Thursday, May 25, 2006

Conversations With Bobby (aka Darby Crash)

Or... Everything you never wanted to know about me and Darby.

Darby and me backstage at Mabuhay Gardens, January 1978.
Photo credit: Ruby Ray.

I have at various times been asked to do interviews about Darby Crash. Usually it goes like this: the interviewer is writing a piece and he or she is trying to make a certain point and is looking for anecdotes which will validate that point. Often, the area of focus is Darby’s followers, his suicide, his drug use, etc., things I know very little about.

Although I was close to Darby for a very short period of time, I feel that there is a piece of the Darby puzzle that would be missing should I neglect to tell you of the Darby (Bobby Pyn, when we first met) that I knew. Sometime during the spring of 1977, Darby and I began talking on the phone on a somewhat regular basis. Much of our conversation was trite and gossipy, but some of the more interesting themes we discussed are summarized below and they provide a glimpse into his world view.

Darby and I both loved philosophy. I had picked up my first philosophy books at a used book store in Whittier that had a cozy little section called Plato’s Cave. Darby was very focused on Existentialist philosophy. If you’re not familiar with Existentialism, it basically states that existence precedes essence. Individuals shape who they become through a series of free acts. I agreed with this. But certain schools of Existentialist thought also propose that universal logic and universal truths are non-existent. It is the individual who defines everything. This was problematic for me. I did and do believe in universal truths. It seemed to me that the kind of Existentialism that Darby was talking about sort of let people off the hook as far as moral responsibilities were concerned, since morality would be subjective. It seemed to me that what Darby was saying was that if you could rationalize it, you could do it.

Unfortunately, philosophical arguments are sometimes more concerned with rhetoric and semantics than they are with seeking the truth. The whole idea of “seeking the truth” was ludicrous to Darby. He took the Existentialist view that there are no external truths. To me, Philosophy by definition was concerned with universal truths. Lovers of wisdom, that’s what the word philosophy means, not lovers of words.

Darby had a great command of language and could make clear, logical arguments that were difficult to refute. We’d spend long hours on the phone, tossing arguments back and forth. Although I learned to speak English in elementary school, I didn’t have mastery of academic English and some of the expressions I used were translations of Spanish words. I simply didn't know the English words for some abstract concepts. Those limitations probably made my arguments harder to follow, but Darby didn’t seem to mind. We always had fun discussing and arguing. We didn’t often see eye to eye, but at that point it didn’t seem to matter.

Sometimes when we were talking on the phone my mother would interrupt and ask me something in Spanish. This always fascinated Darby, who would demand a translation of what my mother had said and always wanted to know what she meant by this or that. We used to talk a lot about the role of language in defining culture. I once heard a saying that the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world. I think it’s safe to say that we both believed that. I think that idea made my bilingualism attractive to Darby. I used to boast that although my vocabulary in English might not be as large as his, I had a whole other set of vocabulary words in a different language that I had access to. I’d irritate him by telling him that my total vocabulary, if you included both languages, would surpass his.

We once had a lengthy discussion because while I was on the phone, my mother came in and offered to make me a quesadilla. Darby asked me why we had a word for something as simple as a tortilla with melted cheese. I reminded him that Americans have the grilled cheese sandwich, and he added that Americans even have a name for toasted bread: toast. We started talking about the fact that Eskimos have a huge number of words to discuss different varieties of snow, and all of this led to a discussion of language and culture. We talked about how the values of different cultures are actually transmitted through language when a child is first learning to speak, so the more you know of another person’s language, the more you know about their values. In retrospect, I can see that what has always appealed to me about learning different languages is the ability to understand and be understood and thus share a new culture, but for Darby, language held the key to something else: the ability to tap into the underlying emotional content of the words themselves. Mastery of language could be a tool to influence others through manipulation.

Another topic of interest to Darby was the fact that I had gone to Catholic high school. I think Darby had gone to a very loose high school, very different from mine. I told him stories about Catholic school. I told him about the ring ceremony that we had in high school when receiving our school rings, that sort of thing. Symbols and the process by which a secular object can become sacred were fascinating to him. I don’t know if Darby had been raised Catholic, but I know he was familiar with Catholicism. I think Mexican Catholics do things a little differently than most. He found it amusing that my mother used to keep a picture of the Archangel Michael by the front door in order to keep Satan out of our house. She’d make little bargains with the saints and in exchange for their favors, she would make offerings of candles or Milagros. Other times she’d give up certain things, like sweets for a month, to pay back a saintly intervention.

My mom had a whole bunch of little folk/religious rituals that always seemed to capture Darby’s interest. In those days, my mom rarely went to doctors. She preferred the curandero or sobador (faith healers) and depended on herbs, teas, oils and prayers to make her well. Darby enjoyed hearing the details of the latest cure. We could always laugh about my mom’s curandero antics, but Darby was always respectful of her. He never met her, but on more than one occasion he expressed an interest in doing so.

Darby and my mom would have been in agreement about one thing and that is that neither of them saw any real difference between formal religion and folk religious practices. I always felt that the folk ways were closer to brujeria, witchcraft, or magic, but Darby and my mom saw both things as equally valid.

