Alice Bag (Feral House, 2011)
“She’s taken too much of the domesticated world. She’s tearing it to pieces; she’s a Violence Girl!”
Alicia Armendariz (aka Alice Bag) was part of the Los Angeles punk scene in its formative years, rubbing elbows with bands like the Germs, X, and the Weirdos. She fronted the Bags, a great band who only issued one single on the Dangerhouse label in 1978. However, that single is a sought-after piece of the LA punk rock puzzle. Women were no longer passive spectators where punk rock was concerned; they were on the stage and expressing their rage! Alice was one of the more aggressive frontwomen out there, getting in audience members’ faces and showing them what a Violence Girl was all about. You can see the Bags perform “Gluttony” in Penelope Spheeris’ seminal 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, erroneously named “the Alice Bag Band.” Artifix Records compiled what recordings they could find and released All Bagged Up: The Collected Works 1977-1980 in 2007. Alice was also a member of local legends Castration Squad, whose lineup boasted members of the Go-Go’s and 45 Grave, as well as Phranc: America’s first lesbian punk rock folk singer.
She is still at it too—the Alice Bag 2016 solo album on the Don Giovanni label is excellent. My favorite songs here corrupt soul and Mexican pop influences just like how the best early punk bands often referenced other forms of music. This isn’t another retread band unable to speak to the present day either; Alice and company deliver these songs with an energy that is unmistakably here and now.
Alice’s story is important because it shows that punk rock is not simply white male rage with a funny look. This ongoing narrative has never been completely true, especially not in an area with such a large Latinx population as Los Angeles. Alicia’s tale begins in East LA, where she is born into a working class family with proud Mexican roots. Most of her stories about growing up in the culture are a lot of fun to read, from anecdotes about food and music and movies to even seeing famed luchadore Ray Mendoza lose his hair in a match at the Olympic Auditorium!
There is the other side that isn’t so much fun. Her father is an exercise in duality, encouraging Alicia to aim high in life while also exposing her to a darker, more violent side of his personality. She is an outcast at school from the start, with a limited grasp of English and lacking in social skills. Kids make fun of her weight and looks, bestowing her with horrible nicknames. She doesn’t fit in with her school’s gang culture, but begins to find some direction upon discovering two important musical artists—David Bowie and Elton John. New doors open into a fun and exciting glitter rock world that flaunts mainstream society’s ideas on music, clothing, and sexuality.
Alice discovers punk rock via Rodney Bingenheimer’s radio show on KROQ, just like most of the early LA scenesters. Her drummer boyfriend Nickey Beat hacks off his long hair to join a new band called the Weirdos. Alice is skeptical of the move until seeing the band live for the first time on a show with the Zeros and the Germs. Everything changes forever that night. (“…Mexicans, Weirdos and teenagers could take the stage and bring the house down…”) Alice realizes that getting onstage just takes guts, so she and her friends abandon playing above their ability in a glitter rock band to focus on punk music instead. They start the Bags in similar fashion to other punk bands of the time, by making their presence known in public well before they are ready to play live. Each member designs their own ridiculous outfit, topped with paper bags worn over their heads. Although the paper bag gimmick doesn’t last long, it is enough to get them noticed and the Bags begin playing out regularly.
Punk scene anecdotes are aplenty here, with a who’s who of bands and LA scene figures popping in and out of these pages. Did you know that the girl described in the X song “Los Angeles” was not only a real-life friend of Exene’s, but was also an obnoxious racist? All the punks go to shows at the Masque and live at the Canterbury, a cheap downtown apartment building otherwise inhabited by Asian immigrants and angry Rastafarians. Two creeps that may have been the Hillside Strangler terrorize LA scenester Pearl Harbor. They would claim Jane King, another woman in the punk scene nearly two months later. Nickey Beat gets in a fight with Tom Waits at the Troubadour. Alice gets in a fight with Darby Crash in front of the Canterbury. Alice and Nickey cheat on each other with well-known members of the San Francisco punk scene, experiment with alternative relationship styles, and eventually break up for good. LA’s finest introduce police brutality to the punk scene at—of all bands—a Go-Go’s show.
“She’s a Violence Girl; she thrives on pain. She’s a Violence Girl you can’t restrain!”
Alice knows she needs to get her shit together, a realization coinciding with the Bags’ implosion, Darby Crash’s death, and drug use taking its toll on the Hollywood punk scene. Hardcore is also rearing its ugly head, reducing quirky, creative punk rock to “a belligerent, male-dominated mob…camouflaged by their homogeneous appearance.” She moves back in with her parents and goes to college, getting a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before getting a teaching credential. Alice begins working with kids who are just like she was—children of immigrants with limited English skills. She even travels to rural Nicaragua to teach literacy while the Sandinistas and the Reagan-backed Contras wage war nearby! Alice also resolves her family issues, finally confronting and subsequently forgiving her father for his abuse towards her mother.
Violence Girl is about overcoming obstacles and applying the lessons we learn as punks to Real Life. Alicia Armendariz has come a long way to find herself and has, looking back on a life well lived and is ready for more. All self-respecting punk rockers should read this book, but it is most relevant to women and people of color in the scene. There is a lot said in these 381 pages that is especially for them.