Darby Crash and the Germs:

Reconsidering the Lyrics of a Punk Phenomenon in a Queer Context

By Michael C. Walker, Oasis Magazine Science Editor

During the late 1970s punk had spread from its formative base in Great Britain to the streets, clubs, and high schools of Los Angeles, with the top punk and New Wave groups of the U.K. playing in L.A., inspiring local kids to take their own musical action in the spirit of the punk "do-it-yourself" theme. Among the L.A. kids enthralled with these fresh sounds was Jan Paul Beahm, who would later become immortaly infamous as Darby Crash. More or less as a joke, Beahm/Crash along with Pat Smear, Lorna Doom, and Donna Rhia formed the Germs. Crash and Smear were practically musical novices at this point, but that mattered little: punk was willing to allow for inexperience when augmented by sheer energy, something these four certainly had. During the short existence of the Germs, the band roster changed many times, but Crash and Smear always stayed at the center of the group.

The Germs soon became a fixture in the L.A. punk community, known for their insane live performances that made any other act look dull in comparison. Somewhere between concert and impromptu performance art, the Germs would throw food -- including peanut butter -- at their audience; Darby would often deliberately cut himself with broken glass, and general chaos would result. The Germs's audiences loved it. Each show, Darby attempted to make things more outrageous, more demented than before, wearing provocative clothing (or the conspicuous lack thereof) including a fake leopard-fur jock strap, leather loincloths, and rarely a shirt.

At the peak of the Germs' popularity, Darby died of a heroin overdose. The overdose was an act of suicide, although not originally reported in the media as such. The year was 1980, only three years after the group originally formed. Music -- and American life in general -- was changing hard and fast with punk losing momentum and suffering from the adulteration of corporate involvement. Yet the Germs have lived on to this day through their songs, capturing the attention of new listeners every year. The unapologetic vigor of their music and the powerful introspectivity of Darby's lyrics have kept the Germs fresh for almost two decades. Darby's lyrics were -- when considered in context with the musical scene of L.A. at the time and his own young age -- quite amazing, displaying a pronounced sensitivity and contemplativness unfound in most rock lyrics. As I will demonstrate later in this essay, his lyrics -- strangely enough -- resemble the poetry of Emily Dickinson in certain places, and reveal a aesthetic sensibility common to high poetry.

For various reasons, Darby has been rumored to have been gay or bisexual, and some would claim that existing "evidence" points to this as the only plausible reality. I am not really interested in the rumors and circulating gossip, however, Darby's lyrics do suggest homosexual themes in many instances. Whether he was gay or not is a moot point to me, the lyrics contain sentiments that I believe are very relevant to the experience of growing up queer in America. Could Crash have penned these lyrics if he wasn't in fact gay? Quite possibly, as he was an astute commentator on the human condition and lived in a city where he would have encountered a hedonistic attitude on the part of queers coupled with a general spirit of isolation and alienation -- not only of gays but anyone young, anyone different.

The song "American Leather" has a fairly obvious gay theme, and was in fact used in the film Cruising, a murder mystery set in the world of gay leather bars and sadomasochism. The producer of the movie, Jack Nitzshe, had contacted Slash (the Germs' record label, not the G'n'R guitarist) and requested that the band record some songs for his soundtrack. A fair number of songs were recorded although only a few brief minutes of Germs music can be heard on the final soundtrack. The chorus of "American Leather" suggests the tension of the gay scene of the time, but is still ambiguous enough to have other valid connotations:

"American leather,
the poisonous members,
not alone--not together,
their American leather"

Considering that these words were the lyrics of one of the most hedonistic bands in the history of American music, and that they were written in a time when the scourge of AIDS was unknown; it is eerie how resoundingly they echo in the queer world today, with the threat of HIV undeniable.

