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"ER" actor gets into role by playing with Germs

The Washington Post

A scenario in which L.A. punk pioneers the Germs performed together a quarter-century after the suicide of lead singer Darby Crash never entered Pat Smear's head. Even in his wildest imagination.

"No. Never could have thought of it. Never thought I'd play with those guys again," the band's guitarist admits.

Or that Darby Crash would be revived by an actor who plays an emergency-room doctor on television.

Shane West — best known as "ER" intern Ray Barnett — plays Crash in the upcoming biopic "What We Do Is Secret," whose title comes from the hyperkinetic 42-second opening track on the Germs' only full-length album, 1979's "(GI)."

A synopsis of Germs history necessarily races by as fast, and as chaotically, as most of the band's tunes, beginning in the late '70s, when punk first roared in London, New York and Los Angeles. That's where pals-since-high-school Georg Ruthenberg and Jan Paul Beahm — soon reborn as Pat Smear and Darby Crash — formed the Germs with bassist Lorna Doom and just-for-a-minute drummer Dottie Danger, who, as Belinda Carlisle, went on to front the Go-Gos. She was replaced by Don Bolles.

In 1977 came "Forming/Sexboy," one of the first American punk singles, and a shambolic debut at Los Angeles' Whiskey, quickly followed by an exile from other local venues because of vandalism off- and onstage; the "(GI)" album produced by Joan Jett; the increasingly erratic behavior of the drug-addicted Crash and his departure from the band for a brief, unsuccessful solo career; a Germs reunion show at the Starwood on Dec. 3, 1980; and Crash's suicide by heroin overdose four days later — just one day before John Lennon was fatally shot in New York.

Crash was 22.

And the stuff of legend. Just look at Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, who had followed the same path a year earlier.

The Germs made aggressive, technically uncomplicated music that would inspire scores of bands, including Nirvana. Kurt Cobain invited Smear to join that band the year before his own suicide in 1994. Drummer Dave Grohl's post-Nirvana band, Foo Fighters, also featured Smear in its original incarnation.

West gets the thumbs-up

A decade ago, filmmaker Rodger Grossman began work on "What We Do Is Secret." After years of interviews and preparation, shooting finally took place last year. The film is in postproduction, targeted for next year's film festivals. Made for Rhino Films, it features Rick Gonzalez as Smear, Bijou Phillips as Doom, Noah Segan as Bolles and West in a performance that gives the 28-year-old, best known for family dramas such as ABC's "Once and Again" and films such as "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," the opportunity to reinvent himself as an actor.

He already has one fan.

"I loved Shane the minute I met him, thought he was perfect," Smear says.

West does bear an uncanny resemblance to Crash, underscored (in the movie) by a copycat panther tattoo, blue contacts and prosthetic crooked teeth so strongly affixed to his own that they had to be chipped off.

West says that when he met with Grossman and producer-writer Michelle Baer Ghaffari (the drummer in a pre-Germs band with Crash and the gay rocker's "PR" housemate in "The Decline of Western Civilization," Penelope Spheeris' legendary 1981 documentary on the early L.A. punk scene), "we got along very well, and they realized they were talking to someone who knew about punk. It had always been my favorite type of music when I was little — my dad was in a punk band. It was something that not everybody knows about, but I knew about it, and I was a fan of the Germs and of the scene. I practiced with Pat and Don, started learning the songs, and it just kind of grew from there."

Last year, the Germs and West (whom Bolles nicknamed Shane Wreck) began playing around the Los Angeles area. Doom hadn't touched a base since their last show in 1980. Smear says, "The more we did it, the more we liked doing it, so the more we booked — Chicago, New York, San Diego — mostly weekends because Shane was booked up Monday through Friday with 'ER.' "

Smear makes sure it's authentic

Smear got the role in the film he wanted: working on the music and training non-musician actors to play instruments, sort of. "My attitude was this is a punk rock band, anybody can learn to be a punk rock band," Smear says. "Most of the scenes are of the band live, and I didn't want to try and fake this in the studio."

The film will mix Germs music with what Smear calls "Baby Germs" music, and Smear also produced the other faux bands, the Mae Shi as L.A. synth-punks the Screamers and the Bronx as hardcore legend Black Flag.

Smear had the actors play at a 2004 party "to have the experience of playing live as a band." During that performance, the actors handed over their instruments to their Germs counterparts for an impromptu reunion. "We did one rehearsal the day of the show, and it just all came back, which was really weird," Smear says. "Me and Don always played with a weird ESP anyways — and we'd played together since then — so it was more scary than emotional."

The band played nine concerts in 14 days, and West says he wants to make it clear that "no one is replacing or necessarily trying to be Darby. It's getting the Germs music out there to people who haven't been able to hear it and to people who did and want to enjoy it again."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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