#ThrowbackThursday: Alice Bag
Alice Bag grew up in East Los Angeles during the 1970’s in a working-class Mexican home, listening to rancheras and soul music, learning style and attitude from the cholas at her high school. Discovering punk during its transition from glam and fronting one of the first bands in the Los Angeles scene, The Bags, Alice came of age alongside contemporary concepts of DIY and before the narrative of punk as a boys club. While The Bags released only one single, they are considered a staple of the early punk bands in the U.S. and are featured in Penelope Spheris’ iconic punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. After the Bags split up in the early 1980’s, Alice went on to perform in bands like Castration Squad (featuring members of Red Kross, The Go-Go’s and Nervous Gender), Las Tres, Goddess 13 and Cholita (a collaboration with genderqueer performance artist Vaginal Davis).
After taking a break from music to help raise her three daughters, Alice returned to music in the early 2000’s with the band Stay at Home Bomb, followed by the release of her memoir Violence Girl in 2011. Referred to as a Chicana punk icon, she has also spearheaded the Women in LA Punk Archives, highlighting the many contributions made by women to the first generation of punk. As if there were any doubt of her own contributions, in 2015 Alice released a book of diary entries called Pipe Bomb for the Soul from her time working at a school in Nicaragua in 1986 while the country was under Sandinista control. In recent years she has also participated in multiple Women Who Rock conferences and the Chicas Rockeras camp in Southeast LA.
Despite being a prolific performer and writer, none of Alice’s bands formally recorded or released a full album. For the first time, Alice released an LP on Don Giovanni Records on June 24, 2016. Joined by friends from the LA scene, the rock record shares her opposition to institutions like Monsanto or unjust U.S. immigration laws. The feminist powerhouse spoke with me about her activism, rewriting the inaccuracies of punk history and maintaining a relationship with music during parenthood.
I’m really interested in the transformative power of music. How do you relate to that as a singer or as a lyricist?
Well, what happened to me was when I first got on stage I had an experience that really changed me. I remember being on stage and looking out into the audience and the first few rows usually have light from the stage and then the back is dark. As I was singing and feeling the energy of the audience with me I remember looking out and thinking, “If I slow down, they’re gonna slow down. If I do a certain thing, they’re gonna react to me.” So I felt a connection with the audience. But then, as I looked out into the darkness I realized that it could be infinity. I could be singing to the universe. I had this epiphany where I thought I could change the world. I could steer the course of the future. I could really change things and the way I do it is by connecting with other people, which is what I was doing on stage. So it was going through music, but really it was that music is what got me on the stage. But it was the connection that really changed me.
You recently donated some of your recent pre-order sales to Peace Over Violence (a domestic violence prevention center). Are there specific causes or other issues that you’d like to raise awareness around through performances or record sales?
I think domestic violence is up there on my list of concerns because it just doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of attention, or not the attention it deserves. I feel like we think of ourselves as a society that’s so advanced, yet there are still people trapped in relationships where they feel that they can’t get out for whatever reason. It could be the relationship itself, it could be a co-dependent relationship, it could be because of financial reasons, it could be because there are children that would be displaced. There are so many reasons why people feel compelled to stay in a toxic relationship and we as a society need to provide some kind of support. I mean, we do it with our friends, but some people become isolated when they get into these relationships. That’s part of the process by which an abuser controls the person that he or she is abusing. They actually take them out of the community and out of the relationships that they have and make their relationship the center of that person’s universe. So I am concerned that we don’t pay enough attention to domestic abuse.
You’ve mentioned that when you had your first daughter, you had a hard time balancing music and being a parent. I’m curious now that you’re much more active in music again, if you separate your family life from your identity as a musician at all, or if there’s a good way you’ve found to balance the two things.
The easiest answer for that is that my daughters are much older now, they’re not as dependent on me as when they were younger. As soon as all my daughters were in school, it became easier. But again, another area that we as a society need to have a conversation about. A mother, or father, or any kind of single parent that is trying to do it all, trying to work, trying to provide a home, needs support, and we often don’t provide any. I wasn’t a single parent but my husband worked all the time so I really felt isolated. I wasn’t close to my family. My parents, by the time my daughter was a toddler, had both passed away. So I didn’t have that support. I suppose it’s about finding a situation where you can have some creativity because if you don’t find that...it’s like deciding I’m just going to give all my food to my kid and not feed myself. Now eventually you’re gonna shrivel up and die. You have to take care of feeding not only your body but your soul. You have to take care of yourself for your child.
I totally agree and I think I’ve seen a lot more conversation around that in the past few years in terms of supporting parents who even just want to go to shows, let alone be a musician.
