Darby Crash Burned by John Lennon

1980 was a happening year for rock star martyrdom, and Darby Crash was more than willing to give up his miserable life for that sort of immortality.  Sacrifice is just part of the martyr deal.  He would spill his blood for the sake of punk rock, and the whole world would adore him for it, right?  After all, hadn’t that tactic worked for Sid Vicious?

The Germs’ reputation spread through L.A.’s budding punk scene from their first gig in ’77.  Their teenaged singer, Darby, was notorious for smearing himself with various foods and slicing himself up with broken bottles onstage.  The band’s music was unlistenable for the most part—a DIY mishmash of detuned guitars and randomly beaten drums—but nobody cared so long as Crash threw his scrawny, bloody frame at the audience like a brain-damaged cat chasing shadows.  In any intense romance, it’s always the thought that counts.

Darby conceived of the Germs as a sort of rock n’ roll cult.  The mark of sectarian inclusion was a cigarette burn to the inside of the wrist, always administered by a prior initiate.  The core crowds thrilled at Crash’s self-inflicted violence, and after awhile, newcomers began to give him some assistance.

L.A.’s early punk shows began to implode under the weight of suburban toughs looking for a brawl.  Reviewing videos of the Germs’ performances, one finds the perfect target holding the microphone.  These kids beat the living shit out of Darby night after night, which made for a good excuse to get loaded on heroin before going onstage.  Venues eventually refused to book the Germs, which provided another good excuse to tap the vein.  Being a closet homosexual in a seemingly homophobic society was yet another motivation to disappear into a boiling spoon.  In the end, the sun’s continual rise and descent was reason enough for Darby to use heroin.  After all, didn’t all the greatest stars turn to the red flower for inspiration?

Despite all appearances, Darby wasn’t a moron.  He was an avid reader who absorbed Nietzsche alongside readings of Scientology and Buddhism.  He was as fascinated by the image of Jesus as he was Sid Vicious.  All of it pointed to the promise of death leading to something greater, a concept that obsessed the young punk to his early grave at twenty-one years old.  He frequently spoke of his suicidal “five-year plan” to friends, but they all thought it was just another aspect of Darby’s melodramatic persona.

Germs recorded only one studio album, GI, which stood for “Germs Incognito” as the band booked themselves in venues that feared the very real possibility of the group provoking a riot.  Produced by Joan Jett, it is also contains the only bearable sounds the band ever came up with.  Alongside the band’s segment in the punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, the album remains a cult classic to this day.

The Germs opened for the likes of Devo and Blondie, and the exposure provided by Penolope Spheeris’ documentary was promising at first.  But their immanent breakthrough was not enough to keep the group together.  Darby hammered the final nail when he whimsically replaced the band’s drummer with his man-lover.  In 1980, the Germs split and went their own directions.  According to the brief biography, Wild-Eyed Boy, Darby absconded to England with his sugar mama and supposed lover, Amber.

AC/DC’s Bon Scott had been found dead of alcohol poisoning in London in February of that same year, and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham would go in much the same way a few miles north later on in September.  Neither of these death’s went unnoticed, but most likely it was Ian Curtis’ suicide in May of 1980 that got Darby thinking about his future.  After Curtis’ death, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” shot to the top of the charts.  Suicide was a costly marketing ploy, but goddamn, it worked!  The clock was ticking on Darby’s five-year plan.

The Germs played their final gig on December 3, 1980 at the Starwood in L.A.  It was a rather lackluster show with a disappointing turn-out.  The guitarists jokingly broke into the throbbing riff from Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” with no idea of the significance.

On the morning of December 7, 1980, Darby and his new “girlfriend” Casey Cola retreated to a coach house behind her parents’ place with $400 worth of smack.  It is assumed that he doctored the dose to leave Casey alive, because she woke up to find him laying cold and blue beside her.  According to legend, a note was scrawled on the wall that read “Here lies Darby C”, left incomplete as the singer drifted away.  Another legend claims that his arms were splayed in a crucifix position.  Whether this is true is irrelevant.  The symbolic intention was certainly there.

