Undermining the Status Quo: Wendy O Williams

I’ve been called ‘weird’ or ‘crazy’ since I was quite young. These labels are indeed true; I am ‘weird’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘different’ by society’s standards… A self-proclaimed individualist with an innate drive to pursue ‘impossible’ dreams even if that means going against the grain to get there, and it always does. It can be very difficult to find a female mentor or role model that reflects this nature. A strong woman that isn’t being objectified or neglected, a woman who is neither the Madonna nor the whore… Years ago I stumbled upon the band the Plasmatics, and was blown away with what I found. The singer, Wendy O Williams, was like no other woman I’d ever heard of. She was, and continues to be, an inspiration to anyone who wants to colour outside the lines.

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I used to publish a fanzine based on underground entertainment and I tracked down Wendy’s life partner and creator of the Plasmatics, Rod Swenson in 2008 for an interview, in order to run a feature commemorating 10 years since her death in 1998. The following is an excerpt of that interview.

KILLDREN (K): Wendy’s life is characterised as a radical one, a life worth living, with no apologies. Most people are scared to live like that, why wasn’t she?

ROD SWENSON (RS): ‘Why was Wendy the way she was?’, or completely fearless in the face of things that most people are utterly scared of is honestly completely beyond me. It’s just the way she was and it was one of the most remarkable things about her that had a flip side to it too. Because while things that would utterly terrify the ‘ordinary person’ were just things that gave her comfort and security, it was things that would give the ordinary person comfort (such as social conformity, ‘fitting in’, etc.) that made her utterly uncomfortable or feel threatened. Putting the nature/nurture or genes vs. culture thing aside as insoluble (lots of people raised in the kind of repressive, conformist, small-town environment she was, with alcoholic parents don’t become Wendy O Williams) the answer to the question, whatever the origin of it, can be given in a different way. In short, she was threatened by the shallow conformist, materialist, sexist, racist (etc.) culture because she had a deep understanding of where this would lead, both for individuals and the planet itself, and understanding this she felt threatened all the time by it. It wasn’t something merely intellectual for her. She felt it down to the centre of her being. Given this, confronting the status quo, going against the grain was something that made her feel not only alive (and often ecstatic) but grounded, centred in a way that not many people really ever know.

K: How did she maintain her radical lifestyle and where did it take her?

RS: Wendy, growing up in a small conservative town in western upstate New York (“Anytown anywhere” she used to call it) by her own account, had a very hard time fitting in and, by her own account, was in a constant battle with the repressive, stagnant environment around her. She was spontaneous, creative, and (to me) the most healthy attitude towards wanting to be free, feel free, and celebrate what, to her, was the beauty of the natural world. But she found her natural enthusiasm, exuberance and inquisitiveness squashed and threatening to the narrow conformist, “uptight” world around her and she was in trouble from the time she was little. She told, with some pride, in hindsight, of getting thrown out of Girl Scouts for “having too much fun”, as a teenager being arrested for swimming nude at a secluded pond she’d go to in the woods, of doing distracting things in school, which she hated for being completely boring and teaching irrelevant things about which she had no interest. Her parents, both heavy drinkers (alcoholics by Wendy’s account, and one of the reasons she never drank), found her too much to deal with and tried to have her medicated or “turned into a zombie” (she’d say) so she could fit in with the rest of the people in ‘small town USA’. She refused to give in, always believing that there was an ‘authentic’ (rather than a ‘dead phony’) way to live, and was determined to find it, or die trying. She often told people she’d rather be dead than live the petrified, conformist life of status quo. So before she graduated from high school she set out into the world with barely enough to live a week on. It was daring, risky, and in many ways against all odds. During the next some years she set out on a search for ‘authenticity’, looking for the place, the activity, where she could be true to herself, not some sexist consumerist conformist view dictated by what she viewed as a world bent on its own destruction (of individuality, human rights, of the environment). During this time she hitchhiked across the country and ended up living in a tent in Boulder Colorado (when it was a counter-culture hub, before becoming packed with yuppies) selling things she made on the street, lived in an abandoned, beached, boat in Florida where she worked as a lifeguard, and again sold hand-made things. She travelled through Europe where she worked as a macrobiotic cook in London, and finally as a dancer in a travelling circus troupe. Then, feeling the urge to come to New York, she ended up at the Port Authority Bus Terminal with enough money to pay no more than two nights in a flop house. She found an open copy of Leo Shull’s Show Business Weekly on the bus terminal floor. It was open to an ad for ‘experimental performers’ for an experimental theatre I was running in Times Square. She applied for the job and, as she would tell me later, from the minute we met she knew she had found what she was looking for. “It was like I’d arrived on a different planet” she’d say. You see, I was an utter counter-culture, radicalist too, bent on finding authenticity, challenging the status quo and rejecting the mores of the world in almost the identical way she did. She’d never encountered anything like that, and neither had I. What began then was a 22 year relationship that would see us, less than 2 years later, launching the Plasmatics and her very visible public career.

