"LEXICON DEVIL : The Fast Times & Short Life of Darby Crash & the Germs" by Brendan Mullen, with Don Bolles & Adam Parfrey (Feral House pbk £12-99/Amazon £11-69)
This book tells the story of Paul Beahm a.k.a Bobby Pyn a.k.a Darby Crash, & his group, the Germs. The action takes place against a background of the LA hardcore punk scene of the late 70's/early 80's. Hardcore was the kind of local variation/evolution that took placed wherever punk took root. The hardcore scene initially saw punk as a combination of 60's garage rock & early '70's glam. There was an explicit rejection of what was seen as New York/East Coast "critics' rock" - Velvet Underground, Ramones, Television, Patti Smith & co. UK punk was initially an inspiration & respected, but after a while it became derided as "fashion rock" by the likes of Darby Crash & Pat Smear (Germs' guitarist, later of Nirvana & Foo Fighters fame). Its quite a shift in cultural attitudes to find Queen & the Sweet as ruling icons on the scene. There was also a total rejection of trad rock'n'roll sounds & values by Darby Crash & Pat Smear, highlighted by a gloriously stupid version of Chuck Berry's "Around & Around".
Starting out as a teenage Bowie fanatic & acidhead, Darby Crash then turned into a pretty blatant copyist of early 70's Iggy - tick boxes for playing topless, onstage self-harming, throwing peanut butter at the audience, hard drugs, etc. Initially, the Germs made no pretence of being able to play, it was all about attitude - basically their "gigs" were an excuse for the group & their crew to party & wreck the joint. Gradually they developed musically & lyrically, but were constantly thwarted by things like being banned from most of the clubs, Darby frequently being too out of it to perform, & perennial drummer problems. Equally, as soon as the punk scene started to become visible, it became the target for some seriously violent persecution from the LA police, setting the tone for the element of danger that always lay just beneath the surface.
Author Brendan Mullen & his collaborators Don Bolles (Germs' drummer) & Adam Parfrey were all involved at the heart of the scene, & reading between the lines, its clear that it isn't a totally harmonious collaboration. The book takes the form of a mass of quotes from interviews edited together thematically, with very little in the way of linking narrative. Generally this works, although it takes a while to get familiar with all the many characters involved, & I spent a fair amount of time thumbing back to the cast list at the end of book before I learnt to tell Tony the Hustler from Regi Mentle or Black Randy, let alone Tomata du Plenty.
Apart from the story it tells, this is a really well-produced book, with masses of fascinating photos of the players & places on the emerging hardcore scene. There are also great reproductions of flyers & posters for gigs, bands & clubs - brilliant! This is the kind of stuff that so often gets lost. In addition, there's a Germs discography, gig list/time-line, & that essential guide to the characters.
Thus the story's told very much through the characters - and what a bunch they are. The book doesn't make any pretence of idealising the scene or softening the edges - it’s made clear that for the most part, we're dealing with a bunch of addicts, wasters, wannabes, fakers, rip-off artists & general scumbags. There are also cameo appearances for jaded & cynical old scenesters like Kim Fowley & Rodney Bingenheimer. And while its no surprise to find Joan Jett as a kind of patron at the heart of the scene, its amusing to see latterday Go Go's Belinda Carlisle & Jane Weidlin down deep in hardcore.
This does make the book a depressing & negative read at times - it describes a chaotic & increasingly violent scene, & it’s hard to feel much in the way of respect or empathy for most of the characters. John Doe & Exene Cervenka - 2 of the relatively "elder statesmen" on the scene - and maybe Pat Smear are among the few people to come out of this story with much credit or integrity.
Which leads us to the heart of the matter - the nature of Darby Crash himself (I'll stick to this name for the sake of convenience, although the book goes along with each name change). At times he comes across as an absolute moron, with a brainless fixation on a really cartoonish take on the Sid Vicious story - duh! I'll be in a group/I'll get fucked up on drugs/I'll kill myself/I'll be famous. There's always a parasitic & manipulative side to his dealings with other people, using them or simply expecting them to get him whatever he wants. Then there's a slightly more advanced version where he'd claim he'd based his whole trip schematically on Bowie's song "Five Years".
Some of the people in the book see his character as a carefully made construct of his heroes & influences, with a chameleon like ability to adapt to whatever environment he was in. Others propose that he was too real for his own good. There's no shortage of people who don't have a good word for someone they see as a fake & a user of people. He's certainly full of contradictions & confusion, the biggest being around his sexuality. Although there's a sub-story running thru the book of various women claiming to have been intimate with him - and an entourage of female followers/providers who cater to his material needs - it’s pretty clear that Darby Crash was gay. He had a series of intense relationships during the Germs time, one of which even involved sacking their original drummer, Don Bolles in order to have his boyfriend Rob Henley (who couldn't play at all) in the group! The paradox is that for someone who was manically out-front & confrontational in every other area, Darby was very much in the closet about his sexuality, & was terrified that he'd lose status on the scene if it was known that he was gay.