Another Germs song from the same period of time, "Strange Notes", has an even more pronounced and intriguing ambiance of homosexuality:

"He wears linens just like Garbo -- and talks at a saturnine pace,
listening to the strange notes marvel, only giving what it takes
it's a sad man's world, and for Billy it's sure to crown,
dragging beauty into darkness, inflicting a pale white frown"

The implications of Darby's lyrics here are vast, and to me, quite breath-taking. Obviously, the idea of a man in drag is brought forth, not only with the Garbo remark but also the line "dragging beauty into darkness" which may well have a double meaning, referring not only to moving the aspects of physical beauty away from their origins and towards a darker context, but also using the word "dragging" to indicate the act of being in drag. Like "American Leather", these lyrics also hint at a scene filled with tragedy and melancholy, the "sad man's world" that the gay scene in California would become within less than five years of Darby's writing. The seedy transvestite bars of L.A. are easily suggested by these lyrics and the immediacy of the words imply an acute awareness on the part of Crash of gay life at the time, although in all fairness, the lyrics can also be interpreted without any queer underpinnings at all. For some reason, these lyrics always conjure up to me images of Gore Vidal's momentous novel about an earlier era of transvestite life in L.A.: Myron.

The final lines of "Strange Notes" are puzzling and as enigmatic as anything written by Crash:

"and the matter that runs through Billy's head is too concerned to fall"

Does "matter" in this case denote a certain subject matter or topic of thought, or could it mean the gray matter: the brain? And what would it "fall" into, anyway? Would it be Billy's soul, his morality that might fall through some homosexual act or could it be that he possesses a rare steadiness of mind uncommon to the fickle drag scene he inhabits? The latter presumption is supported by the lines "and talks at a saturnine pace, listening to the strange notes marvel, only giving what it takes", implying sage restraint on Billy's part. This is one place in Darby's lyrics where I see a clear correlation to Emily Dickinson's poetry. First, the idea of the brain and the concept that the brain has its own space, may move within that given space and may fall subject to physical laws and physical trauma in association with moral/mental torment is prevalent in several of Dickinson's poems. Second the idea of "concern", the premise of worries being powerful enough to spark a physical outcome is an undercurrent in Dickinson's poems, as well as those by a number of other writers and poets of her time.

Like much of punk music, the themes of alienation and a lack of belonging to mainstream society prevail throughout Darby's lyrics, but in many places the general feeling of separation from accepted cultural and societal norms is overshadowed by another, more specific type of isolation. Darby often wrote of his being "different" to the point that he felt it necessary to use the metaphor of being someone -- or perhaps something -- not only outside of accepted civilization but also outside of the normal spectrum of human life, a freak or half-person of sorts. His famous song "Manimal" is in this vein:

"I came into the world like a puzzled panther, wanting to be caged,
but something stood in my way: I was never quite tamed."

Similarly, Darby often wrote -- seemingly autobiographically -- about the circumstances of the individual and the problematic condition of having a unique identity separate from "mainstream" society. He focused unrelentingly on power, on the capacity of a person to control or conquer, whether the person in question was Darby himself or someone else. The importance of "power" as subject matter for lyrics was recognized by Crash from the group's first few songs onward, no matter how simplistic these songs may appear on first notice. Presidents, czars, queens, and emperors all appear in the lyrics of the song "Forming" and the idea of political control and the distribution of power rises again in later songs by the Germs including "What we do is Secret", "Communist Eyes", and "Land of Treason". The song "Shut Down" is basically an ode to power incarnate:

"lemme get control; I've got your minds, now I want your souls, lemme get control . . ."

One of the greatest songs of the Germs, "Lexicon Devil" also speaks of the individual and of control and power. It is of interest to me because again it conjures up the poetry of Emily Dickinson with an almost uncanny resemblance to some of the themes found in her works.

