Graded on a Curve:
Germs, (GI)

We remember The Germs’ Lorna Doom who passed away on Wednesday, January 17 with a look back from our archives. Ed.

Poor Darby Crash. First the Germs charismatic and drug-abusing lead singer returned from England a converted Adam Ant fan (very bad form, very bad form indeed), then he had the amazingly bad luck to die in a suicide pact the day before the murder of John Lennon, thus ensuring his death would receive virtually no recognition in the press.

Fortunately neither his Antdom nor his ill-timed deliberate death by heroin overdose have sullied his posterity, and his pre-planned live-fast-die-young career continues to contribute to what practically amounts to a cult. And I get it. The guy was loony tunes, but he also had charisma. Germs drummer Don Bolles recalls, “With a little more luck and concentrated effort, Darby could have fulfilled his plan to be the new Jesus/Bowie/Manson/Hitler/L Ron Hubbard… he was a natural messiah type, whose heroic consumption of LSD helped make him the most psychedelic prankster I have ever known.”

Fortunately he started a punk band instead, and not just any punk band. As Germs guitarist Pat Smear recollects, “Whatever we were going to be, we were going to be the most. If we’re gonna be punk, then we are gonna out-punk the Sex Pistols! If we are gonna be the worst band ever, then we are gonna be the fucking worst band ever!” As the lead singer for what I like to think was one of the worst bands in history, those are inspiring words indeed.

But my favorite Darby Crash story has nothing to do with the Germs, but rather Pop Rocks. Remember the candy that detonated like little hand grenades in your mouth? Well, in We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk, Gerber (aka Michelle Bell) recalls the time she and Crash were walking through a parking garage towards two Persian gentlemen who, faced with a couple of deranged looking punkers, assumed they were being mugged. So they threw themselves to the ground and offered up their wallets. This amused Crash and Gerber so much they figured they had to find a way to up the ante, so Gerber—who just happened to have a pack of Pop Rocks in her pocket—barked, “You will snort the Pop Rocks!” Which the poor pair promptly did. Notes Gerber, “You could actually hear them blowing up in their sinuses!” Leave it to Crash to be a participant in one of the most bizarre crimes ever committed.

Crash (aka Jan Paul Beahm, aka Bobby Pyn) was born less than a month before I was in 1958. He had a troubled childhood and attended a school that combined elements of est and Scientology, subjects that would lead to his fascination with mind control, fascism, and cults. But he gravitated towards the LA music scene and started a band called Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens, which might have remained their name except it wouldn’t fit on a t-shirt. Germs, on the other hand, passed the t-shirt test with ease. And if their early performances were chaotic exercises in Dada, they gradually developed into a band that could actually play their instruments.

I wasn’t a fan for the longest time; the Germs (who in addition to Crash, Smear, and Bolles featured Lorna Doom on bass) simply never struck me as being anything special. But I’ve been converted over the years, in large part due to Crash’s vocals, which in terms of unintelligibility and sheer guttural impact almost equal those of punk rock’s finest demonstration of vocal incoherence, namely Curt Kirkwood’s magnificent performance on the first Meat Puppets album. As I’ve written before, Kirkwood sounds like a lawnmower attempting to unclog itself. Whereas Crash sounds like an animal in extremis, cornered and snarling, ready to fight to the death.

The Germs were only around long enough to record one studio album, but it’s a doozy. Produced by Joan Jett and released in 1979 by Slash Records, (GI) captures Crash at his animalistic best, slurring his words, spitting out consonants like loose teeth, barking out phrases, and stretching out the occasional word or phrase to the breaking point. On some songs, “Lexicon Devil” for instance, he’s borderline intelligible, while on others (“Manimal”) your guess as to what he’s saying is as good as mine. He’s a caged panther is what it says on the lyric sheet, and like a caged panther he’s not interested in whether you can understand him; he just wants to escape, and then tear you to pieces.

