City Of Angels: Alice Bag

City Of Angels: Alice Bag

FOR V100, HEDI SLIMANE BRINGS TOGETHER GENERATIONS OF STORIED ROCK-AND-ROLL ARTISTS IN LOS ANGELES—WHERE THE SO-CALLED DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION IS JUST ANOTHER REASON TO KEEP ON CREATING LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW. CHECK BACK DAILY FOR MORE FROM THE SERIES, OR SEE THE FULL STORY BY ORDERING THE MARCH ISSUE HERE

FOR V100, HEDI SLIMANE BRINGS TOGETHER GENERATIONS OF STORIED ROCK-AND-ROLL ARTISTS IN LOS ANGELES—WHERE THE SO-CALLED DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION IS JUST ANOTHER REASON TO KEEP ON CREATING LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW. CHECK BACK DAILY FOR MORE FROM THE SERIES, OR SEE THE FULL STORY BY ORDERING THE MARCH ISSUE HERE

Photography: Hedi Slimane

Text: Natasha Stagg

Among the first wave of influential groups to start the punk rock scene in the seventies in L.A. with her band Bags, singer, musician, and author Alice Bag may be one of the most important female voices to emerge from the era. After chronicling her experiences with the movement in her 2011 memoir, Violence Girl, Bags has spent her time focused on community building and activism (primarily in the realms of gender and sexuality), detailed in her self-published book, 2015's Pipe Bomb for the Soul. Here, V Senior Editor Natasha Stagg talks to the rock-and-roll legend about the politics of punk and how the movement has evolved from the seventies to today.

You’re an important member of the original L.A. punk scene, and your role in it was made even more solid when you wrote Violence Girl. It’s an amazing memoir in that it tells your own life story truthfully and emotionally, all while documenting music history that needed these details filled in. Did you start writing because you thought the scene needed it, or because you felt you needed to write?



ALICE BAG I started writing Violence Girl mostly for myself, but a couple months into it, I had to move away from San Diego where our family had been living. My husband could not get a work transfer at the same time so we lived apart for a while. I wrote an entry every day and I would send it to him. I asked him to edit all my entries, not only because I wanted to present clear ideas, but because I wanted to share my story with him. I felt like I stayed connected with him through this process. Creating little vignettes of my life every day and having him read and edit them meant that there was always something to discuss. I think the process of sharing private moments with someone can be very intimate; for my husband and me, it turned into a way to stay close despite the physical distance, but that wasn't the original intent. I wrote the book to tell my story. Before I wrote Violence Girl, I had already been doing interviews with several women who were involved in the early L.A. scene and posting them on my website for a few years. I felt compelled to do this because I realized that the story of L.A. punk was being told mostly by men, and oftentimes by men who weren’t even around at the time. I felt like it was important that I tell my story to help present a more accurate portrait of the scene that I knew and loved.

Do you think L.A. punk started with one or two bands?

AB I don't think it was just bands that started the scene. I think there was a little group of people who were all looking to create something different. So, I would credit the creation of the L.A. scene not just to the bands but to the people who attended shows, the writers, photographers and ’zine makers who documented it, club owners and bookers with open minds who weren't afraid to let weird-looking kids play on their stages, roadies who set up the gear, the artists who designed flyers, the liquor store owner who didn't look too closely at my ID...I imagine people think that X or the Germs were the biggest bands of the time, and those bands have certainly have had a lasting influence but I think if you asked someone who was around in the early days of punk in L.A., they would be more likely to mention the Weirdos and the Screamers as the biggest and most popular bands back then.

Can you list all the bands you’ve played with, and tell us which are the most underrated, in your opinion? 

AB How about if I give you the highlights? I formed the Bags in 1977 with my friend and Bags bandmate, Patricia Rainone (later Morrison). Around 1980, I joined Castration Squad—an early all-female death rock band formed by my former roommate Shannon Wilhelm. The early- and mid-1980s found me giving in to my soul influences and combining them with punk in bands like Cambridge Apostles, Fun House and the Swing Set. It must have been 1985 or '86 when I met Vaginal Davis, who invited me to be part of the Afro Sisters. I played the role of Pussi Washington, where I culturally appropriated the look of an extra in a blaxploitation film and fell in love with Ms. Davis' unfiltered humor. I enjoyed working with Vaginal Davis so much that after the Afro Sisters, I became part of another of her projects, Cholita. Cholita began as a performance group but I managed to turn it into a real band. Ms. Davis made the mistake of appointing me the musical director of the project and in no time at all I was handing people instruments and bossing them around. It remains one of my favorite musical projects. Toward the end of the 1980’s I formed a band called Las Tres with Teresa Covarrubias and Angela Vogel, two Chicana punks from East L.A. We were an acoustic trio, influenced by traditional Mexican trio music and of course, punk rock. It was three acoustic guitars and three part vocal harmonies. I was going through a wannabe Frida Kahlo phase and often braided my hair and wore traditional Mexican dresses. At the same time that I was performing with Las Tres, I was working with Cholita and just to add a little something extra to my plate, I decided to take on another project. I went to see my friend Robert Lopez who had been part of the OG punk band The Zeros. He was performing as El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. I thought his routine was hilarious. After the show he asked me to be a backup singer and I couldn't resist his charm. So as the ‘80s turned into the early ‘90s, I was in three bands. I eventually dropped out of El Vez. I learned a lot as a backup singer but I was much more invested in Cholita and Las Tres, where I was a principle writer. I stayed in those two bands until 1994 when I got pregnant and poured all my energy into trying to be a good mommy. Those early days of motherhood with no creative outlet were difficult for me. It was then that I realized that music was neither a job nor a hobby for me; it was and still is an essential part of who I am. I didn't play music for several years but in the early 2000’s when my daughter was in elementary school, I formed a band called Stay at Home Bomb because I was often staying at home, ticking like a time bomb. Then there was Punkoustica, and the She-Riffs, and eventually just book tours for Violence Girl with a little music on the side. It wasn't until late 2015 that I entertained the idea of immersing myself in music again. I just pulled a bunch of my favorite musicians together and recorded an album of my material, which will be released this coming summer.

