The Death of a Punk

As you’ll note to the side of this blog, one of my favorite people is colleague Sam, he of the curmudgeonly intellectual stripe. He is largely responsible for my initial foray into punk as an academic mode, when he posed a query on the origins of the word “punk.”

Well, Sam harrumphed into my office the other day, and, as luck would have it, my copy of Lexicon Devil, the recent oral history bio of Darby Crash, was quietly sitting on my desk, prompting him to wonder aloud why in the world people (read: me) were fascinated by him. I’d shown him a clip from Decline at one point, and, to no one’s surprise, it did nothing to improve Sam’s opinion of Crash. So, my task for the day–answering Sam’s burning question…

What draws people to Darby Crash?

Granted, I’ve wondered about this myself, usually while I wonder what draws people toward any lead singer. Some of the answers are easy–charisma, bizarre behavior, the standard stuff of celeb worship. Crash was charismatic, by nearly all accounts. Paul Rosseler describes him as having “this natural power; it was hard to figure out what it actually was; it was either that he was so much smarter than anybody else so he could do those things, pr her had techniques that he learned from the books he read or from IPS. Or he just had magic” (23). Of course, not all accounts of his charm are as positive as Rosseler, with several leaning more toward manipulative (successfully, though) and pathetic (using his pathos to lure in those who would then care for him–classic addict move, BTW). Brendan Mullen describes Crash as

much more demonic, intense, intoxicated…he gradually began to exude a much darker persona…The dreaded “Gimme two dollars…gimmie a beee-ah…gimmie a ride home” was the Klaxon From Hell around the scene which witnessed a series of socially ostracized, overweight women, many of them easy-pickings and mind-suggestibles with absent or disapproving father complexes; of more or less the same psychological type preyed on by people like Charlie Manson. Such women openly competed for the attention of this emotionally unavailable, alcohol-besotted LSD guru while picking up his tab for booze, drugs, gas, food, and clothing. (Mullen 115)

He also had the intriguingly bizarre behavior in spades; though, truth be told, if one collected all of the punk stories worldwide and cataloged and categorized them, Crash wasn’t exactly out of line with the norm. But, significant as the Germs were to punk, and to LA punk in particular, and as significant as his story is to the history of gender and sexuality politics in music and the particular shifts that occurred in LA punk that irrevocably changed the landscape for gay male punkers (the arrival of the suburban hyper-masculine punks from Huntington Beach, to be specific), the staying-power of Crash’s legend is probably most deeply rooted in his death, an iconic death that heralds the coming excesses of the 1980s better than it reflects the “old punk” he championed.

Crash, as punk fans are no doubt already aware, died as a result of a heroin overdose on December 7, 1980. He was twenty-two years old.* By virtually all accounts, the overdose was intentional and well-planned, as he started announcing it some 5 years prior (the 5 year plan,** was, according to Crash legend, inspired by Bowie’s “Five Years” on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He remarked to Pat Smear, during a rehearsal for the Germs reunion show (Dec. 3, 1980), that he was only “doing this to get money to get enough heroin to kill myself with” (Mullen 243). He was sufficiently dark during and after the show to goad bassist Lorna Doom into trying to get several of Darby’s friends to intervene.

Crash stated to Donnie Rose that “the purpose of [the Germs reunion] show was to demonstrate to the new punks how it was, what it was really all about in the old days” (Mullen 247). Ouch–and this at 22. One of the major changes that had occurred on the LA scene was the rise of the Hardcore punks from the beach suburbs, in and around 1979. Jeff MacDonald [oh he of Redd Kross and (!) Spirit of ’76***] describes the transition as a sudden one: “We were shocked when it turned out it was the same kids who’d previously been hassling us for liking punk and now they’re all red-hot punkers emulating how the media portrayed punk rock, as really violent and fucked up” (Spitz, 193). Mugger describes this group as “full-on white suburbanite rebellion” (Spitz 193). The old school punks–Crash and his crew–were quickly subsumed by the moneyed rebellion. Punk, as the Germs knew it, was dying in the face of what MacDonald and others saw as theatrics.****

How fitting that the speaker of the house for “old” LA Punk should choose such a theatrical exit, then.

