Remembering Wendy O. Williams, Chainsaw Princess who became the Queen of Shock Rock

By on May 29, 2017

Sunday, May 28, 2017, would have been Wendy O. Williams’ 68th birthday, so we thought remember her today and direct your attention to her Night Flight Video Profile, which featured the Plasmatics’ music videos for “The Damned,” and “It’s My Life, written by KISS‘s Gene Simmons. Our profile of the Queen of Shock Rock originally aired on September 20, 1985, and you can watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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Pat Prescott introduces us to the Chainsaw Princess this way:

“In 1978, former Times Square live sex show queen Wendy O. Williams came to public attention as leader of the Plasmatics, the only sex & violence-touting heavy metal band to emerge from New York’s underground punk scene.”

During our 1980s run on the USA cable TV network, Williams appeared several times on “Night Flight” and also on our “Radio 1990” segments — she was one of our favorites — and she even guest-hosted an episode of the latter show too, interviewing Tommy Lee and Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe back in 1985, at the time they were in our New York studio, promoting their third album, Theatre of Pain.

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Years before she was the envelope-pushing frontwoman… before going on to become a feminist punk rock icon who was always in charge of the way she portrayed her own sexuality… before she paved the way with her patented performance art/punk-cum-metal mayhem which others then tried to replicate themselves… before all of that, Wendy O. Williams already seemed like she like she was living life at full-throttle, with at least one finger on a self-destruct trigger.

Wendy Orlean Williams was born on May 28, 1949, in Rochester, New York, moving with her parents at age four to the village of Webster, some fifteen miles northeast of Rochester, located up in a corner of mostly rural Monroe County.

The only other rock celeb from Webster that we know about is Louis Andrew Grammatico, better known as Lou Gramm, the lead singer of Foreigner; he was born a year after Williams, and although we’ve never read that their paths ever crossed, the tiny hamlet’s population was small enough that it’s likely they may have known one another (doubtful that they listened to each other’s albums, though).

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Williams’ parents — her dad was an Eastman Kodak chemist, and mom was a housewife — were both very strict with Wendy and her two sisters, and they recognized early on that Wendy sometimes liked to be the center of attention.

Others who knew her then remember her as being very shy and speaking so softly that they had to lean in towards her to be able to hear what she was saying.

Wendy was given tap-dancing lessons and when she was either six or seven (sources vary) she ended up winning a local tap dance competition and scored a free trip to New York City to appear in the “Peanut Gallery” on NBC’s kiddie program “The Howdy Doody Show,” which had begun broadcasting in color in 1955.

In a fascinating profile of Wendy O. Williams that was published in the July 25, 1983 edition of People magazine (which we still can’t imagine reading in a dentist office waiting room), Williams said that she always felt misunderstood by her parents, who she refers to as “cocktail zombies.”

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She was an average student who played clarinet in the junior high band — she even won a scholarship to study clarinet for six months at the prestigious Community Music School program of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music — but music wouldn’t truly become a big part of her life until much later.

She also described how other kids made fun of her “birdlike figure and hand-me-down clothes,” and that was one reason she ended up becoming an animal lover, bringing home strays — from wounded birds to raccoons — and caring for them in their backyard, which was spread across four acres.

“The thing about animals,” she told People, “…is that they don’t judge you. They accept you the way you are.”

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She was kicked out of the Brownies — they told her that she wasn’t Girl Scout material — for flirting with boys on a canoe trip, but otherwise led what seems to have been a fairly normal childhood, even though, in the People profile, she described herself as “…an outcast, a loner,” saying “I never felt like I fit.”

She began showing signs of rebelliousness as she entered her difficult teen years, which is described in People as being filled with “drugs and furious sex.”

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By the time she was a high school sophomore at R. L. Thomas High School, she was dying her brown hair platinum blonde, and staying away from home from several nights in a row. Her parents grew more and more frustrated with her.

Then, at age fifteen, she was arrested for sunbathing in the nude at a state park south of Rochester, and that same year, she decided she didn’t want to be a virgin anymore, so she went to a bar and picked up a guy who she fucked in what she says was more like an “act of mutiny.”

Not too long after that, at age sixteen and with troubles and tensions at home likely reaching their peak, she quit school in her junior year (later passing the equivalency tests to earn her diploma) and ran away from her upstate home.

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She hitchhiked her way to Boulder, Colorado, where she camped outside the town in a tent. She made and sold beaded necklaces, worked part-time at a Dunkin’ Donuts, experimented with LSD and mescaline, and began dabbling in Far Eastern religions.

