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.
By this point, everyone knows Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious barely played on his band’s epochal 1977 debut Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Vicious was sidelined at the time of recording with jaundice, which turned out to be a weird stroke of luck for the Pistols considering the fact Sid had yet to rise above novice level on his instrument (and, spoiler alert, never would). Guitarist Steve Jones, pictured, laid down the lion’s share of bass on Bollocks, although Jones and his band mates allegedly left in some of Sid’s amateur plunking at an extraordinarily low volume just so their most self-destructive member could be technically correct when he told people he had played on the album.
Flash forward two decades. Insane Clown Posse score a major coup in terms of credibility by getting Steve Jones to play guitar on their Great Milenko rap rock hybrid track “Piggy Pie.” For years, this unexpected union elevates both ICP and Jonesy—who was already a hero of mine for being the most normal-looking guy in the poster band for punk rock—in these watery, bloodshot eyes. The Wicked Clowns respected the Sex Pistols, and a Sex Pistol respected the Wicked Clowns (or at least thought playing on an ICP record was good enough for “a larf” and “some f’ckin’ dough, y’knowhutuhmean?”).
Well, come to find out via this A.V. Club interview with Violent J that not only were ICP completely ignorant of Steve Jones’s musical history when they landed him for Milenko, they didn’t even bother showing up when the guitarist came in to record his part for “Piggy Pie” and ended up muting most of what he played anyway. Disrespecting Steve Jones—how does THAT work? Quoteth J the Violent:
…I didn’t want to be there in the studio because I didn’t know who Steve Jones was, and I didn’t want to say something stupid, or I was too shy and didn’t want to meet him. So I was off doing something else, and that’s when Shaggy [2 Dope] was in jail, and he missed the whole thing…I let our producer Mike Clark stay and our A&R [person] Julian stay. So when they were done, I came back into the studio and I heard what Steve Jones played, and I didn’t like it. It was too wild-style. So what we did was, we used our old tracks, and we used one little track of Steve Jones in there, at really low…So he was in there, but the majority was Mike Clark playing it. We used it for the name value. We were like, ‘Featuring Steve Jones on guitar,’ because technically it was Steve Jones playing on there.”
Irony, you have a phone call at the Dark Carnival concierge desk. Please pick up.
I would love to hear Jonesy’s side of this story. Does he know he got the Sid Vicious treatment on The Great Milenko? Does he care? Why isn’t Steve Jones on TV all the time so he can answer these questions? Watch this clip of Steve rambling on while playing Sex Pistols riffs and tell me you couldn’t watch him for five hours a day every day on the idiot box. Go ahead and tell me that, but we both know you’d be telling bigger lies than Ollie North.
Oh, and to all the Juggalos out there reading this—before you blindly attack me, please keep in mind that I am on record as an ICP supporter and still consider The Great Milenko one of the motherfuckin’ freshest albums ever made, regardless of Steve Jones’s volume. I swear on Jamie Farr’s nose I’m down with the clowns. Please do not drown me in Cherry Faygo the next time you see me at the post office.