The best thing about having your own column is that once in a great while, you can sneak in one just for yourself. And this is the one, because April 1, 2013, marked the 15th anniversary of the passing of musician Rozz Williams, whom I believe to be one of the most pivotal figures in American gothic and dark alternative music. As I write this, it’s just a few days until April. Where are the hagiographies, the feature articles, the blog posts, the deluxe reissue campaigns, and the tearful tributes?
Williams was front man for Christian Death (a play on words on “Christian Dior”) in the early Eighties, at the age of 16. Imagine it, three awkward adolescent zombies sporting unfortunate makeup and wardrobe choices and a gorgeous, indeterminate creature of a front man who was simply a teenage nightmare. Christian Death was the type of band that made you wonder if perhaps Tipper Gore and Geraldo Rivera didn’t have a point, after all. Williams built the template for American gothic music and deathrock, spawning a legion of imitators along the way (not least of which would be Marilyn Manson and Cradle of Filth), and then abandoned it by the time he was just legally old enough to drink.
The grand experiment
As a member of experimental agitators like Premature Ejaculation and EXP, Williams was an early proponent of what would later be known as noise music. (Much early P.E. material is being reissued by Maiaise Music but is recommended only for the very adventurous.) Williams also led deathrock supergroup Shadow Project alongside punk heroine Eva O, Jill Emery from Hole, and keyboardist Paris, recording several albums that were total head trips. He also released spoken-word solo albums that were disorienting tributes to heroes like William Burroughs, an album of glam rock as Daucus Karota with Iggy Pop/David Bowie sideman Hunt Sales, and a series of torchy duets with singer Gitane Demone called Dream Home Heartache, which is on Music for the Masses’ short list of top ten albums of all time. The shadowy circumstances surrounding his death (manyrumors, but the only truth known is that he hanged himself on April Fools’ Day) only fueled a mystique upon which the mainstream has yet to pick up.
Hidden treasures abound as one sorts through his discography. Here are a few that deserve a second (and third) look. Warning: So much really great music (and video) is hopelessly out of print, but many of the best items are still with us.
Christian Death. Only Theatre of Pain. 1982. Frontier Records.
The trailblazing debut. Several juvenile delinquents steal their mothers’ makeup and a burnout uncle’s David Bowie records and make a dark and unholy racket that will be a rallying cry for misunderstood youth for decades.
Christian Death. Ashes; Catastrophe Ballet. 1985; 1984. Seasons of Mist Records.
With these two albums, and a series of rapidly shifting lineups, Rozz Williams solidified his (and his band’s) reputation as gothic purveyors par excellence. Ironically, Williams would leave the band after these two albums, with the sidemen carrying on to rapidly diminishing returns.
Shadow Project. Dreams for the Dying. 1992. Triple X Records.
At the height of the alternative rock “revolution,” Williams and Eva O returned with the ultimate downer: deathrock, industrial, prog rock, punk rock, and chamber music colliding into a strange brew indeed.
Rozz Williams & Gitane Demone. Dream Home Heartache. 1995. Triple X Records.
Even within the morose annals of gothic music, this is probably Williams’s most melancholic moment yet. A series of piano-based duets with Demone, they cover Jimi Hendrix and Roxy Music and wallow in a glamorous, European sensibility of decay and loss.
Shadow Project. From the Heart. 1998. Hollows Hill Records.
Just months before his death, Williams and ex-wife Eva O released this set of classic Shadow Project material stripped down to just acoustic guitar and vocal duets. The results are heartbreaking.
Christian Death. Death Club: The Best of Rozz Williams, 1981–1993. 2005. Cleopatra.
Owing to messy rights issues, there’s never been (and most likely won’t be for a long time) the definitiveChristian Death retrospective, but this CD/DVD combo is a good survey of their Rozz-centric work in the meantime.
Christian Death. Live. DVD. 1993. MVD Visual.
Though the cover, menu, and all of the “extras” are beyond inept, this video captures a 1993 reunion show put on by (most of the) original members of Christian Death. The results are absolutely electrifying. They look great, they sound great, and they just tear through the theater. Along similar lines is the Shadow Project documentary, And Then There Was Death (2008).