Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Echo Park Germs reunion (minus Darby) reviewed

The Germs reunion
at the Echo, Los Angeles, Tuesday, October 25, 2005
by Falling James

Death has been good to Darby Crash; the paradox, of course, is that he hasn’t been around to enjoy it. Though there used to be a certain finality to his foolish suicide overdose in December 1980 – precluding the possibility of his ever selling out and becoming a stadium-level rock star -- it’s since become somewhat acceptable when the Doors, INXS, Human Hands, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even Pat Smear’s faves, Queen, carry on without their presumably irreplaceable leaders. (Or when bands like the Misfits, Dead Kennedys and “Creedence Clearwater Revived” continue without their still-breathing former singers.) So why not the Germs? Punk’s not dead, even if Darby Crash is. If nothing else, these reunion séances are a clever promotion for the upcoming Germs movie. The crush of nostalgia trumps authenticity.

The twist here is that the three surviving Germs are joined by actor Shane West, who portrays Darby Crash in the biopic. West doesn’t look or act much like Darby (he’s physically more suited for the lead in The Metal Mike Story), but at this what-we-do-is-secret show he did a decent job of mimicking Darby’s surly singing growl. The problem, however, was his incessantly annoying chatter between songs, saying obvious things Darby never would have said. His tuff-guy bravado was punk enough, but just the narcissist macho rambling of any generic singer. West loved himself too much, it was clear, to channel the suicidal despair and complexities & contradictions of the real Darby Crash.

West tried too hard, when more mystery would have sufficed. Of course, he had the thankless job of replacing a legend, much less trying to communicate Darby’s poetic acuity or the irony that such a wasted punk rocker, who garbled incoherently, often away from the mike, was actually singing such refined poetry as “Let me brush the tips of inculcated desire.” Perhaps West will settle down given time. He kept throwing beer bottles into the packed crowd; he's lucky no one was hurt. The rest of the band should seriously consider giving West a shorter leash . . . or a script.

Didn’t Darby realize they’d just get some actor to replace him after the proper 25 years of mourning had passed? If only he'd realized that the simultaneous John Lennon assassination would crowd his performance-art rock & roll suicide out of the newspapers . . . Oh, Darby Stardust, you just needed a vacation, maybe some sunlight and vitamins. You shoulda stuck around.

When I arrived at The Echo, poet/belly dancer/singer Pleasant Gehman was stalking around outside with some lucky boyfriend. She looked like a vintage movie star/garishly glamorous goddess. After a set by the Adolescents and several delays, Donnie Popejoy introduced the Germs, while Don Bolles made smart-ass wisecracks about Donnie’s rambling remarks. Guitarist Pat Smear stood smiling impassively by his amp; reclusive bassist Lorna Doom showed up last onstage, out of nowhere. It was genuinely thrilling when Bolles kicked into the extra-splashy cymbals intro of “Circle One,” which skittered madly out of control once Pat and Lorna locked down into those flapping, slapping quick chords. “Lexicon Devil” followed with stomping exhilaration. “American Leather” was crushingly powerful, while Smear’s searing arpeggios lit up the slower-pulsed “Our Way” with sinister beauty. Lorna played those classic, simply doomy bass lines in between Don’s snare-spanking and cymbal-hectoring. Smear chopped up compactly crunchy, fuzzed-out-wacky riffs, dotted with occasional short-&-woozy solos among the fat power-chord punches.

The crowd was a weird mixture of surly young punk types, old scenesters like me, and a bunch of indifferent beautiful people who didn’t seem to be fans -- perhaps they were crew from the film or in the Industry or there to be cool. A couple of guys were filming, with big, expensive cameras, and were bumped around occasionally by the folks who’d taken over the dance floor with their crazy sideways dancing. The pit stirred fitfully, especially on “We Must Bleed” and “No God,” but the moshers, whoever they were and why ever they were there, were lethargic much of the time, slamming showily then getting tired halfway into a two-minute blast. How punk. Don’t dance if you can’t finish the song.

The Germs didn’t whip out rarities like “Golden Boys” or do any covers; they mostly ran through songs from G.I. (though not “Shut Down”) and the first E.P. Not that I’m complaining: Even at this strange and partial theatrical re-enactment, I enjoyed hearing the classics live, including “What We Do Is Secret,” “Media Blitz” and “Manimal” -- the stuff that rearranged my teenage life patterns. On “Strange Notes,” Pat Smear didn’t play the album version’s overdubbed bleary, sliding lead, which sounds so mesmerizing in the midst of this fast pre-hardcore song, but he filled the spaces live with his trademark harmonic shuffle-strum accents. He’d muffle his strings but still play with power and attack and get some great, ominous chunka-chunkas without having to thrash all six strings blindly like most guitarists.

An unexpectedly extended version of “Let’s Pretend” tripped out with Lorna’s primal bass throb and Don’s tom-tom rumble, as Pat’s psychedelic solo soared up the neck like a supersonic (youth) jet. Astonishing. That alone made the concert worthwhile. (Bolles pointed out that everybody got their money’s worth – it was a free show.) The set closed savagely with “Lion’s Share” and the Sisyphean patterns of “My Tunnel.” Darby once sang, “We don’t care how you get your kicks/We just care about Lorna’s trip,” so we tried to revel in this rare visit by the enigmatic Ms. Doom, and the chance to be to get torn up again by Smear’s flurry of rabid chords, instead of lamenting that Elvis -- and the ghosts -- had already left the building.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been there. Maybe this reunion without Darby was wrong and should never have happened. Maybe we were breaking into a haunted house, but it was inspiring to hear those Pandora’s-boxy chords and lyrics again, the manically thrashed and rushing drums, the coolly nonchalant bass plucking . . . these echoes at The Echo of the late or maybe just too early Darby Crash, echoes of his scabrous help-me-hurt-you baby wailing and sky-clawing nihilist poetry. “Gather up the broken chairs . . .” It could have been worse, and soon it all will be.

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