The Wendy O. Williams memorial at CBGB's, May 18, 1998
"What? ... I don't believe it. ... When, why, what happened?"
Over and over I said those words to myself as I slowly absorbed the reality of what I had heard: Wendy O. Williams had committed suicide. I was stunned, heartbroken and at a complete loss as to how I might come to grips with this terrible event. Fortunately, a memorial was planned, and was to take place on May 18 at CBGB's, the club that hosted the Plasmatics' debut some 20 years ago.
The memorial was by invitation only, so I considered myself lucky to have been included. Some 300-plus friends and fans packed the dark and dingy club where Rod Swenson, mastermind of the Plasmatics and Wendy's longtime manager/companion, started the ceremonies with video clips from the earliest days of the band. Included in this first batch was the now infamous "Pier show," where Wendy drives a Cadillac loaded with explosives into the stage, jumping out moments before it becomes a fireball, sending the whole set into the Hudson River. I hadn't seen that video in 17 years--it was great, and it was loud!
Having now set the tone for what was to be an ear-shattering event, Rod again approached the podium and delivered a heartfelt speech about meeting Wendy and about starting the band. He spoke of Wendy's strength and passion as "authentic to the core" and "uncompromising," likening her to a comet that exploded and burned with a remarkable intensity. She was real, walked the walk and, quite frankly, "didn't give a fuck, in technical terms," he said.
I think the nicest thing about his speech, as well as those given by band mates Richie Stotts and Wes Beech, is that the memories were joyous, loving, real--and none of that pious crap that is so frequently heaped upon the deceased, as if they were about to be canonized.
The program continued with another set of videos, and throughout the memorial they were organized chronologically, and/or thematically. Anynumber of live performances of "Tight Black Pants" (and others) were sliced and diced together, as was spectacular footage of the countless cars the band exploded on stage. I loved it!
Other speeches from former Boston radio DJ Oedipus, "Midnight Blue" creator Alex Bennett, and Plasmatics' road manager George Pierson followed, making for an interesting cross section of people Wendy befriended. It was great to hear the different perspectives about her from each of them: ball buster, innocent, tough, tender, etc. They each could have been talking about a different person.
A tribute band called New Hope for the Plasmatics was up next, whipping through a four-song set consisting of covers of some early era material. I liked them. They were fun--it was evident that their hearts were in the right place, even if the performance wasn't. I'm sure Wendy appreciated the effort.
As we coursed through another set of videos, I was once again reminded of how much material Wendy recorded, and how diverse each effort was. From noisy punk to metal to concept album to speed-metal rap, she was way ahead of her time. Unfortunately, she was largely dismissed by the mainstream press until 1985 when she was nominated for a Grammy Award. And although I abhor the Grammies and what they stand for, I was pleased when she received a nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance (of course she didn't win, her album didn't sell enough copies--but I digress). If I'm not mistaken, she is the *only* woman ever to be nominated in that category.
Speaking of Grammies and corporate giants, the next remembrance came from Michael Alago, an A&R person with Elektra Entertainment. Although Wendy never worked with the label, she obviously made an impression on him, a fan from way back, who was thrilled to have had the opportunity to see her tattoos up close and personal in his office.
The musical performance that followed Michael's speech was *so* odd that it was perfect. Anne Ruckert (of T. Rex fame) and her 11-member gospel choir took the stage and performed deliriously upbeat versions of "We Shall Overcome," "Amazing Grace" and "Oh Happy Day." Unexpected and over-the-top, it was quite appropriate for the memorial--and, as Anne said, "Wendy was irreligious, but spiritual. ... Our music is spiritual."
The next video was of a solo Wendy O. performance in London, featuring guests from Motorhead. I started feeling sad--I knew that in terms of the chronology we were quickly approaching the close of the memorial; but nothing could have ever prepared me for what happened next.
One by one Chosei Funahara, Richie Stotts, Wes Beech, Stu Deutsch, Jean Beauvoir and TC Tolliver (I think it was him, as a drummer; he was in back and I couldn't see him clearly) came on stage--it was the *original* Plasmatics line up, plus two later band members. I was speechless. Without a pause, they tore into a six-song set ("Tight Black Pants," "Won't You," "Living Dead," "Sometimes I ...," "Masterplan," "Butcher Baby"), with four of them sharing the duty of singing the lyrics.
Like moths to a flame, audience members rushed the stage cheering, photographing, singing along and jostling for position. It was incredible! Tight as ever, the sound transported me back to 1981--it was magic pure and simple. The intensity, the energy, that wall of sound was there, and at any moment you would have thought Wendy would be, too. But she wasn't.
The single video that ended the memorial could not have been more appropriate: "It's My Life." As the video played, a somber tone swept through the room--not sad necessarily, but reflective. The undercurrent of mourning was charged with the energy of her music--it was that Wendy kind of dichotomy all over again--it was perfect--it was closure.
Fade to black.
+Wendy Orlean Williams+
+May 28, 1949-April 6, 1998+