A chapter in punk history was closed forever recently, when in early April, Wendy Orlean Williams chose to end her life. Wendy was one of the music scene’s more intriguing characters, and her recordings with both the Plasmatics and indeed her solo work, will always be a loud, raucous reminder of this unique, ground breaking performer. Born in Rochester, New York on May 28, 1949, Wendy was a farmer’s daughter who once appeared on The Howdy Doody Show at age 7, performing a Shirley Temple-styled tap dance routine. She attended R.L Thomas High School which she dropped out from in year 9, and at 16 hitched to Colorado, earning money crocheting string bikinis ! A stint in Florida followed where she sold handicrafts to the throng of tourists, before heading to Europe in 1972 and acquiring work in the showgirl/stripper circuit. Returning home to New York a couple of years later, she approached the Big Apple’s biggest sex show promoter at the time, Rod Swenson, and signed a contract with him. Wendy performed ten times a day in various 42nd Street theatres (often changing in cabs between venues) and apparently appeared in some of Swenson’s porno flicks. Swenson began shooting music videos for the likes of Patti Smith and the Ramones and by 1978 he and Williams hit upon the idea of creating a shock-rock punk outfit like no other – thus the Plasmatics were born. The band made their debut at CBGB’s on July 26, 1978, and made one helluva impact ! Not since Alice Cooper or Kiss had a band taken the theatrical angle of rock to its limits. A seven foot, blue mo-hawked guitarist, (Richie Stotts) decked out in various little girls party dresses, a rhythm player (Web Beech) in lab coat, and a sexy singer who cavorted about the stage in tight leopard-skin pants whilst topless. Guitars would be chainsawed in half, Beech was mock hanged, machine guns would be fired, speaker cabinets detonated and Cadillacs would be blown up !! Their debut single ‘Butcher Baby’ was issued on red wax on the indie Vice Squad label and sold well, as did the follow-up single ‘Dream Lover’. The explosive ‘Butcher Baby’ was definitely the noisiest thing UK label Stiff Records released when they signed the Plasmatics back in 1980. A show that year at the Hammy Odeon in London was cancelled by the GLC, who deemed the blowing up of a car on-stage dangerous and a fire risk. “We’re about violence and destruction, destroying objects and material possessions of our greedy society, which must be a healthy satire” said Wendy at the time. After the London fiasco, the group retuned to New York and were helicoptered onto a New York pier where, in front of some 20,000 punters they played a short, blistering set. Wendy then drove a Caddy into a stage loaded with explosives, jumping out of the car seconds before it hit the stage and car and stage blew up. The band made numerous TV appearances including two memorable stints on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show where they once again blew up a car in the studio. In the space of a year, the Plasmatics had developed a cult following and had risen from the NY club scene to headlining the Palladium. Not everyone however appreciated Wendy’s stage act, which included covering herself in cream and simulating masturbation. She was once arrested in Milwaulkee back in the early 80’s and was charged with Conduct Prohibited on Licensed Premises, Resisting Arrest, and Battery. Funny how Madonna received MTV Video awards for grabbing her crotch, whilst Wendy O Williams got arrested ! 1982 saw her release a duet with Lemmy from Motorhead, on a speed-metal take of Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’. The Plasmatics broke up in 1983 and eventually released four scorching albums: ‘New Hope For The Wretched’, ‘Beyond The Valley of 1984’, ‘Metal Priestess’, ‘Coup d’Etat’ and ‘Maggots: The Record’ which hit the racks in 1987. Williams pursued a solo career and her debut offering, 1984’s ‘WOW’ is a great punk-meets-metal outting, produced by Gene Simmons of Kiss. ‘I Love Sex (and rock and roll), ‘It’s My Life, and the hot and sweaty ‘Bump and Grind’ are just three of the strong tunes on this album, which sold respectably well. The Kiss connection did not end with Simmons, as there were guest appearances on the LP by Paul Stanley, Eric Carr and Ace Frehley. She released the fan club-only ‘F##k n Roll’ EP in 1985 and her popularity was at its height that year when she was nominated for a Grammy in the best Female Rock Vocal category. ‘Kommander of Kaos’ was issued in 1986 and is another skull crushing effort filled with loud rockers. Her take of Motorhead’s ‘Jailbait’ rivals the original for raw intensity. Wendy also embarked on an acting career, landing many parts including TV’s ‘Macgyver’ and also stealing the show in the film ‘Reform School Girls’. Swenson was Wendy’s long time partner/manager, and the pair moved to Storrs, Conecticut in 1991. Wendy retired from music, becoming a prominent health food advocate whilst working for a natural foods co-op. On April 6th Swenson returned home to find a package Wendy had left him, which included suicide notes. He found her body in the adjacent woods in an area where she loved to feed the wildlife (several nutshells were on a nearby rock where she had apparently been feeding some of the squirrels before she died). Williams died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. One of the suicide notes Wendy left read: “The act of taking my own life is not something I am doing without a lot of thought. I don’t believe that people should take their own lives without deep and thoughtful reflection over a considerable period of time. I do believe strongly, however, that the right to do so is one of the most fundamental rights that anyone in a free society should have. For me much of the world makes no sense, but my feelings about what I am doing ring loud and clear to an inner ear and a place where there is no self, only calm. Love always, Wendy.” Swenson offered “Wendy’s act was not an irrational in-the-moment act, she had been talking about taking her own life for almost four years. She was at home in the peak of her career, but found the more ordinary ‘hypocrisies of life’ as she called them excruciatingly hard to deal with. In one sense she was the strongest person I have ever known, and in another, a side which most people never saw, the most vulnerable. She felt, in effect, she’d peaked and didn’t care to live in a world in which she was uncomfortable, and below peak any longer. Speaking personally for myself, I loved her beyond imagination. She was a source of strength, inspiration, and courage. The pain at this moment in losing her is inexpressible. I can hardly imagine a world without Wendy Williams in it. For me such a world is profoundly diminished.” His last comment about Wendy is a sentiment shared by thousands of fans around the world. A tribute night was held at CBGB’s on May 18th, the place where it all started twenty years ago. Rest in peace Wendy.
Note: Article originally appeared in Vicious Kitten Fanzine – 1998