If Alice Bag, front woman for the influential 1970’s L.A. punk band, The Bags, was known for anything it was for her violent tendencies. During her time in the spotlight, Alice was wild, crazy and uninhibited. She hit people at shows. She threatened the audience with her emphatic stage moves. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself (her close friendship with Germs icon Darby Crash ended when a debate about God turned into a drunken fistfight). Her band mate Craig Lee even wrote a Bags’ song called “Violence Girl” to honor Alice and her oddly empowering rage.
Now, at 52-years-old, Alice has calmed the storm. After dropping out of the L.A. punk scene, Alice worked on her degree. The Bags were dead and so was “The Decline Of Western Civilization” punk scene. Hardcore was taking over Los Angeles. Alice became a teacher. She got married. She had a daughter and to kill the housewife boredom, she started a blog called “The True Life Adventures of Violence Girl” where she told stories from her Canterbury House punk days in Hollywood. Her followers grew extensively and this year, the blog became her book “Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story” (Feral House). From her complex relationship to her parents, her unhealthy teenage obsession with Elton John, her childhood as an outcast loner who struggled with grasping English, cheerleader try-outs to her cutting to playing at the infamous Whiskey Go-Go, Alice doesn’t leave anything out.
“[The book] it’s really about how my dad shaped me,” Alice admits. “He was an abusive guy, not towards me but towards my mother, and that left me feeling kind of helpless. I just felt like I didn’t have a voice in the house. It kind of all built up in me until I was able to release it when I was in a punk band. I had an outlet for my rage.”
As a front woman myself, I admire Alice Bag and I have since the first time I heard The Bags song “Survive”. I sat down with Alice to talk about her experiences as a front woman in one of the most interesting scenes in rock n’ roll history, her role as an icon, a writer and how, after 30 years off, she’s found herself back on the road. Somehow, she ended up asking me a lot of questions too.
What was it like putting the book together?
It was easy because I’m so disciplined. When I get into something, I just do it. I’m a creature of habit. Every day I would put my daughter on the school bus, I’d make myself breakfast and I’d sit down and I’d blog on “The True Life Adventures of Violence Girl”. I would try not to let myself get up and have lunch until I had something I could post. I’d get very hungry [laughs]. I’d just force myself to do it. It was good. It a way having that kind of discipline would get frustrating. Near the end I just wanted to finish it, but I’m glad I did it.
How do you feel about reading the book excerpts out loud?
That is kind of hard for me. I’m a schoolteacher so I’m used to reading a certain way, you know? Turning the book around and showing the pictures. I remember the first reading I did, my daughter made a comment that I was reading like a teacher. I was embarrassed. I am really, really scared of speaking in public. So, my friend suggested we just get my acoustic guitar and warm up with a song. As soon as I did a song I felt different about the way I was relating the audience. I felt like they were on my side, my friends and that I could say anything. If I don’t do it, it feels scary. There is a wall there that I can only break with music.
I am very afraid of public speaking, but going on stage doesn’t make me nervous anymore. A lot of people don’t get that.
I think for me it’s that when I was on stage as Alice Bag this different person took for me, this out of control entity that I didn’t fully control. Where as when I’m having a conversation with someone, I feel like it’s just me having a cognitive process. Communication is expressing your ideas where as performance is about expressing emotions. Performance is unrestrained. When you are talking to someone you have to think about what you are going to say. That is why presentations are so much more difficult it’s everything from your slide shows to your outfit, so many components are speaking for you. Music is just free.
I also find that not having an instrument on stage is freeing at times. Like, I don’t have anything to screw up. My job is to let everything go. There is no right or wrong performance and I love that.
Yeah! I bring my guitar to readings because even though I’m not a great guitar player, just because it alerts me where to sing and keeps me in check. If I have people who are willing to play guitar for me, there is danger here because I can get out of control. And I love it! It’s so freeing which is what you are saying, but what happens to me is that I get too into. I mess up the notes. I forget what I’m doing. I’m this close to going over the edge all the time. Do you do that?
Yes. Maybe it has to do with partying too hard before we play or sometimes it’s just that I’m so wrapped up and going mental. But I like it.
Exactly. Art and music are here so that we can express the things we can’t express with words. It’s a way to express the stuff you can’t put your finger on.
How did it feel to come back into performing? What about the media attention?
