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7 Year Bitch: Some Things Don’t Come Full Circle

Legendary band is writing their own story, and attempting to heal, through the release of a new live album

/ December 22, 2015

Photo: Tanya Nixx

“So we’re 7 Year Bitch,” singer Selene Vigil-Wilk deadpans to the crowd at Moe’s Mo’ Rockin’ Cafe in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The year is 1996. Bill Clinton is about to be reelected. It’s been three years since Kurt Cobain was photographed, baby Frances Bean yawning in his arms, wearing a “Grunge is Dead” t-shirt. And now, so is Kurt. So is Andy Wood. So is Stefanie Sargent. So is Mia Zapata. The city that gave birth to a dozen of the best rock bands in a generation has started to eat its young. The Pacific Northwest’s influence is on the wane. But legendary Seattle punks 7 Year Bitch have just finished touring their third album, their first for Atlantic Records. And, for better or for worse, they’re home.

The crowd at Moe hoots. Someone can be heard yelling, “We know!” The band’s practice space is three blocks away. Their local, the Comet Tavern, where Vigil-Wilk and drummer Valerie Agnew wrote the lyrics to “Dead Men Don’t Rape,” is across the street. Introducing themselves to an audience at Moe in 1996 is a bit like introducing yourself to the guests at your own birthday party.

“We’re 7 Year Bitch,” Vigil-Wilk says again, swallowing a laugh. “These are our songs. Hope you like ‘em.”

On January 15, a live recording of the set that ensued will be released as 7 Year Bitch: Live at Moe, the band’s first album since 1996’s “Gato Negro.” A single off the record, a gorgeous, fuzzy, thrashing version of their signature cut “The Scratch,” was released in late November.

 

 

The songs on Live at Moe are angry, despairing, longing—the product, as Vigil-Wilk puts it, of four women “making music together about what was happening” in their world. In 7 Year Bitch songs, women get what they want. They drink. They fuck. They steal. They also get hurt, hooked, killed. There’s violence, lots of it, and revenge.

There’s also humor. “Those songs I wrote,” says Vigil-Wilk, “they’re supposed to be funny.” And they are. Vigil-Wilk’s writing is steeped in irony, her delivery pitched between a smirk and a sneer. On “24,900 Miles Per Hour,” when she croons, “I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry,” she likely means the opposite.

Even the more macabre moments have an absurd quality. On “Hip Like Junk,” the narrator watches with a mix of sympathy and contempt as an ex-lover returns to heroin. “Can I bounce, bounce a rock off your head?” she asks, “Can I pronounce, pronounce you dead?”

“It was rad to hear those tapes,” Vigil-Wilk said in a phone interview. “I hadn’t really been thinking about that stuff, about those days. But it took me right back. It gave me chills.”

7 Year Bitch broke up in 1997. For fans, their relevance never waned, but because they quit before the “digital age” really got its hooks in, much of what survives about them online is muddy. Yes, they played with Olympia bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, but they weren’t really Riot Grrrl. They cameoed in 1995’s grunge teen romance “Mad Love” (starring Drew Barrymore), but they weren’t grunge.

7 Year Bitch have endured in the public imagination more as shorthand for a particular attitude—a spot on a heat map of woman-powered punk—than as a group of artists with their own radical vision.

“Putting this record out now feels important,” Agnew said in a statement, “because nobody is going to tell our story for us.”

“Putting this record out now feels important,” Agnew said in a statement, “because nobody is going to tell our story for us.”

***

That story begins in November 1990, when Vigil-Wilk, Valerie Agnew, bassist Elizabeth Davis-Simpson, and guitarist Stefanie Sargent played their first three-song set at the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square.

“It was a “Books for Prisoners” Benefit,” says Vigil-Wilk. “We’d barely been playing together for three weeks.” Of the four, only Davis-Simpson had any musical background.

Vigil-Wilk grew up shy, with a stutter that was worked out of her voice through years of speech therapy. “I started singing because I was afraid of it,” she told me, “I would go see music every night. Jazz, blues, rock, punk. I loved it. But I never thought I could sing—not on stage. Not until I saw Mia.”

Mia Zapata was the lead singer, and beating heart, of an epic local punk outfit called The Gits. By the time Valerie started bugging Selene—her coworker at a health food store—about starting a band, The Gits were already tearing up the Capitol Hill scene.

“Mia could really fucking sing,” says Vigil-Wilk. “She could sing beautifully if she wanted to. And she did, but in her own very real, raw way. Her honesty, her delivery. It came straight from her freaking soul.”

When 7 Year Bitch got started, The Gits were their mentors. Valerie and Stefanie learned to play their instruments—loudly—in the basement of the Rathouse, where The Gits lived with some other bands. It wasn’t always pretty, but Agnew remembers Mia would come down and growl, “What you guys are doing is good. It’s real, it’s true.”

In June 1992, on the eve of the release of 7 Year Bitch’s debut album “Sick ‘Em,” Stefanie Sargent was found dead in her bedroom, alcohol and heroin in her system. Stefanie’s roommate called. Selene and Valerie rushed over, crashed their van into a parked car on the way. When they got there, they watched the EMTs roll her body away in a bag.

