Darby Crash had the perfect punk-rock plan: takeover the L.A. punk scene in five years, commit suicide, and become immortalized as a legend. Little did he know that Mark David Chapman would derail that plan very shortly after Darby followed through.
Biggie Smalls never had such a plan, but after a five-year ascent to the top of the rap game, unknown gunmen burned his name into music history forever.
I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. — Woody Allen
Darby Crash (born Paul Beahm and briefly known as Bobby Pyn) had a rough upbringing, but somehow ended up an intelligent, charismatic iconoclast in early adulthood. His sloppy but visionary leadership is exactly what made the Germs the incendiary and legendary act that they’re remembered as.
Biggie Smalls (born Christopher Wallace and also known as the Notorious B.I.G.) had a rough but loving upbringing and ended up an intelligent, charismatic poet in early adulthood. His street-influenced but hopeful rhymes put him deservedly in the running as one of the best emcees ever in the eyes of millions.
Darby Crash’s five-year plan included writing songs, putting together a band, booking gigs, and learning to play — in that order. Germs shows were so notorious for their violence, drug use, and insanity that by the time their first and only full-length record came out (the Joan-Jett produced (GI); Slash, 1979), the Germs weren’t allowed to play anywhere in L.A. Their perfrmance in Penelope Spheeris’s punk-rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Part I (Spheeris Films, 1981) was shot in a space rented especially for the film.
Though his first full-length record didn’t surface until 1994, Biggie Smalls’ career was already in full effect. He’d signed with Puffy in 1992 and had dropped sixteens on several records. Ready to Die (Bad Boy, 1994) spawned three major chart hits and went on to become a certified Hip-hop classic. It was to be the only record he would see released in his short lifetime.
What We Do Is Secret (Peace Arch, 2008), Roger Grossman’s biographical film depicting the unlikely rise, loud and bright burn, and inevitable fall of Darby Crash and the Germs truly captures the spirit, if not of the times, of Crash’s presence. Shane West is mesmerizing. One reviewer wrote that West seems to be channeling Crash, and I’m inclined to agree. His performance reminds me of higher profile iconic nails being hit on their heads, such as Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X and Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman. Though West’s Crash tends to overshadow everyone else in the movie (as one imagines Crash did in real life), Rick Gonzalez and Bijou Phillips are also brilliant as Pat Smear and Lorna Doom.
Notorious (Fox Searchlight, 2009) does a serviceable job of telling Biggie’s story from a fan’s perspective. To be fair, Voletta Wallace (Biggie’s moms) and Sean Combs (his A&R rep, mentor, and friend) are executive producers, so investigative reporting this isn’t. Also serviceable is Jamal Woolard’s depiction of Biggie. It’d be dead-on if it were based on mannerisms alone (everyone in this movie nails the nonverbals), and if Anthony Mackie’s performance as Tupac Shakur wasn’t so fresh (though it is jumped off by a “dear stupid viewer” scene in which he’s unnecessarily introduced by name several times). The studio scene that started the so-called coastal feud between Biggie and Tupac, Bad Boy and Death Row records — in which Tupac is shot several times and in the confusion blames Biggie and the Bad Boy crew — is written and filmed in a perfectly chaotic manner. You feel like a witness to the jumbled madness. Biggie’s coincidentally tying up all of his personal loose ends on the eve of his death on the other hand…
Following his coup d’etat of the L. A. punk scene (done) and in the spirit of the Neil Young quotation above, Darby Crash planned on killing himself via a lethal dose of heroin, thus becoming a punk rock legend. After one last Germs reunion show, he followed through on December 7th, 1980. Unfortunately, John Lennon was shot and killed the very next day, overshadowing the death of Darby Crash and one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time.
Though Biggie’s debut record was titled “Ready to Die,” he had no such plans of becoming a martyred legend, but the first-person theatrics of Hip-hop storytelling were lost somewhere in the mix of “keeping it real.” Poetic first person doesn’t always mean the man on the mic. The space between that person and the one on the street are walls closing in, and on March 9th, 1997, those walls closed for Christopher Wallace.
If Notorious let its dynamic characters stand on their own like What We Do Is Secret does, it’d be a better movie and a more fitting tribute for it. Both Darby Crash and Biggie Smalls deserve the attention and these movies though. They both rebelled, rose above, and rocked shit. People with their abundant talent, unyielding drive, and unfettered commitment don’t come around very often.
Though some may see the comparison as forced, the parallels between these two men and these two movies are myriad. Even their mode of rebellion and the related conspicuous consumption are integral to their similarities. Biggie’s Hip-hop (i.e., that of the mid-to-late 90s) and Darby’s punk rock (i.e., that of the mid-to-late 70s) used consumerism to stake their positions relative to mainstream America. Though they do it in different ways, both speak for the frustrations and aspirations of marginalized, working-class youth. Both are undeniably angry, but both are ultimately hopeful.
Shot live at The Whisky in L.A. circa 1979, here is “Lexicon Devil” by the Germs — a glimpse of the captivating chaos that was Darby Crash (runtime: 2:02).
And to keep it rugged and raw, here’s a clip of a seventeen-year-old Biggie Smalls battling on the street in Brooklyn (runtime: 1:05). Listen as he deftly switches his pitch to follow the break of the beat. Fresh.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).