The Rock and Roll Birth of Nirvana’s Pat Smear
Pat Smear — real name: Georg Albert Ruthenberg — had just celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday when he got the phone call from Kurt Cobain that would finally, after 15 years of trying, make him a star. A native of Los Angeles, Georg had a bloodline which was an unusual blend of African American and Native American on his mother’s side and German immigrant on his father’s. Pushed into taking classical piano lessons as a child, he insists he’d never even heard any rock music until he was at high school. ‘My parents didn’t allow rock music in the house,’ he explained. ‘I actually didn’t even know it existed until I was probably eleven years old.’ That changed when his parents bought his older sister three albums: the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. ‘She just played them over and over and over … I just thought there was The Beatles — and everything else!’
By the time he met a 19-year-old high-school dropout named Paul Beahm, in 1977, Georg had taught himself to play guitar, taking inspiration from Brian May of Queen and Mick Ronson of Ziggy-era David Bowie. Latterly, he had also become obsessed with the British punk scene, fascinated by the intersexual look as much as the spastic-elastic music. His new friend Paul, who had recently changed his name, in true punk fashion, to Darby Crash, shared similar tastes in ‘outrageous music’, although Darby was more inclined to the Sid Vicious school of ultra-violent onstage action than he was the razor-sharp attitude of a Johnny Rotten. Both, though, had a love of Queen and Iggy Pop and it was on this common ground that they found their place together. With Darby as singer and Pat as guitarist, they would form the band that was to become the start of a musical journey almost preordained to end in disaster.
Darby came from pain: an older brother, Bobby Lucas, who had been murdered in a drug deal gone bad, and a stepfather, Bob Baker, who had also checked out badly three years earlier. Brought up by an abusive single mother with her own mental health issues, Darby outlined to Ruthenberg, whom he now renamed Pat Smear, what he thought of as his five-year plan to make himself immortal. First off, form the most outrageous band ever. Next, record just one great album. Then kill himself, thus ensuring his legend would live for ever.
Pat listened to all of this and thrilled to the thought. British punk rock had already arrived in Southern California, but it was only ever a secondhand version, based on out-of-date British music paper stories and pix, and simple word of mouth. The Sex Pistols, who they worshipped, never did play live in LA, and The Clash, whom they found too straight by comparison, didn’t get there until 1979, when they headlined a sold-out show at the Santa Monica Civic. Instead, LA punk was like a sleazier version of original Detroit garage rock groups like Alice Cooper and The Stooges, with hot flushes of Bowie-as-Ziggy and Queen-as-Freddie-Mercury-plaything thrown in.
That was what Darby and Pat were aiming for anyway when they formed their group, Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens. Half boy, half girl (they advertised for ‘two untalented girls’, recruiting the bassist Lorna Doom and drummer Belinda Carlisle, whom Darby renamed Dottie Danger, but who soon left to form the Go-Go’s), all amateur, none of the band, aside from Pat, could actually play when they did their first gigs. But that was beside the point. They changed their name to The Germs because it fitted better on T-shirts than Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens, and their shows were essentially triggers for full-on punk riots, with Darby, often tripping on stage, or simply high on anything anyone gave him, from booze to dope to speed to downers, throwing himself around the stage and among the audience, slashing open his chest with broken bottles and mangling lyrics to songs like ‘Sex Boy’. Key line: ‘I like it anywhere any time that I can / I’m the fucking son of superman!’
‘Whatever we were going to be, we were going to be the most,’ said Pat. ‘If we’re gonna be punk, then we are gonna out-punk the Sex Pistols! If we are gonna be the worst band ever, then we are gonna be the fucking worst band ever!’ It was a pledge they more than lived up to. Their only album, (GI), aka Germs Incognito, was released by local LA punk label Slash Records in October 1979. Produced for peanuts by the former Runaways star Joan Jett, idolized by Darby and Pat, its 17 tracks recorded in a matter of days, the comparative clarity of the tracks, as opposed to the totally chaotic live performances, where Darby would deliberately not sing into the mic for half the show, lifted the band’s reputation out of the gutter and into the pantheon of all-time LA punk classics. It even got reviewed in the LA Times, which described it as an ‘aural holocaust’.
