Cult Heroes (No. 29): Wendy O. Williams
This week we take a look at one of the most controversial and outrageous women in rock history. Wendy O. Williams made her name with some incredible stunts and performances. She dared where others feared. But what was the truth of the person behind the personality? Read On. Check out all other Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
Wendy Orlean Williams. Has there ever been anyone quite like her in the history of rock. Unshockable, unshakeable, unswervingly dedicated to her art. Yet, there was always so much to Wendy O, greater than most people realised. She was articulate, intelligent and more in control of her life than most folk you’ll ever meet – rock stars or not.
Nobody manipulated Wendy. Unlike The Runaways, she wasn’t some priapic teen lust fodder. Unlike Pat Benatar, she wasn’t a slave to the charts. Wendy had her own vision of life, and determinedly pursued those dreams.
After various jobs, including a stint with a gypsy dance troupe and also in the porn industry, she teamed up with longtime manager and mentor Rod Swenson in 1976. Two years later, the pair formed one of the most controversial and sensational bands of the era: The Plasmatics.
Renowned for their outrageous live shows, in reality there was a cunning about this band, because they got their message across through the fine art of misdirection. You see, while everyone concentrated on Wendy blowing up Cadillacs onstage and smashing up TV sets, wearing virtually nothing but her charisma, the truth of the band lay beyond the superficial.
You see, everybody was so engrossed in ‘The Big Picture’, getting lost in the explosive nature of the band’s live show that they missed the important part, the way we were all being guided by Wendy and Rod. It was the counter-culture at its most informative. Because if you could get past what was going in front of your eyes, there was a lesson to be discovered. The pair showed that getting people to focus on the unimportant meant you could get away with so much. Has the point struck home? It proved just how clever governments were at using images and statements to lure us all away from the real agendas they were operating. Anti propaganda, if you want.
Sure, that all seems too esoteric for a band who were mostly about big bangs, in every sense. But that was the sharpness of Wendy and Rod – and the pair really were that formidable. Most, of course, never realised what was happening. In fact, I only saw the truth when first meeting Wendy, and coming to the conclusion that here was a woman totally removed from the mainstream of the music business, existing in a Twilight Zone of her own creation, yet completely in tune with the world at large.
It was 1984 when I initially encountered Wendy. She was just about to release the W.O.W. album, her debut solo record. I was in New York for Kerrang!, and went to meet her and Rod at the loft they shared downtown. Now, us Brits are used to lofts being dusty, spider-riddled affairs, where we keep old books and spooky costumes from long-forgotten parties. But in New York, lofts meant elegance and space.
To gain access to this converted warehouse, you had to ride up in one of those vast lifts which became the setting for so many fights in spy movies and TV series during the 60s and 70s – where would those have been without such old-fashioned contraptions, eh?
Fortunately, there were no such pugilistic problems going up in this one, and the sight that met myself and photographer Ray Palmer was of a very warm and friendly Wendy, looking resplendent and anxious that we were both given drinks (non-alcoholic – boo!) and something to eat. She didn’t fuss over us in a ‘Let’s make sure the media write something positive’ attitude, but in a genuinely caring fashion. Hard to equate this with the women who’d been arrested twice in 1981 – in Milwaukee and Cleveland – for lewd acts onstage, and also in the former case for hitting a police officer. But that was the dichotomy of Wendy O – she had so many exposed sides to her personality.
During the interview, it was clear that, while Kiss’ Gene Simmons had produced the new album, it was Wendy who was in charge. She also had little time for former label Capitol Records, who’d failed to promote the last Plasmatics album, 1982’s Coup d’Etat.
“It was too much like doing some work,” said Wendy. “It was easier for them to sell Billy Squier albums (he was a big noise at the time). That was simple, because every radio station wanted to play his music. But The Plasmatics? This meant trying to convince everyone in radio – and the big record labels are full of people who want to do no work and want to hang out with the big stars.”
Typical Wendy, really. And it was all said without rancour. This was her truth, and she was prepared to spell it out for everyone. If she upset the establishment, then…so what?
Ray and I spent a couple of fascinating hours with Wendy and Rod, during which time both of us grew to like them as people, not as commodities with some product to promote. Wendy was heavily into physical fitness – there was gym equipment all over the place – and was also a macrobiotic cook. It was one of the most surprising assignments I ever undertook at Kerrang! – because Wendy O. Williams was so…different.
Over the next several years, our paths crossed a lot. Sometimes in the professional line of duty. Others just for social occasions. In London, New York and Los Angeles. One night, when Wendy and Rod were in London, I went out for dinner with them and took along Krusher, Kerrang!’s insane designer, who’d always declared that Wendy was his ultimate woman. I think dear old Krusher was dumbfounded by the night, because Rod, Wendy and I spent a lot of time talking about…quantum mechanics! It was a cutting edge scientific area that interested Rod and me, and Wendy was also very well versed in it all. Now, how many singers do you know who can do that?
Krusher actually came away even more impressed with Wendy than he’d been at first. I think he realised that her musical career was only a small part of what Wendy wanted to do. She ended up acting in various low-budget movies (Reform School Girls, anyone?) and also became a lecturer in macrobiotic cooking.
In 1991, Wendy and Rod moved to Connecticut, where she worked as an animal rehabilitator and in a health food store. At the time she told me that she was “Fed up dealing with people”. The joie de vivre that had driven her for so long seemed sadly to be ebbing away.
A fierce proponent of animal welfare and also a natural food activist, she once famously accused Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies in America, of being no better than a heroin pusher, because her food contained so much white sugar. But the passion that had driven her for so long was no longer evident by the start of the 90s.
I lost contact with Wendy and Rod in 1991, only re-establishing dialogue with Rod a few years ago. By that time Wendy was dead. On April 6, 1998, she went into the woods close to her home and shot herself. It was the third attempt she’d made to commit suicide – this time it worked. Sadly. Wendy was 48 years old. She left behind the following note:
“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”.
I was deeply shocked by what Wendy had done. Not having contact with her for several years, I was naive enough to believe – and hope – she’d found peace and tranquillity in her new life. I was wrong.
Wendy O has left behind a massive legacy. Musically, there are those Plasmatics albums and also a plethora of excellent solo releases. There are the films, of course, and also that single she did with Lemmy, a version of Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man. But none of that truly matters. It’s the person I am trying to celebrate and portray here. Obviously, Wendy was so larger than life that I can give just a taste of what she was like. But perhaps the best thing I can say about her is that she made you think. Because she thought deeply.
Some will never get past the gaffa tape on the nipples. Or the mohawk haircut she regularly sported. But Wendy O. Williams was more punk than the Sex Pistols, more metal than Metallica and more rock ’n’ roll than Keith Richards (well, maybe all three are exaggerations, but ones worth making). Because she used superficiality to encourage people to question assumptions.
No, Wendy wasn’t a politician or a philosopher – she was for real. That made her so much more important. And more of a threat.
As Wendy herself said in the lyrics to It’s My Life: ‘I’ve got a reputation, people know who I am. Rules are made to be broken, can’t kill what you don’t understand. I see you’re running scared, I never knew you cared. Go hide your head in the sand’.
Right enough of the waffle, on with the music:
Here are The Plasmatics doing Butcher Baby.
And The Plasmatics again doing The Damned.
Wendy going for an Oscar in Reform School Girls.
Find out more at www.wendyowilliams.com