Entertainment & Arts

At last, closure for the Gits

THE DIRECTOR: Kerri O’Kane says she found inspiration in the Gits’ music
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

In the summer of 1993, everything seemed to be going the Gits’ way. Bypassed in the initial wave of interest in Seattle’s grunge bands, the punk quartet was close to signing with a major label and had begun recording its second album. But on July 7, after leaving friends at a local bar, the Gits’ singer, Mia Zapata, was raped and murdered, her body dumped on the street. Within days, the Gits were national news for the worst imaginable reason.

Zapata was famous, not as a singer, but as a victim.

Fifteen years later, director Kerri O’Kane wants to change that with a documentary, “The Gits,” which will screen in venues across the country today, including the Echoplex in Silverlake, with an introduction by O’Kane and Gits drummer Steve Moriarty. The film deals with Zapata’s murder, its devastating effects on her band mates and the Seattle music scene and the agonizing decade until her killer was found.

But O’Kane wanted Zapata to be remembered for how she lived, not just how she died. She had found inspiration in the Gits’ music when she was battling ovarian cancer several years ago -- an experience she documented in a short subject called “Walking Wounded” -- and, she said, “I didn’t want Mia Zapata and the Gits to go down like that because of this senseless act.”

The documentary, which will be released Tuesday on DVD, along with a soundtrack CD, compiles reams of previously unseen footage of the Gits onstage. Clips are taken from early shows when the band’s members were students at Ohio’s Antioch College and include outtakes from the documentary “Hype!,” which featured the Gits alongside such Northwest mainstays as Mudhoney and Dead Moon.

Zapata’s stage presence was remarkable. Wearing a tank top and with her dreadlocks pulled back in a rough ponytail, Zapata seems lost in a trance until she snaps into focus and unleashes a full-throated wail that is equal parts Patti Smith and Janis Joplin. Despite the power of her voice, her lyrics are fraught with vulnerability, a tension that gives the Gits’ songs their edge.

In “Whirlwind,” she sings of loss and confusion in a low, quavering voice over the staccato march of Andy Kessler’s guitar. But as the tempo doubles, so does Zapata’s intensity, her voice leaping up an octave and raging for all its worth.

The Gits released only one album in Zapata’s lifetime, 1992’s “Frenching the Bully.” “Enter: The Conquering Chicken,” released in 1994, was completed after her death. When, with great difficulty, the surviving band members returned to the studio, they were surprised to discover vocal tracks for several songs Zapata claimed never to have recorded.

Perpetually trying to improve her singing, she would sneak off to the studio and record without the rest of the band’s knowledge, telling the engineer to erase what she considered substandard takes. Luckily, the takes were kept, including a powerhouse version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Participating in the documentary was not an easy decision for Zapata’s friends and band mates. Her death was still a raw subject, not least because when O’Kane began filming, the crime was still unsolved, and many were reluctant to relive the pain of her loss.

“It can be pretty awful to have to describe what it was like to go out every night for three months looking for a murderer on your own with a knife and a baseball bat, which is what I did,” Moriarty said.

In an effort to keep the hunt for Zapata’s killer alive, her friends and family cooperated with such newsmagazine shows as “Unsolved Mysteries” and “America’s Most Wanted.”

“Everyone in the band was really reticent at first,” said Moriarty, who runs a website devoted to the Gits’ music. “We were getting sick of people trying to exploit the situation. We felt like they were using our music and Mia’s death to make money.”

But O’Kane’s persistence, and her promise to focus on Zapata’s life as well as her death, eventually earned her their trust.

“I just had two conditions,” Moriarty recalled. “There had to be a lot of live footage, and it had to be funny, because that would reflect her life.”

Neither Moriarty nor O’Kane was able to locate any recordings of Zapata offstage, although Moriarty does remember her doing several radio interviews, which have yet to surface. But Zapata’s friends pay tribute to her oversize personality and generous spirit.

“Everybody was Mia’s best friend,” said O’Kane. “She had a lot of best friends.”

However, after Zapata’s rape and murder, the police, following standard procedure, began treating her friends as potential suspects.

“The one thing the cops would tell us was that they thought it was somebody that we knew,” said Valerie Agnew, drummer for the band 7 Year Bitch, who helped found the self-defense charity Home Alive in response to Zapata’s death.

“It’s just surreal to sit next to somebody you’d been drinking with or going to shows with for so many years and wonder, ‘Did they do it?’ ”

It wasn’t until 2003 that a cold case squad fed DNA from bite marks on Zapata’s body into a national database, which turned up a hit in the Florida Keys. Police now believe Jesus Mezquia, who was convicted of her murder in 2004, had never met Zapata before the night of her death.

Moriarty, who moved from Seattle after Mezquia’s conviction, said making the documentary has helped him heal the wound of Zapata’s death.

“It kind of means closure in a way,” he said. “Now I can put this part of it away.”

For those who knew the Gits in their prime, the movie is a testament to the power of their music, and the promise unfulfilled.

“I think that their music is something that a certain kind of person is always going to find helpful to them,” Agnew said. “They’re going to feel connected to something, even if they weren’t there.”

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