There was an extra element to what The Germs did, too, that some have theorized since may have had to do with Darby’s closeted homosexuality. Was that inward-turned rage really just another expression of punk rock? Or was the boy railing against something more specific? Pat, too, liked to flaunt an androgynous allure that may have had more to it than just punk ‘front’. Interviewed in the classic Penelope Spheeris movie documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, about the LA punk scene of 1979–80, Pat cheerfully tells the camera: ‘I’d probably hit lots of girls in the face. I don’t like girls very much.’ Not because he was a tough, butch guy. As he says, ‘I’ve probably punched out everybody I know at one time or another. But I’ve always run afterwards because I can’t fight.’
The question of Pat Smear’s sexuality has been shushed and tutted over ever since. Darby eventually became much more open about his homosexuality, or bisexuality, as he saw it. Pat, despite his heavy makeup, loud clothes, black nail polish and generally effeminate mien, has never been so bold, at least not publicly. And why should he? What does it matter as long as his guitar playing is up to scratch? Yet it seems likely that it was this extra aspect of his personality that helped endear Pat to Kurt, as much as his musicianly abilities. Kurt also liked dressing up in feminine clothes and wearing outré makeup and nail polish. Loved to blur the masculine-feminine, in his music as much as his life. When asked about his love affair with Courtney by Michael Azerrad, he suggested it didn’t matter whether his soul mate was a man or a woman as long as there was real love there on both sides. Or as he sang in ‘All Apologies’, one of the most affecting tracks from the In Utero album: ‘What else should I say / Everyone is gay.’
Less triumphal was the tragi-comic way Darby Crash eventually died. As good as his word, The Germs had split up in the months that followed the release of their ‘one great album’, dispirited by the near-impossibility of getting gigs (their reputation for leaving venues wrecked having turned off almost all of LA’s club owners) as much as Darby’s five-year plan for self-destruction. Then, out of the blue, a Germs ‘reunion’ show was announced for Wednesday, 3 December 1980. The venue was a packed Starwood club, on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard. It was, typically, a chaotic affair, with Darby telling the crowd at one point, ‘We did this show so you new people could see what it was like when we were around. You’re not going to see it again.’ On the night, it was interpreted as a literal farewell from the band. But Pat would later recall how in the run-up to the show, Darby had confessed to him: ‘The only reason I’m doing this is to get money to get enough heroin to kill myself with.’ Pat, though, had shrugged it off. ‘He’d said that so many times I just said, “Oh, right”, and didn’t think about it any more.’
Four nights later, Darby and his then girlfriend, Casey Cola, were sitting on the floor of a backroom at her mother’s house and shooting up $400 worth of heroin. Darby shot Casey up first, then himself, then held her in his arms while the lights went out. But Casey didn’t die. Instead, she came to hours later to find a dead Darby in her arms. Blue at 22, he had kept his promise. But fate, always an unreliable witness, foiled his scheme, robbing him of even minor punk immortality when news of John Lennon’s assassination by another painfully deluded young American hit the airwaves.
Pat Smear didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, when he heard, he was too in shock, too afraid for his own future. Too busy chewing on a cigarette and hanging by the telephone. Three months later he joined The Adolescents, Orange County’s reigning punk rock kings. But left soon after when he decided he didn’t want to tour with the band. The Germs had never left LA. The thought of being stuck in the back of a van with a bunch of laughing, farting smart boys was probably too much for the hypersensitive guitarist.
Pat spent the rest of the 1980s living off the fumes of an assumed outlandish past. There had been short-lived new wave bands like Twisted Roots, with Black Flag’s former bassist Kira Roessler as vocalist, who were considered ultra-cool but too late out of the gate to get a deal; 45 Grave, with whom he recorded a single, ‘Black Cross’, before he split; a stint playing in punk-witch-queen Nina Hagen’s live band; and two solo albums — the so-so Ruthensmear (1987) and So You Fell in Love with a Musician … (1991), both released on the independent SST label, founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn and early home to bands like Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets and Soundgarden.
Between times Pat had also built up a CV as a bit part player in various movies and TV shows, starting as an extra in an episode of Quincy, ME, then appearing as a ‘background artist’ in Bladerunner, Breakin’ and Howard the Duck. It was during this period he first met a teenage Courtney Love, whose lead part in Alex Cox’s so-bad-it’s-good cod-Western, Straight to Hell, also starring Joe Strummer, had been noticed by Pat and his one-day friend Kurt Cobain.