I met Betsy about eight years ago, when I walked into a hair salon on a whim and she happened to be the next available person. She was so genuine and friendly—telling me stories of her days playing bass in her band Blank Its or her past Bellingham bands, Mystery Date, Foxmange, and A Frequency (she'd moved to Bellingham from Napa before settling in Seattle), and talking about how her husband, Johnny Samra, was a phenomenal cook, and they "just knew" from the second they met (they would celebrate that day, March 18, 2000, as their "love-at-first-sight-iversary; they married in June of 2004). She quickly became my all-the-time hairdresser (who put up with my frequent and tedious hair-color changes), and we discovered mutual friends in local bands like the Coconut Coolouts while bonding over our belief that the Funhouse was pretty much the best venue at which to play and/or see a show. It wasn't long before I considered her my real friend (who still put up with my frequent and tedious hair-color changes).
In July of 2010, Betsy and Johnny realized their dream of running their own hair salon and record shop and opened Radar Hair and Records in Sodo—the grooviest shop to get your hair done and buy artwork, records, and vintage clothing while bands like the Cramps or the B-52s blasted through the speakers. Even the waiting area made you feel at home, where you could lounge on the couch and talk to Johnny about the records he'd just added to the stock, or some antique treasure he and Betsy had just found, while their two dogs, Opal and Little Richard, vied for attention. The space hosted giant dance-party ragers, live music, art shows, video shoots (Mudhoney's "I Like It Small" music video was shot there, among others), and eventually a few benefits for Betsy. (The Soup & Bread benefit was amazing: Rows of hot soup, made by her friends and family, lined Radar—everyone donated what they could, ate way too much, and then danced it out to the live bands that played in the evening.) It was a big, colorful clubhouse everyone could be a member of.
Only a year and a few months past the opening of Radar, Betsy was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and, true to form, she joked about it. Joked! Through the close calls and harrowing treatments, no one was more positive or—yes, I have to say it—brave than Betsy. When she wasn't groaning and rolling her eyes about how she'd "managed to ruin the Radar New Year's Eve party they'd been planning by getting sick," she was still doing hair as much as possible and attending shows on her days off from chemo. It'd be midnight at Chop Suey, and there was Betsy—close-cropped hair, thin from the fight, grinning ear to ear and bopping around to the music—making you reconsider your own life trajectory when you almost didn't attend the same show because you were "too tired."
Everyone who knew her rallied around her, and it seemed like she knew half of Seattle. The outpouring of love and support was immediate and forceful, as if these music and art communities were rising to meet Betsy's energy and give it back to her. The benefit shows thrown for her alone were a testament to her knack for bringing people together, and to how many lives she'd affected by living so fully—everyone was there, everyone wanted to help. Through her battle, I think, she showed us how to make things happen, how to have fun in the worst of times, and, above all, how to enjoy every second of time you've got.
I spent time with Betsy the day before she passed, and she was very much alive—her body was frail, but her spirit was right there, as Betsy as ever. Beforehand, I'd panicked about crying in front of her, but that was not the mood when I stepped into her room. There she was—just smiling, laughing, and wearing a thin metal crown like a badass warrior goddess, asking me about my hair and shoes, demanding I show them off to a friend who was in the room. The mood was two girlfriends holding hands, side by side in bed, giggling over the onslaught of Facebook photos people had posted on her timeline—her as a kid, her in an outrageous costume, her curling her lip like Elvis, her playing bass in one of her retro dresses.
When it was time to say good-bye, we hugged tightly with strength I didn't know she still had, and as I left the room, she grinned at me, complimented my outfit, and said, "You look hot!"
Betsy Hansen, ladies and gentlemen, forever.
Lisa Bolson (friend, bandmate): I remember coming up with this minor chord progression and showing it to Betsy—she was the lead singer in our all-female band Mystery Date. She warmed up by reading a piece from a hot Harlequin Romance novel to the tune, and it quickly became a song of oiled dark skin, long black hair, shivering lips, and quivering hips against the moonlight on a beach in Bellingham.