Darby Crash killed himself to attract the eyes of the world, and for the whole day of December 7, he had fans in the palm of his hand.  It was a short-lived adulation, though.  John Lennon was shot the next day.  Even in death, Darby’s timing was as off as the Germs’ worst drum solo.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Germs — “Manimal

Ian Curtis: In a Lonely Place

© Jeffrey Bertrand

Having followed his dreams and procured a length of solid rope, Joy Division’s vocalist Ian Curtis is now immortalized as the sad boy whose brief life amounted to a self-created death icon.  Born and raised in the small city of Macclesfield—situated between  hilly pastureland and the grey industrial husk of Manchester in north England—he saw little else to aspire to besides a world-famous tombstone.

Ian never got too far from home—and never for long.  Most of his intense rock n’ roll career was nurtured within a clinging arm’s length of his highschool sweetheart, Debbie—whom he married in his teens—and a pint glass’ throw from his childhood home.  Music was his only escape into a wider world.  By the time he closed the curtain on May 18, 1980 at the age of 23, he had only recorded two full-length albums and a handful of singles.  So he was damn sure to make every song count.

Like many boys in the bleak, economically depressed 1970s, Ian Curtis was immersed in the morbid iconography of martyred pop stars.  He loved James Dean and Janis Joplin.  Among his favorite songs were Jim Morrison’s “The End,” David Bowie’s “Rock n’ Roll Suicide,” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” (also written by Bowie.)  Ian frequently said he didn’t want to live past his twenties, and spent his few years with Joy Division writing songs to an oblivious world about why it was not worth living for.

Joy Division’s droning post-punk minimalism is a fitting compliment to Ian’s mesmerizing, if overly-affected baritone vocals—a voice that seems completely disconnected from the singer’s boyish face, like he was huffing keyboard duster before every song.  Curtis’ jerky, robotic dance moves were as disturbing to fans as they were thrilling—and made for a peculiar preview of the epileptic seizures that would wreck his health during his last years alive.

The band’s name is taken from The Doll House, a German novel about a Jewish girl sent to a concentration camp brothel provided for Nazi officers known as “the Joy Division.”  Ian’s raw-nerve sensitivity to the jagged edges of a cruel world is evident in their first full-length album, Unknown Pleasures, particularly the bitter distance that grows between two lovers:

Me in my own world, yeah you there beside
The gaps are enormous, we stare from each side
We were strangers for way too long…

Ian met Debbie when he was only sixteen.  Their first date was  to see David Bowie’s performance of Ziggy Stardust in Manchester.  Despite his father’s reservations, Ian sold his guitar to buy a wedding ring for his one true love.  He took a job as a civil servant and they bought a house together, though Ian’s rock n’ roll fantasies never wavered.

According to Debbie, her husband was consumed by incorrigible jealousy.  She claims that he only proposed to keep other men from showing her too much attention.  Ian did tend to freak out a lot, like the time he saw his wife-to-be dancing with one of her young uncles at their engagement party and threw a Bloody Mary in her face.  He was constantly worried that Debbie would meet someone else, and refused to let her wear anything remotely sexy out of the house.

Perhaps his fears were simply guilt-projection.  He later confided to a friend that he nearly backed out of the wedding because he felt sure that one day he would eventually be unfaithful.  Of course, a musician predicting his own philandering is like a hitch-hiker predicting a roadside molestation—it’s bound to happen eventually.

It was decided early on that wives and girlfriends had no place at Joy Division’s shows.  A rock star’s main squeeze always gets in the way of tour antics, and Joy Division’s endless pranks—which tended to involve their own shit and piss to an alarming extent—would have undoubtedly put off their lady friends.  So would the groupies.

Ian and Debbie’s daughter, Natalie, was born in the spring of 1979 during the recording of Unknown Pleasures.  Ian witnessed the birth, but it was a momentary connection for a young man prone to detachment.  While Debbie poured her affection onto her newborn baby, Ian’s eyes were fixed on the stars.

