“She looks like a Babylonian Gorgon,” a reviewer once wrote of Alice Bag in a show review. Her then-band, the Bags, was at the forefront of the late seventies punk scene in Bag’s native Los Angeles. The music was loud, fast, and aggressive, and Alice, the Bags’ central figure, was known for her explosive performance style both on and offstage. The music and the painful interpersonal deterioration of the band was documented in Penelope Spheeris’s cult 1981 film, The Decline of Western Civilization.
In January 2012, I got to meet Alice Bag, who is touring with her book Violence Girl: East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story, and she is warm, open, and forthcoming. She tells me she considers herself somewhere between archivist and activist, rendering and conveying the electrifying aura of the original Los Angeles punk scene in both her memoirs and her collection of extensive online documentation. Alice’s book is a conversational glimpse into her life with music, in vignettes hilarious and dark. It moves through her days as the only child of two immigrants in a tense household in East LA, to musician embodying the Violence Girl onstage, to blogger and author.
The Rumpus: You’ve just returned from a book/music tour, during which you read excerpts from your book and coordinated with musicians from all over the country to form different backing bands. Were there any favorite moments?
Alice Bag: I was very excited and a little bit nervous going into it. I’d never performed on the east coast and wasn’t sure what I could expect. Turns out I had nothing to be nervous about because despite the fact that I didn’t know many people out there, I had an enormous amount of support from the onset.
Chris Strunk from Ladyfest Boston spearheaded the campaign to take Violence Girl to the east coast. He put me in touch with organizers in different cities who then put me in contact with local musicians. It was an amazing experience, the musicians were very generous with their time and talent. Each new ensemble added their own flavor to the songs. Along the way, artists designed flyers for the shows, my social media buds spread the word and I had great turnouts. I felt like I’d been adopted by a community I never even knew existed.
The reading at Bluestockings in NYC was especially sweet. If you’ve read Violence Girl, you’ll know that I affirm NYC as the birthplace of punk rock in the 1970’s, so in a way it was like coming home to where it all began for me. I’ve always felt like NYC is a taste-making city and so when I saw the room filling up I got excited. The audience laughed at the right spots and responded the way I hoped so I knew they were on my side. I floated out of the bookstore like a Thanksgiving Day balloon!
Rumpus: You said the book – originally a blog – started on a dare from a friend. How cohesive was it at first, and when did it start to seem like a book?
Bag: I’d been blogging for many years before I started blogging Violence Girl. I have a completely different blog called Diary of a Bad Housewife that one’s just for spilling whatever’s on my mind. The idea of writing a book seemed overwhelming to me and even though I was a blogger I didn’t think of myself as a writer so when I considered the idea of writing a book from that perspective it seemed preposterous. In contrast blogging my story was a manageable task because it was a format with which I was comfortable and familiar.
Rumpus: How often did you write?
Bag: I wrote Monday through Friday as soon as my daughter was on the school bus. I’d pour myself a cup of coffee and get to work. My goal was to post a little vignette everyday. It was pretty straightforward from the onset. I had my mother’s photo albums which were in loose chronological order so it was easy to start looking at an early photo album and remember a story about the photo. I worked my way through the whole book by looking at photos, fliers, newspaper and magazine articles, receipts, letters, postcards, all this stuff my mom had packed away in the garage for years and years. She grew up during the depression, so not only did she have great recycling and DIY chops, she had hardcore hoarding instincts.
I imagined it as a book and felt it was cohesive from the beginning but my husband, who edited my drafts often helped keep me on the right track. It would have been too easy for me to tell anecdote after anecdote and lose track of the central theme.
Rumpus: Yeah. The book is intense and confrontational, but its anecdotes (and people) are also often hilarious. Are there, as I imagine, many more stories that did not make it in the editing process?
Bag: Yes, my husband kept me focused on the story. I tend to meander through my thoughts when I’m writing. Luckily I had two blogs, and The True Life Adventures of Violence Girl was the one I used for writing the book; Diary of a Bad Housewife is [the other blog] and I post a variety of content on that. Some of the stories that didn’t make it into Violence Girl were posted on Diary of a Bad Housewife.
