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The Art Of Self-Defense -- Driven By The Killing Of Singer Mia Zapata, Home Alive Fights Back With A Star-Studded CD

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

On the night of July 7, 1993, drummer Valerie Agnew sat drinking with some friends in Pike Street's Comet Tavern. They included two members of her band, Seven Year Bitch, and the 27-year-old singer Mia Zapata. All were toasting the memory of Stefanie Sargent, a mutual friend who had died one year before.

Remembers Agnew, "Mia left before we did. She went to a friend's and talked for a while. Then she said she would get a cab and go home."

At 3:21 a.m., Zapata's body was found, dumped some miles from her stated destination. Despite continued efforts by Seattle police, an investigator hired by friends and two recent, national appeals on television, whoever murdered Zapata has not been found.

But her death has led to a special organization - Home Alive, a collective from the arts community she inhabited that provides affordable self-defense training, educational tools and grass-roots activism.

Now Home Alive has released a benefit CD, "The Art of Self Defense" on Epic/Sony, to fund the group's expansion and a resource library. Eighteen months in the making, the CD is quite a project: two volumes, 45 tracks and lots of celebrities (to name a few, Pearl Jam, the Presidents of the United States of America, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Joan Jett, Green Apple Quick Step and Love Battery).

But the CD manages a balance, between song and spoken-word performance, between famous and lesser-known performers. Even when it sounds most jaunty, it is grounded in the gaps between male and female. Laced with tales of threat, wrongdoing and anger, it comes clean about the roots of much rock power.

Valerie Agnew founded Home Alive, with the help of a musician friend, Gretta Harley.

"Just right after Mia died, my band went on tour, on a tour she would have been on," says Agnew. "So I had the sadness of missing her, plus this absolutely incredible anger. It was far too much for me to swallow."

Back home in Seattle, Agnew called up some friends: artists, musicians, poets, waitresses. At a string of meetings, they talked about their fears and memories. "We were all like Mia, we thought that we were streetwise. But if it happened to her, it could happen to us." One thought came back over and over to Agnew: "If Mia had known how to really throw a punch, would she be alive? Could she have survived?"

Self-styled self-defense

Out of that came Home Alive, the friends' own initiative toward self-protection. Some of the founders had not known Zapata. One, Stacey Westcott, is a visual artist who had just returned from Latin America. Says she, "First we tried checking all the options. Were there many self-defense classes? Were they relevant to our own community?"

Fellow member Cristien Storm is on the CD's cover. She says those efforts proved disappointing. "Most of the courses we found were quite expensive. And what they taught made no sense to us. We're musicians, artists, actors; we work in establishments late at night. They were telling us to change our lives."

So, the group created its own agenda. Instead of bowing to conventional wisdom, it found different "experts" - advocates, trainers and legal experts. Some agreed to teach, and, eventually, Home Alive had its own instructors.

At each stage, the group tried to remain accessible. During the first year, 75 percent of the self-defense clients had incomes lower than $10,000. Others were homeless or came from shelters.

Home Alive has run the gamut of courses, from anger management and pepper spray to martial arts. Says Storm, "We maintain a range of options, from boundary-setting to the use of weapons. Which does not mean we're all into guns, but the more you know, the better equipped you can be."

Stacey Westcott says that it's very basic. "I learned that at my very first class. I hadn't hit anyone since I was 6. And that `someone' was a kid brother. If someone decided to come at me, what the hell was I really gonna do?"

Support - and controversy

At the center of Home Alive is community. The collective has had few problems raising money. Through a series of benefits shows and concerts, it has managed to stay afloat and grow.

The "community" has continued to widen, because Zapata's death sparked a revelation. Lawless: "We just weren't taking care of each other. We would let our friends stumble out of bars. We assumed we'd always see people again."

Now, they hope more people will ask for escorts - to the bus stop, cab rank or parking space. But Home Alive avoids any lifestyle preaching. That, they feel, is a part of respecting community.

Home Alive has, however, battled that community. In November '93, when a local woman was raped in a nightclub bathroom, the group sent protest letters to most Seattle venues, suggesting a series of safety measures, and requested clubs to respond in kind. Only one replied to the missive promptly: the Comet Tavern, Mia Zapata's favorite.

Agnew: "We take criticism for our viewpoints. People call us `man-hating' and stuff like that. But that's really just ridiculous. Because men have done so much for us." She cites not just early male assistance, or the many male artists who play benefits, but booker David Meinert, the CD's "navigator."

The modus operandi of Home Alive has now garnered some press on a national level, from the likes of Spin and Rolling Stone. Queries reach the group from across America - from women, and men, who want to organize. In addition to the new CD (which comes with basic self-defense information), Home Alive has launched a Web page and continues building its library.

Home Alive is working on additional help for the Web. But it is justifiably proud of the CD. Although it was all done by "word-of-mouth," the group received 150 submissions. These were filtered down by Gretta Harley, who sketched out a rough running order. She and Agnew then logged studio hours, working out the record's highly varied flow.

It has been surprisingly successful, for a disc that jumps from spoken word to all-out rock. Two selections feature Mia Zapata, and a third the members of her former band (now the Dancing French Liberals of '48). "It's a hard listen," Agnew says upfront. "Not the kind of thing you do in a single sitting."

There there are lots of ghosts. Sometimes they are the crowds of listeners, audible while Kurt Cobain sings ruefully. Sometimes, the ghost is Zapata herself: lively and tipsy, bluesy and full of beans. In one cut, it is the late poet Jesse Bernstein.

Some of the tracks were meant as goodbye songs, some poems, and some merely rants. But there's no CD or "tribute" like it. Violent, confrontational and passionate, it pulls off the hardest trick: drawing life from death.


To reach Home Alive.

Home Alive can be reached at 521-9176 or at 1202 E. Pike St., Seattle, WA 98122. The group's Web site is at On March 6, the group releases its new CD in concert at Moe's.

Published Clarification Date: 03/06/96 - The Band Seven Year Bitch Will Premier Its New CD, ''Gato Negro,'' Today At Moe's Cafe And Nightclub On Capitol Hill. An Editing Error In This Story Left The Impression That The Album Was Done By Another Group.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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