She then hitchhiked down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she slept on the beach and sold string bikinis that she crocheted herself (no doubt modeling them too). She also sold handmade macramé, hanging plants and vitamins, and worked as both a lifeguard and sailing instructor.

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Her next move was in 1974, when she exiled herself off for Europe, where she drifted about, from country to country.

She ended up bartending in an Amsterdam bar, and worked as a macrobiotic cook in London, before joining a traveling gypsy dance troupe, with whom she ended up developing a bizarre original dance that involved a six-foot Buddha.

She was arrested for shoplifting while she was in England, and spent a night in an Italian jail for unintentionally passing counterfeit money. She also studied with a guru in the Himalayas.

By 1976, she was heading back to the U.S., and to New York City, where she ended up renting a roach-filled room in a seedy Times Square hotel, trying to figure out what to do next.

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She would eventually ended up living in an empty apartment in lower Manhattan, although she didn’t end up owning much more than a hot plate — she didn’t have a telephone or furniture to sit on or a bed to sleep in, and she certainly never owned a closet full of dresses.

Williams would end up answering and ad she saw in a discarded show business magazine, left laying open on the floor of the Port Authority Bus Terminal station.

The ad was was a casting call for a “performance artist” dancer that would be acting out scripted sex fantasies at Captain Kink’s Sex Fantasy Theatre, which was located on 42nd Street near Eighth Avenue.

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“Captain Kink” was none other than Rod Swenson, a radical NYC-born conceptual artist and underground music promoter who, at the time, was making vacuum-formed hot molded art pieces in his studio by day, and running his surreal experimental erotic theatre in Times Square by night.

It turned out that Swenson and Williams had a lot in common with each other, two former hippies who had found themselves back in NYC, just as the punk explosion was starting to happen in Manhattan and on the Bowery.

Swenson had already studied art, earning a scholarship to the Brooklyn Museum and studying at the Art Students League as a teenager before heading off to Colorado, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree before returning in the last Sixties to the east coast to get a masters in fine art at Yale University.

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Swenson also had others passion, including health food, and granola in particular. With his vacuum-packaging machine, he began mass-producing the Good Shepherd brand granola and selling the packages to supermarkets on the east coast (he was the very first to do so).

Granola sales ended up making him a very rich man by the age of twenty-two, and that led to magazine articles being written about him being a successful “hippie capitalist.”

Before moving to NYC, however, Swenson had sold off his granola business for a huge profit and joined the Sunshine Park nudist camp in New Jersey, a community built around the health aspects of nudism, aspects of which he then brought back to the NYC experimental theater scene.

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Wendy O. Williams had shown up at his Times Square theatre with a small suitcase, and everything she owned was in it, including a gold Buddha under her arm. She auditioned for Swenson, dancing to an instrumental version of “Foxy Lady” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but with her own voice on the tape.

Swenson didn’t initially know what to do with her — he was intrigued by Wendy’s “Buddha” dance,” though — but knew he had to hire her, and after did, he found out that she was very creative, and had all kinds of ideas about the fantasy productions and the costumes the girls could wear.

They ended up falling for each other, becoming lifelong partners.

“Rod was the first person who didn’t try to change me,” she would tell People in 1983.

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On stage, Wendy O. Williams mostly played the role of a fierce dominatrix, but it was all an act, of course; in the Plasmatics, she would later appear in some of her other onstage costumes, as a nurse or wearing short little Catholic school girl skirts.

Another of her regular routines, by the way, was the famous “ping pong ball show” that was frequently put on display in strip clubs for foreign sex tourists in places like Bangkok, Thailand — that’s where a woman with very strong inner-thigh muscles lays on her back and shoots ping pong balls out of her vagina to the amusement of the drunken patrons.

Sometime in 1978, Williams would even end up performing this neat trick on camera for an X-rated adult film, Candy Goes to Hollywood, for a sequence called “The Dong Show,” a parody of the then-popular TV show, The Gong Show.” The film was released the following year.

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Wendy doing her ping pong ball act in Candy Goes To Hollywood, during a parody of TV’s “The Gong Show,”

It had been a year earlier, though, in 1977, when Williams and Swenson were in a taxi cab together, and he heard her singing an old Bessie Smith tune, “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” that Swenson got the idea to form a punk band that he would manage, with Williams as their lead singer.

Her voice — a gutteral punkish snarl most of the time — would have been just as perfect for singin’ the blues had they chosen to go that way instead.

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“I always knew I had a message,” Wendy O. Williams would tell People in ’83, “but I didn’t know what it was.”

