Punk's Little Secret

By Job Brother

Originally published on Advocate.com August 21 2008 11:00 PM ET

Above: Shane West as Darby Crash

Picture an iconic
gay singer and Darby Crash of Los Angeles’s infamous
punk band the Germs does not come leaping to mind, but with
the advent of Rodger Grossman’s new biopic film
What We Do Is Secret, that may change.

The Germs
exploded onto the L.A. punk music scene in the late 1970s;
its mastermind was Paul Beahm (who took the name Darby
Crash), who along with fellow classmate Georg
Ruthenberg (Crash named him Pat Smear) enlisted
an assortment of young women who, like them, did not
know how to play instruments -- among them,
Belinda Carlisle (Crash called her Dottie Danger), who
would go on to find fame with the Go-Go’s).
They first called themselves Sophistifuck and the Revlon
Spam Queens, and later settled on the Germs.

Darby Crash began
aggressively promoting the band -- making T-shirts,
assigning stage names to band members, even coming up with
the group's philosophy -- before they had written
any songs or in fact rehearsed. Their first gigs
ended up being more of an exercise in stage dramatics
than music. During their stage debut at the Orpheum Theater
on the Sunset Strip (not to be confused with the
downtown L.A. Orpheum of today), Darby
covered himself in licorice, and the set ended when he
stuck his microphone in a jar of peanut butter,
causing the band to be kicked out of the venue. Crash's
antics later helped make a name for the band as he
tossed sugar at the audience or cut himself while
performing.

 What We Do is Secret director Rodger Grossman x395 (Kevin Estrada) | Advocate.com

Above: Rodger Grossman

Eventually the
group self-produced a single, “Forming,” which
is widely credited as being L.A.’s first punk
single. With dogged determination the group continued,
developing a sound and playing whenever they could find
a venue brave enough to showcase them. They acquired a fan
base. 

On December 7,
1980, just four days after a successful, final performance
at the (now gone) Starwood club, Darby Crash committed
suicide by intentional overdose of heroin. His death
was overshadowed by the murder of John Lennon the
following day, but for those in the punk scene,
Crash’s death was a terrific loss of his inspired,
intelligent lyrics and his whimsical yet tough
bravado. 

Now, twenty-eight
years later, the Germs are internationally celebrated
as an influential and important music group. Pat Smear went
on to join Nirvana in their final year, before Kurt
Cobain’s suicide, and afterward played with the
Foo Fighters and cohosted MTV’s House of Style
with Cindy Crawford.

What We Do Is Secret follows the rise and fall
of one of L.A.’s most notorious bands, focusing on
Darby Crash’s five-year plan to become famous
then commit suicide -- which no one took
seriously until it was too late.

We talked
with writer-director Rodger Grossman as he led a
caravan of cars of the surviving members of the Germs
from their induction at Hollywood's RockWalk to a
reunion gig downtown

What drew you to this project? To me, Darby was the beating heart of the L.A.
punk rock scene, and by telling his story,
you’re really telling a bigger story –- the
birth of punk rock. In Darby’s story
there’s a sad, lonely, sexually conflicted boy
who had dreams of being worshipped and loved, and that, to
me, was fascinating. 

You’ve been working on this film much longer
than the Germs were together. What saw you through so
many ups and downs?
It’s been 15 years of struggle.
Darby’s friends, Darby’s bandmates, sat
behind me, and I felt an obligation to see it through for
them. 

The real Darby Crash | Advocate.com 

Above: Darby Crash

In your film we see Darby have homosexual desires,
but it’s never consummated visually or even
confirmed through dialogue, and one could even
leave the film believing that he died a virgin.
Was this intentional?
His relationships with guys was something we
spent a lot of time thinking how to approach. We
decided it wasn’t really what the movie was about. It
certainly was a major issue for him that we needed and
wanted to address. I worked very closely with one of
the producers of the movie, who is gay, on how to
address [his sexuality] sensitively and honestly. People in
the audience who are gay have come up to me and told
me that they loved the way the movie dealt with it
–- in an honest and matter-of-fact way.

Do you have a sense of how Darby felt about his sexuality? He was very private about it. It was not
something he discussed. I think he was very
conflicted. I worked very closely with Darby’s
friends on this movie, and they felt it was important
that we address it, but they didn’t feel he was
comfortable enough about his sexuality for it to be a
movie about that.

An impressive accomplishment of this film is that
it catalyzed a reunion of the surviving Germs members.
How did this come about?
We had an aborted production. A financier funded
preproduction but didn’t follow through on the
rest of the fund. We had put the [actors playing the]
band together and rehearsed them, and the Germs were really
impressed. We had a wrap party for this movie that never
happened –- which was very Germs-esque. The
actor-Germs –- we call them the Baby Germs
–- performed, and during the course of it the Germs
reunited onstage with Shane [West, who plays Darby
Crash in the film], and they had so much fun that they
decided to keep playing with Shane, and they’ve
been doing it ever since.