Sunday, July 06, 2014

Women in L.A. Punk Interview with Marina del Rey of Backstage Pass

As this Fourth of July weekend draws to a close, I'd like to offer you a post that celebrates our own punk independence, an interview with one of the Masque's Founding Mothers, Marina del Rey, who along with her bandmates (Backstage Pass) literally helped build the rehearsal studios that would become the cradle of Hollywood punk. I am grateful for Marina's participation. She, along with her Backstage Pass mates (Genny Body and Joanna "Spock" Dean) have helped us understand that women were there even before the first concert happened at the Masque. These ladies were co-creators of the west coast punk movement and one of the most vital physical spaces that supported it. In his book, Live at the Masque, Brendan Mullen's concert list shows Backstage Pass' playing their first Masque show in October of 1977, but these ladies were filling the basement (and other venues) with music before most of us knew what was to come.
 - Alice Bag, 7/6/14

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Meeting the Comandante

Working on my second book, here’s an excerpt.
4/6/86
Sunday
Today started off a lazy day, playing cards at a neighbor’s house. When I got home, I found that Francie had company. She had a friend over, Comandante Gladys Baez of the Sandinista armed forces, a short woman with indigenous features who wore her hair in braids. She looked more like someone getting ready to bake a batch of cookies than lead an army. She was really warm and friendly and kissed me on the cheek when she met me.
Comandante Baez insisted that I call her Gladys and seemed surprised when Francie said I was American. Gladys complimented me on my Spanish and Francie agreed, saying I acted, looked and spoke like a Nica which I know she meant as a big compliment. I took it as one. We sat down in the living room to talk. Gladys asked me about life in the United States and what people in the U.S. thought of the war between the Contras and Sandinistas. I sadly confirmed the things she already knew, that Reagan was on a campaign to change public opinion of the counterrevolutionary Contras by talking them up as patriots who are protecting us from the spread of communism and by refusing to use the word Contra and employing instead the sympathetic sounding name “Freedom Fighters” when referring to them. I told her that it was working, furthermore, they were now being described as advisors rather than combatants, something that the Nicaraguans knew was a blatant lie.
Gladys moved on from the topic of Reagan and asked me about women in my country. That was hard for me to talk about, it seems that the death of the Equal Rights Amendment has stalled any progress for the women’s movement. I don’t understand what happened with the ERA and I can’t explain it to her, I guess I’m just too far removed from the mainstream. I told her I was involved in music and that my musician friends were generally open-minded about politics and women’s rights. I said that the kind of music I play has been liberating for women because it’s more about having something to say than being a great musician, so women, even those who were novice musicians, were not intimidated or shut out due to lack of experience. She was happy to hear that more women were playing music and writing songs and encouraged me to write a song about Nicaragua and share the experiences I was having here with my friends back home. She didn’t seem much older than me but she took on a motherly tone as she reminded me that there is no revolution without equality for women. I’d never heard anyone say this before, despite the fact that it seemed like such a simple and obvious truth.

