My Rock and Roll Bank Robber

Shane WilliamsI recently read Tesco Vee’s piece in Bull Tongue Review #5 on his interactions with Shane Williams, the fabled “rock and roll bank robber” with whom he used to collaborate on Touch n Go fanzine, and – more germane to the piece – whose bank robbing, drug-abusing shenanigans led to death threats & police harassment of Mr. Vee. It’s a pretty wild and scary tale, one stoked by Vee’s naive 1980s encouragement of and frequent correspondence with Shane Williams. What’s more punk than associating with a known gun-toting criminal, one who served multiple stints in jail and who happened to be a fiendish fan of the same anti-social music that you are? I actually found myself forced to ponder this question myself, with regard to the same person, not long after Tesco Vee was.

Williams was locked up at the Federal Correctional Institute in Lompoc, California around 1987 when I first started receiving weekly letters from him. Bank robbery – and not for the first time. The only college radio station with a signal in that area happened to be the one I was a late-teenage DJ at, KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara, where I went to school. Williams was quite hep to the sounds I was spinning on my weekly Wednesday night show, being a fan of the Stoogoid/MC5 arts and especially of LA’s Lazy Cowgirls, whom I obsessively played each week and whom I also saw play live in Hollywood & around the LA area with ridiculous regularity. I didn’t know anything about the guy nor his reputation until he told me about himself in these letters, which I showed with chagrin to friends who happened to be very aware of the legend of Shane Williams, and who had read his various rocknroll scribblings in Flipside, Touch n Go and elsewhere.

While he was locked up, I could afford to be flattered and reciprotive. I wrote him back semi-regularly; we exchanged tips on wild new longhaired and shorthaired punk bands; he’d ask me if the female DJs he also listened to at KCSB were hot; I’d write back to him cryptically and non-committally. He told me about his heroin abuse; about how he could get any drug he wanted to in prison (and did); and about how he was effectively able to do everything on the inside that he could outside the walls of Lompoc – and that, in most ways, it was far better for him personally to be in jail, save for not being able to see bands (which was torture).

Then he dropped the bombshell – he was getting out of prison. This month. Would we perchance like to meet up? At my Santa Barbara apartment, maybe? (NO) Or perhaps down in LA at a Lazy Cowgirls show (uh, sure, okay – whew)

Lest one think I was somehow “less than hardcore”, well – you’re totally right. I was a 19-year-old middle-class kid who loved my parents, didn’t take drugs, had never met a prisoner nor former prisoner, and whose transgressions pretty much amounted to frequent underage drinking of horrible cheap 1980s beer, like every other college student. That’s about it. That I loved aggressive, raw music from the underground certainly meant that I’d get thrown together at parties or shows with certain unsavory types from time to time, though that was truly no problem. Beer and music salved all distance, and if I felt like someone was in any way a danger to me or my friends, I just walked away. I can count those instances on less than one hand.

I wasn’t scared to meet the guy, nor, once we finally convened at the Anti-Club on Melrose at a Cowgirls gig did I have any reason to be. Shane Williams was loquacious, opinionated, mildly funny and moderately uncouth. I can’t say at all that we were instant pals, but through 1988-89, he kept showing up at the same gigs I did, and we’d “rap” for decent stretches of time. It was one of those things where I didn’t really want to run into him, but it was no big deal when I did.

One time we were standing around chatting up the Lazy Cowgirls guys, and Shane just threw his arm around my shoulder, grasped me tight, and barked out to everyone assembled, “This guy saved my ass when I was in the joint!”. Hey, at least I made someone happy.

Williams couldn’t listen to my show any longer, due to KCSB’s lack of signal strength, and perhaps to make up for it & bond some more about bands in person, one night he invited me and my cousin to come party with him before a show at his abode somewhere in Los Angeles. We tactfully declined, likely preferring to pre-party in the classy manner that we always did, which was to furtively drink cans of Miller or Stroh’s in poorly-lit parking lots in the seedy gang-infested area near the Anti-Club.

When we arrived at the club, I walked up to find Shane sitting on the stage before the bands had started, and it was the first time in my young and fragile-flower life that I’d ever seen a heroin abuser in full, nodding-off bloom. I said hello, and as he looked up at me with red eyes just dripping, with a neck that could no longer support his head, it was clear that his managing a reciprocal greeting was going to be just too much effort – so he went back to falling asleep. The way I remember it, it was the last time I saw him in person, which may or may not be true.

I’m not sure if it was mere months or a year or two later, but Williams landed back in jail rather quickly, this time for a bank robbery so brazenly incompetent I was certain it was deliberately so. He wrote me a few more times in the early 90s from Calipatria State Prison, in the sun-baked Imperial County desert of California, and we more or less lost touch. I saw his “ShaneShit” column in Flipside a few times back then, which clearly marked that he was bouncing in and out of prison – either whooping it up in live clubs, or stuck in the pokey wishing that he was. I’m fairly certain that we may have had one e-mail interaction once e-mail became a thing, but no greater than one.

The poor guy was killed at an intersection in 2011 as he was stepping into traffic, and good, respectable people lined up to sing his praises, give thanks for the memories, and gleefully extol his bad-boy “rock and roll lifestyle”. I can’t say that I was bummed, deadened nor relieved (for him) in any manner – just a little chagrined that he’d made it even that far.

With hindsight, I guess what stands out for me is my own immense distance from his world, despite that microscopic degree of musical overlap we shared for an exceptionally brief period of time. It would be disingenuous of me to bemoan my lack of enthusiasm for his lifestyle, because I’m incredibly thankful to have been a million miles from it in terms of temperament and circumstance.

Interactions like mine with Williams are quite uneventful on the whole, but for me, they illuminate the strange force of fortune and the fickle finger of fate. But for one angry belt-wielding father, one genetic turn of the screw, or one or two stupid decisions made as a teenager, and key elements of his life could have been key elements of mine. There will be much more entertaining and far more animated stories to tell about his life, no question, but I’m quite willing to accept the trade-off.

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