By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
On April Fools’ Day 1998, Rozz Williams was found dead of a suicide in his West Hollywood apartment. At 34, Williams had become the unofficial dark knight of Southern California, his dramatic vocals and androgynous attire sparking a host of imitators; the loss is one still felt across Los Angeles and beyond, with multiple tribute Web sites, memorial club nights and a host of lovingly penned MySpace messages eulogizing the artist upon the recent 10-year anniversary of his passing.
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The Christian Death founder remains an obscure figure outside of the gothic underworld.
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Douglas Halbert, as BIRTH! (Later he will roll around in Fruit Loops.)
“He didn’t write music for the times, he wrote music just for the sake of writing music, for being heard,” says Jen O’Cide of the group Cemetery Whispers.
That urge sprouted at an early age. In the midst of punk’s aftermath, Pomona-bred teenager Roger Alan Painter changed his name to Rozz Williams and founded Christian Death, a band that slowed guitars down to a Black Sabbath dirge (at a time when hardcore riffs were speeding across the region) and created imagery that was simultaneously somber and extravagant.
“We saw about two dozen kids show up to go to a funeral. They lined the stage with flowers and stuff and they went up there and they started playing,” recalls Rikk Agnew, who was with the Adolescents when he first witnessed the band. “I thought that was the bitchinest thing I’d ever seen.”
Not surprisingly, Agnew joined Christian Death after leaving the Adolescents and played guitar on the group’s 1982 debut album, Only Theatre of Pain, helping to create a style that was, he says, “as spooky as it looked.”
And so a movement emerged. Known as death rock, this form of post punk, identifiable by its deeply brooding guitars and tribal rhythms, developed in Los Angeles at the same time the U.K. was going gothic. Christian Death wasn’t the only proponent of the style — bands like Super Heroines, 45 Grave, Kommunity FK and Voodoo Church certainly made their own marks — but Williams became the scene star for decades to come. As former collaborator Christian Omar Madrigal Izzo notes, Williams was “built like Prince,” slight of frame and graceful, cutting an exquisite figure both onstage and oncamera. He was an improviser, known to forgo practices and sound checks to simply let the music happen. Most importantly, though, he was prolific, sinuously moving between musical, spoken-word and visual-art endeavors. As a musician, Williams’ associations were numerous and varied. He formed Shadow Project with Super Heroines leader Eva O — to whom he was married — after leaving Christian Death, created electronic noise as Premature Ejaculation and, in later years, recorded a cabaret-influenced album with former Christian Death member Gitane Demone.
“His contribution to the world has always been grand,” says Eva, who, along with Agnew and Izzo, recently concluded a yearlong stint as C.D. 1334, playing concerts in honor of the 25th anniversary of Only Theatre of Pain.
Perhaps because of his need for constant creative change, Williams remains an obscure figure outside of the gothic underworld. The press he garnered was limited to genre-oriented magazines and a handful of alternative-minded publications. His recorded work was often hard to find outside of big-city record shops, and his live performances were typically confined to goth clubs, even when his latest projects were far removed from the scene he begat.
“He wasn’t allowed to grow. He was typecast,” Izzo says. “It was difficult for him. Every record he did was a different concept, a different direction and a different sound.”
Ten years later, Williams’ iconoclastic spirit has manifested in Los Angeles in an unexpected way, as a new school of artists is twisting their own shadows. Be certain, though, this is not music formed from Halloween-shaped cookie cutters.
“It’s very easy for a lot of bands who play in the circles we do to adhere to stereotypes, and we are really trying to avoid that,” says Steven James of Disco Hospital, which features members of popular goth bands Scarlet’s Remains and All Gone Dead. Instead, the new dark age is focused on experimentation, a need to stay rooted in the present. These are bands often overlooked and misunderstood, not just by the indie rock establishment, but also by the still-breathing gothic underground. But with three monthly parties — Release the Bats and Bats over Broadway in Long Beach and M/R/X/-Wolfpak in Chinatown — a slew of L.A.-based festival shows, such as Wake the Dead at Safari Sam’s on April 26; the magazine Drop Dead; and Thin Man Entertainment’s forthcoming Bats From America CD compilation, this is certainly evolving into a scene in its own right.
Inside the Long Beach bar Que Sera, a picture of Williams is placed on the mantel, surrounded by candles and other embellishments. On the fourth Friday of every month, he looks down on the tightly packed crowd, a mix of ex-goths who still love the music even though they now wear jeans, and newly legal drinkers dressed in ragtag ensembles of lace, velvet and fishnet, as they gather for Release the Bats.