Behind the leather and chain saws, a punk princess with a sweet side.
By Wendy O. Williams
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Long before Madonna and Courtney Love pushed limits, there was Wendy O. Williams, lead singer of the '80s punk band the Plasmatics. But beneath the platinum Mohawk and taped‑over nipples lurked a much tamer soul. "When people met her offstage, they couldn't believe it," said her longtime boyfriend and manager Rod Swenson. "She was very sweet and shy... very vulnerable and so sensitive."
Maybe too sensitive. On April 6, 1998, Swenson discovered the 48‑year‑old singer dead from a self‑inflicted gunshot wound. The onetime Queen of Shock Rock, who had attempted suicide twice before, left behind a note that read, "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."
Life was rarely calm for Williams, a wild‑child teen who found her calling in 1978, when Swenson created the Plasmatics around her. Known for—among other antics—shredding guitars onstage with a chain saw, she recorded four albums and earned a Grammy nomination before quitting in 1988. Williams later became a wildlife animal rehabilitator but remained unfulfilled. "She tried to hang on," says Swenson. "I was constantly telling her to please not go. Finally, she would say, 'I just need to go. It's better for me to go now.’"