Rip Them Down, Hold Him Up

I’ve been listening to the Germs nonstop for the past couple of days. Here’s a piece I wrote for Crawdaddy! about their singer’s legacy, published around the thirtieth anniversary of his death.

A lot of pop culture historians like to point out the fact Germs frontman Darby Crash’s dramatic suicide in December of 1980 was rendered almost inconsequential when the most popular member of the Beatles was shot less than 24 hours later, but the truth of the matter is Crash’s death would have been overshadowed even if John Lennon proved entirely bulletproof. After all, December 7th is the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Bring 12/7 up in front of any American and across the board the response will be more or less uniform: “Day that will live in infamy, 1941, FDR, World War II, shitty Ben Affleck movie.”

Never have I heard anyone say, “December 7th? Say, isn’t that the day Darby Crash and Casey Cola shot each other up with fatal doses of heroin in somebody’s pool house?” I don’t even say that, and I adore the Germs as much as clumsy puppies, double rainbows, and fresh morning dew. If Sid Vicious couldn’t permanently dethrone the groundhog after February 2, 1979, Darby Crash had no hope a year later against the most important piece of Pacific Theater in our nation’s history. Fact: Jimmy Carter did not declare war on opiates because they killed the guy who sang “Sex Boy.”

It’s no accident that I bring up Sid Vicious; many people over the years have written Darby Crash off as a hand-me-down version of that doomed Sex Pistol, just another barely educated weirdo in a dog collar on too much dope. The inherent difference between these two boy-men, though, is that Sid Vicious (at least towards the end of his life) didn’t seem to give a flying fuck about anything, whereas Darby Crash seemed to really care about something. What, exactly, is open to interpretation, but it cannot be overstated that the unapologetic slur of drunken pain and disgust Darby employed in most Germs songs wasn’t the sound of half-assery. That was the sound of a human being desperately trying to convey his message against a typhoon of inner demons.

Crash probably didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a staggeringly awesome subversive move. Singing in such an obviously terrible way forced fans to decode his actual lyrics from the drugged-out death cat moaning. When they did, what a shock it was to be confronted with the unexpected poetry of Darby Crash’s astute, mature songwriting.

Darby’s lyrics weren’t the knee-jerk “fuck this, fuck that” reactions you find in so many other punk bands. There was more honesty, more naked doubt. Look at “No God,” where he says he’s “peered in every window where I saw a cross” and admits he’d “pray to anything” if only there were some tangible evidence beyond what’s been “handed down…by some thoughtful blur.” Similarly confused feelings are expressed in “Communist Eyes,” wherein Darby invites the listener to the Soviet way of life despite his own personal misgivings. “I open my books but the pages stare…it’s a double edge,” he repeats of the hammer and sickle.

On the other hand, there were times where it was crystal clear what Darby Crash wanted: a religion based around his own divine greatness. He apparently looked at Germs fans as his loving congregation, asking the faithful in “Lexicon Devil” to “gimme gimme your hands, gimme gimme your mind” while promising to “build you up and level your heads.” Crash gets more to the point in the creaky mess “Forming,” begging listeners to “rip them down, hold me up, tell them that I’m your gun…pull my trigger, I am bigger than…”

Bigger than what? Bigger than any of Darby’s disciples or critics expected, probably. The Germs never played outside of California, but their music and message still managed to creep its way around the country (and the world) for years after the fact, due in no small part to the chipped tooth enigma that was front and center leading the playful/pointed cacophony.

The most notable mainstream artist to ever claim influence by the Germs was of course Kurt Cobain; you can certainly hear the Darby-esque approach Cobain took trying to mask his words with inaudible mumbling and/or howling screams of pain in any given Nirvana song. Kurt’s fandom was certified in September of 1993 when he invited Germs guitarist Pat Smear to join his multi-platinum grunge band. Sadly, eight months later Cobain would take another cue from Darby Crash and shoot himself in his Seattle greenhouse, claiming in his suicide note that he’d rather burn out rather than fade away.

Darby Crash actually did both, burning out and almost instantly fading away thanks to impeccably bad timing. That was actually sort of a good thing—Sid Vicious was just popular enough when he died to become an immediate fashion accessory, popping up on t-shirts and purses and, Jesus, now I’m sure his scowling face can be purchased on an iPad cover. Even John Lennon, that paragon of peace and humanity and other non-monetary concepts struck down so quickly after Crash, has now stalked New York City billboards shilling for iTunes. Darby, on the converse, remains purely an artistic figure (at least in the sense we’ve never seen his image sewn onto a hoodie on sale at the Gap). He’s still trapped in the grooves of the records, waiting to convert, offend, or disgust anyone willing to listen.

Whatever you stood for, Darby—freedom of indecision, the power/cult of the self, getting drunk as an act of terrorism—it’s still (mostly) in effect. In the next life, though, you might wanna check the calendar before you draw the final curtain.

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