Darby's Last Stand
[Rhino Handmade, the branch of Rhino records that best preserves the label's original mission as the labor-of-love curator of recorded music's lost moments, has just released Live at the Starwood: December 3, 1980, documenting the very last show by seminal L.A. punk band the Germs with original frontman Darby Crash. L.A. Weekly's award-winning food writer Jonathan Gold returned to his music-writing roots to pen this reminiscence, included with the CD release. In Rhino Handmade tradition, the live album is only available as a limited-edition through rhino.com.]
December 3, 1980. First of all, do you know how much you bleed when you're smashed in the head with a bottle in the slam pit of the Germs reunion show? The correct answer is: a lot — enough so that the blood soaks your shirt and sloshes into your shoes and causes the cute chica a couple of feet away to start screaming until her boyfriend or whatever suggests that maybe you should have your wound attended to. At which point, you're ... "Dude, the Germs!"
Because it's been almost a year since they played their last real gig, at the Fleetwood down in Redondo Beach, and that one was more like a cage match than a show, with knots of the newly shaven ready to wail, a dozen-on-one, on anybody whose hair was a millimeter longer than Marine standard. The crappy PA made the band sound even more like battle noise than usual, and the hammerheads from Huntington Beach — the H.B.s — perfected their charming little trick of stomping empty beer cans into flat, hard discs, which they would then send whizzing around the room like tracer bullets. And if you weren't going to leave that show, where even Don Bolles got stomped for being a hippie before the nimrods realized that he was the drummer for the band they had come out to see, then you sure as hell aren't going to miss the end of this one at the Starwood for something as trivial as tending to some blood.
Plus, I had a huge crush on Lorna Doom. Everybody had a crush on Lorna.
Even in the hot damp and the slippery fluids of the Starwood that night, you had to ask yourself when you were going to have the chance to see the Germs again. The correct answer, as it turns out, was never. As everybody in Los Angeles knows by now, Darby fixed himself a hotshot on Sunday, December 7, 1980, and got hand-stamped for that great Starwood in the sky, where the beer is free and the pills glitter like candy, and followers line up around the block to have Germs burns administered by the great man himself.
Of course, even there, scroungy little Germs heaven is forever in the shadow of the splendid marble edifice inhabited by John Lennon, who was shot the very next day, and who immediately wiped Darby Crash out of the minds of everybody but the misfits who were at the party in the first place. Fucking Darby — he couldn't even kill himself right.
But rewind to the Starwood. If you are a casual fan of the Germs, somebody who has followed the band in Slash and Flipside and has already worn out a copy of (GI), but are not a full-fledged citizen of the devotees known as Circle One, the events of the last year may be a little vague to you.
There was the Masque Xmas party at the Whisky, that much is clear — a magnificent show that was delayed an hour while the H.B.s guzzled cheap alcohol, and ended when Pat Smear whomped a bouncer in the head with his guitar, and the performance filmed for The Decline of Western Civilization, which may have been the first moment you realized the band didn't belong to you anymore. You probably went to see Cruising at some point, because you heard there were Germs songs on the sound track, although the movie mostly sucked and the songs were mostly by Willy DeVille. And you know that Darby went to London at some point to hang out with Adam and the Ants and came back to Los Angeles with store-bought bondage clothing and an odd blue haircut — a "Mohican" — that looked like an inverted shoe brush.
The Germs suddenly didn't exist anymore, but the Darby Crash Band did, which was kind of like a Germs that really, really sucked — same songs and everything, because while the Germs may have been the dark-matter superstars within Class-of-'77 L.A. punk rock, the Darby Crash Band was maybe the 23rd most aggro band within the universe of California hardcore. Life is brutal sometimes.
It was the Germs who set the standard of anti-musicianship that made the Weirdos and freaking X seem polished by comparison. And it was the Germs who smeared themselves with peanut butter onstage while the Screamers were delving into German Expressionism; the Germs who sounded their barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, who compressed glitter rock and anarchy and teenage kicks and sun-bleached California disappointment into a single, pulsing dot of antimatter, the exact opposite of Jorge Luis Borges' "The Aleph": a point in space that you can gaze into from anywhere in the universe and see only nothingness. The Germs are to the Los Angeles punk scene what Brian Jones was to the Stones, or Syd Barrett to Pink Floyd — the primal creative force that was both too flatulent to live with and too vital to have come into being without.
Was the reunion — the first show in forever with Lorna, Don and Pat — Darby's legitimate attempt at getting the mojo back, or was it a way to earn enough to buy a truly stupendous amount of heroin? Did he mean the show as a farewell or was it just something to do on a boring Wednesday night? Did he really stand alone in the rain at Oki Dog afterward, waiting for the fans who never came, and was he depressed by the sight of miserable hustlers descending like seagulls onto a single pastrami burrito? This was a guy who claimed to read Spengler, for crying out loud (although I have my doubts), a man for whom despair and wretchedness and Frankenstein mind control were meat and milk.
"We want to hear what it was like when we started," pleaded Darby from the Starwood stage.
"Fuck you," a bloodied jock yelled up from the pit.
The show had been one of the best ever, even if Darby, as usual, rarely managed to sing into the microphone. It was a night of tinny, wild, one-chord riffs, drums coming in with all the subtle finesse of a set of tom-toms kicked down a flight of stairs, and Crash howling, howling with all the — rage isn't the word — the torment of a 6-month-old baby plucked too soon from the breast, and he mumbles, screams, swallows his words ... until, finally, with a hiccup, he runs out of air.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.