Crash and burn

How two different filmmakers have spent eight years trying to film the story of punk legend Darby Crash--and why nobody likes the idea

To: Rodger Grossman
subj: sell out
date: Thu., August 15, 1996, 6:09 AM

PUNK SELLS?????????? Man, fuck you, I'll boycott your film you faggot bitch, no punk in their mind will watch it knowing your true intention, your [sic] trying to sell us out!!!!!!! Motherfucker, all you care about is money you bitch, I will eventually put out films, but they won't sell punk out like your fucking ass will be, my movie kick your sick attack on the fond memory of Darby...I'll find you, it won't be hard...

In life, Darby Crash was a complex talent; in death, he has become an icon. During the early years of Los Angeles punk, no figure embodied the scene better than the Germs singer, and he lived punk's nihilistic ethos right down to his suicide by heroin overdose in December 1980. Still young (22) and relevant (the Germs' lone full-length, the excellent (GI), had come out the year before) at the time of his death, he has remained something of a hero--not only to the old Hollywood scene, but to a nation of subsequent underground rockers. (To use a well-known example, Kurt Cobain--who made Germs guitarist Pat Smear a member of Nirvana--idolized him.)

Crash--born Jan Paul Beahm; he changed his pseudonym from Bobby Pyn to Darby Crash shortly after the Germs formed in 1977--was first immortalized in Penelope Spheeris' punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. Loaded to the gills, chipped-toothed, and slightly baby-faced, he performs what looks more like a hypnotic, primal ritual than like a rock show. Writhing onstage, scrawling all over his face with a felt-tip pen, he caterwauls the lines to "Manimal": "I came into this world like a puzzled panther / Waiting to be caged...I was never quite tamed." The image frozen in time, the one that has been reproduced on a multitude of Decline posters and taped up in bedrooms of punks young and old, is of Crash lying on his back during the same performance with his eyes closed. He looks tragic, glamorous as any rock star, and very dead.

Clearly Crash's life carried plenty of art-house drama: a good-looking, sexually ambiguous hero who had reportedly been planning his own suicide for five years, contemplating death even as he rose in fame and notoriety in a nascent club scene. Considering the live-fast-die-young allure of the tale, it's no surprise that now, almost 20 years after his suicide, a sort of Darby-mania has erupted, with people lining up to tell the story of Crash's life. At least two biographies are being penned--one by the singer's high school friend Michelle Baer Ghaffari (whose punk cred was sealed by her Decline appearance during a kitchen interview with Crash), and another co-written by Don Bolles (the former Germs drummer) and Brendan Mullen (the former proprietor of legendary Hollywood punk club the Masque).

More controversial are two potential celluloid versions of the story that have been trying to get off the ground for years: A 1990 script co-penned by writer-directors Allison Anders (whose 1996 film Grace of My Heart reduced Phil Spector and Brian Wilson to insane, foolish stereotypes) and Kurt Voss (Baja); and a more recent script by Rodger Grossman, a first-time director who has slogged through four problem-plagued years of trying to get his own movie made. But nothing about the two projects has been easy. In addition to the usual problems indie filmmakers face from within the movie industry, both Anders and Grossman have had to contend with a whole other set of hurdles from the outside: Former scenesters, orthodox punks, and Crash's friends all stumbling over each other in an effort to protect Crash's legacy or their own interests--and often both.

"God help these people writing screenplays about Darby Crash," says Ghaffari. "If you make one step the wrong way, you're going to piss off too many people, and you're not going to be able to make your project."

"I think it's a fool's mission," says Nicole Panter, former Germs manager turned writer and professor. "It's a Catch-22: The people who have the budget won't have the sensibility, and the people who have the sensibility won't get the money."

"Everywhere we turned," Anders adds, "the project was riddled with black-comedy results. After a while, it was such a pain in the ass that it wasn't worth it to me."

The Darby Crash story is one filled with symbols: the "Germs burn," a cigarette brand on the wrist that could only officially be wrought by Crash or another Germ; the Asian symbolism of the blue circle; Crash's trademark clarion call, "Gimme a bee-er!" It's also filled with mystery; everyone who knew Crash paints a different picture. Consider the following characterizations of Crash given for this article:

Writer-musician Pleasant Gehman, who helped the Germs get their first gig at the Orpheum in L.A.: "Certainly his whole deal was not that he was some sort of messiah--he would have been the last person to say that. I mean, we came out of the '70s-loader-stoner-fuck-up-insane-go-to-Westwood-and-knock-over-ashtrays-because-we-weren't-old-enough-to-get-into-bars kind of vandalism."

Ghaffari: "He was the mythological, legendary hero. He knew what he believed in. A lot of us said, 'Yeah, we hate authority, we hate designer clothes, we hate disco, we hate hippies,' but he was really focused on a new order. Along with John Doe and Exene of X, he always seemed like a person on a mission."

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