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Darby Crash, singer of the Germs, the most outrageous band on the West Coast, died tragically in 1980 when he committed suicide. He ought to have become a celebrated rock icon but his death was overshadowed by John Lennon’s murder the next day. Now a film about his explosive life has been made and the cult group has re-formed. Tim Adams tells a story of anarchy, chaos – and some music too.
In 1975, Paul Beahm, a 17-year-old, high-school dropout from West Los Angeles, whose brother had been murdered over a drug deal and whose stepfather had died unexpectedly three years earlier, devised a plan to make himself immortal. The plan would have the timeframe of his hero David Bowie’s apocalyptic anthem ‘Five Years’. It went like this: Beahm would form a band with his mates, spend a couple of years making it a cultish, outrageous live act, release one great album and then commit suicide to secure his legend.
Beahm proved himself as good as his word. His band, the Germs, with Beahm performing under the name Darby Crash, were, for a while, the most infamous punk band on the West Coast. By 1978, their appearances were occasions of such mayhem that they were routinely broken up by riot police. The Germs’ only album, (GI) (Germs Incognito), released in 1979, was widely acclaimed as a brutal masterpiece (an ‘aural holocaust,’ the LA Times suggested). And, as planned, on 7 December 1980, Darby formed a suicide pact with his then girlfriend, Casey Cola. They lay down together in her mother’s back room and injected themselves with the $400-worth of heroin they had bought with the last of their rent money. Crash died, Cola survived.
The one thing that did not go according to plan, however, was the timing of Darby Crash’s self-mythologising exit. Icons are not supposed to be upstaged, but on the day after Crash killed himself, John Lennon was murdered in Central Park and the world found a more genuine legend to mourn.
Crash’s designs on immortality were subsequently put on hold, but they have been revived in a film that retells the story of the ultimate live fast, die young life. Twenty-eight years on, Darby Crash may yet take what he always saw as his rightful place as a rock’n’roll martyr somewhere in the junkie’s pantheon between Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious.
Not long before he died, Darby Crash’s stage show had been preserved on film in The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris’s documentary about LA punk, a more theatrical, decadent relation to its slightly more venerable New York and London cousins. Grossman and his friends had watched that footage over and over. Crash, he suggests, was not only the most extreme but also the most romantic figure of that time and place. He had literally been the poster boy for Spheeris’s movie, pictured on the film’s promotional fliers passed-out drunk on stage, prefiguring his death mask by a couple of months. ‘Darby,’ Grossman says, ‘was at or very near the heart of a very important scene. He drew people to him. It’s an overused term but in the Los Angeles I grew up in he was a living legend.’
The movie is, necessarily, pitched somewhere between myth and reality. The Germs had been a polarising force and Grossman discovered that everyone he spoke to ‘had a different perspective and everything was always heightened when they remembered Darby. People cared a great deal that I got things right’.
No one cared more than the surviving members of the Germs, who had been rechristened by Crash: bass player Lorna Doom, guitarist Pat Smear (who went on to play with Nirvana and currently plays with the Foo Fighters) and the crazed drummer Don Bolles. All of them make large claims for Darby Crash, but none more so than Bolles. ‘With a little more luck and concentrated effort,’ he suggests, ‘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.’