This piece was written for the KCRW music documentary podcast Lost Notes. This season, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib explores a single year: 1980 - the brilliant, awkward and sometimes heartbreaking opening to a monumental decade in popular music. You can find all the episodes from Lost Notes: 1980 here. Support KCRW original programs like Lost Notes by donating or becoming a member.
There is a famous photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono that was taken on the morning of December 8th, 1980. A photo my friend and colleague Jessica Hopper has talked about on Lost Notes before.
The photographer Annie Leibovitz came to take photos of Lennon and Ono in their Manhattan apartment. The shoot was for Rolling Stone magazine, as coverage for the Lennon and Ono album “Double Fantasy.” It was seen as a comeback album of sorts for both. By 1980, Ono hadn’t released an album in seven years. Lennon, five. The album was released in the middle of November, and the immediate reviews were negative. Critics moaned about the album’s unevenness and self-involvement. Still, Ono and Lennon were a story, and so Annie Leibovitz arrived at their apartment to take photos.
This is where the final iconic photos of Ono and Lennon were taken. There’s the one you’ve probably maybe seen before. Yoko Ono on her back. Her dark hair generously spread along the light background. Her eyes closed. And Lennon, naked, curled around Ono’s body. Kissing her on the cheek. Eagerly and lovingly. The photo captures both the calm and urgency of what it is to love someone. Even though it is a still photo, staring at the picture now, you can almost see it moving. When I look at it, something leaps inside of me. The same way I’ve felt waking up in the morning and seeing that someone I love is still there, within touching distance.
But there is another photo from that morning’s shoot that I love. One that is lesser known, and far less romantic. Lennon sits inside of a windowsill. Black leather jacket and dark sunglasses. His jeans rolled up neatly over his black boots. The day appears to be gloomy. Lennon’s head is gently tilted towards Leibovitz’s light, which can be seen glowing in the reflection of the glass. From where Lennon’s head tilts, one can see the familiar landscape of New York buildings. Chewing their way through the winter’s grey clouds – brimming with possibility.
A couple years earlier, my favorite photo of Darby Crash was taken. In the photo, the Germs singer is sitting beside a mirror, after a performance. He’s looking off longingly into some distance. The mirror and the wall it is leaning on are both a wreck of sharpie graffiti. The kind that anyone who has ever spent any time in a punk venue would easily recognize. Yes, there is a poorly drawn penis on the wall. Yes, someone’s phone number is scrawled into the mirror’s glass. A few names written with what looks like lipstick. From where Crash is seated, with his back to the mirror, you can see his profile reflected. He looks even more childlike from this angle. Curious, and maybe a little scared. His hair is a mess, as it might be after sleeping in. From the neck up, Crash looks innocent and excited. And then, you might notice the scratches on his chest. The scars, and the long cut that spreads to his shoulder, still letting out a little blood.
The photographer Ruby Ray shot this image. It was taken in the moments after Crash got off stage, performing with his band Germs in 1978. They were – and still are – known as one of the most influential hardcore punk bands in Los Angeles, despite having an initial window of just four years and one full studio album.
*To celebrate the release of Lost Notes Season 3, join KCRW for an epic conversation about the albums that made a forever stamp on 1980. At the virtual table will be Lost Notes S3 host Hanif Abdurraqib, KCRW DJs Anne Litt and Eric J. Lawrence, Music Journalist and Historian Dart Adams, and YOU. RSVP HERE!
In the fall of 1979, the Germs released their first and only studio album, “GI.” It speeds through 16 songs in 38 minutes. Nearly 10 of those minutes belong to a recording of the song “Shut Down (Annihilation Man)” that sprawls, messy and sometimes off-beat. Darby Crash growling out the opening lyrics — "And touch the tips of inculcated desire And brush the fettered veil away" — while the guitar and drums stumble over each other unevenly.
This recording captures some of the chaos that the band embodied. But there was nothing like seeing clips of them live.
In their early shows, Germs were notorious for noise and chaos. During their first live performance, Darby Crash stuck the microphone in a jar of peanut butter and covered himself in licorice. The band didn’t have any actual songs yet, but they did have a desire for mischief. During many of their early shows, the audience consisted mostly of the band’s L.A. friends, equally eager to get rowdy. There were sometimes fights, sometimes broken chairs or microphone stands. If there was food available to be thrown, a full-on food fight was not uncommon. At first, it was healthy chaos. A brief bit of madness to make a name for a band, even if there had to be a little blood.
