Friday, December 26, 2008

Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs - Brendan Mullen with Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey

I got Lexicon Devil for Christmas and just finished reading it an hour ago (6:00 PM, December 26, if I don't finish this and post it until tomorrow, the truth must be told). That means I was only in possession of it for about 30 hours before finishing it. That time includes a holiday gathering with cousins, nine or so hours of sleep, a couple hours at a mall, and a couple hours watching The Dark Knight on DVD, another Christmas gift. Basically all the other time was spent reading this book, and few other times in my life have I been so utterly thrilled by what I was reading that all other outside time became secondary. That is when literature is taken to new heights and the reason for my wanting to get involved in it reveals itself. This is the best book about music since Our Band Could Be Your Life, though it has been out for six years now, which is only another year or so more than that other thoroughly enjoyable volume. But make no mistake: Lexicon Devil is the height of the oral history genre, surpassing Please Kill Me and even the ridiculously exhaustive Nirvana text by Everett True. Darby Crash and Kurt Cobain have a few things in common, but as elusive and mysterious as Cobain may seem, Crash is ultimately even more legendary for the simple fact that he was not as famous. But they both killed themselves, they both loved heroin, they both loved Queen, and they both played with Pat Smear.

Anecdote #1: I almost bought Lexicon Devil from Circus of Books in Silverlake right after I first moved there. It was my first day touring the "Sunset strip" of the neighborhood on foot and this was the only interesting book I could find in that store. I decided against it and I was a fucking idiot for doing so! If I had read this book while living in L.A., it might have changed my life. I at least would have taken a few tourist side-trips.

Anecdote #2: When this book was referenced at the beginning of Palahniuk's Rant, I instantly wanted to read it again. There are a couple similarities between the protagonist of Rant and Crash. #1--both are begged to leave by their high schools, and are awarded diplomas the same way, and #2--both like to stick their arms down holes. In one interview Crash is asked "what was your first sexual experience?" and he answers, "When I stuck my arm down a garbage disposal."

That said Palahniuk does not borrow any more characteristics from this real-life icon. I really want to see What We Do is Secret now--which is I think a fictional re-creation of the story of his life--and I've always wanted to see The Decline of Western Civilization and have not been lucky enough to do so yet. This book is absolutely wonderful and if you are at all intrigued by the Germs, or punk bands in general, you will love this book.

The easiest place to start is with the Germs music itself. I only have "MIA" on my iPod, and truthfully it was not the easiest batch of songs to get into. At times they just sound awful and unlistenable, such as on the very poorly recorded "Sex Boy." However, there were more compelling moments. The song "Lexicon Devil" itself is probably their most famous single. "Circle One" and "No God" are great songs. "Forming" is iconic for being their first song and most self-fulfilling. Looking at the track listing of their album G.I., I would recommend that people get it. "What We Do is Secret" and "Communist Eyes" and "Richie Dagger's Crime" are all very good too. But that is about it. There are really not very many songs in their catalog.

It is difficult to situate them into their proper place in their influence of the American punk rock movement. They came after the New York punk bands like the Ramones and Television and Richard Hell, but only by a couple years. They did not like those bands as much as other people. They started in 1977 and finished in 1980. They came up around the same time as X, and throughout this book X are held up as their older, more mature mentors. They cared much more about sounding clean and crisp. They were much more professional.

The Germs came before Black Flag and the book does a good job of explaining the difference between the South Bay scene and the Hollywood scene which the Germs were a part of. There are many interesting and memorable characters in this book, but none more than Crash himself. Some of the anecdotes offered are really twisted and some are the most hilarious things I've ever read. But Crash is undeniable as a superstar performer.

He was born in 1958 and died in 1980 on the same day as John Lennon. He was raised as a Scientologist and attended an experimental high school where he started doing acid when he was 14 or so. He was friends with Pat Smear from about that age and started up the band more as a gang than as a musical entity. They made up their own t-shirts for the band before they ever rehearsed. Belinda Carlisle was their first drummer, though she never even really sat behind a drum kit for them, and I was wondering why her name sounded so familiar and later I realized it was because she was the only person in the scene to get truly mega-famous as the lead singer of the Go Go's. Joan Jett also figures somewhat heavily in the story as the producer of G.I. and as a maker of "piss-sicles." But they do finally start playing music and at the beginning their shows are more about the spectacle of Crash's onstage unpredictability, but later they do actually earn rave reviews for their first LP. One review says that it is the best album to come out of L.A. since the Doors did "L.A. Woman." Personally, I feel Los Angeles by X is a stronger statement than G.I. by the Germs, but the Germs are clearly trying to take their art to a higher and more surreal and less explicable level.

This book is mostly about playing shows and getting kicked out of places and vandalizing things and living a punk lifestyle. Darby Crash never had any money and would always ask people to give things to him, and they would. He also steadily got into heavier and heavier drugs. The stories about his last couple weeks of life are incredibly moving. The biggest bombshell that gets dropped in this book is about Crash's homosexuality that he felt he needed to hide due to the attitude of the L.A. punk scene at the time. Some of the discussions about this topic make up the most compelling portions of the book. I certainly had never heard anything about that before, but then again I didn't know much about Darby Crash beyond, "He killed himself when he was really young."

Although it may sound like this book is kind of dumb, Crash is actually the author of some very poetic lyrics, and many of the intellectual undercurrents of the music are discussed in very clear terms. One of the segments I found particularly trenchant was this offering:

Rik L. Rik: Darby found Spengler's Decline of the West interesting because of his theory that there is no ad infinitum chronological progression with cultures. In the West people think of culture in terms of each century building on the last and becoming more and more advanced, but Spengler disagreed. He saw each culture living a cycle and then dying. Then the next culture comes along and has exactly the same kind of cycle and dies. Each culture has three phases...where it starts out primitive followed by a glorious epoch...then it goes into decline and finally dies after a period of crazed decadence and general degeneracy of the masses. (127)

From there, the story goes to Darby's love of fascism, which may or may not be influenced by Bowie's pronounced love of that same concept. To be sure, it is weird, but it is bold to state and interesting to think about. Darby Crash is super obsessed with David Bowie. One of the funniest parts is when he is talking to his friend Will Amato about how he cracked the code of the album title Diamond Dogs. He says, "What are a girl's best friend?" And then he says, "What is man's best friend?" Little parts like that are what make this book great.

I don't even know what else I want to talk about in this book! I guess just that I read it super fast, faster than anything else I can ever remember reading that was this long (294 pages), and it's a great book for anyone that wants to be in a band and it's a great book for anyone that wants to spread true anarchy. Crash is an icon and this book perfectly captures every reason why. An absolute pleasure and an absolute treasure.

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