Thursday, November 12, 2009

What We Do Is Secret

About five years ago I saw a listing on Craigslist looking for punk rock people to come out to L.A. and be extras in the movie they were making about the Germs. Now, I have no particular affinity for the Hollywood punk scene, though as a punk rock historian I appreciate it quite a bit. Still, it was convoluted and short lived, in its original form. In New York in the 1970's, after a couple months in, the press was just picking up on it, so you didn't get less intelligent, less creative, less tortured kids coming out of Long Island after seeing it on the 5 o'clock news and inventing hardcore before the scene could gel. That happened later. But out in Hollywood, they had a comparative scene about a year lagging, so the Sex Pistols had been happening, etc... and fashion punkery had already been engaged. Sure, there were luminaries like X and the Germs, and notable the Weirdos and the Stranglers, but even their best music was deliberate and dirge like, angry and rarely tongue-in-cheek, lacking in the pop sensibilities of their East Coast and English counterparts. You know, albums full of major-chord progression power chords. Worse still was the influx of Orange County, suburban beach punks that dumbed it all down. But still, the Germs, right! When Tit Patrol was living on North Street in Newark, the walls were all spray painted, my breakfast, lunch, and dinner all came in 40 oz. containers, and Video Showplace rented eight VHS tapes for eight dollars for eight nights, so one of our most frequent pick-ups was Penelope Spheeris' "The Decline of Western Civilization", the documentary about the turning of the Hollywood scene from the older artistic nihilists to the younger "get fucked up" crew. The Germs, X, and Black Flag performances are awesome, and the time spent with the bands off stage is even way better, even though the famous scene in which Darby makes breakfast and his "roommate" talks about the dead painter they found was a ruse. Darby's actual roommate was Tony the Hustler, but he didn't want the documentary showing him being gay in any way. In "Decline" Darby Crash is definitely the hero of the movie, but it's a facade. I tried to get Karl to drive me out to Hollywood to audition for the movie, but he had to work, so we didn't do it.

Years later, I'm listening to G.I. and get an inkling to check the Germs movie out. Now, some movies make you uncomfortable in a way that takes away from the film. Todd Solenz's "Storytelling" is a great example. That scene with super-cutie, flat-chested Selma Blair and the large black dude is, for my money, too exploitative and gross. And I like exploitative and gross! "Kids" also is unbelievably sucky in that same "aren't we real, so real and bad" way. Some movies make you uncomfortable in a good way that engages you, "Psycho" being the obvious, and way out of the league, example. "What We Do Is Secret" is not uncomfortable in either of these ways, it's not uncomfortable at all. It's kinda like the Germs meets "Mean Girls." They kept pretty close to the Germs plot as I know it: Two kids gets kicked out of an L.A. hippy Scientology school for "mind control", convincing the other students that they were God and his son, Jesus, they decide to start a band to enact one of their's "five year plan", they recruit valley girls to fill out the band, rename themselves Bobby Pyn, then Darby Crash and Pat Smear, become the Germs (after Nietzsche's "germ of an idea"), play a terrible first show at the Orpheum with the Damned in the audience at which Darby does his best Iggy Pop, gain popularity after Darby cuts the shit out of his chest (also like Iggy) at the Masque, start to draw and incite their audience into riots, make a record produced by Joan Jett, can't get booked due to reputation, Darby breaks up the band and goes to England where he becomes a New Romantic, comes back and forms the Darby Crash Band, who suck, does one more Germs show reunion to make a lot of cash, reveals the telos of his five-year plan as suicide, an intentional heroin overdose, meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, on that same day John Lennon was shot, dooming Darby to obscurity. The whole thing is framed by a pre-suicide Darby interview, conducted by Slash Magazine's Kickboy Face, and Darby narration which is him reading from Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil". He reveals in the interview that his motivation is political, not on a nationwide scale, but on the level of personal relationships. His Germs lyrics are his message, that the only way to succeed on a national or personal level is through fascism, and he is the ideal fascist leader, to his "circle" of friends. Darby is also obsessed with the cyclical nature of things, as shown through the blue "Circle One" Germs logo that he and his band and extended followers wear on armbands or spray paint on the wall or burn into your arm with a cigarette when you are family.