There is another notable photo of John Lennon from that day at the end of 1980. It was taken in the early evening, when Ono and Lennon were leaving their apartment to head to the Record Plant studio. They were set to finish a new song, “Walking On Thin Ice.”
Outside their apartment, before getting in a car, a fan approaches, a copy of “Double Fantasy” in his hand. He’d been waiting outside of the apartment building for hours. The fan had been lurking around the exterior of the building, talking to a doorman, and talking to a housekeeper. He was outside when Annie Leibovitz entered the building, when she took those photos of Lennon and Ono, and there still when she exited the building. The fan lingered, making small talk to strangers from time to time, but not alarming anyone to the point that they might call the police. When Lennon and Ono emerged from their apartment to head to the recording studio, the fan ran up to Lennon, and thrust the copy of “Double Fantasy” towards him. Lennon asks the fan if he’d like his record signed. The fan nods, and Lennon obliges, scrawling his name along Ono’s neck on the album cover in blue ink.
While Lennon signed the record, there was a photo taken of him, with the fan just barely in the frame, half-smiling.
This BBC interview is from just two days earlier.
ANDY PEEBLES (BBC): One final question to you: What about your private life and your own sense of security these days?
LENNON: I can go right out this door now and go in a restaurant. Do you wanna know how great that is? I mean, people will come up and ask for an autograph or say hi, but they won’t bug you, y’know? They just say, “Oh, hey how you doin’,” or “Like your record,” or whatever, y’know, that, because we’ve got a record out now. But before, they’d shout, “How you doin’?,” y’know, “how’s the baby?”
LENNON: “Oh, great, thanks, how are you?”
The poster for the Penelope Spheeris documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization” featured a photo of Darby Crash. In it, he is on his back, on stage. His eyes are closed, and he is clutching a microphone to the side of his face. He appears to be covered in dark marker, on his forehead, on his chest. It looks to be trailing out of his half-open mouth, mixed with blood.
When the documentary was filmed, in 1979 and early 1980, Germs had honed their sound. Pat Smear’s guitar playing was a perfect stabilizing point to the otherwise madness of revolving drummers.
Crash’s lyrics were poetic and introspective, aching with nihilism but also concern and curiosity about the world beyond himself. But … their live shows, however, had remained chaotic.
As the crowds grew, so did Crash’s desire to impress them with his lack of regard for his own body, and his ability to push himself to limits that others weren’t willing to go to. Crash was charismatic, and could easily grasp and hold the attention of disaffected youth who saw in him an ability to live out their nihilistic fantasies. Crash would sometimes stumble through live Germs sets wasted, cutting himself on stage. When Crash would bleed on stage, the crowd would work itself up into a violent frenzy. The fights at shows became more frequent. Each time Darby Crash survived bleeding through another show, he gained a new layer of infamy, of immortality.
In a scene from Spheeris’s documentary, Darby Crash moves around a small kitchen. He has safety pins in his ears. His hair is black, with a long tail running down the back of it. When he speaks, it is easy to remember that he’s still young, barely in his twenties at the time. Spheeris, off camera, asks Crash how he and the band got the reputation that they have. He responds: "I guess because we used to do stuff. I don’t know. Back then, it was good to have that kind of reputation. But now we can’t play anywhere." When Spheeris asks Crash how he’s always getting hurt on stage, he replies. "At first I did it on purpose, to keep from being bored."
For Crash, if there was nothing left on stage to destroy, he would get to the work of destroying himself. By the time the documentary was released in 1981, Darby Crash, the face of the film, would be dead.
The song “Walking On Thin Ice” is an incredible tune. It is one of the Ono and Lennon songs that seamlessly captures them at the height of both of their abilities, without one overshadowing the other. It’s also a song that does one of my favorite musical tricks: masking lyrical sadness and anxiety with an upbeat track. On the song, Yoko Ono sings "I may cry someday / but the tears will dry whichever way." Nearly four minutes into the song, with the instrumental churning forward and picking up a good groove, Ono cries out in what sounds like a mix between exhaustion, anguish, and delight. The song is also notable for Lennon’s lead guitar playing. Lennon plays with his 1958 Rickenbacker 325. A guitar he hadn’t used since his Beatles recordings of the mid-60s. His guitar spends most of its time tiptoeing along the song's sonic spine in small bursts. Clear and brilliant enough to know that it's there, but not powerful enough to overtake the rest of the song’s movements. At the end, the guitar unfurls into a run of breathless leaps and whirls, sprinting the song across the finish line. The song was one last perfect example of Lennon’s ability to fold into music as needed. There was no mistaking John Lennon’s mark on a song, throughout his entire career. Even if he didn’t sing a single lyric.