"I'm a lexicon devil with a battered brain,
and I'm lookin' for a future -- the world's my aim;
gimme gimme your hands, gimme gimme your minds . . . "

Dickinson wrote in a letter that her "lexicon was my only companion" (Emily Dickinson, Letter #261; dated 25 April 1862) and the term "lexicon" was symbolic of knowledge or a store of learning during her time. But why would Darby Crash -- considering his time and his audience -- choose this word? And what exactly is a "lexicon devil"? One would presume it to be a person who has a vast and consummate wisdom but who puts this knowledge to an evil or disapproved use. Dickinson -- as I stated before -- was also taken with the brain and commented on it in her poems. For Darby, still in his teens, to say essentially that he held a vast knowledge and a world-weary brain tells a lot about his outlook on life and perhaps about his condition in this world. Darby did demonstrate a great interest in lexicons and dictionaries and friends would often give him dictionaries as gifts. At the end of the song, Darby says something equally interesting:

"I'm giving you the power to rearrange;
together we'll run to the highest prop,
tear it down and let it drop . . . away . . ."

To "rearrange" what? The idea of empowerment, of perhaps sharing that "lexicon" of knowledge and allowing someone else in a similar situation to realize his/her circumstances and change them could also have a queer interpretation. Certainly the idea of breaking through "props", things that an institution or society has falsely declared as the ultimate truths and revealing their counterfeit nature is a central concept to queer theory. What could Darby have known that he so desperately wanted to share?

It would entirely unfair to consider the above without looking at Darby's most explicitly sexual song, appropriately entitled "Sex Boy". The recording that has survived of this early song by the Germs is of the poorest audio quality imaginable but the lyrics do shed some light on Darby's view of sexuality:

"say it exactly, sex boy,
such a side-show poster,
after such a sweet slut,
any time I can . . . "

"Sex Boy" does mention "a dozen girls are on my scene" but I don't feel that this statement precludes the possibility of gay overtones in the lyrics. If anything, whether the "sex boy" in question has a dozen girls or a dozen boys as his objects of sexual pursuit, it is HIS sexuality that forms the core the song, and nothing external. He is the "fucking son of a superman" according to the lyrics and Darby -- not only through the words he sang but through his general stage presence -- positioned himself as a sexual object. HE was the "sweet slut", after all, the lyrics brag of his ability to sate the sexual appetite of so many eager suitors, therefore he has proudly located himself as a sexual commodity while retaining the dominate balance of power in the sexual interplay. Madonna would do much the same in her music a number of years later, but Darby contributed something substantial to the arena of sexual politics first.

The Germs never expected to be a long-lasting force in rock music, perhaps they never anticipated even being a real band with real gigs and real fans, but all these things came to them, primarily due to the lyrical quality and energetic performance of their songs. Darby Crash -- inarguably -- was the one element that made the Germs what they were, as much if not more so than Jim Morrison made the Doors or Mick Jagger made the Rolling Stones. Without him, there could not have been such a band, and upon his death, the band became part of punk's notorious history. Whether Darby was gay or not might be a matter up for debate, but beyond his own sexuality is the depth of his sexual power as ingeniously and dramatically realized through the songs of the Germs. These lyrics will live on forever as a testament to a unique period of American music and can provide gay youth with a sounding board for many of their own feelings, frustrations, and desires.

If you are interested in the Germs and want to learn more about the history of the band, a good place to start is the following web-site: http://www.best.com/~dru1d/music/germs/news/catsclause/

Additionally, there is a movie currently in production that will chronicle Darby's life; while I don't know when this film will be in the theaters or really much more about it, the movie ought to offer a good perspective on the Germs and may well generate even greater interest in their music.

The best single collection of the Germs's music is: The Germs: MIA the Complete Anthology, a compendium of the band's surviving recordings that was issued on compact disc and tape by Slash Records in 1993. This album includes a total of thirty songs, including all of those mentioned in this article.

(All lyrics quoted in this article are by Darby Crash; ©1979 Slash Records)

Mike Walker can be reached at mcwalker@hotmail.com

©1998 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.