“What We Do Is Secret” was more than just the name of the first track on The Germs’ startling 1979 debut album, (GI), as well as the title of a 1981 EP and a 2007 biopic about the band. It was a literal way of life for the purposefully mysterious and cultlike L.A. punk quartet, and there was no member of The Germs who was more elusive and intriguing than bassist Lorna Doom, who died of cancer on Wednesday, Jan. 16. She was 61.
Lead singer Darby Crash attracted the most attention with his gloriously shambolic, compulsively fascinating onstage eviscerations of self and sound mixed with corrosive yet acutely perceptive poetry, both before and after his rock & roll suicide on Dec. 7, 1980, four days after The Germs’ final performance, at the Starwood in West Hollywood. Guitarist Pat Smear released a handful of overlooked solo albums before vaulting back into the limelight when he joined Nirvana and then Foo Fighters. Drummer/writer/DJ Don Bolles has wrapped himself up in numerous projects since The Germs’ implosion, including playing with Nervous Gender, 45 Grave, Celebrity Skin, Fancy Space People and Ariel Pink.
But Lorna Doom might have been the most punk-rock musician of all The Germs. She seemed completely uninterested in fame. After the group’s breakup, she didn’t linger in the music scene in a series of increasingly mundane and careerist groups like so many of her peers did. Instead, she virtually disappeared for decades, becoming the punk equivalent to Greta Garbo.
Doom finally resurfaced when she and the other surviving members of the band teamed with actor Shane West to play shows in the several years surrounding the 2007 release of director-writer Rodger Grossman’s film What We Do Is Secret. Although West was relatively credible in the film, he possessed none of Crash’s inherent charisma onstage and was an unsatisfying replacement at the live performances. But the reunion concerts, which included appearances on the 2006 and 2008 Warped Tours, not only expanded The Germs’ presence far beyond their Los Angeles base, they also emphasized what an underrated bass player Doom was.
In spite of the prevailing myth in the late 1970s that the early L.A. punk bands couldn’t play their instruments, most of the musicians in such groups as The Weirdos, The Alley Cats, The Controllers and X were fairly powerful, assured players. But The Germs were one of a few bands who truly started from scratch with only the most primitive musical abilities, much like their unlikely early allies The Go-Go’s. In comparing Germicide, a crude live album from an early Germs show in 1977 at the Whisky A Go Go, to the band’s only full-length studio album, (GI), released just two years later, the difference is astonishing. Although punk groups are supposed to play fast, the newly formed Germs can only manage to play their embryonic songs at a laughably sluggish pace on Germicide, with tempos that make Flipper’s dirgy broadsides sound like The Dickies in comparison. But by the time The Germs recorded (GI) with producer Joan Jett, they had developed into a surprisingly tight band in the studio, in marked contrast to their chaotic and often-truncated live appearances, where Crash would rarely bother to sing his lyrics into the microphone while flopping about the stage in varying states of intoxication and despair.
Although Smear was an enormously influential guitarist who wrote most of the music that perfectly matched Crash’s feral lyrics, Doom’s bass playing — along with Bolles’ unconventional drumming — had a lot to do with the Germs’ frenetically intense sound. Other punk bassists played in a more robotically militant, unvarying style similar to Dee Dee Ramone’s, but Doom delivered her seemingly simple bass lines with a more intuitive, grooving rhythm that gave The Germs a sense of swing that more purportedly professional bands could never achieve.
Doom’s and Bolles’ importance to The Germs was made even more obvious when Crash and Smear broke up the band and briefly performed with a different rhythm section as The Darby Crash Band in 1980 before the real group reunited for the final concert at the Starwood. Although The Darby Crash Band played a lot of the same Germs songs, the fill-in rhythm section never had that distinctively manic drive that Doom and Bolles stirred up together.
With Crash, Lorna Doom co-wrote “Now I Hear the Laughter,” one of several songs The Germs recorded with producer Jack Nitzsche (Neil Young, The Rolling Stones) for the soundtrack of William Friedkin’s dark 1980 film, Cruising. Although The Germs song “Lions Share” was used in the film, “Now I Hear the Laughter” and the other tracks weren’t released until they appeared on the definitive Germs compilation, (MIA): The Complete Anthology, which was released in 1993.
The Cruising session marked an interesting transition for the band. Unlike the mostly fast, abrupt and savagely compact songs on (GI), “Now I Hear the Laughter” was heavier and slower, with Doom’s seedy, stark bass line providing the musical backbone that supported Crash’s dour lyrics. It was Doom’s similarly spare, bluesy bass line that forms the sinuous pulse on “Shut Down (Annihilation Man),” the sprawling 9-minute-plus opus that closes (GI). “Let me touch the tips of inculcated desire and brush the fettered veil away,” Crash growls at the outset, before the song devolves into a rambling odyssey with Smear’s rabid soloing and Crash’s stream-of-consciousness digressions about Joan Jett, Skylab and English punks. “We don’t care how you get your kicks, we just care about Lorna’s trip,” Crash mutters at one point.
Born in 1957 and raised in Thousand Oaks, Doom was known as Teresa Ryan until she and a Newbury Park High School classmate named Belinda Carlisle answered an ad and joined The Germs. Carlisle was supposed to be the drummer, but she never ended up playing with the band and instead went on to sing with The Go-Go’s.
Carlisle saluted her friend in a Twitter post on Thursday: “Yesterday I lost a part of me, my best friend in high school and partner in crime in the early punk scene, #LornaDoom or Teresa passed away. … She was a visionary and a trailblazer. She never compromised. RIP, Terry. I’m sure you can feel the love.”
On Friday, Foo Fighters released a statement on behalf of her family and band members: “Teresa Ryan, a/k/a Lorna Doom, was always a woman of mystery. So much so that even in her final days as she fought a tough, yearlong battle with cancer, very few people even knew she was ill. She kept a very close-knit social circle, and those who knew her and loved her always respected her desire for privacy.
“When she finally lost her struggle with cancer at 12:50 p.m. yesterday, Wednesday, January 16, it came as a shock to many, as she had chosen to not burden others with what she was going through.”
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts also posted a tribute to the bassist on Friday: “Lorna was a beautiful, talented, sweet soul, and we love her and will miss her.”
As with many stories surrounding The Germs, it’s often hard to separate myth from reality. But the truth behind the group was often far more interesting than fiction. Lorna Doom reached legendary status in part because she was willing to walk away from it all and not look back.