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K: Why do you think she was so against mediocrity and where do you think her conviction came from?

RS: I think it’s because she saw it as so stifling, as a kind of ‘living death’… (I would later write lyrics for a number of our songs on this theme e.g., ‘Living Dead’ [Beyond the Valley of 1984, released 1981] “You sold your life in the discount store… you watch TV, you don’t want any more… you got ideas, in your head, they won’t happen, you’re the living dead…” AND later the song “You’re a Zombie” from Maggots: The album in 1987… “You’re a zombie, honey, we done consumed your brain, do you feel the difference, or is it still the same… now you’re a fascist robot like you were before, we can press your buttons and have a robot war”). It was just the way she perceived the world in a completely straightforward way. She could see right through things, she needed to be doing things. She was an activist to the core of her being, and as her life/career shows, she put herself on the line (or across it) time and time again, risking otherwise more profitable career moves (like pandering to the way people wanted women to ‘sing’ for radio), risking her life literally in some of the performance art that we did (videos etc.), and even her freedom with her willingness to be arrested if it came to that. She was an utter breath of fresh air.

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K: How would you describe the lifestyle the two of you lived together? What was Wendy really like?

RS: The lifestyle we lived was far from ‘normal’ (in the sense of statistically average compared to most other people), in almost every sense. A lot of what she and I did then is a lot more commonplace now, such as weight training, or not eating meat, or not smoking or even drinking (sound boring to some people? It wasn’t, I promise you!), but in those days when we went to a gym and worked out with free weights, she was usually the only woman in the gym. She was a radical animal rights activist too, speaking out against factory farming and lab testing of cosmetic companies on animals whenever she had the chance. She found the cosmetic companies disgusting in every sense, particularly the testing of cosmetics on animals in what amounted to forced torture. She was against the powerful (whether corporate, or the wealthy, or for whatever reason) bullying or ripping off the underdog, and animals to her were in the category of abused things. But back to the ‘normal’ thing: in those days women with muscles were not considered ‘feminine’, but she thought this was garbage, part of the way the social structure or norms or tastes are manufactured to keep women weak, or let men be dominant. So, her daily routine always had a lot of strenuous physical exercise built in, partly because she needed to be in great shape to do the very physical shows and videos, she did, and partly because it was a way of releasing steam itself… steam (or rage) generated by looking around and seeing what was going on in the world. Then our diet too, both for reasons of staying in great shape, feeling really good even doing and confronting very difficult and stressful things, and also from an ecological or philosophical standpoint (like not poisoning the earth, or factory farming animals), was something that would have stood out. Both of us had stopped eating meat before we met each other and from that point on we went through various kinds of food programs, including a raw food diet at which time we naturally grew a lot of food right in the loft where we lived (that was also ‘Plasmatics World Headquarters’) in what is now known as Tribeca in NYC.

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K: How did Wendy discover, develop and maintain her vocal style?

RS: Part of her (and our) goals was that she wanted to sing in a way very different than women were singing then, or supposed to sing. She could hear what she wanted to do in her head, and so could I. We wrote songs of a certain type, not only that said certain things but that had a certain attitude that was her. She didn’t want to sound ‘pretty’ and she didn’t want to be ‘decorative’ in her singing, her look, or anything else. By and large she wanted to be in your face, aggressive, and ‘heavy’. Of course, she had attitude par none, but the quality of her voice, especially as it developed over the years, was really special. I loved the sound of her voice. The record companies were forever saying, you know, can’t you just give us something ‘pretty’, or something for radio, or something that wasn’t so political, and most importantly didn’t sound so ‘tough’ or strong? “In your fucking dreams!” said Wendy, “How about when Hell freezes over?” She was called in the early days (by the media) “The Queen of Punk” to later being dubbed the “High Priestess of Metal”. The power in her voice, her trademark screams, and the great throaty sound of her voice came from hours of rehearsing. By the time we recorded Coup D’Etat in Germany in 1982, she was determined to become ‘the heaviest female singer of all time’. In any case, her vocal chords were so stretched and shredded by then we thought she’d have to undergo an operation to have the nodes repaired. Fortunately when we got back to NY, she started working with the amazing Anne Ruckert. Anne helped her develop a set of very specific warm up exercises that kept her from damaging her vocal chords any further, even with the kind of very physical singing she did.

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K: What were Wendy’s views on sexuality and femininity?