Although I had already stopped calling myself a Catholic by the time I met Darby, I was still having trouble admitting to myself that the concept of god that I’d come to trust and believe in was no longer serving me very well. In fact I had outgrown it intellectually, but not emotionally. It was a topic that was especially painful for me to discuss with him because he seemed so cynical about the existence of god. Darby felt that I was an atheist, but was just too cowardly to admit it to myself. I felt that I was not an atheist, but I knew I wasn’t a Christian, nor was I an agnostic because I still had a firm belief that there was some force or power in the universe which encompassed divinity, but I couldn’t put it into words. It was that whole limits of my language thing coming back to haunt me!

That’s when David Bowie came to my rescue. I remembered reading of David Bowie’s interest in Eastern religion. Reading about Bowie made me curious about Buddhism and Hinduism. I’m not sure if that’s how Darby came upon it. I know that Darby was a Bowie fan so it’s possible that his interest originated there, too. Although we talked about Eastern religion at length neither of us was ready to commit to any organized religion. And although I was experiencing a crisis of faith, Darby did not seem to share my predicament. The study of other religions was less a search for answers about spiritual matters than a phenomenological investigation of mankind’s search for meaning.

Although we disagreed on many subjects, we also had many common interests. We always seemed to be coming at things from opposite perspectives. One of those interests was Adolf Hitler and the propaganda of the Third Reich. I had read Alan Bullock’s book Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, and thought it was just what the title claimed it was, a study of a tyrannical leader. Darby was impressed by Hitler and seemed to think that Hitler was a great leader. I objected to the honorific great because I felt that Hitler had actually led his followers into destruction and moral decay. Darby didn’t feel that a leader had any moral responsibility to his followers. From Darby’s perspective, a leader who achieved his or her goals was a good leader. From mine, a leader who helped his or her followers form and achieve goals that would serve mankind as a whole was a good leader.

In addition, my great leader had to make decisions that were in accordance with universal truths. In other words, he or she would have to help people act in a way that was morally responsible. As I said before, Darby didn’t buy into the whole universal truths thing. I think he felt that what we call universal truths are more a reflection of cultural, religious or societal values. Darby’s great leader was more of a puppet master whose worth was measured by how well the puppet show was orchestrated.

We also shared an interest in Charles Manson. Darby and I had both read Helter Skelter and we were both interested in the ways in which Charles Manson had been able to persuade a group of seemingly intelligent people to do his bidding without stopping to question the reasoning behind it. Manson, Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were all masters of reaching people on such a deep emotional level that the individual’s intellectual ability to question their directives seemed to be overridden. What was it these leaders were supplying? Were they filling an emotional void, appealing to people through symbols or language on a subconscious level, or were they simply skilled speakers who could convince others through rhetoric? Whatever the reason, it was clear that by skillfully supplying, then controlling the supply, they could control others.

Both Darby and I wanted to be famous. At that time, we may have thought that understanding what people want and need could help us get what we wanted. We didn’t so much want fame for money or popularity; we wanted the power to be able to influence people. I grew up in a violent household where I often felt I had no control over my surroundings. Power and control were things that seemed very attractive to me. I wanted to become famous and make the world a better place. I know it sounds corny, but I was young and idealistic. It may seem incongruous with my stage persona. I was always so angry and aggressive, but I was exorcising my demons. For me, screaming and being out of control on stage was a release. I think I always knew that if I could rid myself of some of the shit that was obscuring my view, I’d be able to find the answers I was seeking. Despite Darby’s low opinion of the intelligence of the masses, an opinion which I must confess I shared for a while (and still question around election time), Darby’s anger always seemed to me to be directed mostly at himself.

I do think he had a special way of connecting with people, and I think he inspired many, including me. He had a great sense of humor, was smart and very clever. I was not friendly with him towards the end of his life because our philosophical differences, the way we chose to lead our lives and the way we treated people was always a source of conflict. He hated the way I would take the time to talk with fans at The Bags’ shows. I remember the look of disgust in his eyes when he saw me talking to one particularly awkward-looking fan. He lectured me about lowering myself to the level of this audience member because he saw the role of performers and artists as people who should be looked up to. He believed that people need leaders and heroes. He told me that fans didn’t go to see bands to watch someone who was just like them; they wanted to see someone special and larger than life on stage.

As time passed, Darby’s preoccupation with control and manipulation began to get on my nerves. I turned down Darby’s invitation to have my wrist burned – to receive a Germs burn. In fact, I threatened to kick his ass if he dared to burn me with his cigarette. It always reminded me too much of cattle being branded. I still don’t really understand why people continue to do it. Maybe someone will write in and explain what it means to them.

At some point, it became clear to both of us that I wasn’t interested in playing a part in his game. Darby had been great fun to be around. When you were with him it was as though you were a member of a club. He knew how to make people feel like family. But there was a price to pay for being part of that family and I didn’t want to pay it.