Annik Honoré was doing a bit of star-gazing herself, and after seeing Joy Division perform at Nashville Sounds in London, she decided to reach out and grab one of those crazy diamonds.  The lovely Belgian writer arranged to do an interview with the band for a fanzine, after which she and Ian remained in contact.  Ian was hardly a skirt-sniffing cad, but there was something about this exotic young woman that sparked an inferno inside him.  “There was some electricity in the air every time we would see each other,” she said after his death, “every time we looked at each other.”

Annik was everything that Ian’s wife was not: educated, articulate, well-traveled, and unwaveringly self-determined.  They would talk for hours about art, literature, and film, her sexy Belgian accent captivating the provincial English singer.  After their first kiss at London’s Electric Ballroom, there was no turning back.  Time was too short to waste on patience—yet Ian’s conscience was too strong to stave off the guilt.

Curtis tortured himself to death in the chasm between domestic responsibility and the romance of rock stardom.  He withdrew from his wife and daughter when at home, spending endless hours alone in his blue room with his notebook and little dog, Candy.  His grand mal seizures had also grown progressively worse, usually triggered by performances, though occurring more frequently at home.

Oddly enough, years before he suffered his first seizure in 1978 Ian had worked with a number of epileptics while employed as a Disablement Resettlement Officer, where he witnessed rooms full of pitiful patients wearing helmets and pads.  The song “She’s Lost Control” is apparently about one of these unfortunate souls:

And she screamed out kicking on her side and said
I’ve lost control again
And seized up on the floor, I thought she’d die
She said I’ve lost control…

Doctors fumbled in the dark to find a pill that could fix his brain, but effective treatments would not be developed for more than a decade. Too late.  The chemical cocktails began to fry Curtis’ circuits, sending him into long bouts of uncommunicative depression. Somehow he managed to take the stage night after night anyway, and in January of 1980 Joy Division embarked on their first—and only—European tour.

Debbie wanted to come along for the sights and adventure, but Ian stoutly refused, leaving her at home with the baby and their dog.  Despite Annik’s attempts to walk away from her impossible love, she would join him for six days in Europe.  It was to be the longest time they would spend together, and one of the last.

According to Annik, she and Ian never once made love.  Aside from her own guilt over an affair with a married father, she says she was a virgin, wary even of Ian’s modest sexual experience.  This apprehension, coupled with her lover’s rapidly deteriorating health, ensured that Annik’s nubile body would remain for Ian an unknown pleasure.  Their romance would continue in an urgent exchange of letters, but they could never come closer.

“You are the only thing that makes me truly happy at this moment,” Ian wrote, “when I’m with you, when I’m near you, when I think of you…

“I am paying dearly for past mistakes.  I never realized how one mistake in my life some four or five years ago would make me feel how I do.  I live beyond obligation and responsibility…. I struggle between what I know is right in my own mind and some warped truthfulness as seen through other people’s eyes…  I thank God I have my solitude…”

On the night of Ian’s return home, Debbie came home to find her husband pilled-out on the blue room’s floor and stabbing holes into a Bible with a kitchen knife, having already cut himself up a bit.  The next day she asked him if he didn’t love her anymore.

“I don’t think I do,” he said.

A few days later Debbie became desperate for answers and tore through Ian’s notebooks.  There she found Annik’s name and address.  She confronted him, and he admitted infidelity.  Debbie decided to get a divorce.

Upon considering the fact that Ian carried pictures of his dog instead of his family, Debbie decided that she was done taking care of little Candy and gave her away as well.  She then proceeded to call Ian’s parents and tell them everything.  Finally, she called Annik at her office to berate her for being a home-wrecker.

Joy Division continued playing gigs around England and started work on their second album, Closer, but their singer was teetering on the brink.  On Good Friday 1980 the band played two shows back to back.  Ian worked himself into a spastic frenzy as usual, but fell unconscious at the peak of both sets, bringing the performances to a grinding halt.  The drinking, lack of sleep, and flashing stagelights had become more than his electrified neurons could handle.

