That summer, the members of Bikini Kill would each adapt differently to Washington.
Vail passed on being interviewed for this story via e-mail: “I don’t remember much about DC except being depressed and homesick.” Karren almost never gives interviews and also declined.
“For me, it was a homecoming,” Hanna says. “This was going to be me taking over my not-so-great history of growing up here . . . What do you call that? Repetition compulsion? Where it’s like you go back to the scene of the crime, but this time it all works out?”
Hanna grew up in the Maryland suburbs and in the early days of Bikini Kill, only spoke obliquely about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. During her student years at Evergreen State College in Olympia she worked as a counselor at a domestic violence and rape shelter and continued to counsel fans backstage at Bikini Kill concerts.
“That’s part of why I wanted to be in a band,” Hanna says. “I could walk up to a 15-year-old and ask her [switches into nerd-voice], ‘Would you like to join my support group?’ But if I say that from the stage and I’m in a cool band, they’re gonna come.”
Fanzines were another way to reach out. So one night in early July, Hanna and a few friends gathered around a Capitol Hill Xerox machine to run off copies of “Riot Grrrl,” a handmade pamphlet that Hanna daydreamed of developing into a glossy magazine about feminism and music.
Instead, riot grrrl morphed into an activist group that held regular meetings to discuss empowerment, organization, safety and support in the punk community. As the meetings gained momentum in Washington, participants started exporting their ideas to the rest of the country through a network of pen pals and self-published fanzines.
Hanna was eager to spread the word on stage, but she and her bandmates were waiting on Wilcox. The bassist had spent the summer traveling in Europe and Morocco, trying to solve coffee-related conundrums of her own.
“I remember Kathi bringing back a picture of her using a bikini top as a coffee filter,” Hanna says. But by then, the singer had no use for caffeine.
“I was running on straight adrenaline.”
The District set a record in 1991 with 482 homicides. One occurred in a basement apartment not far from the one Hanna was renting on Adams Mill Road NW. The victim was a single woman, living alone, just like her. Maybe the death threats that kept landing in her band’s mailbox weren’t something to shrug off.
“Our home address was published in our fanzine,” Wilcox says. “So letters would come like, ‘I’m gonna
. . .
stab you in the heart.’ ”
At home and on tour, Bikini Kill’s ideals were met with a macho hostility that’s difficult to imagine today. Transforming fear into motivation became a survival tactic.