In the end, many of the things Darby believed were at least partially true. Many people did (and do) want heroes who were not like themselves. They want to project their hopes, dreams and desires onto the performer on stage. Darby was smart and charismatic enough to have become the puppet master he wanted to be, but the ironic tragedy of Darby’s life is that he became a drug addict. For someone who placed so much value in control over others, it must have been hard to accept that he was dependent upon others to supply him. Maybe he thought he was still in control at the end and his overdose was his last Existentialist act of free will. Or perhaps not. It’s just very sad to me that he ended his life so soon.

I’d like to end this rambling entry by stating one credo I have chosen to live by: Question Authority. It has served me well. I don’t believe that I need to follow anyone’s rules simply because they happen to be in a position of authority. Yes, I understand that this can entail consequences, but I evaluate and accept those consequences if I feel it is worth it. I express my opinions here because it is, after all, my Diary, but they are just my opinions and anyone should feel free to express a differing opinion or disagree with me. But you can expect a good argument.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Women In L.A. Punk, Part XX - Tracy Lea

Tanya Hearst's violent death scene from Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, as performed by Tracy Lea.

I first met Tracy Lea while I was playing with Castration Squad back in the early 1980’s. Shannon Wilhelm introduced us. I remember being impressed by her beauty and youth. She had shorn her hair into an extreme “boy-cut” that contrasted nicely with her sweet looks. Around this same time, she was also playing rhythm guitar with the band Redd Kross and you can hear her riffage on the garage/bubblegum/punk classic “Born Innocent.” Tracy was one of those people who brought fun and enthusiasm to a project. She had and still has a great and rather dark sense of humor.

In 1984, Tracy was immortalized on Super 8 film by Dave Markey in the star-making role of gang leader Tanya Hearst in Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, which is now available on DVD from We Got Power Films.

I recently had the pleasure of playing with her again in preparation for the Castration Squad reunion last year. I discovered a new side of Tracy. I had no idea that Tracy had developed into a talented songwriter and had also written and produced her own short film based on the Castration Squad song, “Piece of Me.”

Her riffs are cool, her lyrics are clever and she’s one tough bitch. I give you Miss Tracy Lea-Marshak-Nash.

Click on the Women In L.A. Punk thumbnail to read her interview.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Letter To Paul

I received a comment on one of my previous blog entries that I felt compelled to respond to:

"Hi Alice -

I really enjoy your blog and love your music. I thought this was an excellent post as well, though I do have one relatively minor point:
you state that people have been speaking Spanish on this continent for much longer than they've been speaking English. Firstly, that's not really true (earliest permanent English settlement is 1619). Secondly and more importantly, however, I don't really think it's a terribly germane, persuasive, or productive point.

Allow me to expand on that a little. I should state right up front that I'm Italian/Irish by descent, born & raised in California. I'm very left-wing, but I have always found the "Aztlan" wing of Chicano activism kind of silly, with its barely suppressed fantasies about "reclaiming" parts of the former Mexico "stolen" under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The point I'm trying to make is that this land, if it truly _belongs_ to anybody, belongs to the native inhabitants, who were initially massacred by the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and then the Americans.

After all, most of what the U.S. took from Mexico had only been "Mexican" for about 80 years at the time anyway (before that, of course, it had been part of the Spanish Empire, and before that, it just belonged to the peopole who lived here, the Native Americans), so it's been "America" for much longer than it was ever "Mexico" by now. I think it's kind of a dead-end argument.

To put it another way, there's plenty of blood on plenty of non-Indian hands and I think that the rights of current Mexican workers in the U.S. are probably best addressed with attention to their extraordinary contributions to America's cultural and economic well-being, not by reference to vaguely retributive notions of historical propriety.

Just my $0.02. Thanks for a passionate and thoughtful (and thought-provoking) post.

- Paul"

Dear Paul,

Just for the record, the first permanent European colony was established by the Spanish in 1565 at St. Augustine, Florida. The colonists spoke Spanish.

I think it is important to establish that the Spanish language predates English in large parts of the United States because to deny it is to deny a part of American history. To deny it is to deny that some Spanish speakers can trace their family’s history on this land further back than the progeny of the signers of the Mayflower Compact.

It is the people who deny America’s heritage who are divisive. I am not afraid of a little diversity. I don’t think the United States will turn into the Tower of Babel if we are allowed to speak more than one language. On the contrary, I think we will understand each other better if we all make an effort to communicate our mutual respect for one another.

So why shouldn’t we speak Spanish? Why shouldn’t we celebrate our cultures and our languages here in Aztlan?

Aztlan is a metaphorical homeland. It is a time, a place, a state of mind where the distinctions of race, creed, and country cease to divide us. If you went to the huge demonstrations supporting immigrant rights, you were in Aztlan.

I not only believe that we will reclaim Aztlan, I am certain of it. In fact it’s happening already. People are reclaiming it by becoming involved in shaping this country into a place that no longer treats immigrants and minorities as second class citizens.

I do agree with you about two things: immigrants do make huge contributions to the cultural and economic well-being of this nation and that the blood of indigenous people is on the hands of many.

Thanks for writing. I leave you with the artwork of Artemio Rodriguez, which pretty much sums up the American Dream as far as immigration is concerned.

"American Dream" - woodcut by Artemio Rodriguez