The storytelling of the movie is actually really good, though how accurately it portrays how the characters enacted is in question. They all act like kids, and I guess they were. Unlike the older, more sophisticated New York scene led by artists, poets, and addicts who then made music, these guys were right out of high school, emulating artists and once in a while, becoming one. In Darby's case, relying on the direction of inner demons, and as for the rest of the Germs, it would seem, relying on their belief in Darby and their love of the Germs, in a classic "we're all in this together" mentality. They are all portrayed as wildly naive, babes at Darby's teet, and though he could talk a big game, he was just as naive as anyone. Richard Hell was a manipulator concerned with art and by extension, himself. Darby Crash was a manipulator concerned with himself, and by extension, art. So, they do all this well, and make it well worth watching, but the problem for me lies in this being a movie about punk rock, but not being a punk rock movie. Everybody is a lamb, so tame and self-questioning. The Germs come off as as nice as, or nicer, than me, and far more conservative. When I first heard the story of Darby Crash, it made me uncomfortable. This highly, highly charismatic dude who uses his power to manipulate everyone around him into thinking he is a genius, knowing the whole while he was gonna abandon them all. In real life, he used real-deal mind control techniques derived from L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology, which his high school was theoretically based on, to coerce a group of friends and admirers into a cult-like clique young Darby named Circle One. He idolized Charles Manson, and Circle One was primarily female, and when punk came to Hollywood, this became the Germs fan base. See, in the time elapsed since the seventies, since the first punk rock movement, alot has changed. For one, nothing is musically shocking anymore. The most shocking thing is Lady Gaga because she is pop as fuck but says way iller shit, better said, than Britney Spears or even Saves the Day ever would. What I would consider shocking is a fully functioning real rock and roll band that is all new, all now, but fully aware of their place in American Cultural history. What else has changed is that it is definitely not cool to have minions anymore. It is very not punk rock. Using your charisma to manipulate yourself into a darling persona, no matter how deconstructed, is passe, and not fun at all. What's cool is a non-self aware self-derivative persona that would organically line up and be accessorized by one's own grasp of recent history, (re:pop culture?), and may the best person prosper. This movie is just fun. It doesn't really take you to any given dark side, or give you insight into the depths of Darby's depravity. It just has him as the best writer in his group of friends who managed to pull of some antics, and ended up taking himself too seriously, but it's, you know, based on a true story and so it works.

Interestingly enough, after the movie was made, Shane West, the dude playing Darby, changed his name to Shane Wreck and officially joined the remaining Germs (thirty years older!) to tour and play big corporate events like Warped Tour. I'm pretty sure that that is one big reason why Darby offed himself, so such lameness would never occur with the Germs moniker. If the real Darby Crash had any semi-spoken lyrical theme, anti-institutionalism would be a big one. Even though West looks like a prettier Darby and can emulate the sounds he made, it is a pretty big disgrace. Unlike the Ramones, who I would have happily seen at any age with any bassist (Dee Dee forever, though!), I would only wanna see the Germs with Darby Crash, preferably younger than 22. It's really not the music or lyrics that made the Germs so awesome, it was the conglomeration of what they were saying, when they were saying it, how they were saying it, and who was delivering the message. I like Darby's lyrics, but this is one subject on which I am jaded. I mean, I've heard it said over and over again so many times since, were the Germs really the first to lay that style of lyric down? If so, he definitely has a wildly distinctive lyrical voice that may rank as the most imitated in punk rock, and if so, and it would have been a brave artistic move to expose your pain and especially anger in such an open and vulnerable and visibly poetic way, especially when disco ruled the airwaves. So many years later, these themes and techniques Darby pioneered have been made crude, but his lines are still elegant and the work of a natural. I won't undersell him on this point: Darby Crash was hyper-intelligent. From a very young age he read Hitler, Nietzsche, Hesse, Crowley and crafted his philosophy, or non-philosophy. The real Darby Crash explains, "It's a way of life. Fascist is totally extreme right. We're not extreme right. Maybe there's a better word for it that I haven't found yet, but I'm still going to have complete control . . . One day you'll pray to me." The movie shows Darby using typed lyric sheets as his most frequent form of promotion. Such as:

I'm a lexicon devil with a battered brain
And I'm searchin' for a future-the world's my aim
So gimme gimme your hands-
Gimme gimme your minds
Gimme gimme this-
Gimme gimme tha-yea-yea-t...

I want toy tin soldiers that can push and shove
I want gunboy rovers that'll wreck this club
I'll build you up and level your heads
We'll run it my way-cold men and politics dead...

I'll get silver guns to drip old blood
Let's give this established joke a shove
We're gonna wreak havoc on the rancid mill
I'm searchin' for something even if I'm killed...

Empty out your pockets-you don't need their change
I'm giving you the power to rearrange
Together we'll run to the highest prop
Tear it down and let it drop...away...

There are some good scenes in the movie though. The Germs on air with Rodney on the ROQ is mega-cheesy and funny, and Darby dealing with his homosexuality is precious. This movie would have me believe that he died a virgin! One of the best, most punk aspects of the movie is the near inability of the actors to act. They are at like "Saved By the Bell" levels of acting ability, and that is one thing that makes it more real. Like in Chuck Klosterman says in his "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs," anything important is inevitably a cliche and probably doesn't reflect reality, but in (not) doing so it actually does reflect reality, which is not very real at all. Maybe the film makers are right on after all. If you watched the movie on YouTube (as I did) and you read the comments (like I did), you're bombarded by the holier-than-thou and punk-as-fuck who voice their insignificant opinions based on their punk rock pedigree that you would assume involves getting shot up by Darby himself, based on their self-righteousness, with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong as their sacrificial lamb. Don't mind their crassly-typed psuedo thoughts, they're neither here nor there. Some legitimate gripes would include that the Germs all look like models, with Lorna Doom being played by Bijou Phillips. The Germs were young and good-looking, but this layer of gloss would be an example of the bone of contention between the filmmaker and the wannabe complain-o punks. They paint drummer Don Bolles as a happy-go-lucky moron, but I understand he was the compulsive bad dude himself. More to the point, the movie has Darby singing into the mike whenever on stage. I think that the Germs are more well known for Darby's avoidance of the microphone than they are for Darby's suicide or their music. Plus, you could easily get thrown off by the ludicrous dialogue and its hackneyed, amateurish delivery, but why? This is a movie about the Germs, not "Pet Sounds".

"Annihilation Man" by Brendan Mullen
Watch "What We Do Is Secret"

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