Rumpus: You have said the book is a kind of oral history, one person’s perspective of a specific slice of space and time. You’ve also conducted a series of interviews under the flag “Women of LA Punk.” How did you find yourself taking on the role of historian?
Bag: I wanted to make sure that the scene was documented the way I remembered it, not because it’s better or truer than anyone else’s first-hand experience account but because it’s equal to any other first-hand account. Each person who experiences an event filters it and views it through his or her own perspective. To get at the truth, you have to have as many perspectives as possible. That’s why it makes me so angry that non-Anglo histories are currently being suppressed in Arizona colleges and universities.
The Women in L.A. Punk interviews are just a way for the women who were involved in the early scene to contribute their perspectives. Some of the ladies have their own blogs and websites but others don’t and the web page gives them a forum. I don’t know if I would call myself a historian. I think of historians as people who collect and interpret data, I see myself more as an archivist, except I have a point of view so maybe I’m more of an activist or an archivist?
I don’t think I can overemphasize how important it is to document your artwork and the work of your community. There have always been people of different ethnicities and different sexual orientations and gender identifications involved in meaningful art and social movements, but they are largely invisible because the people who were documenting – the historians – filtered them out.
Rumpus: Such an important point — the more perspectives the better and more complete the history. What kind of reaction have you gotten from the women you interview for this project?
Bag: It’s been really positive. What I like about it is that it’s not just the band members being interviewed, it’s the whole community that made the scene happen. With each story you really start getting the feeling that women were involved in every capacity. They were roadies, photographers, writers, musicians – everything the guys were doing, the ladies were doing.
Rumpus: Musically, you were at the helm of something completely unknown. Did it seem like brand new territory at the time, or did the realization that you were a part of something huge come later?
Bag: It did feel like it was brand new territory, I knew that participating in the punk scene was changing me but I had no idea that it would grow into something that would affect and inspire so many people.
I think the unexpected effect of the punk scene was the sense of empowerment that comes from being part of a community that works together to achieve common goals, even if our goals as teens were mostly just to be creative and have fun. The punk spirit, the DIY attitude, the feeling that we can steer our lives and circumvent the powers that be lingers long after the pogoing has stopped.
Rumpus: You write “It seemed to me that the early LA scene was unconsciously egalitarian. […] Everyone involved in the punk scene provided an accurate sampling of LA’s misfit population.” (195) How and when did this change? What shifted in the scene for that to happen?
Bag: As the punk scene expanded in 1979/1980 it reached different neighborhoods, different communities across America. The great thing about that was each community could add its own unique flavor to the mix, however as it spread into the mainstream, I think it picked up mainstream values. It became commercialized and instead of being an art movement that cherished originality, innovation and challenging the status quo, you ended up with some scenes that leaned towards homogeneity and mirrored patriarchal values. I can’t think of anything less punk than that.
Rumpus: The title of your book is from a Bags lyric, but you write about the idea of Violence Girl as something that precedes you (“the seeds of Violence Girl were sown long before I was born”), a transcendent force that overtakes you. The book also contains an emphasis on dualities, like in the passage where you describe your love of Bruce Lee movies and their well-defined roles of thugs and heroes. What do these doubles mean for you, the narrator?
Bag: There are several things that happen when, as a child, you see the adults in your life behaving in ways that seem inconsistent with how you have come to imagine them to be. Initially there’s confusion and maybe even a little bit of disbelief. We treat children to very simplistic explanations of humanity, we tell them people are either good or bad, so when people exhibit both traits and we all eventually do, it can be difficult to know what to do with that new information. It’s hard to figure out how to relate to someone who does good things one minute and bad things the next. In my book, my father is both a doting parent who showers me with unconditional love and the man who abuses my mother. I had to deal with conflicting emotions, I hated and loved my father equally. Experiencing these seemingly contradictory emotions forced me to have empathy for people because I could see the complexity of human nature.