On the evening of December 8th, 1980,. Lennon and Ono left the studio and returned to their apartment, Lennon exiting the car with copies of the recordings in his hand.
While walking into the building, Lennon noticed the man who he’d signed a record for earlier. The man who he’d been photographed with. Mark David Chapman pulled out a .38 handgun and fired five shots. Lennon collapsed at the doorway to his apartment building at 10:50pm. Cassette tapes strewn along the sidewalk. Lennon was pronounced dead a little after 11pm. In time for nightly news broadcasts all around the nation. When he arrived at the morgue a few hours later, a worker there snapped a photo of Lennon’s dead body. It was sold to a tabloid for $5,000.
By the start of 1980, Germs had been banned from playing in nearly every rock club in Los Angeles. They got around this at first by playing under the name G.I., or Germs Incognito. But eventually, they were blacklisted throughout most of the city.
As the violence of their shows got more severe, so did Crash’s reliance on drugs to avoid feeling the pain he was inflicting on himself, and the pain fans became eager to inflict on him. For some crowds, watching a person force themselves to bleed with no visible consequence ignites a desire to join in on the act. A desire to make that person bleed with your own hands. Darby Crash was becoming a vessel for violence – self-inflicted and not. The drugs he took made it so that he could get through the shows without feeling the pain of that violence. There’s another clip from “The Decline of Western Civilization” where Crash sits at a table eating a fried egg sandwich. Behind him, there is a paper on the wall. The London Evening News reporting on the murder charges for Sid Vicious. Spheeris asks Crash what kind of drugs he takes when he’s on stage. Before launching into a more descriptive scroll of substances, Crash briefly looks up from his sandwich, and dryly mutters anything.
By April 1980, Germs live shows were often cut short. Ending prematurely due to crowd violence, or erratic performances where Crash would drop the microphone before picking it up again and warbling some haphazard collection of sounds into it. Hardly lyrics, hardly even words. His brilliance as a writer suffocated by his onstage presence. During this time, Crash fired Germs’ longest-tenured drummer, Don Bolles. Bolles was replaced by Crash’s friend Rob Henley, who couldn’t play drums much at all. The band unceremoniously dissolved. Darby Crash retreated to Britain. He changed his style, now inspired by Adam and the Ants. When he returned to the states, he attempted to get a new band off the ground, The Darby Crash band.
They played a small number of shows. Crash would outfit himself in combat gear and face paint. The band also included Pat Smear, and their setlists included a healthy amount of Germs songs. They bombed. Like all burgeoning scenes do, there was a rapid shift in tone, in style, in audience. The new punks from Southern California were younger, and even more aggressive. The Germs had pioneered a hardcore sound that had mutated and evolved. Crash was once an orchestrator of the rage, violence, and aggression that swept through crowds. Now he was at the mercy of it. He couldn’t get through his few shows without large doses of heroin, and then he couldn’t do shows at all. The scene roared on without him. In just a year’s time. He was a relic.
Former Beatle John Lennon is dead. That’s what ABC 7 New York anchor Rose Ann Scamardella said, jumping right into delivering the tragedy on that December night. Well before the frantic chimes and keys of the newscast intro could tail off, there was a small photo of John Lennon positioned on the screen. Shot outside of his hotel room just a short while ago. There were eyewitness accounts on the news, too. One man recalling how Lennon’s body was put in the back of a police car while bleeding from his mouth. A woman trying to remember the number of gunshots that rang through the air. It was 5, she started. Maybe 6.
There have only been a couple of moments in my lifetime where an artist was so big that their death stopped the world. I mean the greater world, outside of my own personal bubbles of grief. John Lennon’s death was an eclipse, dominating the global news cycle for days after the murder. Even before the way high-profile deaths are covered now, in the age of social media, his death was still all-consuming. Tributes poured in. Radio stations played his music. Once-negative reviews of “Double Fantasy” were pulled, or never run, and then later adjusted.
