Will Success Spoil Darby Crash?

The Germs Live at The Continental, NYC

By Hollis James

For a band that registers no more than a blip on the rock and roll continuum, the fact that The Germs are documented at all is impressive. Yet somehow the Germs may very well be—if there exists such a term—over documented. Can you name any other band (in any musical genre) whose first-ever gig and last-ever gig are both recorded, let alone widely available on CD? Not bad for a band that broke up even before their lead singer OD’d at the age of 22 on December 7, 1980. Dying a day before John Lennon was killed, Darby—in true Germs fashion—was, even in death, denied any attention or headlines in favor of a “real” musician. That sentiment might finally be changing as “The Germs,” such as they are, are playing again.

First, I offer a necessary tutorial—for the mainstream musical majority—on the high-class train wreck that was The Germs. Unlike other, more successful, punk bands that may dwarf them in both longevity and discography, only the Germs boast a pencil mark in every single box on the punk-rock checklist: brief career, check; drug overdose, check; sexual ambivalence, check; a cult following, check; an iconic logo—immortalized in both tattoo and t-shirt—check, blood-and-cake-drenched concerts, check. The Germs have even found immortalization in first book and now film form, which speaks to faith not only in the Germs usual fan base, but in what Hollywood producers are guessing is a much larger, younger group of iTunes-generation fans who currently remain unseen simply because no one has yet asked them to raise their hands.

Only time will tell if the Hollywood moneymen will succeed at the box office, as the Germs bio-pic, What We Do Is Secret, is about to take the first official census of Germs fans. No one—band included—can possibly guess the film’s chances for success. Do Germs fans even go to the movies? Barring that, do you have to be a Germs fan to enjoy the film or can the movie succeed on its own dramatic merits? Perhaps seeming at long last so close to wider acceptance only to tank at the box office would be, in many ways, the perfect (and inevitable) ending to the Germs story. This band is not remembered for their brief and all-too-few successes so much as for the sum of their failures.

The best moments of this sweaty, smoky night in New York made this Germs reunion tour not only worth having, but necessary. Pat Smear’s guitar ruled the night. The sonic swath he cut through the smoke of the Continental was so overpowering and unstoppable that it seemed as if he’d been dying to play these songs again after twenty-five years. That’s not surprising being that for the past few years Smear had been playing out—handcuffed by tame material and well-tuned guitars—with Foo Fighters. Bassist Lorna Doom and drummer Don Bolles have only improved with time, and it was apparent all night long that the three members of LA Punk royalty were thrilled to finally be getting their much-delayed due together. Lorna Doom shook the walls during “Shutdown.” Pat Smear set a land-speed record with “We Must Bleed.” And Don Bolles spit out a rapid-fire best during “What We Do Is Secret.” Even Shane had a couple of song highlights, as he seemed most comfortable with “My Tunnel,” and (not surprisingly) “Media Blitz.”

Shane West’s Hollywood pedigree didn’t boast anything that hinted at this career upturn/downturn. If a stint on the “Melrose Place in Scrubs” that is ER didn’t point the way, surely the Sean Connery-stoked oven-that-burnt-money, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, didn’t foretell of punk glory to come. But then, perhaps it makes perfect sense. Everyone loved saccharine but it got recalled for a reason; no actor wants to be known as the clean-cut boy-next-door, grinning like an idiot in every role. In a town where people make the term “type-cast” a career goal, winning the role of Darby Crash in a Germs bio-pic, then having the surviving members want to take you on tour, must have seemed like an all-expenses-paid trip to punk fantasy camp. And in concert, if you squint—and blur out the superior bone structure—West does bear a passing resemblance to Crash. And West has been delivering female fans to concerts just as (oddly) Darby did. What’s more, Smear, Bolles and Doom are all convinced that Darby would approve of West standing in for him—both on-stage and off. And even if he didn’t approve of West, at the very least, Darby would probably want to fuck him.

There have been some unfair things said of the West-led Germs, by the usual “Judas”-screaming purists. And to be fair, I’ve joined those jaundiced ranks in the past to spit vitriolic venom at other bands’ reunions. But this isn’t a Glenn Danzig-less Misfits or a “no-room-for-Jello” Dead Kennedys, this is a rare glimpse of everything that happened on stage—and went underappreciated—behind Darby Crash. Shane West isn’t using the Germs. If anything, the Germs are using him. He’s up there to take a bullet—punk rock cannon fodder—and he’s cool with it. Even if there is some ego involved on West’s part, can you blame him? Who wouldn’t want to be accepted as frontman by musicians with that much street cred? If you can’t tell that Shane’s heart is in the right place by the prosthetic crooked teeth he wears in the film or by the real-life Darby-inspired panther tattoo he got on his arm, you need only watch the pretty boy get doused by beer, punched in the face and booed roundly each night—during concerts he could easily have turned down—to realize that West is mainly getting off simply on being the major reason that three-fourths of the original Germs can finally tour. In a sense, that’s more than Darby did for them.

At its best, the tour stands as rare musical victory for Darby’s other suicide victims, the surviving, underappreciated musicians in his shadow—not to mention a long-overdue communal wake for the inner-Darby that crawls and curses within each of us. But it was ironically Shane West who inadvertently threw a spotlight on the one thing wrong with this Germs reunion when he allowed an audience member to grab the mic and sing...and it actually sounded better. At its worst (with either Shane West or any audience member) this might be punk-rock karaoke to the Nth degree—the inevitable result of star-fucker culture run amok, finally reaching a point that was once unforeseeable... star-necrophilia.

At the end of the day, “The Germs Mark II” isn’t a bad thing, as long as you go to see them with the right attitude. Don’t expect a punk concert. Instead be prepared to be an extra in a very cool film. We’re witnessing the stage version of the Germs bio-pic. We get to be a safety-pinned fly on the wall during those all-too-brief halcyon days of early-80s West Coast Punk. For this one concert we can pretend to be anyone we want. That’s always been, in essence, the beauty of punk. We can assume a new persona, talk the talk and walk the walk until fiction becomes fact. We can turn into the person we’ve always wanted to be. And we can pick our own punk names. Hell, tonight someone even got to be Darby Crash.