It’s great. It’s so exciting. I never got to do a lot of touring with my early bands so it’s fun to do it now. I’m married and I have a child so I really didn’t expect to ever do music or tour again in my life, so the fact that I have an excuse, a book, to get me out on the road is wonderful. If someone calls me from a small town in the Mid-West and asks me to come play, I’m considerate. I think, “Can I sell books? Can I get there? Can I sleep on someone’s couch?” And if I can, I go. I’m 52, so I feel as excited as someone who is young like you, and goes out touring with their band. I feel the same kind of excitement. Not knowing what the venue is, the crowd, or even where I will sleep.
You don’t dread it at all?
No way. I mean, I could easily dread it and there are times in my life where I would have, but no I don’t. Even when I would be on tour sleeping huddled up on a wood floor, I’d think it was a great experience.
I have no problem with the floor. I don’t even bring a sleeping bag on tour. I just cross my fingers and hope someone has a blanket I can use.
I used to think I would never do that again. “I’m old I can’t do that anymore.” I guess I had never found the motivation.
Is it weird for you to see all these old videos online of The Bags and to know that your music is still relevant to someone like me? Did you ever think that would happen?
No and I’m glad I didn’t because I probably would have been more self-conscious. Video cameras were rare in those days so there isn’t a whole lot of footage but the stuff that is out there is kind of scary. I don’t like seeing myself. Are you this way? Do you ever look at your own performances and think you were singing better? [Laughs]
Oh yeah, all the time. Why were so set on starting an all-girl band?
I don’t know why. I remember from a very early age watching Josie and The Pussycats and watching Betty and Veronica and thinking an all-girl band would be so cool. I remember having fantasies about being in a cartoonish all-girl band. I tried to talk my friends into playing music so it felt like it could happen. When we first started we were really into glitter, so it was technical music. We were trying to be really proficient, much more so than we needed to be for punk. Punk came in and saved us.
What was the first punk show that really changed you?
The first local show that inspired me was at The Orpheum with The Germs, The Zeroes and The Weirdos. The evening was amazing. It blew my mind. From the minute The Germs got on stage and started doing all this crazy stuff, they could barely play but they had the gumption to preform. It was really fun and exciting to watch. The Zeroes were so tight and Ramones-ish. My boyfriend at the time was drumming in The Weirdos. When they played it was like an explosion of pattern and color. It was a celebration. I fell in love with The Weirdos. They will always be my favorite band. At this time, Patricia and I had been trying to form a band and at that show we realized we didn’t have to wait for the perfect band. We’re just as good. We got inspired. Of course Patricia had the brilliant idea of wearing bags on our heads.
But didn’t that always get ruined on stage because Darby Crash would pull your bag off?
Yes. I told him I forming a band and we were all going to wear bags on our head and he disapproved.
I don’t know. He thought it was dumb. Then, he tried to convince me that the rest of the band could wear bags but I couldn’t because I was the lead singer. We played our first show at The Mask and Darby was there, front row pulling at my bag trying to rip it off my face. He tore a gash on the side of my bag, I was singing and peeking out the gash. In the end, it just came off. Then, we played another show with bags and he did the same thing. He got his way at the end. I just gave up.
You must be kind of glad he did that.
I was. It got hot under there and it’s hard to see. Have you ever worn a bag on your head?
It’s fun for a little while. It was good when I first started because I felt anonymous. I had decorated my bag, so it was a mask. I was conveying emotions on this bag. You don’t look cute when you take it off. We honestly thought we would be anonymous forever. Like, no one would ever know who was in The Bags.
I get wanting to hide behind something. I often use my hair to cover my face on stage so I go wild. I don’t like seeing the audience. I don’t like making eyes.
Wow. You know it’s funny that you say you don’t like catching someone’s eye. I love it! I like to stare into their brains!
It throws me off and I realize that I’m a spectacle.
Just pretend you are sucking their brains out. [Laughs]
Do you look back on that scene fondly?
Yeah, I had a great time. The only thing is that a lot of creative people got hurt or died along the way. Drug use got out of control.
What were you like back then?
I didn’t have a lot of filters. I said anything. I drank a lot. I would go to the liquor store the moment I got up, often in my night slip, and I’d buy a bottle of rum. I was about 18-years-old I don’t know why they sold me booze. I’d get the rum and then I’d go down to the pizza slice place. That was my breakfast. A bottle of rum and pizza. It was all up from there. But breakfast, you know at 2pm.
