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Pat Smear, the architect of alternative rock


Alternative rock didn’t exist in 1979, but Pat Smear was making still alternative music. He didn’t really have a choice: he wasn’t a trained musician, apart from some piano lessons from his childhood, and for legions of untrained musicians at the time, that meant playing punk rock. Smear, who was born Georg Albert Ruthenberg to a black American mother and a German father, was a misfit all his life. However, he managed to meet another young misfit, Jan Paul Beahm, with whom he instantly bonded over David Bowie and LSD.

Ruthenberg and Beahm may or may not have staged a quasi-revolution in their alternative high school by providing drugs to fellow students and encouraging them to rally against conformity. That was enough to get them expelled, but the two young men soon found a home in the upstart punk scene of Southern California. Rechristening themselves Pat Smear and Bobby Pyn, the duo sought out other musicians to join them. When the Germs began to solidify, Beahm grew tired of the Bobby Pyn moniker and adopted a new name, Darby Crash.

Crash wasn’t much of a singer, spitting out his surprisingly-erudite manifestos with a ferocious venom, but Smear quickly found a calling in the guitar. Through endless spins of punk albums, Smear picked up his skills from the likes of Steve Jones and Ron Ashton. Since Crash wasn’t into melody, Smear had to be the musical guide of the Germs, bringing in hooks from his guitar lines and rapid-fire chords.

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Smear wasn’t afraid to go directly against the minimalist buzz of his hardcore punk peers. Songs like ‘Lexicon Devil’ and ‘The Other Newest One’ were brought to life once the band entered a professional recording studio with Joan Jett to record the Germs’ one and only album, (GI). Smear meticulously overdubbed layers upon layers of guitar parts, giving the sound a rich fullness. He also wasn’t afraid to write chord progressions that expanded the typical three-chord chug of the day. His atypical choices for chord changes opened up a whole new world of options for his fellow punk guitarists, but his relentless hurricane of distortion and power chords kept it within the reach of kids just picking up the instrument.

The Germs weren’t on earth for long. Only a year and two months after (GI) was released, Crash took his own life in a purposeful heroin overdose in December of 1980. But the band’s legacy refused to die, and (GI) found its way into the punk rock scenes that formed across the country, landing in cities as diverse as Austin, Minneapolis, New York, Seattle, and Washington D.C. For bands like Husker Du, Scream, Melvins, NOFX, and Meat Puppets, the Germs became a template for which hardcore music could evolve into something grander and more ambitious.

But Smear himself largely didn’t go along for the ride. With two solo albums released during the ’80s, some occasional production work, and bit parts in various movies, TV shows, and music videos (you can see him with long hair sitting front of Lisa Coleman’s piano in Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’ video), Smear largely stayed out of the proliferating punk scene. He could occasionally be seen at various shows, but he hadn’t managed to cash in on his massive influence. Not until he received a call from Kurt Cobain in 1993.

Cobain, like any self-respecting punk rock kid, had latched onto the Germs and took the lead from Smear’s unique chord choices and driving playing style. Smear had such a profound effect on Cobain that he believed that Smear would be a perfect second guitarist for his band. As Nirvana prepared to tour behind their third album In Utero, Smear was brought in to flesh out the sound. Smear’s influence went beyond playing Cobain’s backup parts: he sang harmony vocals and even influenced the band’s setlists, encouraging Cobain to add David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ to their MTV Unplugged performance.

Unfortunately, for the second time in his life, Smear’s time in a legendary rock band was cut short by the tragic suicide of its frontman. Smear’s reaction was once again to largely leave the music industry behind, but he received another call from Dave Grohl almost exactly a year after Cobain had first called him. Grohl was releasing a series of recordings under a new name, Foo Fighters, and wanted to know if Smear would join the group. For the second time, Smear packed his bags and joined Grohl on the road.

The relentlessness of touring started to catch up with him, however. Smear was 38 when he hit the road with the Foo Fighters for the tour in support of their second album, The Colour and the Shape, and Smear was “just so sick of it”, as he stated in the Foo’s documentary Back and Forth. Once again, Smear disappeared into ether, emerging briefly to help shepherd the Germs’ biographical film What We Do Is Secret through its production.

But Smear couldn’t stay away forever. Smear kept in contact with Grohl and had even asked to return to the band on a few separate occasions. None of these worked out, but when Grohl expanded the band’s lineup for their acoustic shows in support of 2005’s In Your Honor, Smear was once again back on board. It took until 2011’s Wasting Light for Smear to officially rejoin the band, but once he did, Smear had fully established his legacy as the architect of alternative rock.

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