Later, when Gladys had left, I had to ask Francie again if I had heard correctly. Was Gladys really a Comandante? I guess if I tried hard I could imagine her as a guerrilla but a Comandante? She didn’t look or act like a warrior, much less a Commander. I couldn’t imagine her bossing the men around. She looked like so many women in East L.A., ordinary working class moms and tias. My Nicaraguan mother assured me that Gladys was one of the first and most respected Sandinista Comandantes. She laughed at me and asked why I doubted her. I said that I didn’t think Gladys looked strong enough to be taken seriously as a comandante.
"Why don’t you think she’s strong?" Francie asked.
I was too ashamed to say it was because I expected muscles and a snazzy uniform; inwardly, I had to admit that I expected a man. I had never seen a woman who looked like Gladys have any power. In my world, women who looked like Gladys took care of kids, did housework, warmed up tortillas. I glimpsed myself, just for a second in all my sexist, racist and colorist ugliness and I quickly stepped away from the mirror.
"Oh, I don’t know," I lied.
Francie knows what I’m thinking, I thought. Please don’t let her call me out…please don’t let her call me out. She didn’t. She cocked her head, looked up at me and gave me a quizzical smirk.
"Es MUY fuerte," my Nicaraguan mother assured me. "She fought alongside (FSLN founder) Carlos Fonseca."
Francie went on to tell me a little about what she and Gladys had done together. They were pioneers in AMNLAE (Association de Mujeres Nicarag├╝enses, Luisa Amanda Espinoza) an organization which is named after the first female casualty in the war against Somoza. Espinoza escaped a life of poverty and abuse to become a revolutionary. Originally the organization was to uphold the needs and concerns of women who were fighting to overthrow Somoza, now it is dedicated to increasing the political participation of women in post-revolutionary Nicaragua. Francie and Gladys were not only active members, they were founding members.
"Gladys herself was tortured by Somoza’s Guardia," Francie continued. "She was captured by Somoza and held prisoner, where she was subjected to torture and interrogation, spending over two months in solitary confinement, she never broke down."
I imagine this braided woman in an interrogation room, bright lights shining in her face, electrodes shocking her as she refuses to talk. Sweat runs down her lovely weather-worn face, where a look of strength and resolve are carved deeper than Mt. Rushmore. Unexpectedly, a man and some snotty nosed kids look into the interrogation room.
"Gladys, we need some warm tortillas," they call to her.
"Heat your own damn tortillas!" she replies. "Can’t you see I’m busy?"

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Identity

I feel fortunate to have been invited to several universities over the past two years where Violence Girl - East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story is being used in courses with topics ranging from Literature to Music, to Chicano/a Studies, Gender Studies and beyond. One question I am frequently asked is how I see my Chicana identity. It's a question that doesn't lend itself to a short answer and I feel that it's important enough for me to take time explaining.

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in social justice but I got off to a rocky start on my road to forming a Chicana identity when I perceived negativity towards my odd, unpolished glam-rock style from members of the Chicano organization at my high school. All during my late teens and early twenties, I called myself a Mexican-American rather than a Chicana because I believed that term was reserved for people in Chicano organizations like MeCHa and I believed those organizations were biased against people who looked like weirdos. Punk empowered me in all kinds of ways: it gave me the confidence to claim my Chicana identity, to define it in my own terms and to refuse anyone the power to exclude me.



I never took any Chicano Studies classes until I was in college. My Chicana identity was formed primarily from experiencing events where I felt that Mexicans and/or Mexican-Americans were included and represented, events like the Chicano Moratorium which I attended as a child, the grape boycott and the walk-outs at local schools in East L.A. These historic events all affected me and made an impression on me. I was just a kid but I knew in a very simplistic way that it was people like me standing up for people like me. I was attracted to the cause but I didn't feel welcome in the club, so I have never been part of any Chicano organization but that doesn't mean I'm not a Chicana.



I see my Chicana identity as a celebration of both my Mexican and American heritages as well as an honest appraisal of the sociopolitical practices of these two societies and their influence on Chican@ society. Both sides of my heritage have values and traditions which are beautiful but sometimes flawed. Mexican and American societies are both guilty of sexism, classism, racism, and homophobia and they both need fixing. I refuse to romanticize them or choose one culture over another.

Ethnicity is not all that forges identity, my personal identity can stretch to be large and inclusive or shrink to be small, focused and specific. In my broader identity I am a component and an active member of the living organism that is the universe and in my smaller, more refined identity, I function as a Chicana, feminist, bisexual, punk rocker. My personal identity is rich and multifaceted - different aspects surface in different situations. When I'm discriminated against as a woman, my feminist identity rushes to the forefront; when people try to negate the place of Mexicans while teaching or discussing American history, the Chicana side of me will raise an indignant voice and demand to be included and when anyone, anywhere in the world is mistreated, the punk side of me that feels empowered to shape my world is ready to stand as an ally. Most of the time I'm just me: an individual, a human being only partially conscious of the ways in which people see me or the expectations they might place upon this particular configuration of atoms.



