Ten years after her cult shock-punk band's last tour, Plasmatics' lead singer Wendy O. Williams has died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Williams' longtime companion and onetime manager found her body in the woods just outside of their Storrs, Conn., home on Monday. Williams was 48.
Williams, who pursued a solo career after the Plasmatics's 1982 swansong Coup d'Etat, was nominated for a Grammy in 1985 for best Female Rock Vocal. She had also dabbled in both film and television acting (Reform School Girls in 1986 and McGyver in 1990), but had dropped out of the public eye in recent years and had been working as an animal rehabilitator. In an Associated Press report, manager Rod Swenson said that Williams had found it difficult to live a normal life past her peak and had been despondent for a long time.
"This was something she had planned," Swenson said. "It was no spur-of-the-moment thing."
The Plasmatics debuted their hybrid of punkish heavy metal and performance art at New York's infamous CBGB in 1978. Swenson, a Yale grad who dubbed himself "Captain Kink" and produced live sex shows in the '70s as well as videos for Patti Smith and the Ramones, dreamed of starting his own band and picked Williams, one of his stars, to front it.
From the beginning, the focus of the Plasmatics' act was on Williams, who would use sledgehammers and chainsaws to wreak genuine havoc on television sets, guitars and, most memorably, Cadillac Coupe de Villes. Williams' simulated sex acts and provocative partial nudity -- as well as the band's mohawks, hair dyes, nurses' outfits, ballet tutus and songs about sex, violence and fast food -- rounded out the Plasmatics experience. The package garnered a healthy dose of media attention, a cult following, modest album sales and the title "queen of shock rock" for Williams.
Predictably, the no-holds barred stage antics also drew multiple obscenity charges for Williams, who was arrested on January 18, 1981 in Milwaukee and the following night in Cleveland. Williams and Swenson were also charged with battery and resisting arrest the first night, when, according to witnesses, Williams slapped an officer after she was grabbed in a sexually abusive way. Williams and Swenson were taken to a hospital after the resulting fracas (both claimed to have been abused by the arresting officers.) Williams and Swenson later sued but lost their case.
In the aftermath of the arrests, Williams remained a vocal advocate of her rights to self expression.
"Using sex to create the law is so stupid, and I'm not the kind of person who walks the middle of the line," Williams said in a 1981 Rolling Stone interview. "We're not out to pick fights. But then the essence of what we do is shaking up the middle class; I think if you don't do that with your music, you're just adding to the noise pollution."
Williams, who was raised on a farm in Upstate New York and ran away from home at 16, is survived by her mother and two sisters.