Lennon’s memory hovered over the musical landscape for months after he was gone. There were reminders that would poke their heads out of the ground every now and then, to resurface his memory. “Walking on Thin Ice” was released in early 1981 and became Ono’s first major hit on the charts. It was a hit in clubs, a hit playing in cars, and in apartments.
In February of 1982, “Double Fantasy” won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. It was the culmination of the album’s exceptionally long tail. Over a year after it was released, winning the highest honor at music’s biggest night. An overwhelmed Yoko Ono took the stage to thunderous applause. Ono put her hand to her chest and attempted to begin speaking a few times, only to be drowned out by the ongoing applause. A young Sean Lennon was at her side. She looked down and asked if he wanted to say something. He briefly leapt at the microphone before backing away. When Ono finally speaks, it is only briefly. Both John and I were always very proud and happy that we were part of the human race, who made good music for the earth and for the universe. Thank you.
If you are lucky to have meant a great deal to a great deal of people, you die once, and there is an entire ecosystem left behind, trying to hold your living up to the light for as long as it can.
Darby Crash had dreams of such immortality. He would tell friends that he was going to kill himself before he got old. At a time when people least expected it. He said he wanted a statue of himself erected so that people could go, and remember him as he was.
In the last week of Darby Crash’s life, Germs played a reunion show at The Starwood club in Hollywood on December 3rd, 1980. Outwardly, Crash said that the show was to put punk in perspective for the new people on the scene. But behind closed doors, Crash expressed that he needed the show to get money so he could score enough heroin to kill himself.
The Starwood was oversold, packed with people eager to relive the not-so-distant glory days. Germs were at times sharp, and at times familiar tornados. At one point, Crash looked out on the audience and told them: "we did this so you new people could see what it was like when we were around. You’re not going to see it again."
When the final notes from the show died down, Darby Crash went in search of immortality. He purchased $400 worth of heroin. He sought a romantic undoing. One that people might talk about for years after he was gone, placing him on a level of infamy with Sid Vicious. A brief burst of mayhem, and then gone – off to have a face worn on t-shirts, or old lyrics scrawled into skin. On December 7th, 1980, Crash and his friend Casey Cola made a pact to overdose on the heroin he’d purchased. They’d go out together – including her would add a layer of intrigue to the story. Crash injected Cola with the heroin first, and then himself. On a wall, he wrote a note to his band’s bass player David "Bosco" Danford. It read: "My life, my leather, my love goes to Bosco."
Casey Cola did die, but only briefly. The police report said that her heart stopped for a few minutes in the middle of the night. When she woke on the morning of December 8th, she was in Darby Crash’s arms. He was dead. It was a dramatic death of a charismatic person who spent a brief and influential time impacting the world. In another time, Crash would have gotten his wish. His death would have made him a legend, someone who those he left behind would prop up to a wider and larger world who didn’t know him. The single full-length Germs album would be a holy grail of music history.
But Darby Crash died on December 7th, 1980. By the time the news of his death began to circulate, it was well into December 8th. While Mark David Chapman paced outside of John Lennon’s apartment with a record, Darby Crash was being pulled, lifeless, from a house. While word was spreading around the LA punk scene about Crash’s death, Lennon was signing his name on his eventual killer’s record. And while radio stations in Los Angeles began to start their marathon of Germs songs, John Lennon lay dying in New York, at the doorway to his apartment. News and radio stations broke away to deliver what must have seemed like a larger, more urgent heartbreak.
There are not many news stories to be found online from the night of Darby Crash’s death. There are not many from the day after, either. It is near impossible to find any news clippings online that mention the loss of Crash, or how it weighed on a music scene he helped build. A scene that praised him for his indestructibility until he fell apart. There is a short news clip online from a couple of months after his death. It gets the cause of death wrong. It flashes an incorrect date of birth and death across the screen.
Darby Crash dreamed of immortality, but time had other plans. An artist who made his mark by living out of control, aimed to seek complete control of his death and the narrative that surrounded it. There were those who hoped he’d be even more mythical in death than he was in life. But in less than 24 hours, the news of Darby Crash was consumed. The Germs’ influence remains. The people who saw them, and ran home to start bands. The musicians who learned to be fearless, or reckless – for better or worse. But Darby Crash himself never became a household name, despite how well planned his search for infamy was.
Forty years later, one might look back and think he vanished into thin air.
Episode 3: Ian Curtis
Episode 4: Crash / Lennon
Episode 5: Masekela & Makeba
Episode 6: Minnie Riperton
Episode 7: Grace Jones