I think it’s probably a feeling that victims of domestic abuse can relate to. Nobody marries thinking they’re going to get Mr. Hyde. I think we all expect our partner’s behavior to be consistent with what they’ve projected in the past. So when the abusive side shows up there’s an element of confusion and disbelief because that’s not the person you thought you were getting, but understanding that people can harbor both sides and that perhaps they are even two sides of the same coin can be another way of looking at that behavior. Sometimes the very thing that makes someone a passionate partner in one instance makes that same person a formidable foe in a different situation. I found a little bit of solace in understanding the duality of my father’s nature.
Rumpus: How do you think the idea of Violence Girl would have manifested without the presence of music in your life?
Bag: I think I would have found some other outlet and I’m certain that if it couldn’t be creative it would have been destructive. Music gave me a chance to express my anger in a more positive way. When I was just a little girl I had a recurring dream that I whipped my father to death and years later when I was part of Las Tres, I wrote a song called Happy Accident about a woman who kills her abusive husband. The song was inspired by my father. I think this is why the arts are so important to our society: they can be an outlet, a positive way to express all kinds of ideas, including subconscious thoughts that can poison someone if they aren’t addressed, ideas that we may not even be aware of and which are too fragile to be caught in a web of words can find expression in art. Music and art allow people to communicate the ineffable.
Rumpus: Despite the harrowing scenes of abuse that take place between your parents, you speak about your father with a kind of tenderness. You also openly discuss your conflicted feelings watching your mother’s abuse (“My mother’s inability to act – even to defend her own life – sent my anger rising to the surface”). Then, the sentiments echo in scenes like the altercations with your boyfriend Nickey. What was it like to confront – and connect – your memories of these experiences?
Bag: Writing the book forced me to face unresolved conflicts, like the feeling that my parents were trapped in a terrible relationship that they had created but which they had no idea how to repair. It wasn’t just my father who created the relationship; my mother chose to stay. I felt a lot of guilt about my anger toward her but I honestly feel that there was an alternative for my mom and she refused it. She used to tell me that she stayed with my father for my sake which made me feel that I was somehow to blame for her situation. So although I held my father ultimately responsible and I was angry with my father’s reprehensible and inexcusable behavior, I was also angry with my mother’s inability to escape.
This reminds me of the classic song “My Man”: I first heard the song being sung by Sarita Montiel. In Spanish, it sounded like a passionate love song about loving your man through thick and thin. A few years later I heard Barbara Streisand sing it and I started to think that it was a little depressing. Then I saw Marcus Kuiland Nazario perform it. He walked out onstage on crutches, his body covered with bandages, sporting cuts and colorful bruises and it finally dawned on me that the song I loved and had found so passionate was really sick!
Seeing the ways in which I was similar to my father was also a source of pain for me, but that’s the kind of pain that is helpful. At least when the problem is mine, I can deal with it. When I see my flaws, I know what I have to change. I do have a say over who I become, so seeing an ugly side of me is painful but it’s an opportunity to improve. Over the years, ugliness has moved in and out of my personality but I keep a look out for it and never let it get a foothold. I don’t want to accidentally end up looking back on my life to find that I’m ashamed of myself, I want to live a life I can be proud of.
Rumpus: It seems you did a lot of your commentary about growing is written through the lens of your female friendships, first with the girls at school, then later with Shannon and the other women of the community around you. You have also collaborated with women in many projects and capacities. How important has this been? How do friendships and relationships with women inform you now?
Bag: My relationships with women are very important to me. When I was growing up, it seemed to me like my mother isolated herself. I think that isolation creates a hospitable environment for abuse. If my mother had had strong female friends to support her she may have been able to find her own strength to fight back or escape her situation. I think I’ve always intuited the importance of surrounding myself with women I admire who can inspire me and I also try to be there for women who need my strength, especially now that I’m older. I feel like a very powerful crone.
Rumpus: What is next for your work, both musically and for the book?
Bag: I’m always writing songs but I don’t have a regular band to play with in Arizona. If I did, I would love to record some new music, maybe some old songs too. My plan right now is to explore the possibilities for Violence Girl. I’d like to see it on the big screen, and I’d also love to see it in a graphic novel format which is how I originally imagined it.