Provocation is cheap these days. Sure, grinding with Robin Thicke or making a political statement at a Super Bowl halftime show might net you some dutiful social media outrage, but it likely won’t get you arrested. That wasn’t always the case. In 1969, Jim Morrison was charged with obscenity and indecent exposure for allegedly unzipping his pants on stage. In 1972, George Carlin was dragged off Milwaukee’s Summerfest stage while performing his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine. Hell, the members of 2 Live Crew were arrested in 1990 for just performing, period. The list goes on.
Then there was punk provocateur Wendy O. Williams, lead singer of the down and dirty Plasmatics. Long before Miley Cyrus won her way into our hearts by licking a sledgehammer in the video for “Wrecking Ball,” Williams was getting roughed up and arrested by Milwaukee police for doing the same thing.
The story is legendary: On January 18, 1981, during a packed Plasmatics show at Milwaukee’s long-defunct Palms nightclub (2616 W. State St.), the 31-year-old Williams got friendly with a heavy-duty wrecking tool and used it to simulate fellatio and masturbation. Unimpressed with Williams’ two-for-one stunt, Milwaukee police officers showed up at the Palms in the early hours of January 19, pinned the singer to the ground outside in the snow, and arrested her on an obscenity charge. Plasmatics manager Rod Swenson, 35, was also arrested for resisting officers and battery to police officers.
There were a host of details that made the incident even more controversial. Among them (via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel):
• Police were likely tipped off by an article that had run in the Milwaukee Sentinel a few days prior.
• Audience members were also arrested on disorderly conduct charges for allegedly throwing objects at police.
• Both Williams and Swenson claimed they were beaten by police—a story the police denied. (“My face is sore, my chest is sore, my arms are sore, I’m sore all over,” Williams told the Milwaukee Journal.) Williams and Swenson’s story was later confirmed when pictures were released of the screaming singer being kicked by police while pinned to the ground.
• While in jail, Williams learned that Swenson was in the hospital. After asking what had happened to him, she was told he had “slipped on the ice.”
• “I was afraid I was dead in Milwaukee,” Williams later told a San Francisco magazine. “I was afraid they were just going to open fire, just start shooting.”
Williams and Swenson went to trial on June 3, 1981. Though the week-long proceedings were filled with lurid details (Williams claimed officers had said “We don’t like your kind here in Milwaukee…I’ll bet you’ve got a weird sex life,”) all charges against Williams were dropped. Swenson was found not guilty of obstructing an officer. Williams later filed a $5.95 million lawsuit against the police officers involved in her arrest, though a jury ruled the officers hadn’t used excessive force.
More than a decade removed from the Milwaukee arrest, Williams died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 6, 1998. She was 48. In a letter left for her longtime companion Swenson, she wrote:
“I don’t believe that people should take their own lives without deep and thoughtful reflection over a considerable period of time. I do believe strongly, however, that the right to do so is one of the most fundamental rights that anyone in a free society should have. For me, much of the world makes no sense, but my feelings about what I am doing ring loud and clear to an inner ear and a place where there is no self, only calm.”