That band — the Plasmatics (or sometimes just Plasmatics) — would end up making their onstage debut one hot sticky summer night, on July 26, 1978, at the punk and New Wave mecca CBGBs.

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Swenson had already been a regular at CBGB’s, shooting videos of the bands who graced the stage there, like the Ramones, Blondie and the Dead Boys, and he’d already been asked to manage a number of bands but hadn’t seen any yet that he felt were worth his time and effort.

He really wanted to have a hand in created a new band from scratch, from the ground up, designing their stage show and maybe even co-writing songs with them, and he hadn’t met the right person to start that project with until Wendy O. Williams came into his life.

She started going with him to rock clubs while he was shooting videos of some of these other bands.

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Wendy on the cover of the Canadian Music magazine Hot Wacks, Winter 1979.

Williams created an entire persona for her onstage self, initially billing herself as “The American Dream Girl Gone Nightmare,” although she later had to kick it up a notch, performance-wise, because people kept treating her, in her words, like “a blonde pea-brain,” and just a pair of “tits and ass,” when she — and Swenson — both knew she was much more than that.

For the band’s lead guitarist, the Plasmatics found 6-ft. 7-inch Richie Stotts, who, like Wendy, would soon be sporting a dyed-blonde Mohawk, which was kept in place with lots of Aqua-net. Stotts would not only shave his own hair into a Mohawk too but also start wearing women’s clothing.

Stotts would write most of the band’s guitar-heavy punk-infused metal songs, including “Butcher Baby” (which was the band’s first single), “Monkey Suit” and “Living Dead,”all heavy riffed, violence-drenched tunes that were often coupled with a forceful anti-authoritarian message too.

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The focus was mainly placed on their live concerts, and mostly on Wendy O. Williams, who had once described herself as a “marginal nymphomaniac and terminal exhibitionist.”

As you can see in just about every photo here, she often performed topless, with black electrical tape over her nipples (in order to to comply with, as well as mock, local indecent-exposure statutes) bringing punk outrageousness and nudie theatre naughtiness one step closer together.

Williams constantly upstaged the rest of the original lineup of the band — Wes Beech (rhythm guitar), Jean Beauvoir (bass) and Stu Deutsch (drums, synth-drums) — who combined together created a volatile mix of noise, sex and violence, a sound described in our Video Profile by Pat Prescott as being both “high decibel” and “beyond the limit.”

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You can see some of the band’s earliest club performances in a DVD that was shot by Swenson at various venues between 1978 and 1981.

Thanks to our friends at Dangerous Minds, we have this rare clip of the band’s very first show — at CBGB’s on July 26, 1978 — and, as you will see, neither Wendy O. Williams or Richie Stotts have yet had their hair cut into Mohawks.

NOTE: The first thirty seconds of the clip are black filmstock, and the song doesn’t start until about the 00:33 second mark.

Within just a few months, they were one of the first unsigned bands to sell out the 3300-capacity Palladium venue in New York City, and as their stage shows got bigger, they became more comedically violent, and soon were demolishing stacks of televisions with sledgehammers and Wendy O. Williams, in particular, had a penchant for cutting guitars into pieces with a chainsaw.

The fact that the Plasmatics frequently exploded cars live onstage too ended up getting them banned in some American cities, although the band — and Wendy, in particular — never shied away from their apocalyptic doomsday destructo scenarios, no matter if it ended scaring concert promoters into cancelling their shows.

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In September of 1980, the Plasmatics thrilled a crowd of twelve thousand, and got plenty of media coverage too, when they drove a 1972 Cadillac Coupe de Ville onto an exploding stage on Pier 62.

The couple who sold them the Caddy told the band they weren’t too comfortable selling it to the Plasmatics knowing it was bound to die a violent death (“Everything must die,” Wendy told them, “but your car will be immortalized”).

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Wendy O. Williams leapt out of the car just moments before it exploded and plunged into the Hudson River, just as she would leap from the roof of a school bus seconds before it crashed through a pyramid-like wall of a hundred shitty TV sets in the band’s fire-soaked video for their song called “The Damned.”

Their stage show continued to grow in size, and usually their stage was also decorated with the decaying carcass of some unimaginably enormous beast, not to mention a blood-spattered drum kit, and a banner bearing the slogan “New Hope for the Wretched” was draped behind them.

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That slogan, by the way, would also become the name of their debut album, New Hope for the Wretched, which was produced by Jimmy Miller and released on October 2, 1980, by England’s Stiff Records, whose own company slogan seemed perfectly matched to fit with the Plasmatics: “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t work a fuck.”