Crash wasn’t fucking around—although everyone assumed he was—when he established a five-year plan for achieving notoriety and then killing himself. Just listen to “We Must Bleed,” which features a buzzsaw guitar and Crash repeating the title and later the phrase “I want out now,” if you need evidence that he wasn’t playing. It’s a great tune, as is the bona fide catchy “Lexicon Devil,” which with its “gimme gimme this gimme gimme that” gives Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme” a run for its money. As for “Manimal,” it’s one of the most feral tunes you’re ever likely to hear, with Crash serving up a growl that goes on and on and on, that is when he isn’t channeling the Devil. He takes on Iggy Pop on Pop’s ground and tops him; Pop never sounded this desperate or demonic.

“What We Do Is Secret” is hardcore, short and in your face, with the band shouting the title and getting in and out in a mere 44 seconds. “Richie Dagger’s Crime” is another catchy number, with Crash spewing vitriol while the band actually swings. Smear’s guitar riff towards the end is great, and Bolles knocks the hell out of the drums, and the song is followed by the equally cool “Strange Notes,” on which Smear plays some great power chords and Crash spits out the lyrics, enraged. “American Leather” is another winner, with Crash slobbering but at least making the title intelligible. “Our Way” isn’t my fave on the LP; it’s a bit sluggish and Crash sounds like he’s slogging through the thing, maxxed out on Mandrax. “The Other Newest One” isn’t a fave either, due to its lack of velocity and vocal urgency, but it includes a great chorus: “You’re not the first/You’re not the last/Another day/Another crash.”

“Communist Eyes” is a real highlight, with Darby almost sounding like a traditional punk rocker while the band plays a melody that kinda reminds me of Husker Du to come. “Land of Treason” features Crash spitting out his words like a Sten gun, while the band demonstrates that it has the loud, fast, and furious formula down pat. “Media Blitz” isn’t the best song on the LP, but Darby’s “got television” and the sound bites from various media keep things interesting. “Let’s Pretend” is fast and catchy, and features Crash doing things with his vocal chords that defy scientific explanation, and goes out on a long instrumental riff by Smear and Company.

Crash’s lyrics on “Dragon Lady” are as indecipherable as the Mayan codex would be to you and I, but it doesn’t do much for me. “The Slave” features some interesting guitar pyrotechnics by Smear and Crash’s usual gargle and is over before you know it, leaving only LP closer “Shut Down (Annihilation Man),” an almost 10 minute death dirge in which Crash makes every sort of noise possible, while Smear plays squiggly guitar figures behind him and Donnie Rose—whoever he is—contributes some cool piano plink and plonk. On this one they’ve entered Flipper territory, and it’s mesmerizing, thanks in large part to Bolles’ drum crash and Smear’s increasingly far out distorto guitar. I love it, because I’m a lover of noise rock and this is definitely noise rock, and top shelf noise rock at that. Would the Germs have done more in this mode? We’ll never know. But I like to think they would have.

The Germs—live and in the studio—were as visceral an experience as having Pop Rocks go off in your nostrils, and Crash’s caterwaul hasn’t had too many imitators, thanks to the fact that very few people live as close to the life-death divide as he did. I can’t think of a sound as purely animalistic as that of the Germs, except as I’ve mentioned the Meat Puppets on their first album, and theirs was obviously a lark, while Crash was, to borrow the phrase Lester Bangs once used to describe Iggy Pop, “a blowtorch in bondage.”

Crash was dead set on being dead, but was no idiot like GG Allin. His desperation and rage came from a place that was as intellectual as it was emotional, and in this sense he was like the Dada suicides of the early 20th Century. It’s said that Jacques Vache, Dada saint, killed himself as casually as another man might turn off a light switch, and Crash’s self-murder was similarly matter of fact. He held his life in his hands and simply let it drop, which doesn’t make him a hero but certainly makes him a fascinating figure. Some people simply don’t care much for this world. It bores them. Or causes them too much psychic pain. I don’t know which category Crash falls into (I suspect both), but he was here for a moment and then he was gone, and I think it’s safe to say we’ll never see his likes again.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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