Three decades ago this week, the world was waking to the news that the life of a genuine rock ‘n’ roll icon of his time – a man with a fervent following and a way with words – had ended tragically early.
Yet the front page headlines that Germs frontman Darby Crash hoped for when he overdosed on heroin December 7 eluded him when Beatles frontman John Lennon was shot a mere twenty-four hours later. The music world had lost its most prominent anti-establishment figurehead – and Crash became a footnote.
Thirty years later though, Crash’s reputation has rightly grown. To some he was of far greater importance than any Beatle. Because Crash represented a zenith for US punk – more destructive than Iggy, smarter than Sid, more chaotic than any of them. And with the Germs he ushered in the far more aggressive strains of 80s hardcore.
The Germs began in LA with Crash’s Bowie-inspired five year plan, which included a name change (he was born Jan Paul Beahm), self-abusive shows, one album, 1979’s Joan Jett-produced ‘GI’, and his death at 22. His demise coincided with the release of key punk documentary Decline Of The Western Civilisation, in which Crash starred in and was – quite literally – the poster boy for.
He couldn’t sing – he barely knew how to use a microphone – but Crash was a reader who appreciated the rhetorical power of the spoken word.
A child of the liberal 1960s who with guitarist friend Pat Smear attended a school where LSD consumption was encouraged, he manipulated the language of influences such as Nietzsche, Charles Manson and the Church of Scientology via mind games that ensnared a devout following of Hollywood runaways, rent boys and disaffected suburbanites, and in lyrics that contained flashes of brilliance. Songs like the intriguing ‘Manimal’: “I came into this world like a puzzled panther / Waiting to be caged…”
True initiates sported the ‘Germs burn’, a cigarette burn that represented the various circular patterns that Crash believed defined life. There are still people out there, now in their late 40s, who still have their scars, hidden but not forgotten.
Then there was Crash’s sexuality. He was gay but largely closeted to all but those who knew him closely. Some believed he feared how the emerging hardcore punks would react if they discovered their beloved leader favoured young punk boys in leather.
The Germs’ influence remains overlooked. Bands such as the Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction owe a debt, and Kurt Cobain loved them so much he asked guitarist Pat Smear to join Nirvana; Dave Grohl felt the same with Foo Fighters.
The chaotic nature of the Germs’ music is there in everything from GG Allin to My Chemical Romance, Rancid to Marilyn Manson and beyond. In 2007 Crash was immortalised in the film What We Do Is Secret.
So while many mourn the anniversary John Lennon’s passing this week, a smaller but no less committed group of fans will be remembering Darby Crash – fuck up, punk pin-up and sometime king of LA.