Crash and burn

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."

Bob Biggs, whose label, Slash Records, put out the Germs' album and a posthumous EP: "He was a difficult guy to peg. He was really smart, an iconoclast; like many smart people he was a mass of contradictions. Darby was an interesting side-note of the Hollywood scene: It was thought to be shock-rock. But the story, the events, were classic."

Anders was one of the first to agree. In 1990, she and Voss began writing a script based on Crash's life. (The two had recently collaborated on the 1988 film Border Radio, which starred John Doe and Dave Alvin.) Anders says she didn't have problems while researching the script, noting that most of the scenesters she interviewed were helpful and supportive. By the time she and Voss had finished, though, it started to become apparent that given all of the contradictions about Crash's life and death, their script would have its dissenters. The writers just hadn't realized there would be so many.

"People came along who were tacked on to the scene in the 1980s, who still had this attitude like they were the hardcore punk rockers," Anders says. "People should look back with perspective. I had more trouble getting the women on board than the men. Women are a lot more possessive about him than the men. The men are more pragmatic."

Anders declines to offer details about who began protesting or what they said, but most of the people interviewed for this story took issue with what they describe as the script's fictionalized, idealized version of Crash's life and the scene in general; they saw a movie about a rock star, not a troubled punk kid. The word of mouth soon became poisonous, with many purporting that Anders' film would be complete fiction.

"Word on the street was that she was going to write Sid & Nancy set in L.A.," says Masque founder Mullen. "Pat [Smear] said that there were scenes of Darby and Pat actually cruising for girls." Which would be ridiculous, because, he says, Crash was gay (another "fact" about the singer that's still debated).

Anders also declines to go into detail about the specifics of the script, but she does say that such writing need not reflect word-for-word exactly what happened, that a little fiction is sometimes necessary to carry a story--and, obviously, she and Voss would not be the first filmmakers to turn such a trick. Regardless, by 1994 the two had encountered so much trouble that they abandoned the idea. ("We could've gotten financing at Maverick--Madonna was interested--but the whole thing was becoming a miserable pain in the ass," she says.) Anders, who still regrets missing the opportunity of giving Crash a cigarette when he tried to bum one off of her at a club, remains surprisingly understanding of her detractors and aware of the potential for exploitation with any Crash-related product.

"To be on the cynical side," she says, "Ultimately, people see an opportunity to cash in on what Darby meant to them."

Ironically, at just about the time Anders and Voss had given up on the project, a 27-year-old Southern California native and Connecticut Wesleyan graduate named Rodger Grossman bought the rights to Crash's story from the singer's mother, Faith Baker. He eventually turned out a screenplay called What We Do is Secret.

"The first screenplay sucked," says drummer Bolles. "But Grossman's might be even worse."

Rodger Grossman lives in Carthay Circle, a sleepy haven of sweeping dead-end streets that seem randomly plunked down in one of L.A.'s most smog-choked, gridlocked areas. In an office in the back of a roomy house that was left to him by his late grandparents, Grossman shares space with a red-and-gray king snake named Jake and a pit bull named Eightball, which trots along the hardwood floors with his leash in his mouth. The nearby bookcase houses a few of the standard punk bios that have come out in a steady stream over the past few years, including Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me and John Lydon's Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.

Armed with four years' worth of material, Grossman has plenty of tales about his attempts at getting his Darby Crash screenplay into the initial filming stages. First, there are all the e-mails he gets about the project, e-mails both from supporters and from angry punks who damn him forever to the fiery pits of hell. To wit (all errors "sic"):  

Subj: about the punk movie
Date: Thu, Jun 27, 1996, 12:50 PM EDT
you stupid dumb shit prodecers cant get it through your fucking heads that you cant buy punk! green day? are they punk? no fucking way! are you guys ever going to learn that mtv, movies and pointy hair arent what punk is about!! the last thing we need is another trendy, appeal to the fucking Xers, corporate, "punk" crap. go to hell!