On Easter Sunday he wrote a suicide note and swallowed a handful of Phenobarbitone.  Upon realizing that he had not taken enough to die, he woke his wife to call an ambulance so as to avoid becoming a brain-dead zombie pissing blood all over himself.  His failed attempt to play a show the next night resulted in a riot.  Ian’s manager found him crouched upstairs afterward, weeping.

Despite Ian’s ragged state, the band decided to go forward with an upcoming American tour, and were set to leave on May 19.  Rock n’ roll slows down for no man—“there’s no room for the weak,” as the lyric says.

Ian stayed away from home for a couple of weeks to let things cool off, but on May 17 he returned to pick up some things and say goodbye to his daughter.  Debbie found him there that afternoon, and he begged her to call off the divorce.  She agreed to spend the night with him and left for a bit, but by the time she got back he had changed his mind again and told her not to come back until he was on his way to the airport.  Apparently he had spoken to Annik on the telephone and promised to honor his last letter and end his marriage for sake of true love.  She was on her way from a trip to Egypt to see him.

Alone again, Ian pulled out pictures of his wife and daughter, and wrote an impassioned letter begging Debbie for reconciliation.  He watched Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, a film about a European artist who cannot decide between two women and so chooses to kill himself.  He put Iggy Pop’s The Idiot on the record-player, drank a pot of coffee, and finished off the last of a bottle of whiskey.  Then he tied a cord to their old-fashioned clothes rack and hung himself in the kitchen.  Debbie found the letter first, then noticed his body.  The noose had cut deep into his throat and he had practically sunk to his knees. 

© Brandt Hardin

Ian Curtis was pronounced dead on May 18, 1980, and was cremated a few days later.  His friends and family were devastated and confused, but his fans were riveted.  The single for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was released that June, along with a music video—the last footage of Ian alive:

When routine bites hard
And ambitions are low
And resentment rides high
But emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads

Then love, love will tear us apart again…

This single was followed the next month by the release of Closer, which was recorded a mere two months before the singer’s death and is perhaps the most mystifying posthumous album I have ever heard.  It is a suicide note set to gloomy keyboard hooks.  The icy vocals describe public torture for entertainment, complete alienation, and tragic love, but most of all, Curtis’ lyrics speak of the soul-crushing guilt of a heart torn between domestic devotion and burning romance.

In truly grim fashion, Debbie had “Love Will Tear Us Apart” carved into her husband’s tombstone (which, incidentally, was stolen by some curse-thirsty jerkoff in 2008.)  The grave remains a pilgrimage site for dour souls who still gather en masse on five- and ten-year deathdays.

“In a Lonely Place” was Ian Curtis’ final recording, finally released in 1981 by Joy Division’s surviving members, now known as New Order:

Warm like a dog round your feet
How I wish you were here with me now

Hang man looks round as he waits
Cord stretches tight then it breaks
Someday we will die in your dreams
How I wish we were here with you now

They might as well have slipped straight razors into the album sleeves, just in case.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Joy DivisionTransmission

February 2: The Death Day of
Sid Vicious

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin at DREGstudios

John Simon Ritchie’s career with the Sex Pistols only lasted nine months, but through the miraculous power of media spin he was transfigured into the original punk rock martyr—Sid Vicious, dead at 21. Smeared across pop culture’s porcelain temple on February 2, 1979, he is immortalized in black leather, oily spiked hair, and dripping bodily fluids.

Next to him, rendered in blood-spattered stained glass, resides the junk-adled groupie who dominated him in life and defined him in death—”Nauseating” Nancy Spungen, dead at 20. Sid and Nancy. For three generations, vast segments of our disaffected youth have followed in their staggering footsteps, slamming syringe plungers to a rock n’ roll soundtrack and smashing up their little corners of an unbearably boring society. Oi! Oi!