Becky Harbine (friend, bandmate): Mystery Date were one of the first all-girl bands in Bellingham that I can recall—they played garage-inspired trashy stuff, really fun. Foxmange was a band I started with Betsy and our friend Kate Kinney. Betsy hadn't learned to play bass, but she was game to give it a go. At first, I wrote all the bass lines and then taught them to her, but she had so much energy and focus that she took to it rapidly and before long was going strong. We practiced in the basement of an optometry clinic and would always bring shitloads of beer to practice. We put out a cassette, a single on It Is Records, and played lots of shows, opening for Kicking Giant, the Posies, Unwound, Incredible Force of Junior, Sourmash, and many more.
Jana Brevick (friend, event organizer): I remember hanging with Betsy while she was learning to play bass for Foxmange. I tried to see every show! Before that, we met through Becky [Harbine]—she cut and dyed my hair, and we went to shows, went shopping for vintage treasures, and drove around in her rad Galaxie 500, the car her dad loaned her (with plates that said, "Why Not?"). We traveled to Seattle as often as we could for shows. Becky, Betsy, and I would always dance like maniacs, and the best part was, hardly anyone at shows was dancing in the mid '90s—the mode was standing and possibly swaying a bit... then we'd show up and crash around!
Connie Jones-Ostrowski (friend, gallery/venue owner): Betsy was the life of the party everywhere she went—BIG personality, BIG fun, and she brought this spirit when making music. She had this cool, black, pear-shaped bass and provided a steady beat that anchored the songs. She was so confident with her FUCK YEAH attitude—she was a pillar of the DIY music scene in Bellingham.
Brad Roberts (friend, bandmate): I'll always remember playing with her in the Fireflies, a short-lived Seattle band in the mid-aughts. Although the band didn't gel musically, we had the nicest times while taking breaks between practicing, odd as that sounds. This was a testament to Betsy's ability to make anything fun. While most bands not clicking would have called it quits after a few attempts, it was so fun being in a band with Betsy that we pushed on. This reminds me of another time at some random Seattle bar—I had arrived solo to see some band play and saw Betsy at a table laughing and having fun with people I didn't know. I went to join them, but as soon as Betsy left to get a drink, the party stopped. We all just stared at each other with nothing to say. I looked around and realized that they didn't know one another, either. It was a table full of stray dogs that were just drawn to Betsy and the wonderful aura she cultivated. That's what she did. She made people feel good about themselves.
Kimberly Morrison (friend, musician): I can't recall when exactly I met Betsy—something like 15 years ago? I'd see her and Johnny out and about, dressed to the nines and dancing up a storm together. They were always at shows and DJ nights, so it shouldn't have surprised me to discover she played bass, but I was blown away when I saw Blank Its for the first time: Not only did Betsy play the bass, but she was GOOD. They booked a tour out to the Midwest, centered around a show in Chicago for one of Horizontal Action's legendary Blackouts festivals, and being young, irresponsible, and always up for a party, I told them I'd drive them and do their merch if they could get me into the festival. The four of us shared many memorable experiences on tour, including legal van beers in Montana and John Paul accidentally ripping the bathtub faucet out of a motel wall. For all the craziness of that trip, what I still laugh about to this day is driving across "Big Sky Country" conversing about how there really did seem to be more sky around those parts, and certainly more roadkill—like, more than any of us had ever seen. We tried (and, I felt, were successful at) identifying the carcasses that seemed to show up about every few hundred feet, until there appeared a weird, white bulbous thing on the side of the freeway. While the boys and I stammered to ourselves about what exactly was before our eyes, there came a shriek from the back of the van. "What the fuck IS that!? It looks like a fucking PENGUIN!" A fucking penguin, on the side of the road in Montana. Of course! Betsy was always smiling, always laughing, and it was impossible not to smile and laugh in her presence. When I think of her, I think of records, white go-go boots, that ever-present megawatt smile, her impeccable style (and hair!), and the squeal you were guaranteed to hear within a 200-yard radius of her: "JOHHHNNNNYYYY!" Things are a lot quieter without her around.
