashing techniques,” Ruthenberg recalled in Lexicon Devil, Brendan Mullenn’s involving oral history of The Germs part in the LA punk scene. “Meanwhile, we were taking tons of acid and acting out as wanna-be rock stars.”

The duo were eventually expelled for initiating their own cult within the cult. “We convinced about half the kids that I was God and [George] was Jesus,” Beahm said in one interview, “this one girl almost had a nervous breakdown.”

In 1975, Beahm renamed himself Bobby Pyn. Ruthenberg became Pat Smear, a moniker he stuck by in his post-Germs career as a sideman for Nirvana and Foo Fighters. Their original choice of name, Sophistifuck & the Revlon Spam Queens, wouldn’t fit on a t-shirt and so exchanged for the pithier and punkier Germs because, claimed Smear in the band’s first interview for LA fanzine Slash (the Rolling Stone of the punk scene), “we make people sick”.

He looked quite a sight, his torso bound in red licorice whips that promptly melted into a gooey red mess under the stage lights. And to distract attention from the fact that they had few songs to speak of and little idea of how to play them, the singer smeared peanut butter all over his body in a puerile homage to Iggy Pop.

Rounding out the group were two Valley girls obsessed by Queen; Terri Ryan (aka Lorna Doom) on bass and Belinda Carlisle (then known as Dottie Danger) on drums. Carlisle dropped out before the band had even played a note. She was replaced by a Krautrock fanatic from Phoenix called Don Bolles, who was forced to set up his kit and audition in a pool of beer and piss in the toilets of a basement club in Hollywood called the Masque.

When they first emerged on the Hollywood music scene, the Germs were considered little more than a joke. Their first gig in May 1977, supporting art school punks The Weirdos at the tiny Orpheum Theater on Sunset Boulevard, was undertaken as a dare. Nervouse as hell, Bobby Pyn landed on stage, and fortified by quaaludes washed down with Cold Duck, a dirt-cheap blend of red and sparkling wine. He looked quite a sight, his torso bound in red licorice whips that promptly melted into a gooey red mess under the stage lights. And to distract attention from the fact that they had few songs to speak of and little idea of how to play them, the singer smeared peanut butter all over his body in a puerile homage to Iggy Pop.

Their next show at the Whiskey two months later – promoted by record industry ghoul Kim Fowley, the manager of the Runaways – found Bobby anointing the crowd with powdered sugar during a wretched cover of the Archies bubblegum classic ‘Sugar Sugar’. When that failed to get a reaction he would bait them with barbed comments. As word spread that the band’s performances were messy, violent and usually ended in utter chaos, many local venues barred them from playing altogether.

A rare show outside LA in January 1978, at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens, took place the same night that the Sex Pistol’s final performance at Winterland Arena. With Sid Vicious standing in the wings, the Germs singer knew he had to go . He strode on stage, glugged down a beer and smashed the bottle on his head then etched a bloody circle on his chest with the jagged edge while snarling, ‘I’m Darby Crash. A social blast, chaotic master’. Those were the opening lines of ‘Circle One’, a track off the Germs’ newly-released Lexicon Devil EP, but they also heralded Beahm’s transformation from Bobby Pyn, a bleached-blonde goofball in safety-pinned denim, to Darby Crash, an endearing, leather-clad goon cum death cult leader who cited his forebears as Sceintology-founder L Ron Hubbard, Adolf Hitler, David Bowie and Oswald Spengler.

Unlike his idols, Darby didn’t bother to manipulate minds in the traditional sense. He simply blurted out ‘gimme’ in a bratty whine – as in ‘gimme-a-beer, a-ride, or a-dollah’ – and someone usually complied. He also encouraged his small coteries of followers, collectively known as Circle One, to wear a a black armband bearing a blue circle as a symbol to identify themselves. Diehard fans went one further, branding their band loyalty by applying a lit cigarette to the wrist bone. It left a neat circular scar. The catch was that these ‘Germs Burns’ could only be administered by someone who had already been initiated by someone else with the same mark.

Relations with his gaggle of female groupies remained strictly platonic because Darby was gay, a fact he kept hidden from even his closet friends and colleagues up until his death.

Among those most devoted to Darby were a gang of shockingly-attired scream queens, among them Hellin Killer, Trudie Plunger, Alice Bag, Pleasant Gehman, who cohabited at the Canterbury, a decrepit Hollywood apartment building that was a haven for hustlers and heroin addicts. The girls helped facilitate Darby’s lifestyle. They drove him places, bought him food, beer and, most importantly, drugs, without which the tremendously-shy singer was unable to take the stage. But relations with his gaggle of female groupies remained strictly platonic because Darby was gay, a fact he kept hidden from even his closet friends and colleagues up until his death.

