Greg Velasquez

Alice Bag's Punk Odyssey

The L.A. punk legend talks about her memoirs and decades-in-the-making solo debut

As lead singer of Los Angeles punk band The Bags in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Alice Bag (née Alicia Armendariz) was emblematic of the West Coast scene: unpretentious, angry, and fun. She shows up in Penelope Spheeris's cult classic The Decline of Western Civilization alongside X, The Germs, and Black Flag. Bag brought a wholly original sensibility to the predominantly white, male world of punk at the time, repping the voice and views of a Chicana woman born and raised in east L.A. Her rebellion against traditional forms of authority represented something very different from the suburban white male teen angst that was quickly typifying West Coast punk. Her voice was her way of battling patriarchy, tradition, and inequality.

In the past three decades, Bag has remained an icon in the L.A. music community — as mentor for other musicians, and as an artist whose work and wisdom migrates through feminism, punk music, history, and Chicanisma. Her memoirs, Violence Girl and Pipe Bomb for the Soul, began as a blog, and tell her life story in evocative spurts. While The Bags disbanded in 1981, Alice Bag, due later this month on New Jersey punk label Don Giovanni Records, is her debut solo album. First single "He's So Sorry" is a scathing indictment of domestic violence cloaked in girl-groupisms recalling Darlene Love’s "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)."

I met with Alice at a coffee shop in the Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles to talk about music, being a "deeply flawed" role model, racial profiling, and the scourge of "gentrifuckation" in east Los Angeles.

How did you decide to write your memoirs?

Alice Bag: I had gone out drinking with some friends of mine, and that always leads to good ideas for me. Some friends of mine were writing a play, and they wanted to write about east L.A. in the '60s and '70s, so they said, “Let’s go out for drinks and tell us some stories." I was telling them stories and drinking and laughing; at one point, one of them turned to me and said, “You really need to write a book.” I went home that night and I told my husband, “You know, Raquel said I need to write a book,” and he said, “I always tell you that and you never listen to me!” In the morning, he left for work, and he left the laptop open, and he had set up a blog for me called The True Life Adventures of Violence Girl — he knows I love the whole idea of comic books and that sensational title. I started writing about my childhood, and soon I found myself compelled to write. I also realized that I had things that I needed to sort, feelings that I hadn’t dealt with.

It was a time of transition for me, because I moved back to Arizona with my daughter, and my husband stayed behind — he was trying to get a transfer from his work — so we were apart for quite a while. I would send him my entries every morning and I would ask him for feedback, and I felt like it was a way that we stayed connected. I felt like, You’re getting to know another side of me that you don’t know. You know my childhood, my adolescence, this way. It was a way to maintain intimacy with him while he was living in another state.

Like love letters.

Bag: It’s kind of like love letters, except it was very one-sided. “Here, this is me, what do you think about me?” [Laughs]

Who were you writing for?

Bag: I mostly wrote it for me. I knew it was going to be a blog, but I didn’t know it was going to be a book, and halfway through I started thinking, This has to be a book. The thing that really shaped it was the fact that I had to post every day, so it had to be short, concise, and very self-contained. I think of it almost like a punk rock song — it’s quick, to the point, nothing fancy about it, it just tells a story. It’s distilled, but you don’t have expectations of being writerly or have to impress somebody. It’s just, like, I have to tell my truth.

There’s that punk thing of the visceral.

Bag: And not letting any kind of preconception of what writing can be or should be stop you.

Louis Jacinto

How come you never made a solo album before this?

Bag: It’s so weird. I’ve been writing songs for such a long time, and I’ve been in bands for years, and I never really stopped to consider the idea of doing a solo album until last year. Once I decided to do it, it felt like the idea was unstoppable.

You work with a lot of younger or new bands. Do you feel like you’ve become a mentor to people in the community?

Bag: I think some people see me as a mentor, and I try to provide constructive feedback when I can. I’m also a deeply flawed individual, so I always tell people to be critical when you take advice from anybody, because I’m not really out there portraying myself as someone whose footsteps you want to follow. Take the things you like about what I’m doing and see how you can incorporate them into your life.

As a woman in punk, do you ever feel the responsibility to represent for other women who want to make music?

Bag: I’ve been a feminist as long as I recall, from before I knew what the word meant, because I grew up in a household where my father ruled with an iron fist and in his world it defined us, so I was always thrilled when a woman talked back to him — I was like, “Yes, go, you tell him.” That’s a part of me always. In every situation, I want to see women talking back, I want to see women standing tall. Also, just as a music fan, I’ve always enjoyed listening to female performers. I am attracted to a woman’s voice, I like to see a woman on stage, I like to see bands that look unusual — not only because they’re made up of different people but because they have different points of view, and maybe they’re coming from different backgrounds. That’s naturally what I like. I don’t feel like I consciously have to go out and support women’s groups, or like I have to speak about feminism because it’s my duty. I just naturally go that way.

What singers inspired you to start singing?