The Sex Pistols left an indelible stamp upon the soul of punk rock. The genre’s grim sarcasm doesn’t gnaw much harder than vocalist Johnny Rotten’s “Bodies” or “No Feelings.” Their one true album, Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, is an enduring classic of cocky rebellion—for which Sid Vicious deserves no real credit, except for his sneering face. The bass guitar was, quite literally, a mere prop for his nihilistic persona.

The only song that Sid is remembered for is a garbled rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” This satanic dirge pays homage to the unrepentant ego at death’s door, and Vicious gave it a convincing go. The irony is that between Nancy’s nagging and the Sex Pistols’ manipulative manager, Malcolm McLaren, Sid Vicious did almost nothing his own way.

It’s not that Vicious’ image was a total fabrication so much as carefully cut fodder for the hype machine. Sid was raised by a junkie mother in the dregs of working class London, a scrawny misfit whose utter defiance was bullied into him by neighborhood toughs. He was born with a photogenic chip on his shoulder, and after his first gig with the Sex Pistols in April of 1977, Malcolm McLaren made sure the bulbs kept flashing.

While friends remember Sid as a scrappy little wiener, popular mythology emphasizes his assault on NME journalist Nick Kent with a motorcycle chain, his reputed mugging of an old lady at knife point, and the Texas crowd member who got his dome cracked by Sid’s bass guitar. Every snot glob dangling from Sid’s nostril, every self-induced laceration gushing over his torso, and every needle jammed into his arm was another photo op. Angsty teenagers still tack the posters up on their walls, many of which feature Nancy’s scowling, yet cherubic face beside him.

By all accounts—even her own mother’s—Nancy Spungen was a neurotic pseudo-nymph with a screeching voice and a sweet tooth for brown sugar. Of course, she had her shining qualities too. Unfortunately, no one remembers what they were. Leaving her comfy Jewish home at age fifteen, Nancy chased the dragon to New York City, where she took up the world’s oldest profession. She promptly wormed her way into the hip cliques of CBGB’s thriving punk scene, who quickly found her annoying and pushed her back out.

Rejected by the outcasts, Nancy followed an oozing trail of punk rock cock all the way to London, intent on nailing the New York Dolls’ drummer. She wound up with punk’s hottest poster boy instead. Jaded beyond their years, each found something new in the other. For all of his bravado, Sid was still fresh meat between the sheets, and Nancy had never been with someone who actually enjoyed her company before. He became a man and she became a lady as the cameras clicked on their heels.

It’s unclear whether Sid ever learned to play his instrument, but it was his energetic stage presence that counted. The musicianship problem was solved by turning down his bass and putting a session player backstage. After blowing England apart, the Sex Pistols hopped across the pond for an American tour in January 1978. Even without Nancy, it was a disaster. Tour highlights include Sid overdosing, going into a dope coma days later, and then carving “GIMME A FIX” into his torso when forced to detox. During their final, lackluster performance in San Francisco, Johnny Rotten growled, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and stormed offstage. The Sex Pistols broke up soon after. Nancy stepped in to manage Sid’s solo career, which lasted all of ten minutes. By late 1978, Sid and Nancy were slumming around New York on royalties, where they would soon perform their gutter rendition of Romeo and Juliet.

No one doubts Sid and Nancy’s true love for one another. Beneath the manic consumption and mutual violence, there was an undeniable sweetness. Those black eyes and busted smoochers? They was jus’ love pats, mate. The throbbing, abscessed puncture wounds lining their veins? Relationships are built on intensely shared experiences, right? Through highs and lows, uppers and downers, black spikes, bleached bangs, and bloody leather—these crazy kids were made for each other.

So why did Sid stab her to death and then jab a fatal dose of smack a few months later? Well, it’s complicated. First off, no one really knows who killed Nancy. On the morning of October 12, in Room 100 of the grimy Chelsea Hotel, Nancy was found in her undies on the bathroom floor, having bled to death from a single knife wound beneath her navel.