The cover photo, incidentally, featured another destroyed Cadillac, this one drowned in a swimming pool (the Cadillac being the band’s status symbol sedan of choice to destroy).

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In January of 1981, their raucous onstage reputation began to lead to legal problems for the band, when Wendy O. Williams was arrested after the Plasmatics’ concert in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on obscenity charges, for suggestively simulating masturbating with a microphone and a sledgehammer.

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The Milwaukee cops were, no surprise, rather rough with her too, and Williams ended up slapping one of them, which then led to her being bloodied and beaten up by several of his cop buddies.

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Wendy O. Williams was charged with battery and resisting arrest, but the charges were later dropped; she later filed a $4.5 million civil suit against the cop involved but she was unsuccessful in getting the boys in blue to pay for their crimes.

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Wendy O. Williams and Rod Swenson appear in court in January 1981 (photo by Andree Peyrot /Milwaukee Journal)

Then, just a few days after the Milwaukee incident, she was busted again, this time in Cleveland, Ohio, on another obscenity charge, for acting in a “lewd” manner and simulating sex onstage while wearing only shaving cream on her tits (she subsequently covered her nipples with black electrical tape to avoid arrest, a look she continued to use thereafter).

She was later acquitted of those charges by a bemused jury who realized that it was all an “act,” all good clean dirty fun.

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In November ’81 — the same month that she appeared on the cover of the High Society porn mag — Wendy O. Williams was also warned by a judge in Chicago, who sentenced her to one year supervision and fined her $35 after she punched a freelance photographer who had tried to take her photograph while she was out for a morning jog along the Chicago lakefront (Williams stayed in shaped by reportedly run six miles a day, in addition to a heavy weight lifting regimen).

Wendy O Williams says what needs to be said about the dangers of venereal disease in this rare PSA from television station U68.

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The publicity regarding Williams’ legal problems had the unexpected consequence of raising her public profile considerably, and the band’s notoriety ended up leading to all kinds of nationwide TV appearances too, including an appearance the short-lived ABC series “Fridays,” a kind of “Saturday Night Live”-style knock off that featured tons of great bands.

On May 20, 1981, they made an appearance on Tom Snyder’s late night talk show, “Tomorrow,” where the band blew up another car and performed two songs, “Head Banger” and “Master Blast.” Snyder said later that he “didn’t get it.”

On October 14, 1981, they even made an appearance on TV’s great sketch comedy show “SCTV,” on a recurring skit called “Fishin’ Musician” which parodied typically-dull outdoorsy TV shows with added appearances by rock bands of one stripe or another.

In the skit, the Plasmatics joked around with bearded comedian/actor John Candy after “parachuting” into the Melonville forest to set up camp, while a character named Chef Marcel cooked for them. They later performed their latest single, “The Doom Song,” and redecorated a ski lodge.

Studio execs had decided they would not air Williams’ performance unless she changed out of her costume that revealed her exposed nipples, but Williams refused, and so the show’s make-up artists found a quick compromise by painting her tits black.

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The year 1981 also saw the release of two new Plasmatics records, the album Beyond the Valley of 1984 — which featured an exploded Cadillac on its cover, burning up in the Arizona desert — and an EP, Metal Priestess, which saw the band moving more and more away from punk, evolving from raw punk to more-complex hard rock and thrash-rock.

The original lineup of the Plasmatics would put out their final album in 1983, called Coup D’Etat, but it turned out that their career as a band was going to be relatively short-lived.

Williams began focusing on a solo career, and even recorded a country-ish duet of Tammy Wynette’s hit “Stand By Your Man” with Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead.

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Williams, meanwhile, also continued to appear on magazine covers. In July of 1984, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Kerrang!, the British heavy-metal music magazine, and the same month, she was also featured on the cover of Vegetarian Times.

That same year, 1984, Wendy O. Williams released her first solo album, WOW this one arriving on Passport Records and produced by none other than KISS’s Gene Simmons, who also plays bass on the album but is curiously credited as Reginald Van Helsing.

In addition to members of the Plasmatics, Simmons’ fellow KISS members Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, Eric Carr, and Vinnie Vincent also performed on the album, appearing under their own names (the Plasmatics had opened for KISS on the band’s 1982 tour, and the two bands had remained friends and colleagues for years).

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The album, somewhat surprisingly, would earn her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, but the album was deemed a commercial disappointment, selling just 70,000 copies and failing to break her out in the mainstream as a solo artist.

Her 1986 follow-up album, Kommander of Kaos, fared little better.