For a while the Germs looked on course for success, as they tightened up musically & Darby's lyrics & song-writing improved significantly. Their contemporaries were groups like the awesome X (the punk Jefferson Airplane - that's a compliment btw!), the Dils, the Weirdo’s & the Bags. However, what had initially been a cultish, small-scale local scene where everyone pretty much knew everyone else soon started to expand & attract a new mass audience who had little interest in the original aims & values. Soon gigs were invaded by masses of skinheads & Nazi punks fighting, women are largely banished from gigs as they degenerate into beered-up mosh-pit violence. Many of the guys on this new macho hardcore scene are the same ones who were beating up punks a year or two before - but then as pony-tailed Lynyrd Skynyrd fans?!
In this book, Black Flag & their followers are presented as the main villains in this development. I don't have enough knowledge of the scene to know if this fair or not. Equally, a lot of the finer points of local knowledge, such as the difference between South Beach or Orange County, or between different high schools rather passed over my head, but I'd always rather have the detail. It’s certainly a different landscape to anything we knew in UK punk.
The Germs found themselves being overtaken by a swarm of groups like Fear, Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys & the Dils, & Darby's crazy change of drummer (see above) led to the demise of the group. After a trip to London in 1980, he tried a solo career as the Darby Crash Group, probably seeing himself as being able to do an Adam Ant style reinvention. After a few disastrous, credibility-destroying gigs he had to admit defeat, & was forced to try to get the original Germs' back together again. Some successful gigs followed, but the dynamics had been changed in the meantime, especially by the failure of the Darby Crash Group.
In one of the sharpest comments in the book, its said that Darby Crash started out believing that he was going to be as big or bigger than his heroes, David Bowie & Freddy Mercury, but when he eventually realised that he wasn't going to get global success, he thought he could settle for local/cult hero status - like cult psych heroes Arthur Lee & Love in the previous LA generation, the Germs rarely strayed far out of town. However, this consolation would only sustain an ego like his for so long. At the same time his heroin habit was getting seriously out of control & he was sinking into more & more nihilism & depression. This culminated in a suicide pact with his latest woman benefactor, Casey Cola. She gave him $400 to score enough h to kill them both. Although she was a heroin neophyte, she survived while hardcore junkie Darby Crash died (which led to her vilification & banishment on the LA scene). This was of course meant to be the final act in his "Five Years” master plan - but in a typically ironic twist of fate, his chosen death day turned out to be the day of John Lennon's murder in NYC & barely made the papers. In one of the book's crueller statements, someone says words to the effect of "Well, that's Darby, couldn't even get his big exit right..."
Really, you have to listen to the Germs for this to all make sense. Musically, they blaze out a ferocious firestorm of staccato, uncompromising noise - tracks are often very short, & the no-guitar-solos/anti rock'n'roll policy rules. Once you hear & read the lyrics, the Darby Crash mystique is easier to understand. For someone capable of acting like a complete tosser a lot of the time (& the book did come close to being tossed across the room a couple of times), his lyrics are some of the sharpest & most intelligent in punk. Apparently he was a voracious reader & consumer of ideas and this fascination with words is really evident in songs like the aptly-named "Lexicon Devil", "Cat's Clause", "Circle One", "Forming", & "Sex Boy". Its a long way from "Beat on the brat." I think its fitting to leave the last words to the man himself:-"I want toy tin soldiers that can push & shove
Other Stuff: There's quite a lot of Darby Crash/Germs in Penelope Spheeris' excellent LA punk documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization" - but it doesn't seem too available right now. If anyone's got a spare copy, contact me direct or via Mudkiss! For more info about the hardcore scene, there are two books I'd really recommend - Michael Azerrad's "Our Band Could Be Your Life - scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991", & Stephen Blush's "American Hardcore - a Tribal History".
The early recordings - such as the "Lexicon Devil" ep & the essential "GI" album are hard to find now (although "GI" is available as an mp3 download on Amazon, £7-99), but fear not, just about everything the Germs did is rounded up on "MIA - the complete anthology" (£8-97 on Amazon). As a footnote, Bob Woodward's John Belushi biography "Wired - the short life & fast times of John Belushi" (pbk, 1989) contains some great anecdotes about Fear & general backgound on the LA hardcore scene.
There are also a couple of dvd's which look interesting, but I haven't seen them yet. Shane West "What we do is secret" (no UK release yet?) & "Germs - Media Blitz", the Germs story as told by drummer Don Bolles.
Reviewed by Den Browne