A Poorly Timed Suicide? How a Punk Legend Plotted His Own Premature End
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the best-laid plans of mice and men? Yeah. You get the idea.
By Eugene S. Robinson
There’s something sort of darkly magical about movements that sweep away our social moorings in ways that completely make time … disappear. Which is to say, if you were part of the Jazz Age or a swing kid, or considered yourself a member of the Beat Generation or a hippie, it was just as hard to imagine the time before you showed up as it was to imagine anything different coming after you showed up.
That’s precisely how school kid Jan Paul Beahm, after he became punk rocker Darby Crash, tied into David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars song Five Years and its end lines proclaiming that “We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot/We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got.” And deep into a Los Angeles that was always thick with the possibility of greatness, Crash — who in 1977 at the age of 19 recorded Forming, the first single for the Germs, the hardcore punk band he started and sang for — felt some sort of deep kinship with that timeline.
“Five years, beyond the song itself, marked a passage of time, that meant something to Darby,” said Don Bolles, the Germs’ drummer, and author of Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs. “The Chinese Communist Party had their five-year plan, Bowie sang about it and Darby figured if he hadn’t achieved world domination by then, why bother? So after five years he sort of had to put up or shut up.”
He died where he lived: in Hollywood.
And in a scene that prided itself on a certain amount of putting up, it certainly witnessed Crash doing a fair amount of that: the Germs shows were car wrecks, black bacchanals with Crash as the scar-chested ringleader. Fights, wild and with injudicious consumption of alcohol and chemical companions, songs and sets that either finished or didn’t and, ultimately, all of it too much for Los Angeles clubs to take. Certainly with the Los Angeles Police Department driving to get them shut down.
Now if getting banned by every club in Los Angeles is part of your schtick? Which is to say, something you’ll do with a wink and nod to gainsay some sort of street cred? Then great. But, again, when it came to putting up or shutting up, Crash didn’t do too much shutting up. So when the Germs were filmed in the fairly seminal film, The Decline of Western Civilization, director Penelope Spheeris had to rent a warehouse: not a single club in a town of publicity whores was willing to be whored out for the Germs.
“People had stopped coming for the music it seemed like,” said the author of Punk Elegies: True Tales of Death Trip Kids, Wrongful Sex, and Trial by Angel Dust, Allan MacDonell. “It was what it was. But it was sad because Darby’s lyrics were really expressive.” And in that, he’s completely right. Drawing from a pastiche of philosophers and literary lights like Nietzsche, Kenneth Anger, and archetypical bad boys like Charles Manson, Crash’s turn of the poet — “Clara would have been proud to know us/we’ve taken it to the end/from the suffering that was/we are no stronger/we are dust” — was revealing of a mindset that drove all of what came next.
Concealed by the more rabid aspects of his act, Crash was much smarter than he seemed and seemed through it all to have systematically put together a plan to make good on the question posed by Five Years. Specifically, in a meta move to end all meta moves, he was going to blow the whole program in the most significant way possible. ”Yeah, I think the suicide, rather than being propelled by depression, was a statement suicide,” Bolles said. “But he threatened to do it for so long that by the end no one believed him anymore.”
So on December 7, 1980, at the age of 22, Crash lined up a pre-planned amount of heroin — $600 worth, according to Bolles, a prodigious amount even by 1980 standards — for himself and a friend he purportedly gave less to so she could live. And he died where he lived: In Hollywood. Unknown what he was thinking exactly, but from the heroin overdose of Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious to Joy Division’s Ian Curtis’ hanging death, these celeb suicides had developed around them a certain kind of mystique.
A mystique Crash would have been mindful of. What he wouldn’t have been mindful of? That on December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman would murder John Lennon, capturing the news cycle and rendering Crash’s suicide significant only for the most hardcore fans of hardcore punk. “Darby absolutely wouldn’t have given a shit about that,” Bolles said, summing up the man just as easily as the zeitgeist that gave birth to him. “But he’d be really glad that we’re talking about how he didn’t give a shit.”