Then, a year later, almost to the day, Mia Zapata’s body was found on a dead-end street in the Central District. She’d been raped, beaten, and strangled. It would be 10 years before her killer was identified and charged.

“Right then the bottom dropped out,” Vigil-Wilk remembers. The ugliness under the surface of the scene was all anyone could see. “Stefanie’s death and then Mia’s. That blew it apart, scattered and separated it.” She said in a 2005 documentary on The Gits, “A dark cloud came over everything and stayed there.”

The police suspected Mia’s killer was an acquaintance, so they started checking out every man she knew, one by one. Vigil-Wilk remembers sympathizing with male friends who were hauled in, interrogated, and forced to give DNA samples to the cops. She also feared them.

Fed up with the investigation and fed up with not feeling safe, Valerie Agnew and other women in the scene organized meetings to vent their grief and rage. “We were thinking in the modes of self-defense,” she said in 2005, “wishing we were all fucking ninja bitches.”

Those meetings became Home Alive, a community organization that embedded self-defense instruction in critiques of the oppressive systems that produce violence against women. Home Alive provided free or cheap self-defense classes to thousands of women. The formal non-profit shuttered in 2010, but it persists today as a volunteer collective. Their curriculum is available online.

Meanwhile, 7 Year Bitch kept writing and performing. “What else could we do?” says Vigil-Wilk. Two new songs appeared in their sets. “Rock a Bye,” written for Stefanie, and “M.I.A.,” for Mia.

In the years of touring that followed, they played those two songs almost every night, including at Moe in ‘96. “It was important to us,” says Vigil-Wilk, “Those were our best friends. It was never ‘oh, maybe we won’t play that one tonight.’ We had to do it.”

On “Rock a Bye,” a hypnotic bass line is interrupted by sharp double snare hits like raps on a door. Roisin Dunne joins on guitar, mimicking the bass, while Vigil-Wilk wails, “Don’t you roll my baby away / There’s a couple more things I wanted to say.” It’s one of their hardest, most unrelenting songs.

On “M.I.A.,” the band’s unanswerable grief combines with their fury at Mia’s killer and at the clumsy police state charged with providing restitution. “Society did this to you?” Vigil-Wilk snarls, “Does society have justice for you? Well if not, I do.”

The vengeance alluded to on “M.I.A.” is an extension of the message of Home Alive: that state institutions, and the norms they produce, are ill equipped to prevent or respond to the violence of patriarchy. In the months after Mia’s murder, the women of Capitol Hill took on more independent solutions. They bought guns. They learned to fight. After all, as Vigil-Wilk had been yelling into microphones since 1991, “Dead men don’t rape.”

But when Vigil-Wilk sings the word “society,” her voice is thick with sarcasm. “Society” is a politician’s word—a word for cops, for judges, for psychologists. “Society” diminishes the individual act, the world-destroying horror of it. The person who says “society” can’t begin to fathom what’s been done to Mia, to touch her community’s pain.

As much as a desire for vengeance, “M.I.A” voices the band’s hostility to tidy narratives, to the comforting fantasies of order and progress we rely on to cope with loss. The music is opaque and unpredictable, marked by sudden changes in rhythm and time, stabs of guitar and snare. Their allegiance is to their rage, to Mia, not to a story they tell themselves to feel better. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” Vigil-Wilk yells over the noise, and then, plainly: “Some things don’t come full circle.”

***

In many respects, they still haven’t. “There is no ‘why,’” Vigil-Wilk tells me over the phone, as she paces her Los Angeles neighborhood. “Nothing’s going to make this all okay. Nothing. We’re going to learn how to deal with it and move on, but it’s not going to be okay.” She pauses. “No. It ain’t okay.”

A few weeks ago, Vigil-Wilk went up to Seattle to play a benefit for her friend James Atkins, of Hammerbox, who’s fighting esophageal cancer. At a club on Capitol Hill, she sang a set of four 7 Year Bitch songs, backed by friends from Alcohol Funnycar. All Seattle bands. Another homecoming.

In video from the show, Vigil-Wilk wears a black t-shirt and owns the stage, unable to keep a smile off her face. In “The Scratch,” when she sings, “I don’t even know what I’m wanting yet, but I know I’m wanting something,” you get the sense that might not be true anymore.

Vigil-Wilk, who has two boys, ages 7 and 9, tells me that when she listens to “Live at Moe,” she feels like a mother to her younger self. “I forgive her,” she says.

Later that night, The Gits, with Rachel Flotard of Visqueen on vocals, played their first show in more than 20 years.

“It was magic,” says Vigil-Wilk. “Rachel was perfect. And to see those guys get up there and do those songs together again, I’m telling you, everybody in the room was crying. It was this healing experience we didn’t know we still needed.”

Releasing Live at Moe is having a similar effect, says Vigil-Wilk. She, Valerie, Elizabeth, and Roisin are spending time together again, working on projects, sending each other YouTube videos of their old shows. There’s no reunion tour planned, but it’s not out of the question.

Healing isn’t the same as fixing, as making whole. The pieces of their story are still scattered, some irretrievably so. It’s not okay. But it’s a start.