For JG2LAND PREMIUM Subscribers Only
$2 a month gets you access to this look back at Gus Van Sant’s Psycho and other exclusive content!
$2 a month gets you access to this look back at Gus Van Sant’s Psycho and other exclusive content!
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.
A North Carolina native who claims to have only driven by South of the Border “a few times,” bass player Sean Yseult is best known as the co-founder of heavy metal horror groovers White Zombie. For thirteen years Yseult stalked stages worldwide with her WZ band mates, often proving the most colorful image in the assembly thanks to her shock of greenish-yellow hair. Her fluid playing made anchoring this noisy beast look effortless and helped catapult the aural pastiches that are White Zombie’s recorded albums into the pantheon of unmistakable rock greatness.
Since White Zombie’s untimely 1998 burial Sean’s kept busy in her adopted home of New Orleans by lending her talents to such similarly spook-based acts as Rock City Morgue, Star & Dagger, and Famous Monsters. She’s also found success with a line of fashionable scarves bearing her name, not to mention a creative partnership with noted mixed media artist Louis St. Lewis. Sean was kind enough to set aside some time this week so I could grill her about participating in the 1996 Germs tribute album, working with Chris Farley on Airheads, and where things stand with her former right hand man Rob Zombie.
JG2: You’ve spoken in the past about how unexpected White Zombie’s global success was to you and the other band members. Did you ever have a Dave Chappelle moment where you thought you wouldn’t be able to handle it, like you just tripped out too hard?
SEAN YSEULT: [laughs] No, it didn’t happen that fast. We had a slow, steady climb. It was never overwhelming or shocking. It took a while. When we got there, though, to the stadiums and MTV, it was like, “Wow!” But we would have been just as happy playing clubs and dive bars, like on that level.
JG2: So if it was a slow climb, then I wonder—was your family supportive of the whole thing? Did they ever want you to “find a real job?”
SW: No, I was lucky, my parents were both pretty bohemian. They’d crank Hendrix and stuff when I was growing up, so they couldn’t really say anything when I [pursued music]. In fact, much to my embarrassment, they’d come to [White Zombie] shows sometimes and bring their dope-smoking friends.
JG2: Did you ever think you’d have to “find a real job?”
SY: No, you know, we started out so young and it was just continually happening, we weren’t even thinking about the future. I mean, none of us had anything else we wanted to do. All we wanted to do was play music. And, y’know, we got really lucky. [laughs]
JG2: Yeah, a couple Platinum albums, I’d say it worked out. So you had a bar down there in New Orleans for a while, the Saint, but Wikipedia says it closed? Why did it close?
SY: Oh no, we actually sold it and it’s still there. My husband’s little brother owns it now. You know, owning a bar was never part of our dreams. The Saint kind of fell into our lap, so we did it for a few years, but post-Katrina it was such a struggle. And it was eating into our creative life. We’re both musicians, that’s what we really want to be doing, so we sold the bar.
JG2: I’ve never been to New Orleans and I don’t really have any concept of the pre/post-Katrina situations. Is the city still recovering?
SY: No, the town is so much better now than it was before. There are so many new shops and bars, there’s constant building going on. People are moving here for the right reasons, they’re moving here from New York and L.A. and all these other places to be productive. Before Katrina, people would move here to live the “drunken poet” life, just waste away, you know? But it’s not like that now. Everyone wants to help the city grow and it’s great.
JG2: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember hearing the original version of White Zombie’s breakthrough 1992 album La Sexorcisto was rejected by Geffen for having too many samples a la Paul’s Boutique. Is that true?
SY: That’s partially correct. We did a demo of La Sexorcisto that had four songs and on that there was a lot of things we couldn’t get permission for. One was a Charles Manson interview soundclip. You think he’d be cool with that kinda thing, but he flat out said no.
JG2: Wow, yeah, it’s not like his reputation can be any further damaged.
SY: Right? I think another clip we couldn’t clear was a “Star Trek” thing. I don’t remember.
JG2: Was there anything you couldn’t clear that hurt the final product, you thought, or really bummed you out?