Kelly O (friend, photographer): I was immediately drawn to Betsy the very first minute I met her. This was probably because she was dressed as a giant slice of pizza. I was at the Sunset Tavern in Ballard, and if I remember right, the Coconut Coolouts were playing. It was fun, but it was 1,000 times MORE fun when Betsy the Dancing Pizza showed up. Betsy could light up a room like that. Her lust for life, and for "fun-having," always seemed to parallel my own. Like my mom always says, "Only boring people get bored." I don't think I ever knew Betsy to act bored anywhere, or at any time. I will always remember her shining light. And think of her whenever I eat pepperoni pizza.
Dan Paulus (friend, musician): When Adam Ant came to town last year, I bought two tickets as soon as they went on sale, figuring I'd find someone to go with me when the time came. I wasn't terribly close to Betsy, but when the show date approached and I saw Johnny posted a request to see if anyone could get Betsy into the concert, the decision was made. I think she was in the middle of chemo at the time, though we didn't talk about it at all before the show as we chatted at the Nightlight. We got to the Showbox just as Adam started. We stood in the back—Betsy smiling and singing and grooving along. It was getting pretty hot and heady in the venue, when about halfway through the show, Betsy started to slump against me. When I realized she was going down, I grabbed her and tried to keep her upright the best I could, but she had a good six inches on me, and even with what the disease and treatment had taken from her body, she was a tough broad to contain. Security rushed over, and I explained she was a cancer patient so they wouldn't just think she was a sloppy drunk. "I know," said the security lady, as she helped me get Betsy to a seat in the raised area next to the soundboard. Someone ran off and got Betsy some water, and as I was trying to figure out how to get her out of the venue, and get Johnny back as quickly as possible to fetch her, she said, "No, I want to see the show." A chair and a cup of water was all she needed, and we sat and smiled all the way until Adam closed with "Physical (You're So)." Afterward, Johnny pulled up out front, with their pups Opal and Little Richard in the passenger seat, unaware of any issues and ready to escort Betsy back home. She climbed in and thanked me for the show—unwilling to let anything get in the way of her doing what she wanted.
Pete Capponi (friend, musician): I watched Betsy fight her way back from death's door on two different occasions. The life force inside her was a visible, visceral presence in the room, like the best music, you know? Lacey Swain said it best: "She's the one that wants to live the most out of all of us. It's not fair." Betsy is the best example of a human being, and the best example of how to value your life and the time you have with the people you love. She danced through life in this effortless way, but she was as creative and hardworking as anyone I've ever seen. Most of my memories of her are her dancing around. Really! And, of course, saying "Jaaaw-neeey!" I would give anything to hear her say that one more time. I remember playing a Telemesser show (to about 10 people at the Funhouse) pretty soon after she got out of the hospital two years ago. Some guy in the front row moved out of the way, and I saw Betsy Hansen was there, totally dancing and smiling with Johnny next to her. They were, ya know, just checkin' out my new band! HA-HA! I exploded with pride and I almost cried. I couldn't believe she was there! Like, two months earlier I was saying good-bye to her on her deathbed! She was as tough as they come—less a human being than a force of nature.
Min Yee (friend, musician): Betsy was always so nice to me whenever I saw her. Whether it was a Blank Its show, an A-Frames show, or a party, she always seemed to be so positive and happy. It was infectious, and I would be happy just to see her. I'm very lucky to have known her.