He was not, of course, the first overdose post-WWII music had encountered, preceded as he was by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison (yes, I know, no autopsy–but, really, fair guess that any “heart failure” was externally triggered), Brian Jones and scores of others. Musicians of any stripe within the musical community often spawn legends, among the most famous of which is the life of Robert Johnson, whose crossroads mythology has so permeated the musical landscape that references to it are ubiquitous in modern American culture (and wrong–RJ’s legend was copped from the stories of Tommy Johnson by his brother). The deaths of musicians are perhaps even more likely to do so–Elvis seems the obvious example here, but scores of legends exist about Morrison’s death as well.

Something in the deaths of Jimi, Jim, and Janis bespoke magical, mystical, legendary, and unattainable qualities that belied the tragedies of the overdoses. Their deaths are often regarded Romantically, not unlike the suicide fads associated with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther:

Phillips calls this the Werther Effect, named for the spurned lover in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther—Werther, in a blue waistcoat and yellow vest, sits down one night, writes the object of his desire a last letter, and shoots himself above his right eye. Soon after the book’s publication in 1774, young men dressed as Werther began to shoot themselves at desks with open books in front of them, and the novel was subsequently banned across Italy, Germany, and Denmark. NY Magazine

Like the Romantic poets before them (Keats and Coleridge, I’m looking at you), these musical icons bore the banner of generational genius–their music captured that certain undefinable something of their generation’s particular Zeitgeist.***** The romanticizing of these 1970s deaths (the end of an era, the death of innocence, and so forth) set them remarkably apart from the musical and personal excesses that the 1980s would come to symbolize (even if the excesses, realistically, were identical–read a few bios of the 60s & 70s bands against those by Slash and Nikki Sixx, the excesses are almost identical, if the pleas for redemption that permeate the recent bios are not). In effect, the young deaths are expected (like those of Keats, Shelley, and Byron) because genius cannot exist but for so long in a single place or body. Crash capitalized on this expectation and chose a death that dramatized the excesses in an almost iconic fashion: raw China White heroin (and a large quantity of it, at that), announcements of his impending suicide that had gone so long as to begin to appear comic, etc. Such pronouncements were not unheard of in the punk world, even if they tended to reflect a more theatrical style than one commonly expects out of the genre–see GG Allin (who was jailed for the day he had legendarily promised to commit suicide on stage).

For me at least, and I can’t pretend that I can speak for all who have written about Crash or wondered about his significance, Crash exemplifies a specific moment in musical history, where we see the transition of punk (itself a reaction to 70s glam and pot-laced “hippie music”) into the vapid excesses of glam rock and metal that would permeate LA during the 80s, finally spawning GnR–the most obvious heirs to the mantle of excess. He’s a troublesome figure–plenty of remarks that infuriate, and it is easy to turn him into a “lost soul” myth, which is, I think, what often happens to his story (much like those of Jimi, Janis, & Jim).

*A virtual prodigy, having killed himself some 5 years before he could join the lauded “27 club.”

**Not that claims of impending demise always come about. GnR regularly remarked of themselves that none of the would see the far side of 27. Given that all five of the Appetite members not only passed 27 and 29 and the various age revisions in the interviews as they kept managing to survive, but they are collectively staring 50 in the face now. Good job, gentlemen. Glad you are still around.

***If you have never seen this movie…you must. Must. Simply must. Here’s a sample of it’s delightful awfulness. Want a Snoball? *grin*

****Not that LA Punk didn’t have its bastion of theatrics from the get-go. See the Germs, the name it.

*****The most obvious corollary for my generation is, of course, Kurt Cobain. His death on April 5, 1994 is for Generation Xers one of those moments that it seems that everyone can recall what he or she was doing when the news broke three days later. And while his life has certainly been romanticized (the boy from Aberdeen who changed the face of music–what do you know, the Romantic myth of the Common Man), his death has, to a certain extent, not been, unless you count the myriad conspiracy theories that tend to accuse his wife, Courtney Love, of nefarious intent. I tend to agree with the NY mag author linked above, Vanessa Grigoriades, that “a dearth researchers have attributed [etd. to add: the resistance to romanticizing his suicide] to Courtney Love’s emotional denunciation of his act—“I want you all to say ‘asshole’ really loud.” No one wanted to be an asshole.” My favorite part of her Eulogy: “Well, Kurt, so fucking what — then don’t be a rockstar you asshole.”

Mullen, Brendan, Don Bolles, & Adam Parfrey. Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2002.

Spitz, Marc & Brendan Mullen. We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.


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