Bag: I really love soul singers. I also really like ranchera music — the music that we listened to in my house when I was a little kid was mostly guys singing ranchera music. It wasn’t until my sister started playing a bunch of soul music for me that I got more familiar with Aretha Franklin and Betty Wright and The Honeycombs. There’s so many. Later on, I remember watching Lady Sings the Blues and getting into Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. Oh man, Bessie Smith, my queen! I just love the way she puts across the feeling of a song, her delivery is just so raw and sexual and in-your-face. Patti Smith, later on, had that same feeling of strength and sexuality and androgyny and power, intelligence to her lyrics. I’m a fan of all those.

How about younger acts right now?

Bag: I really, really like Trap Girl. Their lead singer’s name is Drew Arriola. Fantastic frontperson, dresses up in a super ultrafeminine way and then goes out and just pulls a guy out of the audience and drags him onto the floor. Just wonderful. And I really like The Sex Stains, which is Mecca Vazie Andrews and Allison Wolfe. It’s a band with two lead singers, and I don’t know how they do it, they just seem to ebb and flow really nicely. One will take the front and one will step back a little bit and then the other one will, and it’s just really nice to watch.

Do you go out and see music a lot?

Bag: I go out pretty regularly. I have a lot of friends in bands, and now that I’ve moved back to L.A., I go out more often than I used to. I’ve been a musician for almost 40 years, so I never run out of things to do. I think my difficulty when I’m in L.A. is that there’s so much to do there. I could literally go out every night. I feel like I have to give myself space, because when I lived in Arizona I discovered that being away from my peers and being forced to express myself in solitude, I was really productive. I wrote most of my book in Arizona. It forced me to explore new ways to be creative and to be creative alone. I wrote a lot of songs when I was in Arizona, I took a lot of painting when I was in Arizona, I learned to sew when I was in Arizona. It was a productive time.

Arizona is an interesting place, because it’s so conservative but also a border.

Bag: I lived on the outskirts of Phoenix, near an area called Cave Creek. When I first got there, I remember people riding horses to the supermarket. The area was very conservative, very homogenous — I think I was the only brown person in my neighborhood. When SB 1070 came around, I was very nervous. Every now and then you’d see a police car driving by, and I’d be out on the street walking my dog in shorts and a tank top, and I’d think, If this guy pulls me over, I have to have my ID, I have to prove that I’m a U.S. citizen, and the only reason that they can have to pull me over is the color of my skin. So it was very uncomfortable at times. It also forced me to get to know my neighbors and look beyond their conservative politics and try and find why they were behaving the way they were, and also to put a human face on immigrants. I remember when SB 1070 went down, there were all these protests in L.A. and central Phoenix, and I remember cutting out a yellow star — I wrote on it, “Profile this.” My intention was to draw similarities between what happened in Nazi Germany in the very early stages. I wore it around my neighborhood when I was walking my dog, when I went to the store, and I did get to talk to people that would ask me, “Why are you wearing that?” and I would say, “Well, I want to open up a discussion with you, I want to talk about how you feel about immigrants.” It was so heavy when I first did it, because I could feel people’s gazes. Some were afraid to talk to me, some were ashamed, and some were defiant. But I think, in the end, it helped me to humanize what was happening for some of my neighbors.

That's a really brave thing to do.

Bag: You know, I did the marching and that kind of stuff, but I always felt like sometimes it gets ignored. When it’s your neighbor, when it’s personal, when you know that person, it’s kind of forced — I remember my neighbor was trying to talk to me, and she would look at the star, then look at my face, look at the star, look at my face, until finally she asked about it.

Did you move back to the east side of L.A. when you returned here in 2013?

Bag: Yeah, I moved right back to the area where I was living before I left. It’s changed a lot. I’d been touring, so I had noticed it in little spurts — I’d come out and go, “Oh, that’s different.” I hope that this area can retain the culture that was here and welcome new people that are willing to work to preserve its history.

I’m wondering where things will move in L.A. If everything becomes fancy and gentrified, what is left?

Bag: I personally prefer to call it "gentrifuckation.” [Laughs] People who do it are “gentrifuckers.” But I think [there are] positive things that people could do — hire people from the community, be respectful of who was there before you. There has to be dialogue, and there has to be a space made. You can’t just come in and obliterate and take over and colonize, basically. And on the other hand, I don’t want to feel like I’m shutting out anybody because they have a particular background or they have more money or anything. I don’t want to feel like, "You can’t come, you can’t be part of this." But be part of it in a way that shows respect. When I go to a new place in the neighborhood, I try to see, like, OK, are there Latinos working here? Is our culture being respected and reflected, do they have something for us? Are they inviting or are they like, "No, this is our area, you guys stay out.” I definitely am very sensitive to that.

I remember going to a local café where I was the only person of color that walked in in this area, and I was made to feel very uncomfortable being there, so I left and I never went back again. It surprised me that in my own neighborhood that would happen. I have to also think, Who owns these buildings? Why can’t they just rent them to people that can’t afford to buy them and continue to make a steady profit? Why do they have to sell them and make a huge bundle right now? It seems to me like it’s all cash in for a quick buck, and sell the neighborhood. I think we see that happening in places like San Francisco — that beautiful, diverse city is now becoming a city that’s just a bunch of rich people that don’t bring the interesting cultural mix that it once had. It instantly starts becoming a place that’s not as much fun.