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Staying Alive

Seattle punk songstress Mia Zapata got famous for the most evil of reasons--not because of her singing, which was good, but because of her death, which was horrible.

On the night of July 7, 1993, Zapata had a few beers with some friends at the Comet Tavern on Pike Street, then visited a friend about a block away. Somewhere between there and her Capitol Hill residence, Zapata was abducted, raped and strangled with the cord of her sweat shirt in a littered alley.

Zapata's band, the Gits, had just returned from a successful West Coast tour which had cemented the band's place among Seattle's rising indie-rock stars. "We knew that our career was actually going to become a career," says Gits bassist Matt Dresdner.

When Dresdner didn't hear from his bandmate for three days after the Gits returned home, he started making calls and quickly learned that the singer also hadn't shown up to work at Piercora's New York Pizza, a hip Seattle eatery where she washed dishes. Alarmed, Dresdner organized an urban search party and waited by the phones. His worst fear came true when one of Zapata's roommates called to say she had just identified Mia's body at the city morgue.

"'Devastated' isn't even a harsh enough word for how I felt," he says.
Zapata had been a touchstone for the underground Seattle artistic community, and her death hit the scene at its heart. Musicians, artists and fans all over the city went into mourning, and signs that read "Get home alive" started to appear on telephone poles. The same slogan also was scrawled in white paint on walls and sidewalks around Seattle. It was a mixed display of grief and anger, tribute and protest.

A group of visual and performance artists in the Pike Pines area--the district where Zapata was last seen alive--founded a self-defense collective under the banner "Home Alive." The group has held several concerts to raise reward money (Zapata's killer is still at large) and sponsored a series of women's self-defense workshops across the country. The collective also recently released a double-album compilation of rock and spoken word called Home Alive: The Art of Self Defense.

"People were so angry and scared, and we wanted to channel all that fear and rage into something constructive," says Home Alive member Cristien Storm, who has a ferocious spoken-word rant titled "I'm Sorry" on the compilation.

The music on The Art of Self Defense ranges from Pearl Jam covering Eddie Holland's Motown classic "Leaving Here" to a song by queer-core femi-punkers Tribe 8 called "Frat Pig" that spotlights the refrain "Frat pig, it's called gang rape/Frat pig, let's play gang castrate."

Straight-up rock tracks from Seattle luminaries Nirvana and the Presidents of the United States of America make it easy to temporarily forget the tragic impetus for the Home Alive album, but the point is driven home with a vengeance by the spoken-word artists. Here's Lydia Lunch on "Why We Murder":

"You know, you could be next, and that makes me kind of sick. You could be the next one to end up stuck in a trunk like a sack of fuckin' garbage because some sick and twisted little mama's boy from the backwoods can no longer get it up on mere flesh and bones anymore."

The Art of Self Defense isn't entirely lacking a lighter side--on his vocal/percussion piece "Sensitive Guys Don't Go Home Alone," Michael Nichols deadpans, "I spell womyn with a 'y'/I'm all in favor of Home Alive."

Not everyone shares that enthusiasm for the collective. The group has lately fielded several line drives from critics who paint some of them as pistol-packing riot grrrls, who too easily espouse a "shoot first" philosophy of self-defense. "Anytime you present an image of a woman taking care of herself, some people are bound to get freaked out," says Storm. "They think we're a bunch of gun-totin', man-hatin' angry women. As if Home Alive raises money to provide every woman with an AK-47."

Storm says some of the collective's 50-some members are antihandgun, but most advocate packing a piece. The jacket copy to the Home Alive album reads in part, "We support people choosing any form of self-defense that is necessary to survive in any given situation. Examples are verbal boundary setting, walking friends to cars or houses, locking doors, using pepper spray, physical striking techniques, fighting, yelling, martial arts, knives, guns, other weapons--ANYTHING that keeps us alive."

Too often in pop music, when artists organize under a common ideological banner, the cause they're supposedly fighting for plays second fiddle to hypocritical self-promotion. But Dresdner says Home Alive will not become the '90s answer to "We Are the World."

"Mia Zapata is not some poster child for Home Alive," he says. "Her death was a tragedy. Hopefully, something beneficial will come from it."

Home Alive info: 1202 East Pike Street, No. 1127, Seattle, WA 98122; 1-206-521-9176;

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Leigh Silverman

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