Rekindling the punk flame

Special to The Times

On Dec. 8, 1980, the world mourned former Beatle John Lennon's tragic death at the hands of a deranged fan. Just a day earlier, an underground Los Angeles society numbering perhaps in the hundreds mourned the passing of its own idol, Darby Crash, the 22-year-old singer for the punk rock band the Germs.

Although Crash garnered only a fraction of the posthumous praise that Lennon did, his sacred circle may yet expand as a slew of film projects celebrates his life and the lives of other bygone punk antiheroes. No mere exercise in nostalgia, the films, say some of those involved, offer a glimpse into an era of renewed relevance for today's youth.

A biopic on Crash, "What We Do Is Secret," directed by Rodger Grossman, has just wrapped and is slated to hit the early 2006 film festivals. A documentary about the Germs directed by Dan Griffith and based on the 2002 book "Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs" is currently in production.

Looking more broadly at the scene, the documentary "Punk: Attitude" debuted in July on the Independent Film Channel (the network home to "Henry's Film Corner," in which Henry Rollins of the L.A. hard-core punk band Black Flag critiques movies). "New York Doll," a documentary from Greg Whiteley about the late Arthur "Killer" Kane of the New York Dolls, is slated to hit movie screens in late October. And the documentaries "Punk's Not Dead" and "American Hardcore" are also slotted for next year's film festival circuit.

If punk is dead, as has been said, it appears to be kicking and digging its way out of the grave.

Seminal punk groups from the '70s and early '80s -- the Germs, the New York Dolls, X, the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, the Clash and the Ramones among them -- have been credited with influencing a generation of musical artists and fans. Crash, in particular, was an arbiter of West Coast punk style, giving birth to devout followers known as "Crash Trash." In 1980, says Rodney Bingenheimer, host of the 29-year-old KROQ-FM radio show "Rodney on the Roq," "Darby came back from London with this huge mohawk after meeting Adam Ant. He started the whole mohawk thing."

It was Bingenheimer's radio show -- a trailblazer in giving punk bands airtime -- that planted the seed in director Grossman's mind that would eventually become the film "What We Do Is Secret." Grossman, 38, says he first heard the Germs' album of the same name on Bingenheimer's show in 1982 "and went out the next day and bought the record. It changed my life completely."

Grossman's passion for the scene drove him through 10 years of researching, cajoling recalcitrant subjects, dealing with budget hurdles and facing competition from other filmmakers. "It was a great unheralded era of music history. Post-MTV, post-techno, everything seems so boring and packaged today," Grossman says.

Steven Blush, the author of "American Hardcore: A Tribal History," the book on which one of the documentaries is based, agrees that part of the attraction of punk was that it never allowed itself to be co-opted. "In a world where everything is a sellout, a TV commercial, a blur of Hollywood nonsense, it's the one thing that stands as pure."

Today, though, it appears that this is no longer true. The Ramones' song "Blitzkrieg Bop" is the soundtrack for a cellular phone commercial. Virgin Megastore sells new T-shirts advertising the old punk nightclub CBGB. That club, on the verge of being evicted from its longtime New York address, has been offered a spot in Las Vegas. "CBGB has a $2-million-a-year T-shirt business, but they have an empty club half the nights," muses Blush.

Acting as a sort of unofficial punk historian, Blush differentiates the traditional punk scene from the offshoot hard-core movement of bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat. The former, of the more androgynous, bratty intellectual variety, has its roots in movement godfather Iggy Pop. The latter is often associated with brute male force and, says Blush, a political message. It was a force that shaped him ("Aside from my parents, the other place I got my values was the hard-core punk scene") and one that is again relevant.

Hard-core was a haven for rebellious left-wing youth in the Reagan era, he says. And while the "American Hardcore" film takes place 20 years ago, "all the same issues are still there. It's really about today," Blush says, drawing parallels to the Bush administration.

Guitarist Pat Smear recalls how the Germs, somewhat accidentally, became "the gateway between punk and hard-core." They were forced to play hard-core shows in the South Bay with bands like Black Flag after they were banned from L.A. for vandalizing so many venues. It is this very tactile and often grimy abandon, according to some, that is fostering romantic images of classic punk today.

"We're now in a hands-off culture of the World Wide Web," says Dick Hebdige, the cultural theorist and UC Santa Barbara film studies professor who wrote the punk anthropological bible, "Subculture: The Meaning of Style," in 1979. "There's [an underlying] desire to get down and dirty. Punk is about rolling in the dirt in the darkness to become strong."

Bingenheimer, the subject of the 2003 documentary "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," attributes classic punk's comeback, in part, to milestones. "The Adolescents are celebrating 25 years of punk," he says. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Penelope Spheeris' "The Decline of Western Civilization," a pioneering documentary on the early L.A. punk scene featuring an emblematic poster image of Crash. This year is also the 25th anniversary of Crash's death.

"Today it's about passing the torch, keeping it alive," says Bingenheimer.

The punk scene at the Dragonfly club in Hollywood was vibrant one recent August evening. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and former Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson milled among such Hollywood types as Danny Masterson and Bijou Phillips. They were there to celebrate the wrap of "What We Do Is Secret," which stars "E.R.'s" Shane West as Crash and Phillips as bassist Lorna Doom.

The original band members, Smear (more lately of Nirvana and Foo Fighters renown), Doom and drummer Don Bolles, were preparing to go onstage. West, sporting a copycat of Crash's tattoo of a panther and a circle -- the Germs' symbol -- would front, giving his own interpretation of Crash's garbled and intensely primal vocals.

The celebration was half eulogy to Crash, whose death was ruled an intentional heroin overdose, and half the fulfillment of his bizarre personal prophecy. "For years, Darby said he was going to start a band, become a star, kill himself and become a legend," says Smear.

He adds that wanting to be famous was a no-no in the early punk scene. Yet many of the players adopted dramatic, sometimes cartoon-like stage names, like Johnny Thunders, Billy Zoom, Richard Hell and Sid Vicious. Former Go-Go Belinda Carlisle -- who was originally going to play drums for the Germs -- was known as Dottie Danger.

"Today everyone's a cartoon," says Erlandson. "Back then it was just a few people. Now, thanks to reality TV and shows like 'American Idol,' everyone's a celebrity."

Once the Germs and West finished their set, each original member of the band was replaced by the actor playing him or her in the film. Smear had spent weeks teaching the musical novices how to play their instruments. But for some of the purists, like Erlandson, this updated interpretation may miss the point.

"It was a snapshot, and it's gone," he says of punk. "It was the original force of the times that caused it to happen."

But for Smear, the punk spirit lives on. He believes that the rebellion against the mainstreaming of hippie culture in the '70s gave rise to punk in the first place. The time may be ripe, he says, for a new movement.

"At first we looked up to the hippies," he says.

But like defiant kids asserting their independence against their earth mothers and fathers, they cut off their hair and embraced the opposite of hippie culture. "Now someone should be rebelling against the punk culture."

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. Germs singer Darby Crash was 22, not 24, when he committed suicide in 1980.

--- END NOTE ---

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction Punk documentaries -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about upcoming films chronicling the punk era identified Dick Hebdige as a professor of film studies at UC Santa Barbara. Hebdige is also a professor of art studies there.
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