A Punk Legacy Takes New Form

The Germs in their latest incarnation: Don Bolles, from left, Lorna Doom, Pat Smear and Shane West.
The Germs in their latest incarnation: Don Bolles, from left, Lorna Doom, Pat Smear and Shane West. (By Erin Williams)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006

A scenario in which L.A. punk pioneers the Germs reunited and toured a quarter-century after the suicide of lead singer Darby Crash never entered Pat Smear's head. Even in his wildest imagination.

"No. Never could have thought of it. Never thought I'd play with those guys again," the band's guitarist admits.

Or that Darby Crash would be revived by an actor who plays an emergency room doctor on television.

When the Germs play the Black Cat on Saturday, Shane West -- best known as "ER" intern Ray Barnett -- will stand in for Crash, as he does in the upcoming biopic "What We Do Is Secret," whose title comes from the hyperkinetic 42-second opening track on the Germs' only full-length album, 1979's "GI."

A synopsis of Germs history necessarily races by as fast, and as chaotically, as most of the band's tunes, beginning in the late '70s, when punk first roared in London, New York and Los Angeles. That's where pals-since-high-school Georg Ruthenberg and Jan Paul Beahm -- soon reborn as Pat Smear and Darby Crash -- formed the Germs with bassist Lorna Doom and just-for-a-minute drummer Dottie Danger, who, as Belinda Carlisle, went on to front the Go-Gos. She was replaced by Don Bolles.

In 1977 came "Forming/Sexboy," one of the first American punk singles, and a shambolic debut at Los Angeles' Whiskey, quickly followed by an exile from other local venues because of vandalism off- and onstage; the seminal "GI," produced by Joan Jett; the increasingly erratic behavior of the drug-addicted Crash and his departure from the band for a brief, unsuccessful solo career; a Germs reunion show at the Starwood on Dec. 3, 1980; and Crash's suicide by heroin overdose four days later -- just one day before John Lennon was fatally shot in New York.

Crash was 22.

"It was shocking, but it wasn't a surprise," Smear says of Crash's suicide. "He'd been talking about it for years: 'This is my [five-year] plan, this is what I'm doing . . . and then I'm going to kill myself.' Then it was oh, [expletive], he really did what he said he was going to do! That was the surprise."

And the stuff of legend. Just look at Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, who had followed the same path a year earlier.

The Germs, the first Hollywood punk band to veer into hardcore, made aggressive, technically uncomplicated music that would inspire scores of bands, including Nirvana. Kurt Cobain invited Smear to join that band the year before his own suicide in 1994. Drummer Dave Grohl's post-Nirvana band, Foo Fighters, also featured Smear in its original incarnation.

A decade ago, filmmaker Rodger Grossman began work on "What We Do Is Secret." After years of interviews and preparation, shooting finally took place last year. The film is in postproduction, targeted for next year's film festivals. Made for Rhino Films, it features Rick Gonzalez as Smear, Bijou Phillips as Doom, Noah Segan as Bolles and West in a performance that gives the 28-year-old, best known for family dramas such as ABC's "Once and Again" and such films as "A Walk to Remember" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," the opportunity to reinvent himself as an actor.

He already has one fan.

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