Wendy O. Williams, was the mohawk crested, boundary pushing, chainsaw wielding, semi-naked front woman of New York’s self-styled, “Worlds Ultimate Rock Band” – the Plasmatics.
Born in Rochester in upstate New York, Wendy went on to describe her parents as “cocktail zombies” “They wanted me to get a 9-to-5 job and all the fringe benefits. I said, ‘No way.’ she told People magazine in 1983, “I was an outcast, a loner. I never felt like I fit”. Ejected from the Brownies for flirting with the boys on a canoe trip, the young Wendy gravitated towards both performance on the one hand, and rescuing stray animals and wounded birds on the other,
“The thing about animals is that they don’t judge you”.
At the age of 16 Wendy dropped out of school, first hitch-hiking to Colorado, then onto Florida where she worked as a lifeguard, sold vitamins and made her own macrame swimsuits. In 1974 she headed to Europe bartending in Amsterdam, getting arrested for shoplifting in London and spending time in an Italian jail on counterfeit money handling charges.
In 1976, back in New York and desperate for both adventure and direction, Wendy answered an ad placed by radical artist and Yale University graduate Rod Swenson, for performance artists for his experimental “Captain Kink’s Theatre.” It was scripted live sex shows, but under an “arts” umbrella.
Already regulars at CBGBs, Swenson and Williams, now a couple, then decided to construct their own band, The Plasmatics who played their debut show at CBGBs in July 1978.
Swanson’s art background and Williams natural bent for showing off combined to make the Plasmatics a new benchmark in rock and roll stage excess. Pitched somewhere between ear-shredding shock-rock, B-Movie horror camp and a strip show, the band were soon packing venues including New York’s 3300 capacity Palladium before they’d even released a record.
As a band who set out to provide a new version of performance rock they didn’t disappoint; the stage shows included chainsaws, explosions, nudity, theatrical blood, cross-dressing, and eventually car crashes and demolition.
Williams created an entire persona for herself which she called “The American Dream Girl Gone Nightmare,” involving a bleached blond mohawk, very few clothes and deep growling vocals and a chainsaw.
In 1980, and in front of a crowd of 12,000 people, Wendy drove a Cadillac onto an exploding stage at Pier 62 in NYC, leaping out just seconds before the car exploded and plunged into the Hudson River below. However, it wasn’t just the staged stunts that started to draw attention to the band. In January 1981 Williams was arrested on obscenity charges after a show in Milwaukee Wisconsin, for supposedly simulating masturbation with a microphone and a sledgehammer (I don’t know, you do the maths).
Allegedly beaten by the arresting officers, her injuries are obvious in the police mug shots, Williams launched an ultimately unsuccessful civil lawsuit against them, and eventually all charges from both sides were dropped. Charged again in Ohio for acting in a “lewd” manner, the usual… simulating sex onstage whilst wearing only shaving cream, Williams realised that the various “obscenity” charges were usually due to her nipples being on display, she then started to “redact” them by wearing black electrical tape to avoid arrest.
Due to the publicity generated by the trials, and their new notoriety, the Plasmatics and Williams experienced a massive surge in interest, which led to them appearing on TV talk shows and playing in front of the huge TV audience of the 1980s. The band, now clearly more identified with Metal more than Punk continued stripping off and blowing things up until 1983, after which Williams carved out a solo career, that included recording with Lemmy, modelling, acting, appearing in a production of The Rocky Horror Show and in a film called Reform School Girls where she breaks the window of a bus with her head.
Juggling both sides of her personality, in July of 1984 Wendy became the first woman to appear on the front cover of rock magazine Kerrang, while simultaneously taking the front of the Vegetarian Times.
Moving with Swenson back to the suburbs of Connecticut in the 1990s, the rock career all but over, Wendy spent her time caring for animals as a veterinary assistant, helping people with dietary choices at a health food store, jogging and weight training.
Living back in the suburbs, and no longer performing, it wasn’t long before Wendy felt the return of that old familiar feeling of not fitting in, and tragically on April 6th 1998, Williams walked into the woods at the back of her home and put a handgun to her head. She was 48.
Wendy’s memorial service took place at CBGBs, and featured ex members of the Plasmatics , playing together one last time.
Musically, the Plasmatics were nothing new, their chugging heavy chorded rock was hardly their big selling point, Wendy’s vocal range was limited to say the least, but what they lacked in musciality they certainly made up for in performance, and that performance was entirely reliant on Wendy. Not really Punk, not really Metal, Wendy O. Williams was the shaving-foam wearing, chainsaw wielding, animal loving vegetarian, porn star, stunt driver, contradiction in terms, who, whether she intended to or not, set a new standard in rock’s ever evolving performance rule-book.