Synth-punk LA stalwarts the Screamers were the only ‘out’ band in an overwhelmingly-macho scene and the Germs singer was terrified that should the truth come out his legion of fans would desert him. Darby went so far to cover up his sexuality that a fiction was contrived for his segment in Decline Of The Western Civilisation Part I, Penelope Spheeris’ seminal documentary on the LA punk scene. At the time, he was sharing an apartment behind Graumann’s Chinese Theatre with a character called Tony Hustler, who would turn tricks in the front room while Darby sat alone in his room out back. When Spheeris came to film, Darby made Tony disappear and drafted high school friend Michelle Bauer to look on fondly while he is interviewed in the kitchen, giving the impression that they were a cosy punk couple.

“What kind of drugs do you take when you're on stage?” Spheeris asks off-camera. “Anything,” drawls Darby. He is seated at a table, eating a fried egg sandwich that Bauer has just cooked up for him. On the wall behind him is a poster for the London Evening News that reads ‘Sid Vicious On Murder Charge’. “Usually I take speed, or something,” he continues blithely, “and then that gets too nervous, so I do some kind of downers. And then I start drinking.” Spheeris then cuts to live footage of the Germs that confirms how far gone the singer had to be before he could take the stage; he collapses on stage before singing a note and then seems to misplace the microphone. When he recovers it, Darby doesn’t so much sing as bawl and snarl, unleashing a splurge of mangled syllables in a sustained expression of angst and pain, most of which doesn.

When Spheeris asks later why he doesn’t sing in to the mic, Darby mumbles, “I don't pay attention. Or I'm too loaded.” He liked to play dumb, amping up his image as an inane monosyllabic punk rocker. But this public persona was belied by the keenly-crafted lyrics to Germs classics such as ‘Forming’, ‘Lexicon Devil’, ‘Communist Eyes’ and ‘Richie Dagger’s Crime’, which seemed fixated on the idea of channelling teenage angst into a more potent form of rebellion, a new order out of adolescent chaos.

If nothing else, Darby’s apocalyptic obsessions were a clear sign that, as a group, the Germs had a built-in obsolence. He intimated as much in an 1978 interview with Flipside, explaining that “All it was meant to be was a step to go onto to something else.” According to high school buddy Will Amato, Darby considered Ziggy Stardust to be the Mein Kampf of pop. It provided the blueprint and battle-plan for his conquest of LA’s indolent youth. And just like Ziggy, Darby seemed determined to exit while his star was still in the ascendant. Repeated references to his own ‘Rock’n’roll Suicide’ were dismissed out of hand for years by his friends.

At just 22, Darby was being referred to as a has-been. His original following of fun-loving Hollywood punks had been replaced by a contingent of sinister surfer kids from nearby Orange County

But if there was indeed a plan, it went awry the moment Darby abruptly replaced Germs drummer Don Bolles with the current object of his affections, a snotty young surfer called Rob Henley who couldn’t play to save his life. After firing Bolles, Darby promptly took off for a two month to soak up the music scene in London (on a trip paid for entirely by another willihng female patron, Amber). He instructed Smear and Doom to teach Henley his parts during his absence. But they decided to disband the group instead.

On returning, Darby’s instinct to self-mythologise went awry. He formed a new band in his image, The Darby Crash Band, but kitted himself out in in combats, face paint and mohawk. What he figured was the height of London fashion was little more than an awkward imitation of Adam Ant’s dandy highwayman. With Pat Smear, the DC Band bombed during their first LA gigs playing a set that consisted mostly of old Germs songs.

At just 22, Darby was being referred to as a has-been. His original following of fun-loving Hollywood punks had been replaced by a contingent of sinister surfer kids from nearby Orange County, who were drawn to the burgeoning hardcore punk scene by the promise of hard rucking to the kind of aggressive and insistent rhythms that the Germs had pioneered. In order to numb himself enough to face increasingly-violent crowds, Darby’s increased his reliance on heroin. Once he had mainlined on the chaos he caused, but now it was threatening to suck him under.

In retrospect, it seems clear that his decision to reform the Germs for a reunion show was motivated to go out on a high; and in more ways than one. The show took place at the Starwood Hotel on December 3, 1980 and would be remembered as one of their best. Later that night, Darby’s current confidante Casey Cola drove him to a dealer where he bought $400 of heroin with the proceeds of the show. The couple then returned to Casey’s mother’s house where Darby injected his companion before administering his own fatal fix. When the girl was revived the next morning, Darby was lying dead next to her.

Shortly afterwards, unfounded rumours began to spread that he had laid himself out in a cruciform position beneath a sign reading ‘Darby Crash lies here’ and the legend of Darby Crash, punk martyr, was tirelessly set in motion. But history would conspire to cloud Darby’s final performance in any case because just twenty-four hours after he died John Lennon was assassinated and stole all the headlines.

Lexicon Devil: The Short Life and Fast Times of Darby Crash and The Germs by Brendan Mullen (with Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey) is published by Feral House. The Germs are featured on Black Hole (Domino Records), a new compilation of L.A. punk rock by Jon Savage.

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