Amelia Bonow (friend, promoter, organizer): Betsy cut a wide swath through Seattle, and over the years she created and participated in a range of creative communities. She was constantly on the move, always making or organizing something while talking a mile a minute. Because she was so incredibly genuine, dynamic, and kind, many people who engaged with her just a handful of times felt that they could call Betsy a friend, and they were right. When Betsy got sick, people came from every corner of town and rallied hard with countless different fundraising efforts and means of emotional support, which Betsy and Johnny felt everyday. It might not have softened their pain, but at least they knew that they were surrounded by love. This tidal wave of support was a testament to the life that Betsy lived and the woman who she was, and also to the power of community to help lift one of its own through darkness. Watching this happen blew everyone away, and watching Betsy confront her own mortality with grit, grace, and the boldest gallows humor till the very end changed a whole lot of lives.
Travis Ritter (friend, DJ): Betsy just radiated in the room—a vivacious personality with a spunky attitude, sassing our friends' bands while they were onstage, all in good spirit, and she was always smiling, having a laugh. It's weird thinking about all those times we shared together: the Pizza Fest weekends, the garage/punk shows at the Funhouse, the video shoots and wildly epic parties at Radar, the last Halloween at Bogart's, where Betsy dressed up as Nosferatu (because what better costume is there for a spunky individual who lost her hair from chemo treatments?).
The Betsy Hansen Benefit at Highline this past May truly felt like a Funhouse reunion. Everyone was there, including the star of the night, who was wheeled to the front of the stage—the place where she almost always was at shows. She meant a lot to everyone, and that hit me deeply when she was diagnosed. She and Johnny are integral pieces of the Seattle punk fabric, and they really turned their business into a versatile space that was all business in the day, party in the night—an eye-catching clubhouse where everyone could be a member. She really put her whole heart into everything she did. Even when she was at her weakest, her strengths were resonating throughout the hearts and minds of all who knew her.
Carlos Fernandez (friend, filmmaker): I'd known Betsy and Johnny for years through the music scene, and they were always a sweet, hilarious, and all-around dynamic couple. When they opened up Radar Hair and Records, I—along with anyone who set foot in that place, I'm sure—was blown away by how cool of a space it was, and I admired the breadth of vision they had for it. It was a business, sure, but it felt more like a clubhouse, and I was very grateful when they opened up the space for us to do some filming over the years. As a filmmaker, having an accommodating venue is one thing, but feeling like you're part of the family, and that they are as excited for the project as you are, is invaluable. It's a testament to her sense of community and ambition that so many were drawn to a place that seemed to hum with inspiration—you could see the influence of her eye and touch everywhere you looked. It was something rare, something special, and something that will sorely be missed by this city. Love you, Betsy, there will never be another like you.
Tim Cook (friend, avid music appreciator): I had just moved back to Seattle from San Francisco in 2010. Upon my return, I found that almost all of my old friends in Seattle had moved on with their adult lives, and I spent a lot of evenings going to rock shows alone.
I met Betsy Hansen the Sunday afternoon after Seattle's best-curated rock festival, Pizza Fest, on the rumor that one of the headliners, Personal and the Pizzas, were to play a bonus afternoon show at Radar. I had never been to Radar before, and as it happened, I arrived two hours early. Betsy heard my knocking at the front door and put down her broom to greet me. She smiled and confirmed the Pizzas set, pointed me to a table full of snacks, and told me that I should relax, have a beer, and hang out for a while until the show started. This was typical of Betsy. Over the next years, I have been humbled to have been included in her life as a friend. Betsy and Johnny have shown me, and everyone fortunate enough to know them, how to unconditionally love, to care, to be kind, and, most importantly, how to live. Betsy and Johnny proved they are the gold fucking standard of living the right way, for the right reasons, with love.
In January I found myself alone at a Spits show at Chop Suey. I felt a tap on my shoulder to find Betsy, near the end of a long battle with cancer, smiling ear to ear. We danced for the entire set. We were so happy.
