I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Vocals, Sax, Chainsaw, Sledgehammer: Wendy O Williams

by Sakunthala Panditharatne
Dec. 30, 2011
Wendy O. Williams was a performer like no other. And yes, that is her real name (she often abbreviated it to W.O.W.). As frontwoman of legendary punk band The Plasmatics, her on-stage theatrics included blowing up cars and amplifiers, performing almost nude and, of course, chain-sawing guitars. Nicknamed "The Queen of Shock Rock", W.O.W. was the most radical, notorious and controversial female singer of the 1980s. She didn’t just question taboos, she smashed them. You could argue that W.O.W was really metal -- not punk -- but before W.O.W and The Plasmatics, there was no such thing. 

Like many a great punk band, The Plasmatics began at CGBGs. It was there that W.O.W. would meet her long-time collaborator, Rod Swenson. A Yale-educated conceptual artist, Rod Swenson believed that truest measure of art was its ability to shock and offend. He believed great art was not just subversive, but confrontational. Luckily for him, he was at CGBGs at the right time, the height of the New York punk movement, which allowed him to collaborate with people like Patti Smith and The Ramones. For a few years in the 70s, he would also direct counter-cultural theatre projects. In 1978, he placed an ad in Show Business Weekly for a role in a play hillariously titled Captain Kink's Sex Fantasy Theater. And guess who saw that ad lying on the floor of a New York bus station?

At the age of 16, disgusted by the “hypocritical and repressive” culture surrounding her, W.O.W. walked out of her small hometown in New York. She hitchhiked her way across North America and Europe, working as a macrobiotic cook in London, lifeguard in Florida and a travelling dancer in Eastern Europe. By the time she arrived in New York City, W.O.W. was on the artistic warpath. A bona-fide malcontent, she believed the only real way to live was in complete opposition to the empty, complacent status quo. And Rod Swenson, with his taste for agressive and confrontational art, was her perfect match. They met, they auditioned a few backup musicians and they formed The Plasmatics.

Their favourite targets were consumerism, hypocrisy and sexism. When The Plasmatics blew up speaker cabinets, sledgehammered television sets, or detonated a car live on stage, they were destroying symbols of American consumerism. They were sending an angry message to the suburban culture that W.O.W. had so eagerly escaped. When she sawed a guitar in half, nobody could think of her as a passive or submissive woman, and yet, when W.O.W. shaved her hair into a mohawk, she was met with shock and awe. At the time, there were no women in the public eye with mohawks, and most people had never seen a woman with a mohawk before. “I want say 'Fuck You!' to all the cosmetics companies.” said W.O.W.

Maybe it was their music, more likely it was their mind-blowing on-stage antics, but by 1979, The Plasmatics had made it. They headlined at London’s Palladium Theatre at full ticket prices, the first band in history to do so without a major label recording contract. To the delight of their fans, they blew up a car onstage. (After that, they were banned from London). The Plasmatics returned to New York and remained sought-after until their break-up in 1983.

W.O.W. pursued a solo career for a while, but eventually retired from music and adopted a cleaner lifestyle. She and Rob Swenson moved to Connecticut in 1991, where she started working for a natural foods co-op and became a health food advocate. She also did a bit of acting, appearing once on an episode of MacGyver. Later she worked rehabilitating animals. In 1998, at the age of 48, she died by self-inflicted gunshot wound. “She was at home in the peak of her career, but found the more ordinary 'hypocrisies of life', as she called them, excruciatingly hard to deal with.” said Rob Swenson.

Over 10 years after her death, she still remains a punk rock legend, an example of bold non-conformity and radical uniqueness. Who wouldn’t want to rock with W.O.W., the High Priestess of Metal? 

Sakunthala Panditharatne is a maths student and pseudo-Bohemian loser. She spends maybe 80-90% of her time programming, writing and starting awesome projects, like her tumblr, theimaginaryhackathon.tumblr.com . The rest of the time she spends watching Malcolm in the Middle. She likes long, complicated novels and believes in the power of self-organization. Dave Eggers used to be her hero, but she’s kind of past that phase now.