Did you work?
I worked as an exercise instructor for a while. It was fun! I got my first taste of teaching doing that. I would lead classes.
How did you get that job?
I just wore a good dress and went and applied. [Laughs] I think I just looked the part. I looked healthy though I was not. I was also bilingual which helped. The job didn’t last but I always trying to find temporary work. Punks in L.A., we did a lot of extra work on movies and T.V. shows. I lived off the band for a short time.
Did you ever get nervous performing?
I did. I used to get really nervous. I remember throwing up behind an amp once. I don’t know what I would have done without the nerves. The energy comes form the nerves. I was getting ready for the attack. I didn’t see the nerves as a bad thing at all. It’s part of the whole performance thing. It drove me over the edge.
Did you have any onstage moments that really affected you as a performer?
I had a moment on stage near the end of The Bags where I looked out and I didn’t see my punk community I had come up with and I realized things were changing. It wasn’t the same group I was connecting with and I was not connecting to this group. I realized I should take a break. This ws 1979, so hardcore was coming in. The real quirky, eclectic Hollywood punk scene was dying. People were just kind of weird and now it was turning into a largely white male, aggressive audience. I don’t want to blame this scene for the demise of my scene, but my scene was on its way out. I felt like it was time to move on and do something different. I went to school.
When did you realize you were a feminist?
I realized it pretty early on in life. My dad was very dominant and all the women were afraid of him. I spent my childhood thinking my mother was pretty weak, until I became a teenager and I saw my mother find her strength through work. It made me think about how having a job and brining in money gives you a certain amount of power in your family. Also, the physical difference between a man and a woman tips the scale of power. I had a few women in my life that confronted my father when my mother and my sister would not. They were not afraid of him. I think my mom thought it was not nice to get in an argument with someone and these women felt like, “No, I have something to say.” I loved that. It thrilled me. I realized I was a feminist. I thought that the power was not being distributed fairly in my house and I wanted it changed. I remember the Bobby Riggs vs. Billy Jean King tennis match. That affected me too. It was so distasteful. I started to identify with the feminist position.
Did you have peers in your life you could talk to about it? Did you have feminist friends?
I transferred to an all-girl school. It changed how I saw myself. In class, women were given so many more opportunities, you know, and they seemed so much more confortable with themselves. We cared what we looked like for each other, but we didn’t posture for boys. I felt the difference and I really felt that there was a sisterhood.
Did being a woman of color impact you when you were younger? I mean, people focus on it a lot now.
I think it matters to me now, but not so much then. I was just me getting on stage! We interacted at a level of creativity, race and gender and your background didn’t matter. What happened was that years later, people would say to me, “I saw you and I had never seen a Chicana on stage and it inspired me” or “You were a strong woman and it affected me”, you know? There was meaning I was not aware of. Now I am aware of it. It’s so easy for women and women of color for our histories not to be told. It’s important for me to tell my story because it’s a first hand account of punk rock in L.A. in 1977 and it happens to be told by a woman of color and our histories are generally not there.
It still surprises me that people care. I’ve been a teacher and a stay-at-home mom for so long. I don’t venture into the world as a musician like I used to. Recently when I went to the East Coast I was shocked that people knew who I was at my readings. [Laughs] It’s really emotional! I don’t expect it and I didn’t realize that I had reached that many people. It’s wonderful.
How was punk changed in the last 40 years? Have you kept up?
People always ask me about punk today and I really don’t know because I’m not out there seeing bands like I used to be. I started again because of the book tour but the people that want me to read are already on my wavelength. I did Lady Fest this year and it was such a pleasant shock to me. Group after group of women or that have strong women in them. People of color, people of all communities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer people are represented. For me, that was what the L.A. punk scene was like, a sampling from everybody. My guitarist Craig Lee, his family was pretty much rich. His mother was a producer and they lived in Beverly Hills. How he got into a band with a Mexican girl from East L.A., you know? It was the music! It was just the creativity we had in common. You were striped down to your ideas and it’s not about the other stuff. We bring that other stuff with us, but it’s not what we are exchanging.
(All photos courtesy of Alice Bag )