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Long Live the King

Rozz Williams, the king of death rock, hanged himself in 1998.

I read about it in the newspaper with my morning coffee and I cried. Not so much for the influential cult figure and Christian Death front man adored by black-clad fans throughout the world, but for Roger Painter, the funny, brave, awkward glitter-rock fan from Pomona, California, who would ride his 10-speed over to my house with a backpack full of T. Rex records. You can actually see that guy in the picture where he is not singing and his eyes are closed. If you look through the kabuki-style makeup, that is my old friend — shy, introverted and brilliant.

The two of us spent our teenage years ditching school, getting drunk and listening to records. In the afternoons, we played minimalist punk rock in my parents’ garage and then ventured into Hollywood at night in search of adventure. When Roger changed his name to Rozz and began playing a slower, darker, more complex music, I followed, until my own drug addiction and lack of talent prevented me from going any further. But what I remember most is our friendship in those life-defining years, and it’s what pains me now. I was one of many old friends who had faded from his life by the time he needed us most. I suppose it’s lonely being the king.

Rozz’s longtime friend, collaborator and onetime wife, Eva, is pictured here as well. It says a great deal about their connection that the two of them would marry, since most, including her, acknowledge that Rozz was gay. It seems that love can truly conquer almost anything, except, perhaps, addiction and an unshakable depression. But Eva stayed with Rozz through it all, until the very end.

Eva had moved here from Las Vegas at 18 to meet her idol, Joan Jett, which she did her very first night. She then stayed on and played in several bands before forming her own punk-dirge-metal trio called the Super Heroines. It was at a 1979 Super Heroines performance in Chinatown that she first met Rozz. Their initial introduction was admittedly awkward, as most promising romances are.

“He came over and said he really liked my band,” Eva says. “I had seen him before, and I was really into him because he was wearing a suit. I didn’t know what to say, so I said thanks and walked away.”

A month later Eva went to see Christian Death play a concert in San Diego. There she again met the singer along with his fearsome, tattooed lover, Ron Athey. The three of them ended up living in a Long Beach apartment together.

“When I first saw Rozz onstage, I didn’t even hear the music,” she says. “I was looking at him and it was like this puppy-love crush. But later when he came to move in, he was like Jesus to me. This holy vibe, like he was this really special person.”

The two of them eventually married in 1988. But even as Rozz’s star ascended and he became a worldwide cult figure as one of the inspirations for what would later be known as goth, his descent into drugs, alcohol and depression grew more and more grave.

“I think that maybe he just didn’t fit into the world he was in,” Eva says. “And I think he was really scared when he wasn’t high. I would get him off the drugs for eight or nine months. But so many people wanted his attention, so they would give him drugs. I hated it and I couldn’t watch it anymore.”

Eventually Rozz and Eva separated, but the two remained friends in the ensuing years, collaborating on several musical ventures and talking on the phone almost nightly. The night before Rozz finally killed himself, they talked, agreeing that she would take him to the hospital in the morning.

“Rozz had talked about suicide since we first met,” Eva says. “In the time before he finally did it, he told me he wasn’t going to drink water, he was only going to drink alcohol. He was just letting himself die. But when I think back to that time in the ’80s when we were all living together in Long Beach, it was one of the happiest times of my life. I always think about those days and I wish they had never ended.”

—J.A.