Germs - Biography
Drug use, vomiting and passing out on stage, a live presence that ranged from clownish theatrics to the menacingly sublime, an appearance in the punk film, The Decline of Western Civilization, and a near appearance in Cheech and Chong’s battle of the bands scene in Up in Smoke—what’s not epic about seminal Los Angeles punk band, The Germs?
The zygote of The Germs was formed in early 1977 by two misfits named George Ruthenberg (later known as Pat Smear) and Jan Paul Beahm (who went at first by Bobby Pyn, and later for the name attached to his legend, Darby Crash). Both adolescents had recently been booted from their local high school. Their original name for the band was “Sophistifuck & the Revlon Spam Queens,” a moniker they soon abandoned because it cost far too much to print on t-shirts. The original lineup—which never played live—featured Smear on guitar, Crash on vocals, Diana Grant (better known as “Dinky”) on bass and Michelle Baer on drums.
Another early incarnation of the band featured “Dottie Danger”—a.k.a. Belinda Carlisle—although she never actually performed or even played with The Germs. Carlisle remained a friend of the band even as her new group The Go-Go’s soared into the public spotlight. She was replaced by her friend Donna Rhea, who played for a few of the bands early gigs and on their first single, “Forming.”
The band had vision enough but one glaring problem in the beginning—they couldn’t play their instruments. This was a hindrance even for a punk band in 1977 Los Angeles. Nor could Crash sing. But they went on anyway, with a dash of performance art here, and a dab of booze and drug-fueled fun there, The Germs, fronted by the outrageous Darby Crash, were a band.
Their first show at the Orpheum went off like a masterfully staged train wreck. By all accounts the band—who didn’t have a set list because they didn’t have any songs—did precious little playing that night but instead opted for antics like Crash smearing both himself and the microphone in peanut butter and covering himself in red licorice. Versions of how the band left the stage differs, with some suggesting they were escorted off by the police and others claiming they left of their own accord. The entire show lasted all of five minutes.
It’d be quite a while before The Germs could be considered anything less than horrible musically; yet, they still gained notice. After a few gigs they were signed by What? Records and put out their 7”, Forming/Sexboy (Live) which, being the first actual LA punk record, gathered no small amount of buzz in the local community. The song “Sexboy” was performed live at the Roxy during the Battle of the Bands segment in Cheech and Chong’s cult opus, Up in Smoke. Unfortunately—and typically for the band—they were not called back for the final filming, much of this due to the food fight which erupted during their Roxy set.
While they never escaped their clownish origins to many of the early punks on the LA scene of the late 1970’s, something quite strange began to happen—The Germs began to develop a haunting and driving style musically. Or moreover, they had learned how to play. Much of this was due to Pat Smear, who by this point had grown into a tight and fluid guitarist, and meshed well with new drummer Don Bolles, who along with Doom became something of a rock machine.
Signed to Slash records, The Germs first showed their initial promise on the single “Lexicon Devil,” a track that featured a thundering riff by Smear and a tribal rhythmic scream by Crash. Perhaps the first “hardcore” punk song in LA history, it laid the groundwork for bands like Black Flag, X and Fear. For many kids in Southern California at the time, “Lexicon” opened up a riled up underbelly of Los Angeles, that was a welcome contrast to what they portrayed in the movies. However, The Germs were just getting started.
The band’s only complete album, 1979’s (GI), is considered one of the über-discs of punk rock, a pioneering effort hat has achieved mythological status over the years. Produced by Joan Jett, (GI) features the band at the height of their prowess. The title is an acronym for Germs Incognito, a moniker the band was forced to adopt after club owners grew weary of having their venues thrashed by overly boisterous Germs fans. On (GI) Bolles and Doom is a rhythm section on fire as they keep up with Smear’s machine gun guitar clips. As much as anyone else, Crash emerges on the album as a punk rock poet of sorts, far from the rabble-rouser who liked to cut himself with glass on stage.
On songs like “Land of Treason,” “Communist Eyes” and “Strange Notes,” Crash achieved a melancholy resonance, resembling in some ways a young David Bowie—albeit one who sounded as if he had swallowed razor blades and was out of his head on heroin and alcohol. Critics of the day found Crash’s lyrics to be brilliant and evocative, and later judgments tend to echo these sentiments.
After (GI), The Germs were featured on the soundtrack to the controversial Al Pacino film, 1980’s Cruising, which had the dubious honor of simultaneously offending many members of the homosexual community, as well as homophobes across America with its frank recreations of leather-bar-type gay sex. The Germs were a logical choice, as they offended many people anyway, but of the six songs the band recorded for the soundtrack only one wound up making the cut. That was “Lion’s Share,” which played during an S&M murder at a peep show. Much later (1988) the songs came out on a bootleg CD called, appropriately enough, Lion’s Share.
The Germs were also featured heavily in Penelope Spheeris’s documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization—a film that’s become an invaluable source of prime footage for bands in that unique era, such as X, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, and The Germs themselves. The footage shows The Germs performing live, along with an interview in which Crash relates the story of moving into the house of an old man who has just died of throat cancer and serendipitously finding his medication.
The end of the band came rather quickly after that when Crash fired Bolles for his erratic behavior in 1980, which was fitting—Darby Crash at this point was something of an expert on erratic behavior. A widely reported heroin addiction was taking its toll on the singer. A perhaps apocryphal story tells of Crash shooting up gutter water, another form of performance art that lived up to a nihilistic creed that seized many LA punks at the time—indeed, that The Germs help invent. Crash and Smear went on to form The Darby Crash Band, which brought to mind Sid Vicious in his final days, with many of the same results—more antics and worse music.
The Germs performed a reunion show at the Starwood on December 3, 1980. By all accounts the show was epic, but it was also the last one the band would ever play together. Crash at the time said he wanted to put on the gig to educate younger punk fans in LA who hadn’t a chance to see the band play live. Purportedly, though, Crash had told Smear he needed cash to overdose on heroin with. Smear had heard banter such as this before and thought he was joking.
Unfortunately, Crash was serious and overdosed on heroin on December 7, 1980, just four days later. According to several reports Crash ended his life in a bizarre suicide pact with friend Casey Cola who turned out to be an unreliable partner by surviving the incident. As Crash lay dying he supposedly tried to write, “Here lies Darby Crash,” but died before he could write his last name.
In the punk scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, this was more than enough to seal Crash’s status as punk rock legend. Many who found Crash’s lyrics to be unintelligible took his death to be the ultimate “punk” act. He became for many Los Angeles’s Sid Vicious.
Pat Smear would turn up again years later in the music changing grunge band, Nirvana and later, after Kurt Cobain’s death, with The Foo Fighters. Several CD’s have been issued since the demise of the band, including Slash Record’s The Germs: Complete Anthology (2000 Rhino) and a tribute album entitled A Small Circle of Friends (1996 Grass Records), featuring tracks by Meat Puppets, The Melvins, Flea, NOFX, Mike Watt and others.
The current version of The Germs features Smear, Doom, Bolles, with Shane West on vocals. To some, the idea of a band called The Germs without Darby Crash is blasphemous, but with the premiere of the 2007 movie What We Do Is Secret—which stared West—it came at a time when the band had re-entered public consciousness. Darby Crash’s legend as one of punk’s most iconic figures remains intact.