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Resurrecting legacy of doomed punker Darby Crash

`E.R.'s' Shane West channels Germs frontman in `What We Do Is Secret,' even taking the act on the road.

June 22, 2007|Fred Schruers | Special to The Times

The fast, furious and enigmatic career of late-'70s punk rocker Darby Crash, who died of a heroin overdose Dec. 7, 1980, at the age of 22, remains a half-buried L.A. legend. His demise was overshadowed by another rock death the next day -- the shooting of John Lennon 3,000 miles east.

As explored by debuting director Rodger Grossman in "What We Do Is Secret" -- screening at 10 p.m. Saturday at the Mann Festival as an entrant in the Los Angeles Film Festival's Narrative Competition -- Crash's strutting and fretting hour on rock's stage, portrayed by actor Shane West of "E.R." fame, is given a renewed chance to claim its place in pop culture.

The film revolves around an empathetic performance from West, 29, who is self-deprecating almost to a fault when he says playing Crash is "a losing battle in general. I'm not ignorant enough to say that I could duplicate Darby's madness, intelligence and wit. But I became close with his family and friends, and that was the validation for me."

West so thoroughly channeled Crash that after a rigorous series of rehearsals to get actors playing, as music coordinator Howard Paar paraphrases -- "as good as the Germs were when the Germs were bad," West was recruited as lead singer to go on the road with the reformulated band.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Darby Crash movie: A June 22 Calendar section article about the film "What We Do Is Secret" said that its director, Rodger Grossman, collaborated with Brendan Mullen in compiling the oral history "Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs," published in 2002. Grossman's interviews on Darby Crash's death were not included in the book by Don Bolles, Adam Parfrey and Mullen.

"Some of my reviews in the beginning were a little harsh," admits West, "because I felt I needed to put on a tough-guy front to deal with the crowd [he in fact had a bottle-throwing exchange with a Manhattan audience], but now, though I try to channel some of his energy, it's definitely Shane. Or as [drummer] Don Bolles christened me, 'Shane Wreck.' "

The Germs are booked to perform at 4:30 p.m. Saturday on the Festival Promenade on Broxton in Westwood.

"When I met Shane, he hadn't done 'E.R.' yet," Grossman recalls. "I'm embarrassed to admit, I didn't know who he was, hadn't seen [the teen romance opposite Mandy Moore] 'A Walk to Remember.' I still had my sights set on a lot of different names, but I looked at him and saw Darby. And he took me outside and just said, 'Look, you know, I'm your guy.' "

West would ultimately back up this claim by undergoing three separate rounds of installing and scraping off a dental prosthetic and by volunteering a cash grant to the filmmakers to finish off the film. How much? "Well, let's say -- a Ferrari [worth]. And uh, a small car." He now laughs that he did the film "for food and gas" and would be perfectly content -- when the film finds a distributor, as seems likely -- to break even.

Grossman describes stretching the budget to cover 21 shooting days done in three chunks from 2005 to early this year as a process in which "we made nickels scream. We not only ate the whole chicken, we chewed on the bones and then made broth and drank that."

No one's more aware of the irony of the film's title (from a Germs song of that title that crowed, "Hidden deep in the furor / What we do is secret -- secret!") than Grossman. The writer-director has struggled for 15 years to bring the project to fruition. Grossman says he was a fan of the L.A.-based band and decided to make a film about the group's tragic implosion well before he learned that Crash's death allegedly was the dark fulfillment of a pact the singer made -- with himself and his generally unbelieving band mates and camp followers -- to bring the curtain down permanently after five years onstage.

"This script was rewritten more times than probably any script I know of," Grossman says, "because what Darby did was so shrouded in secrecy that his character and story revealed itself very slowly. It was very late in the process that I had even heard that he had a five-year plan to make his mark and then commit suicide, thereby ensuring his legend."

It was around 1995 that Grossman, while working on various indie productions, wrote his Darby Crash script. He ultimately teamed with seasoned music coordinator Paar, who had first come to America in 1978 as "an English punk kid who found that the Germs were the one band who were authentic."

Producer Stephen Nemeth of Rhino Records' film operation, had met with Paar and director Larry Clark on the prospect of Clark directing Grossman's script in one of the film's many false starts. That collaboration was shelved, and Grossman continued his voyage of discovery with author/impresario Brendan Mullen, the Scotsman who ran legendary underground club the Masque (and, via a series of interviews Grossman often collaborated on, compiled the definitive oral history "Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs").

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