The L.A. punk rock scene in the late ’70s produced a lot of noteworthy bands and even more one-hit wonders. None was so “one-hit” though as The Germs. Punk, as a subculture, is no stranger to violence and self-destruction, but L.A. punk was more clean-cut in its appeal than East Coast punk. More… glamorous. If there’s one area in which this cult classic-aspiring film What We Do Is Secret does excel, it’s depicting the systematic destruction of a punk icon by his need to maintain image.
Let’s break it down. First there’s the blue circle: perfection; a branding; lead singer Darby Crash (played by Shane West) always wears it. But the idea of punk rock is to not subscribe to a branding or perfection, so it seems in direct opposition to any punk band’s way of life. I think that’s what bothers me most about The Germs and singer Darby Crash in general. What’s more, this (in places) badly acted biopic of the rise and fall of the band hints at this same concern of mine (whether or not they intended too).
The Germs basically are started in a fit of milquetoast boredom. They don’t know how to play any of their instruments, the singing is less than spectacular, but the lyrics of Crash are decent and youthfully powerful. On their first gig, Crash feels compelled to slash himself across the chest with a shard of broken glass, in maybe in an effort to appear violent or menacing, but all he ends up looking is disillusioned. At any rate, the crowds in the punk scene are looking for anything that involves cutting or bashing or breaking or beating, so Crash finds himself causing disarray and horror at many of their following gigs. Once they get a bad name for themselves (with club owners), they basically can’t play anymore in L.A.
Do they every consider going anywhere else? No. Or, at least not Darby. But just when you think punks don’t travel, he heads off to London in a vain attempt to forget the capitalist suckling he’s been doing on both his mother-figure of a groupie/manager and the whatever little reward came of The Germs’ debut album getting a release. He comes back from London (where he was impressed by music that would not appear to be his style, e.g. The Go-Go’s, Adam and the Ants) with a mohawk and plays one final show in L.A. (the only one that will book him). When no one at the L.A. gig gets the new image (which you’d think the idea of being different was part of a punk rocker’s joie de vivre) the next time we see him he’s changed his hairstyle.
This film doesn’t do anyone justice and certainly doesn’t make any great, defining points. The Germs were always overshadowed by their own scene, always concerned with their own appearance and style and many of the members (who stayed on the longest) wanted to do something more with the band. The film also lightly infers Crash was homosexual, but then suddenly seems to drop it. At the end we see where apparently Crash died on the same night as John Lennon, so of course he was overshadowed by that too. Oh well.
Shane West apparently garnered some appreciation somewhere in his role as lead singer of The Germs, as the band reunited and have been touring with him since. Too bad I’ll never see them.