Brian Foss (friend, booker): I met Betsy via her great band Blank Its. Their first 7-inch had the word "the" printed on it, but crossed out; they were not the Blank Its, they were just Blank Its—don't forget it, brother! Betsy was such a rad person to do shows with—early on, I did sound at the shows I booked, and I think I started booking shows with Blank Its around 2002 at Zak's. I have many great memories of joking around with Betsy while I was fucking around with the stage mics. I personally loved Blank Its, and in fact, I even offered to manage them once. The band smartly declined—I'm sure my vodka budget would have broken them. I booked Blank Its on the first official night the Funhouse was open, November 1, 2003. I think the last show I booked them with was my fifth wedding anniversary show in 2010, with the Spits, Head, and my sister Holly's band, Thee Headliners.
I remember the first time I saw her at the Funhouse after she was diagnosed—I hadn't seen her in months, and I was so happy to see her out. I could barely stop myself from getting all morose and sobby as I talked with her, but I kept it in. She and Johnny stayed for half a show, then she got tired and had to leave. After she left, I finally burst out crying—luckily my wife, Cyndi, was at the Funhouse, and I was able to talk it out with her. I hate cancer. I hate feeling powerless.
I really wish I knew Betsy better—she was always such a pleasure to talk with, and I really think her band was way underrated. She came out to a show I booked on Halloween night in 2013, and she also came out to my birthday show in December of 2013—she was looking pretty good around then, and I kept bugging her to play music again. I hoped I wasn't being too pushy or anything—I just really missed her band. And now I miss her.
Lacey Swain (friend, musician): My most vivid memory of Betsy obviously involves music, but probably not in the way you'd think. My husband and I live in South Park, which is pretty close to Betsy and Johnny's place in SeaTac, and since it has always been difficult to get folks to travel south to either of our homes, the four of us oftentimes ended up spending weekend nights at their place, having cocktails and bullshitting until the wee hours. One night in December, we went over to their place, and when I opened the front door, the first thing I saw was Betsy sitting on the edge of the couch smiling and bopping her head around while loudly singing along to whatever '60s Christmas carol record she was playing. Johnny was nowhere around, and it was immediately obvious that she was not doing this for anyone's benefit—she was doing it for her love of music and for the pure joy she experienced while listening to these songs from her childhood. The night she passed away, another friend asked me who her favorite band was, and the only thing I could say was "I know she's heavily into Christmas music."
I honestly can't recall ever seeing a show at the Funhouse where she and I weren't up front dancing like crazy old ladies, and watching her play bass in Blank Its was always a great time because it was clear that she was having so much fun. When Betsy and Johnny opened Radar Hair and Records in Sodo a few years back, I remember being struck by how important it was to her to have bands and art shows as often as possible at the shop. Sure, it was a salon, and she was an amazing hairstylist, but I think her biggest thrill was hosting shows there and bringing all of her friends together for a good time.
Above all, I believe Betsy cared most about making the world a less shitty place in whatever ways she could, but mainly through hairdos and fashion, music, community, politics, and art. When she was initially diagnosed, I wasn't worried for a second—people beat cancer all the time, right? The first time she came close to dying, less than six months after her diagnosis, everyone at the hospital kept giving her 72 hours tops, but she proved them all wrong and lived another two years, which is not only totally amazing in its own right, but also speaks volumes about Betsy's tenacity, courage, and passion. Betsy is a smart, funny, and super-tough lady, and I know I never thought the cancer would win. It didn't seem possible—she absolutely loved being alive, and she was damn good at it, too.
I was at the house the night she passed away, and it was one of the most beautiful and special moments of my life. I remember looking around the room at her family and friends, wishing there was something I could do to make them feel better, when, for the first time that evening, I became aware of the song that was playing on the radio. It was "Let the Little Girl Dance" by Billy Bland, and this time I smiled when I looked around the room because I knew that was exactly what Betsy was doing wherever she was now.
Elizabeth "Betsy" Ann Hansen (December 16, 1965–June 6, 2014) is survived by the love of her life, Johnny Samra, their dogs, Opal and Little Richard, and a large and loving family that will miss her forever.
An Irish wake for her will be held at the Stables in Georgetown on July 20 at 4 p.m., followed by a Viking funeral at Hood Canal the evening of July 21, 2014.