Sid was the only person there when police arrived. In fact, he was the one who called them—after he went out to score some dope, anyway. The hotel scene was shady, the official statements were incoherent, and possible motives abound. If Nancy was anywhere near as shrill as her portrayal in the 1986 film, Sid and Nancy, I wouldn’t put it past Mohandas Gandhi to stick a knife in her gut, if only to shut her the fuck up.

In the beginning, everyone thought Sid did it. He told the cops as much, stating: “I stabbed her, but I didn’t mean to kill her.” Then later, he insisted he didn’t do it. He had eaten handfuls of Tuinol—a potent barbiturate—and passed out. In the end, he didn’t remember what happened.

According to interviews in the 2009 documentary Who Killed Nancy?, a third party was with the couple that night. Sid had recently received $25,000 for his recording of “My Way,” and there was cash all over their hotel room. When the cops arrived, the money was gone. Perhaps the mystery visitor killed Nancy and snatched up the loot as Sid snored.

To add another candlestick to Colonel Mustard’s drawing room, Sid’s mother claimed to have found a note in Sid’s jacket after he died, which described a suicide pact between him and Nancy. This raises the possibility that Nancy stabbed herself—presumably because she could no longer stand the sound of her own voice.

Whatever the case, Sid was charged with second degree murder and the judge set bail at $50,000. McLaren paid the money through Virgin Records, and Sid hit the streets. Within a week he was in Bellevue Hospital with a pair of slit wrists. His mother flew in to console him—with some soul-soothing smack—and McLaren made up t-shirts to sell in his London boutique that read: “I’m Alive. She’s Dead. I’m Yours.”

With his badboy image now solidified by a murder rap, Sid was swimming in New York floozies. His ego must have been on fire the night he assaulted Patti Smith’s brother. Sid was chatting up Todd Smith’s girlfriend at a Skafish show, when he decided to pinch her. Todd protested, so Vicious broke a Heineken bottle and proceeded to stab him in the face. Sid spent 55 days in Riker’s Island Prison before he was released on February 1, on another $50,000 bond.

Who knows what happened in those 55 days behind bars. Perhaps Sid did some deep soul-searching. Maybe he realized the life-shattering implications of an impending murder conviction. It’s also possible that larger, more formidible predators took Sid’s “punk” identification to its logical conclusion and did their own brutally deep searching of his soul. After 55 days of that, who wouldn’t seek some hardcore relief?

Whatever happened, Sid made the most of his first night of freedom, enjoying a spaghetti dinner with family and friends at his new girlfriend’s Greenwich Village apartment. Heroin users say that spiking a good hit is like returning to the comfort of the womb. How appropriate then that the perpetually infantile Sid Vicious got his last shot from his mother that evening. Lab results suggest that her love was as pure as the driven snow. Sid was pronounced dead on February 2, 1979 from “acute intravenous narcotism.” The groundhog must not have seen his own shadow that day, because Sid’s mother claimed to have spread his ashes over Nancy’s snow-covered grave. She went on to kill herself with an overdose in 1996. Never trust a junkie.

However tragic, Sid’s passing provided powerful inspiration for the music world. Nearly two years later—the day before John Lennon’s assassination, in fact—sado-punk Darby Crash paid homage to his hero with a fatal spoonful. In ’93, scumfuck rocker GG Allin went out the same way, breaking his vow to blow himself up onstage. The next year, death star Kurt Cobain kissed the hot end of a shotgun. He and his wife Courtney Love consciously fashioned themselves after Sid and Nancy, though Kurt was arguably late on the draw. (Coincidentally, both Kurt and Sid killed themselves after touring with the Buzzcocks, as did Joy Division’s rising star, Ian Curtis. Perhaps they should have called themselves the Buzzkills.) Most importantly, Sid Vicious’ decadent icon provides fashionable validation for thousands of unsung throw-away kids who shuffle off this mortal coil year after year, with a needle in one arm and a blue middle finger thrust to the world.

© 2011 Joseph Allen