Then there was Grossman's ill-fated collaboration with Brendan Mullen. Grossman says that Mullen, a key figure in the Hollywood punk scene, was initially happy with their early agreement: The latter would receive co-writing credit on the screenplay and potential work as music supervisor; in return, he'd give Grossman's project the legitimacy it needed to recruit good sources from the original scene. After a while, though, Grossman claims, Mullen became dissatisfied with his deal and demanded to be the film's music producer.

"It was bait and switch," Grossman says. "He said, 'If you don't do this, I won't work with you.' He had a great deal."

Mullen tells a different story: that he brought credibility and interview subjects for the screenplay, then saw the whole project jeopardized by Grossman's absolute insistence that he direct the film himself.

"It was supposed to be that Darby was number one," Mullen says. "Then Darby became like number four on the totem pole, and the No. 1 priority was that Rodger could break into screen directing. He acted like it was his birthright, like it was given to him. It's a mess."

Now Mullen hopes that Grossman's film will never see the first take.
"I'm not trying to poison this thing, and no one's against him," he says. "It's just that no one thinks he can do it."

More than anything, Crash's friends worry that Grossman's film--like the Anders-Voss project before it--will turn what they see as an underground, rebellious movement into The Doors or The Buddy Holly Story. After Mullen's departure in 1995, Ghaffari got involved; she says she came on board because she read the script and knew it needed help--her rationalization being that as it was probably going to be made, it had better be accurate. And even without Mullen, Grossman still had one consolation prize: A small film company called Cineville had optioned the script, so he had potential backing and a real contract.

But eight months ago, the deal fell through--and brought Grossman's entire film to a screeching halt. One way or another, though, the director is determined to finish shooting before his option runs out in a year. This despite his conviction that he'll be sued by at least three different parties--Mullen, a producer at Cineville, and an independent financier--if he ever completes the film. He might be able to add a fourth name to that list: Bolles, offended by his characterization in the script, half-seriously says he might take Grossman to court if Secret is ever made.

"It shows me getting into a fight, and I've never been in a fight in my life," he says. "It portrays me in a vile manner. That script's not even bad-funny in a nihilistic/existentialist way."

Despite the naysayers, though, Grossman seems determined to forge on.
"I could've made three movies by now about two guys and a girl on a road with a gun," says Grossman, who grew up listening to second-generation SST punk. "That's not so hard...but that's not what I'm about."

On the bright side, Grossman claims many of Hollywood's Young Turks have warmed up to the idea of playing Crash on the big screen: He cites interest from Balthazar Getty, Steven Dorff, My So-Called Life's Jared Leto, and Joaquin Phoenix, but says that David Arquette (Scream's dim-witted Sheriff Dewey) will play Crash, though the actor hasn't officially committed. (A Web site devoted to all things David Arquette does mention the movie, though with the disclaimer "probably will not be made.") Anders, for one, isn't surprised about all the interest.

"Young people will be dying to dress up in cat-eye eyeliner and crazy haircuts," she says. "With these young stars, you can get your pick."

If you can ever get your movie off the ground. (Ironically, Anders says she was recently called by a producer about resurrecting her script.) But while everyone seems to disagree on the right way to tell it, few deny that Crash's is a good story. What the singer and his motley crew--drummer Bolles, bassist Lorna Doom, and guitarist Smear--seemed to personify was the immediate moment, a burgeoning, performance-art-like music scene that always seemed poised on the brink of destruction. It was fast, brutal, primal, and anti-everything, and not something initially created to be packaged, sold to, and devoured by much more than a small circle of friends. And even in trying to do so--in the middle of all the infighting, the potential lawsuits and the debates about "truth"--there's one fact about which everyone seems to agree:  

Grossman: "If he could look down and see everybody scrambling to get a piece, he would be laughing."

Anders: "Wherever he is, he's laughing his ass off right now."
Bolles: "Darby would love it. He was into psychedelic pranksterism and mind control. He was a legend in his own mind.

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