It’s easier than ever to document a band’s progress and save its music forever, but only a little while ago, some music was only ever heard at shows. Do you think there is something about that fact that makes newer bands less mysterious, or less cool?

AB No, I like the fact that it's much easier to record music on your own computer. You can't capture the feeling of a live performance on a cell phone, but you can get an idea of whether a band is doing something interesting.

Is there such a thing as new punk music?

AB Absolutely. I see innovative people challenging the world with their ideas and pushing the boundaries with their creativity all the time. There's a lot of inspiring new punk music out there.

What does the word punk mean to you?

AB I think punk is equal parts rebellion, humor, and innovation. It's egalitarian because it doesn't require money, or training, or any special skill, just a desire to make your voice heard and the conviction to find a way to get your message across.

One thing that struck me in Violence Girl that I had not previously read about the punk scene is the honesty about certain conflicting philosophies between members. You mentioned racist remarks made by a woman to you, conversations about nihilism and God between you and Darby Crash, and sexism or misogyny seen pretty much everywhere around that time. Do you think that some of these topics were inherently found in punk rock, seeing as the scene often focused on conflict (which was misconstrued as violence)? 

AB I think punk attracted people who were interested in questioning things that were accepted by the mainstream. Punks loved to barbecue sacred cows, metaphorically speaking of course. The violence was there too. It was fueled by alcohol, hormones, frantic music and unresolved problems; however, it was usually not extreme violence. In many cases, I think the violence was almost therapeutic, at least in my case it was. People who have money can go to a shrink to work out their problems, they can sign up for kickboxing and sweat out their anger and frustration. If you were a poor teenager, you had punk rock.

Have any of the people (like Exene Cervenka’s unnamed friend) apologized, after reading the book, for being so ignorant?

AB No, and I didn't expect her to.

Did you see punk rock, at its inception, as a pretty gender-neutral genre?

AB Completely. In Los Angeles, punk rock was created by a diverse group of people. Gender, color, class, sexual preference: none of those were seen as divisive.

Do you keep in touch with any of the friends you made in bands?

AB Patricia lives in England, but she came out for a visit last year. I do keep in touch with many of my former band mates and old friends. Most of them are on some type of social media.

How has the reception for your second book, Pipe Bomb for the Soul (published in May of 2015, chapters of which had been published on your blog starting May of 2014) been so far? 

AB The response has been good. I expected it to have a smaller audience since it is self-published and not about punk, but I find that I have very open-minded readers. The problem that I've encountered is that I am a one-woman distributor, which wasn't the case with Violence Girl. So I'm more limited in terms of distribution. Self-publishing my second book was great, though; it's thrilling to have total control and total responsibility. It also made me appreciate my publisher even more because I became aware of all the things a publisher does.

Do you still teach? 

AB I don't teach elementary school anymore, but I visit a lot of universities and frequently speak to college students, so in a way, I feel like I'm still teaching.

What are you working on next?

AB I just recorded my first solo LP. It's weird calling it a solo project because I actually called on a bunch of my musician friends to play on it with me. I crowd funded the recording and it funded in just six days, which was really encouraging. It felt wonderful to know that people were there to support me. My friend Martin Sorrondeguy worked on the cover art and I'm looking for distribution options.

Credits: PRODUCTION KIM POLLOCK AND YANN RZEPKA DIGITAL TECHNICIAN ALEX THEMISTOCLEOUS (MILK STUDIOS)  PHOTO ASSISTANTS FRANK TERRY, MATT HARTZ, JAMES PERRY RETOUCHING DTOUCH  EQUIPMENT MILK STUDIOS  LOCATION QUIXOTE STUDIOS  CATERING FOOD LAB

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