SY: No, I think the only crucial stuff is maybe the Russ Meyer clips in “Thunderkiss ’65.” Russ Meyer was really great, he gave us total clearance and was very nice about it. But the other stuff, the stuff we had to axe, was no big deal. Well, to me, anyway. I’m sure if you asked Rob he’d be able to give you a list of the samples he’s still angry about losing.
JG2: How many times did you have to watch Chris Farley rip off that guy’s nipple ring when you were shooting White Zombie’s part in Airheads?
SY: [laughs] A lot! What an amazing cast that movie had—Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi. We got to hang out with those guys for twelve hours for that thirty second shot. I learned to respect actors that day. It really took us twelve hours to do shoot those thirty seconds! There was a lot of down time that day, and between shots Chris Farley kept pulling up near the stage in this golf cart and flipping it over, totally wrecking it again and again, like a little kid trying to impress his friends. He’d be screaming, going crazy, it was so funny. Adam Sandler’s first comedy record had just come out and he invited us in his trailer to hear it to see what we thought. It was just a really cool day. That was one of my favorite experiences from my time in White Zombie.
JG2: And you’re in the half of Airheads that’s good!
SY: Oh, thank you! That’s good to know. We also got to record with Brendan Fraser—they had the band in the movie use a Reagan Youth song and since we were already there they asked [White Zombie guitarist] J and I to go play on the rerecording they used. So we got to be in the studio with Brendan Fraser, and this was before he was really famous. So that was cool too.
JG2: Speaking of odd studio partnerships, what’s the story with Ruined Eye, the one shot thing you did for the Germs tribute album, A Small Circle of Friends? Who was even in that band? How did it all come about?
SY: Well first of all, I love the Germs, they’re one of the bands that got me into punk and hardcore in the first place, and I will say the song we did [“Land of Treason”] was given to us, we didn’t necessarily pick it…but that’s okay. That all came about while White Zombie was on tour. The band was myself, J, Dave Navarro, which was awesome, and Keith Morris from Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. Someone’s going to be very mad at me but I can’t remember who the drummer was. [turns out it was Greg Rogers – ed.] I honestly don’t remember how it came together, either. Maybe Keith put it together? J and I knew Keith previously. You know, we toured so much, a lot of this stuff just runs together.
JG2: Being on tour like that, do you often forget not just little stuff like that but also what day or month it is?
SY: Yeah, you just give up after a while, you’re in this fantasy world. Sometimes I’d even forget what year it was. Seriously, I had no clue.
JG2: Are there things you feel you still want to accomplish as a musician?
SY: Hmm, well, I’ve never had any goals, I really just want to be able to keep writing music and keep performing. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I’ve been playing since I was five.
JG2: And there’s never been a time where you thought, “Maybe it’s time for a break?”
SY: Well, after those intensive years of touring with White Zombie for La Sexorcisto and Astro Creep 2000 I took a year off from playing. But it wasn’t that serious—I still brought a guitar down here with me to New Orleans. [laughs]
JG2: It’s no secret things ended oddly with White Zombie and that Rob doesn’t really talk to any of you folks anymore. If Rob Zombie called you up tomorrow, though, and said, “Listen, I want to apologize, I’ve been acting less than friendly and not treating you people right, I wanna make amends,” would you accept that and try to sort things out, or is it too late?
SY: I would totally accept that. I still don’t understand what happened; [our romantic relationship ended] amicably, we even shared a room after we broke up. I don’t know why he doesn’t want to talk now. I don’t have any issues with him, he shouldn’t have any issues with me. He met the love of his life right after we broke up, they’re married now—he should be thanking me! [laughs] I’m married to the love of my life, I’m happy.
JG2: Did you have another album in you past Astro Creep 2000?
SY: Yeah! [J, Rob, and I] had a three way phone call after that last tour about getting back together to work on stuff. J and I had all these riffs and ideas, and Rob just said, “I don’t think so.” A month later his solo album came out. So, you know, he already had that figured out. [laughs]
First photo swiped from the Internet—if you took it let me know and ye shall receive credit; second photo (taken in 1988 when White Zombie were still learning how to walk) swiped from Sean’s Facebook page.