RS: Well, Wendy was very sexual, or should I say ‘physical’ and her sexuality was a part of that. But she thought this was just another area where there was a huge (sexist) double standard between women and men. She thought this was demeaning to women. Women were supposed to either repress their sexuality or else somehow be sexual but only as objects of accessories for men. You still see this today, and saw it a lot back then, like the male rock band hires a bunch of models wearing skimpy outfits, who slobber all over them. Wendy used to refer to this as women ‘being used as coffee tables’, in other words as stage props. What was ground breaking with Wendy was that she was not afraid to be sexual, and as feminist writer Maria Raha has put it was ‘in control of her own sexuality’. This was pretty much unheard of and of course, as Raha and others have pointed out, the male establishment found it very threatening. Conservative (male) America ‘had castration anxiety’ as Chris Knowles of Classic Rock put it, when they saw Wendy wielding a chainsaw on stage during a much publicised TV appearance in the early 80’s. Her view of femininity, to underscore further, was not one which subscribed to the idea that to be feminine meant being passive or weak… just the opposite. And it didn’t mean smiling all the time either; it meant show anger when it was warranted. OF course, she was a fashion pioneer way, way ahead of her time. When, as the first woman ever on nationwide TV with a Mohawk, she was asked why she did it, she said “I’m saying ‘Fuck You!’ to the cosmetic companies.”

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K: What was Wendy’s idea of freedom? How did it compare to the commonly-accepted perception of freedom?

RS: Wendy’s idea was a beautifully simple idea which holds the belief grounded in the idea of tolerance, individuality, variety, and human and civil rights. Equality of people, but not based on everyone being forced (by social pressure or otherwise) to conform to some kind of a statistical norm (in physics a state that would be equivalent to equilibrium or ‘death’) but being able to seek, think, feel, and reach their potential. The idea of ‘freedom’ she didn’t subscribe to, the kind of Orwellian inverted doublespeak that many people don’t seem to be able to discriminate against are ideas like ‘free trade’ as used by proponents of unfettered globalization which actually involves (or gives) the power elite, multinational corporations and their agents the ‘freedom’ to enslave and impoverish the rest of the world (destroy the common resources like clean air, water and so on that should be free and available for all living things) towards the end of their own profit and greed. The fetish to simply acquire wealth and own things, is not the sign of a free person and furthermore involves the effective enslavement of others to achieve.

K: In your opinion, what was her perception of the world before her death, and did she die defeated, vindicated, or neither?

RS: Both, I would say. In one sense she achieved what she believed in and went searching for, with all the risks associated with it. When she was younger in that small town she grew up in, and set out with so very little, searching to break out of the banality, lethargy, and conformity that was the landscape of her youth (and America) at that time, she looked to live an authentic life in the face of great odds. I think there is no doubt she achieved this, a remarkable thing to do against all odds and a thing, in my view, very few people ever achieve. And what’s more, she knew it, and expressed this to me before she died, although I knew it anyway, it was so indubitable. In this case she was, in her rejection of the conformity, consumerism, banality and complicity of the statistically ‘normal’ life, I would say completely vindicated. On the other hand both of us were revolutionaries in the sense of wanting to help effect, and see a real change in, the trajectory of mass culture, the dominant Western worldview with its shallow consumerism and materialism that has the future of humanity, possibly life itself and the planet in a chokehold. It is fair to say that that never happened, in fact it had gotten way worse by the time she died [1998], and has gotten worse since then. A lot of our work [Plasmatics] was predictive, the songs warnings and premonitions about thigns we saw in the future with their Orwellian, fascistic, environmentally devastating, and robotic de-humanization of people who don’t even seem to know it’s happening , these things have all come true and then some. In this sense, if you imagine that part of Wendy’s raison d’etre was bringing a wake-up call, in that sense I would think you could say that she thought she was defeated. She was not optimistic about the direction people’s consciousness en masse had, and was taking.

K: How can we honour Wendy and her spirit?

RS: Short answer: Enjoy, and celebrate her work. Slightly longer answer: Reject consumerism, conformity, learn to think critically, celebrate diversity and variability. Undermine the status quo!

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This is how I honour her:

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2 thoughts on “Undermining the Status Quo: Wendy O Williams

  1. Great interview, Ive been a PLASMATICS fan since the late 70′s, early 80′s when I first heard “new hope for the wretched” and I heard the song “monkey suit”and I knew I had to follow this awesome band and great singer. The simple lyrics of monkey suit said so much and I liked the fact that conformity was nowhere in Wendys vocabulary and to be a “follower” was not part of her agenda, and NEVER was. There is so much to be said for sticking to your beliefs and despite what the “MORAL MAJORITY” ( too fucking funny) thinks or says, continuing to voice her opinion and the opinions voice was educated to boot! ( a combat boot). So here’s to a great band and their priestess W.O.W, and to all the narrow minded, “in-the-box” thinkers and 9 to 5 “followers”, remember this, ” in your monkey suit you just look like a monkey”!

  2. Chad Metcalfe says:

    Amazing~ I didn’t know anyone else knew of Wendy. There was some big deal in Wis. I think she was arrested for lewd behavior ? ( I believe she faked masturbating w a microphone .
    But Lordy she became the antichrist herself as I recall. Which only made me more fascinated.
    Now I know the truth – that she was an amazing artist , light years ahead of her time.
    Hugely – impressed. Really loved everything about the article:)

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