Working Girl: Alice Bag

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Alice Bag in Highland Park. Photo by Greg Velásquez, hair and makeup by Erika Sarmiento

Violence has woven its way in and out of Alice Bag’s life. It’s not good; it’s not bad. It just is. She knows what it means. She knows how to deal with it.

Violence and its relationship to power—or lack thereof—has been a lifelong exploration and negotiation for Alice, who persevered through an abusive childhood and its manifestations of aggression in her punk rock coming-of-age.

Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 cult classic Decline of Western Civilization, the go-to documentary of the early LA punk scene, provided me with my first glimpse into the powerhouse that is Alice Bag. Trying to find my own place in a subcultural environment, I was drawn to this fierce woman writhing and screaming on stage. This image, and those of other semi-rare, punk female pioneers paved the way for girls like me to pick up the mic and start our own bands.

Fast-forward to 2015. It’s a brutally hot day in concrete LA, and I have no A/C. I offer to meet Alice at her house for an interview, but she claims it’s too distracting there. I feel that she’s protecting something, her privacy or dog Cinnamon, perhaps. More likely she’s being generous, knowing I don’t have a car, and comes to me instead. We schlep from café to café in search of a quiet, air-conditioned space to talk. We end up begging our way to the back yard of a local shop and plop down in metal folding chairs, chasing shade around a fig tree. Alice, in her matter-of-fact tone and striking blue hair, is exceedingly patient and accommodating throughout this ordeal. In person, the warmth, sincerity and support that emanate from Alice Bag don’t betray the underlying rage she so powerfully describes in her 2011 memoir Violence Girl.

Most commonly known by her punk name Alice Bag, East Los Angeles native Alicia Velasquez, née Armendáriz, grew up in a loving yet violent household. She remained close to her abusive father and loved him dearly until the day he died. Yet the brutality Alice witnessed and experienced left its mark on her in ways not always acknowledged in domestic violence survival stories: the effect on the kids and identification with the abuser. “My father was abusive toward my mother,” she recalls. “When I was growing up I felt very powerless to stop it… The victims who are rarely spoken of are the children, who have no control in the situation. But they’re experiencing it.” Alice has come to terms with the love/hate complexity of her abusive childhood and how it shaped her life. “I think I identified more with my father only because I thought that you were either the one with power or the one with no power. I wanted to be the one with power.”

Compounding the alienation Alice felt as a result of the violence at home, she was also made to feel stupid at school. Her father allowed only Spanish to be spoken at home, while at school English was strictly enforced. Students like Alice who broke into Spanish were segregated and punished. She had difficulty making friends or feeling close to people. She was the weirdo, the outcast — the perfect recipe for punk. A weekly music class supplied the only validation Alice felt in school. “I think I connected that experience as a way to have more control over my life. When I finally formed a band and got on stage, I suddenly felt like I had a voice. I wanted to express my rage.”

Glam fandom and attire dominated her early teen years, but Alice soon saw the role of women in that scene as overly sexualized and limited. She wasn’t satisfied with being a groupie servicing a band. She wanted to be in the band. It surprised me to learn that the original punk scene in LA so readily included women. “It was really natural for me and my girlfriends. Women were ready to step in,” explains Alice. “The fact that punk was so raw and didn’t require people to come in and do anything polished really made women feel comfortable.” By 1977, she and her girlfriends started learning to play instruments and hanging out in Hollywood, mostly at the Masque, the migration epicenter for the misfits of Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl. It was there that the Bags, the band she fronted from 1977-1980, played their first show.

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Alice Bag does the downtown Los Angeles arts district. Photo by Greg Velásquez

In Violence Girl, Alice characterizes herself as someone who didn’t back down from a fight. One of her more infamous altercations includes punching the Germs’ Darby Crash in the face following a heated, philosophical debate. From the stage of a Bags show at the Troubadour, she also baited audience member Tom Waits, resulting in a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Alice was often criticized for being too aggressive on stage, and the Bags became legendary for their chaotic stage performances that riled up an eager audience. In her memoir, Alice recounts her performing self as screaming, shrieking, jerking as if she were being shot at, and feeling totally out of control. The crowd would respond in kind. “I was connecting with the energy in the room, and the energy was all an expression of this pent-up rage.” She describes herself on stage as having an almost out-of-body experience, something often associated with survivors of abuse: “I would play a show, and I’d have this emotional, cathartic experience on stage, and then I wouldn’t remember what had happened. It’s almost like post-traumatic stress. I think if I hadn’t had this outlet, I really could have become some kind of violent criminal, because I had so much anger in me.”

Alice and her friends lived through the reign of fear inflicted on women by the Hillside Strangler(s), who, sharing the same Hollywood stomping ground, claimed the life of a woman in their scene. Another friend of hers was picked up after a punk show at the Whisky and held hostage in a car for hours by two men posing as cops, later believed to have been the Hillside Strangler(s). Tough as nails, Alice acknowledges the role of violence for self-defense, “I think there’s a side of me that reacts to danger and goes into this self-preservation mode that is very primal. That part of me feels really powerful and capable of whatever is necessary, which is good, ’cause I feel like I’m my own guardian angel.”

As the LA punk landscape became increasingly hardcore and violent, the Bags broke up. Alice joined all-girl band Castration Squad for a while, moved back in with her parents, and went back to school. Alice continues to agitate and inspire with various musical projects, political activism, teaching, writing and public speaking. She knows who she is. She knows what she wants. She knows how to get it.

“I grew up thinking, ‘I don’t ever want to be like my mother. I don’t want to be victimized, and I don’t want to let a man have control of my life.’ In the end, I figured out a way to not divide people up into victims and abusers, but to see it as something much more complex. You don’t have to choose one role. You don’t have to dominate somebody to feel powerful. You just have to have power over yourself and have control of your life.”

Written and produced by Allison Wolfe, photos by Greg Velásquez, slider photo by Martín Sorrondeguy