I see myself as limitless, so the labels are strictly to facilitate specific functions for a limited amount of time. When I first started performing, I remember looking out into the audience. Usually, there were lights near the front of the stage illuminating me and the other band members. As my gaze moved further back into the audience, the room darkened. I could make out the people in the front rows clearly enough to read their faces and feel their energy but beyond that, the room faded to infinite blackness and in my mind, that blackness might as well have been a view of the vast reaches of the universe. From my perch on the stage, I felt incredibly powerful as my performance elicited dancing, jumping and bursts of emotion from the concert goers. We were exchanging energy, refueling, tapping into something much bigger than any one person. I felt fully connected not just to the people in the room but to the entire universe.

Punk rock as religious experience; go ahead and laugh, I know it sounds crazy. Connecting with others on that level made me understand my power not just as an individual but as part of a community. So while it's important to know who we are, it's also important to know that we are so much more than labels can convey. We are conduits for ideas, we are agents of change.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Little Seeds of Strength

My sister-in-law Mary passed away this week. I hadn't seen her in some time, since I moved out of state for several years. Still, the news of her death made me sad and I started to reflect on my memories of her.

Even though we didn't spend a lot of time together when I was growing up, my sister-in-law was a positive influence on me at an early age. She always spoke her mind and knew how to be assertive and self-possessed. On the few occasions when I was being bratty and insubordinate in her presence, she would wink at me conspiratorially, as if saying she understood how I felt. Other times she just laughed at me, at herself, at my father. She was good at laughing, at telling people what she thought, and best of all she was good at standing tall and filling a room with her presence. She was a strong woman who planted a little seed of strength in me at a time when I needed it most.

Oftentimes, we look to celebrities as role models but if we stop to look around, we can find people who provide everyday examples of strength and integrity. Mary was that for me. I will miss her.

Below is a chapter from my book, Violence Girl where I talk a little bit about her.


Mary and her son Charlie, June 1967

Friends and Baptisms

I wonder if I can find a way to blame my parents for my lack of friends. After all, my mom never had any friends. She kept busy by meddling in her children's lives, not that anyone ever complained. My mom was a sweetheart who would give you the clothes off her back if she thought you needed them. She liked nothing better than checking in on her kids to make sure we were doing well. My father had business friends but he only saw them when he was at work and he certainly never brought anyone over to our house. We were an isolated family unit.

My mother's meddling took a bold turn when my brother Raymond married a Protestant woman named Mary. When my mother found out that their child was not going to be baptized, she conjured a successful plot to kidnap the baby and baptize him in secret. Of course, the plot was later revealed and my brother and his wife were very upset that my mother hadn't respected their wishes. My mother was unrepentant, she insisted that she had to baptize the baby so that he wouldn't end up in Limbo, which is a place between Heaven and Hell where infants are trapped if they die in a state of original sin. In my mother's Catholic world, we are all born in a state of original sin, passed down to us from Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden. The Catholic sacrament of baptism basically gives a clean slate to children who are too young to atone for their sins. My mom's description of Limbo made me imagine a place in the sky with millions of babies and toddlers crawling around on the tops of clouds, never knowing true happiness. I could see them standing on fat, wobbly baby legs holding onto the locked pearly gates, never able to enter the kingdom of Heaven. The thought made me sick. I wasn't disgusted by the babies or the parents who didn't have them baptized; I was disgusted that god wouldn't allow them into the kingdom of Heaven.

My brother and sister-in-law eventually got over my mother's kidnapping and started coming around again. I loved my sister-in-law Mary because she would talk back to my dad and she could hold her own in an argument. She never backed down. Their arguing made others uncomfortable but they seemed to enjoy their heated discussions. I liked to listen to them even though neither ever changed their point of view. It was fun witnessing their verbal sparring but I would later learn that engaging in passionate debates was not everyone's idea of fun.

My parents friends were all family. My brothers and sisters were all grown up and while my mother filled her days with housework, visits to the sobadora and finding ways to help her children, my father read incessantly and kept to himself.

My mom didn't have much faith in American doctors. Whenever she or any of her children got sick, she'd subject us to the ancient cures passed down by healers and sobadores. If I had a stomachache, out came the yerba buena or lemon grass tea. I didn't mind the minty taste of yerba buena or the subtle citrusy hint of flavor in lemon grass or the hot lemonade I had to drink if I was catching a cold but she had a large variety of other, more bitter herbs to choose from. Sometimes she'd come home with little brown bags of dried leaves that I was told would cure my ailment. From them, she would concoct vile tasting medicinal drinks whose chief benefit was that they would induce nausea and vomiting.