In 1987, she and a new lineup of Plasmatics — Williams, guitarist Wes Beech, Chris Romanelli (bass, keyboards) and Ray Callahan (drums) — got back together to make one last record, a sci-fi concept album called Maggots: The Record, described as “a thrash-rock opera about the development of trash-eating insects that escalate an ecological nightmare.”

When it also flopped, sales-wise — even though Kerrrang! called the album “a work of genius” — Williams basically decided to stop making music.

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Well, almost. For her third solo studio album — which would end up being the last album she ever recorded, coming out in 1988 — Wendy O. Williams and Rod Swenson tried their hand at making a rap record, Deffest! And Baddest! released under the name Ultrafly and the Hometown Girls.

Perhaps the less said about that one the better (the album cover didn’t even feature Wendy, and instead featured a peeled banana, and not even a very big banana at that).

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During the later half of the Eighties, Wendy also tried her hand again at acting, appearing in a theatre production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” as well as making her real onscreen debut in Tom DeSimone’s film Reform School Girls (1986), for which she recorded the title song (the film doesn’t feature any ping pong balls, though).

It’s a Night Flight fave, by the way.

She also appeared in the cleverly-titled Pucker Up and Bark Like a Dog, which was released to theaters in 1990, and she also made guest appearances on the TV series “The New Adventures of Beans Baxter,” and an episode of the original “McGyver” show.

Offstage, Williams’ life was, by most accounts, quite different than the persona she’d developed for all those manic on-stage displays of rock aggression and pure punkitude.

In fact, she was always described by those who knew her best as very shy, and totally devoted to her own self-improvement, to eating and living healthy.

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Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics at the Ritz, New York City, June 14, 1980 (photo by Bob Gruen)

She also spent much of her free time devoted to personal causes, most of the causes having to do with caring for animals, and she regularly contributed to several animal-protection and environmental funds.

She was noted for refusing to wear makeup manufactured by companies that use animals for laboratory experimentation.

As you might expect, she was also a longtime vegetarian for most of her adult life, and promoters had always been instructed to stock her dressing rooms with the foods that she wanted to eat before her concerts: alfalfa sprouts, tofu and honey.

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She became very outspoken about the hidden danger of too much sugar in American food too, even having an empty Coca Cola bottle that she found in her dressing room in Philadelphia removed from the premises because she felt it carried “bad karma.”

She didn’t allow processed meat or white bread in the band’s dressing room either.

She ultimately got rid of most of her own bad vices, too. Before the 1980s were over, she had given up drinking alcohol, and even quit smoking — her dressing room, incidentally, was noted for being off-limits to anyone who smoked — and she also eventually gave up taking all drugs, even aspirin.

She turned instead to regular exercising. She jogged, swam regularly and apparently lifted weights for ten to twelve hours each week.

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In 1991, Wendy O. Williams and Rod Swenson moved to their new home in Storrs, in northeastern Connecticut, a dreary state university town, where she devoted her energies to animal rehabilitation and promoting vegetarianism.

She got herself a couple of jobs there including working as a veterinarian assistant –as an animal rehabilitator — at the Quiet Corner Wildlife Center, as well as a job working at a health food co-op, helping customers make healthy food choices.

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After she had retired from the music business, however, she struggled to find a way to “fit in” again. After everything she’d been through, she found it difficult to lead what she thought was a “normal” life.

She was quite sure she didn’t want to continue to be an old “auntie” for young punks who wanted her to forever be the Wendy O. Williams who chainsawed guitars and cars.

She also struggled with deep depression, which had been a lifelong problem (according to some).

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On Monday, April 6, 1998, she walked out of the back of her home in Storrs, into the woods, and shot herself in the head with a handgun, shattering the complacent quiet of the day. She was just 48 years old.

She’d put a bag over her head so that when Swenson found her — there among the animals that she fed and loved — he wouldn’t have to see the full horror of her suicide.

On a nearby rock, Swenson found broken nutshells: she had evidently been feeding the nuts to squirrels before turning the gun on herself.

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She’d left a series of suicide notes in their home which confirmed that for many years she’d been contemplating taking her life — and indeed she had tried to commit suicide a couple of times previously, it turned out — all of which detailed her state of mind for those who wanted to know why she would take such a fatal step:

The act of taking my own life is not something I am doing without a lot of thought. 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.

She signed that note “Love always, Wendy.”

Another note Swenson found read, simply: “I die with a clean warm feeling like the sun and water we shared together as when birds fly or fish swim.”

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Watch our Wendy O. Williams Video Profile, which originally aired on September 20, 1985. It’s now streaming for our subscribers over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • John

    I miss Wendy.