Punk, Drag, & Christian Death, A Legacy
By Jillian Roberston
Drag icon RuPaul once said, “Drag is punk rock. It’s a big FU to the status quo.” Long before RuPaul’s Drag Race became a global phenomenon, a punk rock musician in Los Angeles was taking that sentiment literally.
Rozz Williams, creator of 80s punk rock band Christian Death, regularly performed in drag and played with androgyny and gender bending throughout his life, before committing suicide in 1998. Rolling Stone described Williams as a “goth pioneer” as well as a forefather of the likes of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor.
Los Angeles gallery owner Danny Fuentes is crowdfunding the release of a new documentary, Spiritual Cramp: A Rozz Williams Story, about Williams and the band, following a launch party earlier this month at his gallery, Lethal Amounts. The launch party for the documentary coincided with Williams’ suicide, 20 years ago this year.
Lethal Amounts is no stranger to showcasing dark, controversial artwork. The gallery self-describes its focus as “subversive and counter culture themes throughout history… the social and artistic value of underground movements… highlighting taboo topics.”
“I want to hone in on the things that seem a little bit alienating or threatening and really sort of shine a light on how beautiful they really are,” said Fuentes.
Genre (and Gender) Bending
Before getting into why Fuentes chose this band as the subject for a documentary… it’s worth noting that it isn’t exactly easy to pinpoint what genre to assign to Christian Death.
Fuentes himself identifies them as a punk band, “too aggressive to be considered post punk,” but then moments later explained that they’re “a few degrees away from heavy metal, but too intricate to be punk.” They’re also “inspired by glam rock,” though their second album “is a lot more what some might consider gothic, heavy on poetry and concept art.” Ultimately, he decided, they’re “a highly developed punk band.”
It may not be Fuentes’s fault that Christian Death is hard to place squarely in a musical genre. I heading to Amoeba to do some outside research, where I found Christian Death filed not in the punk section, but in the rock section. An Amoeba employee explained, “It used to be in our goth-industrial section, but then we just merged that whole section into rock. We kept the purple tag though.”
Hats off to you, Amoeba. Check out purple “Christian Death (Rozz Williams)” in a sea of yellow.
Gotta love that Christian Death is in the same section as Chumbawumba.
Whatever the genre, Christian Death definitely pushed boundaries. Even if their fans weren’t always in on it. “In early Christian Death shows, I’d hear someone go, ‘Damn, that b*tch is ugly,’” said Williams’ then boyfriend, Ron Athey, in a trailer for the film. “It never dawned on the naive, hardcore fans that that could be a drag queen.”
That sentiment makes light of what is perhaps a darker reality. While punk ethos is definitely boundary-pushing and anti-establishment, the hardcore punk scene was not always the safest place for gay performers or artists who performed in drag. “California hardcore was very violent, very alienating, very homophobic,” Fuentes explained.
“They’re playing with bands like Suicidal Tendencies, which is like the most violent band of that era. And here he comes on stage in what would be… for lack of a better way of putting it, it’s drag!”
“I feel like a lot of kids who are very disenchanted [with what punk had become] and just didn’t have anywhere that they belonged to,” said Fuentes. “And that Rozz Williams was going in full drag on stage in front of a whole bunch of straight suburban kids really is a huge statement of just saying, hey I don’t belong either.”
And it wasn’t always the safest or most well-received… Hardcore fans “pay to go see these really aggressive bands and then here comes Rozz Williams in a wedding dress and he’s like shrieking onstage….” One can only imagine how some fans reacted.
A defining aspect of Williams’ performance, explained Fuentes, was the sheer aching need, that he had to do it, had to express himself. “There’s this like almost self destructive thing of just like I might lose my life, but I’d rather do this than not live my life.”
The first showcase Lethal Amounts hosted for Christian Death, five years ago on the 15th anniversary of Williams’ death, was as much a spontaneous memorial for Williams as it was a fan art tribute to the band, something Fuentes said he didn’t anticipate. Avid fans of the band contributed original artwork made by Williams himself, as well as never-before-seen photographs.
One piece of the exhibit had an outsize impact though, Rozz Williams’ personal phone book.
“A lot of people looked through it and they would find their name in there,” said Fuentes.
That was when the seed was planted for the documentary. “This isn’t just a band that I’m into,” Fuentes said. “This is a person who touched a lot of people’s lives.”
Why Christian Death?
With a name like Christian Death, the band could be mistaken for just another shock rock band. But don’t let the name deter you, explained Fuentes. “I kind of feel like every great band is some way or another a shock rock band. From The Doors to Jimi Hendrix, they’re all doing something that was supposed to provoke people and this was the way they [Christian Death] were doing it.”
Ultimately, this is what the showcases at Lethal Amounts and the documentary are all about. “The real thing that inspires me to do a documentary on him is because I do feel that he opened up the doors for a lot of gay kids that couldn’t fit in anywhere else.”
It’s easy to forget today, with terms like gender fluidity entering the common parlance and with episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race being watched by nearly 1 million people… but “35 years ago, [what Williams was doing] was just absolute alien.”
Interested fans can watch the trailer and support the crowdfunding campaign here.