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THE BITCHES ARE BACK

Many of you men and women out there probably think "bitch" is a bad word. According to the members of the punk quartet 7 Year Bitch, you're wrong.

"It's a compliment, really," says Valerie Agnew, the drummer who powers Viva Zapata!, the group's propulsive new disc on C/Z Records.

"That's right," concurs lead singer Selene Vigil. "If you're a bitch, it just means that you speak your mind."

"Yeah," says Agnew. "If you're a bitch, you have conviction, and a little self-respect to stand up for yourself. That's why I don't get upset when somebody calls me a bitch. If some guy walks by and says, `You fucking bitch,' because I don't respond to him in some way he wants, I don't fly off the handle. I'm like, `Yeah, I am a bitch. What about it?'"

Bitches of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your timidity.
Such is the message of 7 Year Bitch, which has had to fight more preconceptions during its brief existence than most groups spawn in a decade-long career. Some observers view the foursome (currently guitarist Roisin Dunne, bassist Elizabeth Davis, Agnew and Vigil) as riot grrrls, when in fact the band has virtually no connection with the cadre of politically fiery performers who coined this moniker. Others have painted them as promulgators of lesbian chic, even though none of the players actually is a lesbian (Agnew is bisexual, while her bandmates are heterosexual). And more listeners than they care to count have dubbed them man-hating, man-eating shrews--a group that basically exists to revile the entire male gender. The latter charge is particularly irksome to the players.

"People who think that are narrow-minded, and they only see things in a really one-dimensional way," Vigil asserts. "That opinion is so completely lame. Obviously anyone who says that didn't take the time to think about what we do."

"We're all heavily involved with men and love men very much," Agnew adds. "Anybody who says otherwise is just being totally stupid."

Stupidity is a minor obstacle compared to those that have arisen since 7 Year Bitch formed in early-Nineties Seattle. For proof, look no further than the jackets of the two albums the band has produced thus far: Each sports a dedication to a friend who perished under horrifying circumstances. The 7 Year Bitch debut, 1992's Sick 'Em, is a posthumous tribute to Stefanie Sargent, the act's guitarist, who died of a heroin overdose in the midst of the disc's recording. As for Viva Zapata!, it was named in honor of Mia Zapata, the late lead singer of another Seattle band, the Gits.

"We exist because the Gits existed," Agnew says. "I went to college with Mia and some of the people in her band, and I moved out to Seattle with them. We lived in a collective house, and when our band got started, we practiced there and used their equipment. They got us our very first shows in town and were always really supportive of us and very connected to us, too."

Indeed, the personal and professional fortunes of 7 Year Bitch and the Gits, also signed by the small C/Z imprint, were linked for years, and that was fine by them. In mid-1993, the two bands were ready to kick off a joint tour as soon as Zapata put the finishing touches on her group's second album (Enter the Conquering Chicken, which should be in stores any day now). Nevertheless, Agnew recalls the period as a difficult one--because it had been only a year since Sargent's passing. "We'd just been in L.A. with Mia for the anniversary of Stefanie's death," she notes, "and she was giving us this pep talk, saying, `You've got to hang in there and pull through all this shit.' And then two days later, she's dead."

By that time, Zapata, Agnew and Vigil had returned to Seattle. The trio had gotten together at a bar, but Zapata left before the others. "We don't know who picked her up or what happened," Agnew says, "but she was picked up, raped and strangled, and left on the side of the road." To this day, the crime remains unsolved.

In an attempt to give some meaning to this meaningless act of violence, Agnew started an organization called Home Alive, which sponsors free self-defense classes; a compilation album and projects by other members of the Seattle arts community are among the fundraisers planned to finance the effort. She's pleased by the response Home Alive has garnered thus far, but admits to being puzzled about why so many early deaths have occurred in the Pacific Northwest music scene.

"We keep thinking, `What the fuck is going on?'" she concedes. "Everybody thinks that there's some connection between all these things and this wild lifestyle people here are supposed to be living, but this is nothing compared to Detroit or New York City or L.A., where people die all the time in really tragic ways. It's just that it's so small here, and everybody knows everybody. I mean, there have been seven deaths in the last two years that have affected us really directly. That's one of the reasons why this new record seems so emotional to us."

That's not to say that Viva Zapata! is an introspective drag; the record is a considerable leap forward for a group that previously had been as much about attitude as accomplishments. Sick 'Em was a sarcastic and enjoyable blitzkrieg, featuring songs such as the gleefully nasty "Chow Down" and the self-explanatory "Dead Men Don't Rape," but it suffered from extremely murky production and instrumental amateurism that sometimes blunted the tunes' effectiveness. Thanks to longtime Seattle scenester Jack Endino (who produced the first Nirvana record, Bleach), Viva Zapata! avoids these pitfalls. The playing is precise by punk standards, and the sound is crisp and bright throughout ravers like "The Scratch," "Hip Like Junk," "Cats Meow" and "It's Too Late," a cover of a number written by Jim Carroll. And although the tracks "M.I.A." (about Zapata) and "Rock A Bye" (which concerns Sargent) are deeply felt, they never descend into sentimentality. Loudness rules.

Vigil says the album's varied approach was very much by design: "We didn't go into the album with the idea of us making a record about all of these bad things. Every song came up and it was written about what we were thinking about at the time. There's not really a theme. But after it was all over and I listened to it, I thought it was a pretty intense record."

It's also filled with invective apt to rile up sexists of every stripe. Despite the new album's refinements, 7 Year Bitch hasn't shied from confrontation--which is just as well, given that the crowds the band draws aren't always filled with the most intellectually gifted among us.

"We did this tour last year with Cypress Hill and Rage Against the Machine," Agnew says, "and we got a lot of shit. Part of it was that people were waiting for the headlining acts, but there was also problems because we were women--guys yelling, `Show us your tits! Take off your clothes!' and all this other bullshit."

"Denver was the harshest place we played on the tour," Vigil interjects. "It was just brutal. I don't even remember anything about our performance. All I remember was people yelling."

"But that was okay," Agnew notes, laughing. "It got to the point where we got bored if nobody gave us shit."

No need to worry about that. Because these women are real bitches.
7 Year Bitch, with Loud Speaker and Cavity. 9:30 p.m. Sunday, June 5, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, $5, 744-0513.


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