I’m also wondering about your project the Women in LA Punk Archives. I think it’s such a valuable project from a historical preservation standpoint, so I’m curious what motivated you to start that and if there’s anything new coming up with that project?
I’m always trying to approach women and remind women to do interviews that I send them. A lot of times I end up talking to old friends and I send them an interview and they say, “Oh yes I’d be happy to!” but then they forget. So I have a new one that I’m trying to finish up, so hopefully that will be up soon. I can’t say when, because it’s not up to me! But what got me motivated was the fact that over the years there started to be this writing about punk rock in a way that excluded or diminished the role of women. There was a lot of focus on the male players, and I felt like it was another taste of women being erased from history. I really think the LA punk scene would not have happened at all if it weren’t for women. The Masque that was pretty much ground zero for LA punk, it was supposed to be a rehearsal studio and the women in the band Backstage Pass actually signed the lease on that. They weren’t Brendan Mullen but they’re never written about in the same way Brendan Mullen is written about. He booked the bands but they actually signed the lease because Brendan wasn’t a US citizen and for some reason he could not get the space without a co-signer, so the ladies did that. They helped create that and the same thing with the bands. Most of the bands had women in them. Clash magazine had women writers, women photographers, and people making zines, a lot of them were women. You had Generation X, different zines that were being put together by women. Women roadies. Everything. Every role that could be played by a guy was played by a woman as well. There wasn’t this whole sense of gender roles, which was refreshing. You could just be a person. You could just be: I am a punk. Which was nice, because the whole idea of class and ethnicity and gender, all of that was second to the fact that you were a punk, first and foremost. You were somebody that was creating your world, creating your reality, creating your environment, and challenging the system. Challenging the status quo. Just by being yourself. You didn’t even have to try to do it, you were doing it by just being yourself.
I feel like this must be endlessly frustrating to read about a scene that you were a part of and knowing that there’s so much left untold and that women are being left out of it for no reason. Especially a lot of the behind the scene stuff that you were talking about, it ends up looking like a boys’ club when really not many people were even thinking about whether or not women were involved.
I don’t think anybody did. I think at the very beginning, when glam was transitioning into punk. Because a lot of people who were getting into punk were transitioning from glam. I think at the very beginning I was coming at it and a lot of my friends were coming at it from the background of glam. And glam was pretty sexist and the role of women in glam was much more of a myth. So when I wanted to form an all-girl band, I was coming from that glam place. Seeing someone like The Runaways or hearing about Suzy Quattro, those were our role models, but then there were also the groupies that were being glamorized in rock magazines. So there was a whole different way of looking at your role in rock. When punk came along, suddenly you didn’t have to be the sexual kitten. You could be a powerful entity on your own and I felt like punk really just allowed us to be people. We could choose to show the side of yourself that we felt like showing at the time. I could wear something that might be seen as masculine or feminine on any given day. I remember one time, here’s another example of Backstage Pass, where Genny Body, one of the members of the band, had drawn a line through the middle of her face and one side was very feminine and that side of her was dressed in feminine attire and the other side was very masculine. I thought that was amazing and I loved that. Showing that hey, I’ve got more than just…I’m a whole person.
I know that you were also coming out of an era of music that had people like David Bowie and that you had seen Patti Smith perform and that was a way to express that side of things.
Seeing Patti was huge. I loved glam, I grew up with it, and all the weirdos were into glam, but I have to admit that the roles of women in that were very limited. Seeing Patti Smith was really a game changer for me. She was the first woman that I had seen that had a real sexual presence on stage that wasn’t that sort of cliché I’m gonna wear high heels and a push up bra, big hair, not to say that there’s anything wrong with that, by all means, I love that too. But I loved that she could just be this woman in a t-shirt and jeans that would convey all this intense sexual energy. It didn’t feel like she was trying to be sexy, she was just, I don’t even know. She was just powerful.
She presented another possibility.
Your new record came out on Don Giovanni, a fiercely independent label. How would you compare working with a current independent label with how things worked previously, with The Bags or your earlier bands? Obviously so many things have changed, but it seems like Don Giovanni is a great fit.
I think Don Giovanni is a perfect fit for me. Perfect. Everything I discuss with Joe, I feel like he’s reading my mind. He’s right there with me, he’s ready to support me, I feel like it’s perfect. My other experiences, I only have a single that I did with The Bags when I was 18 years old. So I really didn’t pay too much attention to the workings of it. I was just glad to have a record out. Years later the record company sold the rights to other labels and it has been reissued countless times. Some people have taken the time to ask me for my input, some people have given me records, and some people have just ignored me and not asked me for my input or paid me. But I never set out to do music for that, I was pretty ignorant as a young recording artist. My stance is vastly different with Don Giovanni. I feel really lucky to put the record out with them. We’re labelmates!