Before Trent Reznor wanted to fuck you like an animal, and way before Marilyn Manson simulated a bloody abortion onstage, there was Christian Death's Rozz Williams. The gender-bending, drug-fueled, witchcraft-dabbling, poetic hot mess remained an obscure figure outside his own scene, but he served as inspiration for Reznor and Manson, who became household names more than a decade later.
Williams, born from the relentlessly creative, disenfranchised side of Pomona teen Roger Alan Painter, violently rebelled against his conservative Southern Baptist upbringing and the hypocrisy he felt religion and society embodied. In 1979, he spearheaded the creation of death rock, a distant cousin of the U.K.'s Goth scene (Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy) that explored similar doom-and-gloom romanticism, but with added post-punk, guitar-fueled devilish dirge.
“The first record [1982's Only Theatre of Pain] was basically a reaction to things I was hearing from my parents and things I didn't really like when I was hearing what I was hearing, and I thought there were things put in the wrong way,” Williams says in an undated, recorded interview released in 2005. “It was kind of like this fear factor playing a role. So the first record was written in reaction to that and exorcising some of that out of myself.”
Nearly 20 years after the band's first release, at age 34, Williams hanged himself in his West Hollywood apartment on April 1, 1998. He left no suicide note, only 16 years of music and poetry for family, friends and fans to scavenge for clues, of which many were overt.
This weekend, there are two memorials honoring Williams' hedonistic spirit. Burnt Offerings, a Tribute to Rozz Williams, is at the Vex Arts in Los Angeles. Show organizer Killjo Zapata's band the Sacred Spiders will perform, as well as Fangs On Fur, Peeling Grey and They Feed At Night. OC punk legend Rikk Agnew (Adolescents, D.I., Social Distortion), Christian Death's second guitarist, joins Zapata to play songs from Only Theatre of Pain, which he played on.
On Sunday, Christina Death's Skelebration brings to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery “Rozz Williams: Revised, Revisited, Resurrected,” with special guests and spoken word. There will be memorabilia on display at both events.
Fundamentalist Christian groups made no secret of detesting Williams and the band, often staging protests outside Christian Death gigs. The protests only encouraged Williams during his shows.
One of the most infamous stories occurred at the end of the band's set at the Whiskey a Go Go in April 1982. Performance artist, frequent collaborator and Williams' not-so-gentle lover Ron Athey carried a life-sized wooden cross onto the stage, which was strewn with funeral flowers and pieces of concrete tombstones. Athey whipped the loincloth-clad Williams before he was lifted onto the cross. The singer's bloodied palms were tied with white fabric. Incense permeated the air, as even the most liberal-minded, shock-proofed punks watched in horror.
“There was always an envelope, and it was always getting pushed,” says George Belanger, Christian Death's original drummer.
The Christian Death saga started with four artistic, 16-year-old musicians holed up in Williams' childhood bedroom. Bassist James McGearty had met Williams at a club and introduced him to Belanger, a skateboarder who played drums. Williams brought along guitarist John “Jay” Albert. The four met up to compare philosophies, worldviews and musical influences, and then decided to become a band.
Pulling from the Doors, Iron Butterfly, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Black Sabbath, Christian Death combined their rock favorites with atonal riffs à la Black Flag, the Germs and Circle Jerks. “It was just a concept,” Belanger says. “We had a sound and wanted to do something totally different than what everyone else was doing. . . . It probably was a little progressive considering the ages we were.”
After leaving Christian Death, Williams, a prolific lyricist, never stalled for long. The death-rock band Shadow Project, with his former girlfriend Eva O, was the closest to earlier Christian Death. There was Premature Ejaculation with Athey, as well as a cabaret-inspired, musical performance-art project with former Christian Death member Gitane Demone.
Williams' impact on fans continues to grow posthumously. For a decade, Jenn and Dave Bats ran the death-rock night Release the Bats, during which a candle burned for Williams in a makeshift shrine. There's a Rozz Williams Scholar Society Facebook Page, an online Williams forum and a steadfast scene that holds him up as a patron saint of darkness. Why such devotion from fans after all these years?
“I indulge frequently on pondering and contemplating this very subject matter, and I always come up with the same conclusion,” Agnew says, which basically boils down to him not really knowing. “Ask them.”