“They were the thing that a lot of people were waiting for, even if they didn’t know they were waiting for it,” says former Ulysses frontman Ian Svenonius. “I think I probably encouraged them to move here, but I would never tell people that D.C. was some Haight-Ashbury.”
Still, the city’s mythic punk scene was in its second bloom. A decade after Minor Threat and Bad Brains established Washington as the global epicenter of hardcore punk, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses and dozens of other proudly independent rock bands were earning Washington a vaunted reputation.
From the outside, many saw the D.C. scene as an alternative to the “alternative” rock universe being peddled on MTV — the Nirvanas and Pearl Jams and the like.
In the basement of the Embassy, Bikini Kill got down to penning some of the most vital rock-n-roll of the era, including the band’s signature anthem, “Rebel Girl.”
“I remember feeling like that song got pulled out of the air,” Hanna says. “With everything that was happening, it was like, ‘I’m not even writing this, the scene is writing this.’ ”
She sang it back to the scene at Bikini Kill’s biggest Washington show — a July 25, 1992, concert outside the U.S. Capitol with Fugazi. Talk of Anita Hill and Desert Storm had dominated the conversation during Bikini Kill’s year in Washington, but the band rarely addressed national issues head-on. Now, the lyrics of “Rebel Girl” were echoing off the Capitol marble:
When she talks, I hear the revolution.
In her hips, there’s revolution.
When she walks, the revolution’s coming.
In her kiss, I taste the revolution.
Hanna and Wilcox don’t remember revolution arriving that afternoon. They remember that parking the van was impossible and that bathrooms were really hard to find.
Touring and burnout
Bikini Kill left D.C. to tour in 1992 and never came back, scattering to different cities before finally reconvening in Olympia in the mid-’90s.
Olympia’s small-towniness felt claustrophobic. Everyone had read the articles in Seventeen and Newsweek, articles about riot grrrl that distorted the movement’s message and spun the community into disarray.
As the band dodged the media crush, strangers would approach Hanna on the Olympia streets, trying to befriend her and blame her for ruining the scene in the same breath. Wilcox calls the band’s final days “a recipe for losing your mind.”
Touring was just as disorienting. “Our shows felt super schizophrenic because you had girls in the front row singing the lyrics to every single song as if it was their song that they wrote,” Hanna says. “And then you had guys who wanted to murder us. At the same show! . . . It’s only five dollars to throw a beer bottle at someone’s head, so why not?”