"Special Issue: Women in Rock." It's right there, in glorious black and white, on the cover of this week's Rolling Stone, so you know two things. One, female rock artists are selling so many records that the buyers of their product, as a demographic group, are overlapping with Rolling Stone's target mass audience. Two, the notion of an influx of women into the rock performance arena has climbed the media ladder from the original riot girl bedroom-published fanzine/diary to Sassy to the New York Times to Rolling Stone.
"Women in Rock" ... where do you want to start? With Joan Jett, as Rolling Stone does? Or Janis Joplin? Moe Tucker? The Shaggs, for that matter? Does Aretha Franklin count? And who are those chicks who sang "Leader of the Pack"? There have been women in rock for as long as there has been rock. And there have been periodic journalistic shitstorms of interest all along the way. What's surprising is not the finding that, hey, look, dem girls got guitars, but that every cycle's journalists are so consistently baffled by their presence. (WhatÕs not so surprising is that the circulation-conscious magazine industry repeatedly jumps at the chance to put some hot babe, any hot babe, on the cover).
Seattle's all-woman alt-rock quartet 7 Year Bitch wasn't interviewed for the Rolling Stone article, but may as well have been since L.A.'s L7 -- popular figurehead of the latest wave -- was, and, as 7YB bassist Elizabeth Davis has been quoted: "I swear L7 is mentioned as many times in our press kit as we are."
It's a stupid grouping, in the same way that collecting Pantera and American Music Club under one stylistic banner because both groups are all-male would be stupid. And stupid because vocalist Selene Vigil, guitarist Roisin Dunne, bassist Davis and drummer Valerie Agnew don't walk around all day thinking how special it is to be "Women in Rock."
They do, however, have to react when the subject is broached, and drummer Agnew doesn't let the issue back her into any corners.
"It depends on what kinda mood we're in. If we're in a good mood, we're like, "Oh yeah, whatever, they don't know any better, poor fools." We might have pity on them. If we're in a bad mood, we'll bitch about it to each other. Lazy journalism is mostly what we chalk it up to. Unimaginative and stupid. And sexist. But whatever. We don't expend a lot of energy trying to fix it. We're friends with L7, so it's not like a dis to us to be compared to them, because they're cool, but it's just inaccurate."
(For the record, when asked to whom she'd compare her band, Agnew covets an equally inaccurate reference to AC/DC, and guitarist Dunne calls in from the other room with a ludicrous vote for Soundgarden.)
7 Year Bitch's story, though, doesn't have much to do with mark-missing comparisons. It does have something to do with being women, and it has everything to do with a simple idea that turned into a really good idea that weathered a storm of personal tragedy to turn into the band you see now: a band headed out on tour opening for alt-rock veterans Alice Donut, riding on the strength of the C/Z Records release Viva Zapata! and locked into a deal with Atlantic for a follow-up in 1995.
According to Agnew: "We met four years ago. Selena and I worked together at a health food store. We met Liz [Davis] 'cause she worked upstairs and she used to come in all the time, and we met Stefanie [Sargent, original guitarist] through mutual friends of ours. I had moved out to Seattle with some friends of mine, The Gits, and we started this collective called Rat House. We put out a compilation record and we were just trying to do a music collective, so bands could get their shit out even if they didn't have any connections. I said, "Let's fuckin' start a band," and Stefanie was like, "Yeah." I lived at that house and we had a practice space downstairs, so they [The Gits] let us use their equipment and got us our first shows."
Let's fuckin' start a band! Yeah! Of such flippancy was punk born, and like all really good punk bands, 7 Year Bitch didn't even know how to play its instruments.
"We played a show about six weeks after we got together," says Agnew. "We had three songs and we were horrible. It wasn't that we thought 'Oh this sounds really good,' it was more like, 'We don't give a fuck, we're gonna do it anyway.'"
But, like most punk-rock bands that you end up reading about, 7 Year Bitch didn't stay crappy for long, and it soon became clear that the music world had room for at least one more group with loud, fast guitars, choppy, propulsive songs and aggressive vocals. The band cut a 7-inch single that attracted the attention of Seattle's hip indie C/Z Records, signed with C/Z and trucked east to play a successful showcase at New York's New Music Seminar. For a little punk band, 7 Year Bitch was living in clover. Two days later, the bottom dropped out.
While 7YB was back in the studio polishing its full-length C/Z debut Sick 'Em,
uitarist-songwriter-founder Stefanie Sargent died of what has been reported as a heroin overdose.
"For us at the time it was like ... we thought everything was just going to go really well," Agnew recalls. "We were playing really well. We'd had a really good show in New York. It seemed like things were going up. And everything just basically plummeted to the bottom bowels of the earth. There was a time when I didn't think I was ever going to be able to hear a guitar again. We were devastated."
After the mourning came the decision to keep the band together, and 7 Year Bitch put the word out for a guitarist. Friend-of-friend connections turned up Roisin Dunne, who came to Seattle to try out. "Actually," says Agnew, "we didn't even really play very much. We mostly just talked and went to the bar and spent a lot of time just hanging out with her and we all really liked her a lot. She had never been in a band before either."
The second blow came a year after Dunne joined the group, when Mia Zapata, Gits vocalist and a heavy personal influence on 7YB, died in an as-yet-unsolved rape/murder. Never mind the April suicide of Kurt Cobain -- whose influence was deeply felt by many in Seattle music -- and the recent overdose death of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, Elizabeth Davis' roommate.
"We were starting to kinda wonder what was going on. It's weird. But I don't think we ever felt like, "Oh God, poor us, why is this always happening to us," because it wasn't just happening to us. It was happening to all our friends as well, everybody in our community. It wasn't just Mia and Stefanie. It was several other deaths, maybe three each summer, that hit us and all of our friends really hard. The more you think you've finally paid your dues and had your share of tragedies, it's like it just keeps going and you get used to it. That's the sad thing, that you find that you're starting to not be surprised by it anymore, which is kinda scary."
Sick 'Em was dedicated to Sargent, and the new Viva Zapata!, with its cover painting of Zapata decked out in Mexican Revolution gear, is for Zapata. It's a fitting tribute, all energy and attitude, though some observers have missed the point and asked if the album indicates solidarity with Mexico's present-day Zapatistas. "She was related to him," says Agnew, "but we're like, no, our tribute is solely to Mia."
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Zapata's death did more than just spawn an album title and a song ("M.I.A."). It led Agnew to found a Seattle-based collective called Home Alive to raise money, teach self-defense classes and raise awareness of violence issues. According to Agnew, "There's just been a huge response from everybody there to help out with it. Tons of bands play benefits, or people are doing stuff on this compilation that we're putting out. All that camaraderie there, and respect that people have for each other seems really high to me."
All of which is well and fine, but none of which has much to do with The Music, right? Well, not unless you count the passion that goes into a record and performance as integral to the punk-rock sound.
"I think," Agnew says, "that anytime something happens like that, you stop taking things for granted so much. We don't take very much for granted anymore, I don't think. It hits all the cliches -- it makes you want to do everything faster, harder, better. You know what I mean? Especially when you think about your friends that can't because they're not here anymore. So you have to do it for them, sort of. It's not like we're trying to prove something. We're just doing what we've always done; we just appreciate it more now, if that makes sense."
7 Year Bitch opens for Alice Donut at 8 p.m., Thursday, September 29, at The Abyss. Tickets cost $7. Call 863-7173 for info.