I used to make fun of my mother for favoring what I considered to be superstitious folk cures. It didn't boost my confidence when she'd pass an egg or a tomato over someone with a fever so that the foods would draw off some of the heat from the afflicted or that she'd frequent a sobador, a sort of massage therapist whose brusque jerking and tugging could untangle your intestines or align your body for maximum health. Often, these cures were combined with prayer, incense, candles or oils. I called her methods brujeria (witchcraft) which made her pretty angry but she suffered my ignorance. I thought myself so much smarter than her; it was only much later that I would come around to questioning the supremacy of western medicine and admit that maybe my mom's herbal cures and aromatherapy were helpful.

Not all her beliefs grew on me though. I had been raised as a Catholic but as I said before, my mother's brand of Catholicism incorporated elements of Mexican folk beliefs and superstition. On previous trips to Mexico, I had seen people walking on bloody knees, making their way up to the Basilica de Guadalupe to pay off a debt to La Virgen. My own aunt told me that she had promised god to make the journey from her house to the Basilica on her knees when one of her kids was sick. Her faith impressed me but the logic of it all eluded me. My mother told me stories of people she knew who had spent their childhood dressed in a Saint's vestments as a sort of payment for the saint's intervention. Still others were known to place a statue of San Martin de Porres in a headstand position until the saint would find them a suitor. The idea of bargaining with god or holding a saint hostage made no sense to me at all and doubt chipped away at my religious beliefs.

I identified more with my father than with my mom. I too enjoyed reading incessantly and I was comfortable being alone most of the time. At our Bonnie Beach house we had a proper dining table and although we rarely ate meals together, when we did, my dad and I just ignored each other and read our own books while eating. My father read his life away. He always had his paperback westerns with him in the car, the bathroom, at the dinner table, even while watching TV he'd shift back and forth between the screen and his book. My mother never ate with us, she was always busy warming up tortillas or doing something else in the kitchen.

I used to watch Leave It To Beaver and there was a part of me that longed to be like the Cleaver Family, who sat around eating meals together, discussing the day's events. June Cleaver would never kidnap a baby, put a tomato on Beaver's forehead if he had a fever or spend all her time in the kitchen warming tortillas. I bet Beaver would have turned out much differently if she had.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Remembering Clifton's Cafeteria

Q: You briefly mention Clifton's Cafeteria in your book, Violence Girl. I've heard other interviews with you where you go into more detail about this unique place of LA's restaurant history. Why didn't you write more about it in your memoir?

Alice: I actually thought I wrote much more about Clifton's. It's possible that I did in an early draft, but I had to cut out some scenes that didn't advance the overall story. It may have ended up as a deleted scene.

Q: Why was Clifton's so memorable for you as child?

Alice: It was a total sensory experience. For me, atmosphere is really important in a restaurant. Clifton's definitely had atmosphere. You could tell you were getting close because you could hear the tambourines going and the preaching and singing. The "Hallelujahs" were out front preaching The Word. I was a little kid. I thought they were there to entertain the customers going into Clifton's. My parents just wanted to get through them and not have to give them any money.



Q: Describe the interior of Clifton's for us.

Alice: It had a forest theme with lots of trees, taxidermied woodland creatures, bears, giant boulders. I think it was four floors. You walked in on the ground level and there were curved staircases leading up on either side to different dining terraces. Each of the rooms was decorated differently. My favorite room was at the very top. I think it was called the Red Room because it had red painted walls, flocked red wallpaper and red carpet. I thought it was very elegant. Come to think of it, I have used the same deep red color in my own house for years now. My daughter calls it the "Welcome to Hell" look.



Q: So what did you like to eat at Clifton's?

Alice: Well, it was kind of tricky because of the cafeteria style. If you walked by and picked up the first tasty thing you saw, the dishes would accumulate. You wanted to take the tasty thing, but if you took it too early, you would load up before you got to the main courses. I tried to get either mashed potatoes, or the mac and cheese. Not both (laughs). Although I wanted both. I would usually get peas, although I also liked the carrot raisin salad. Really good...and then they had Waldorf Salad too, that was really good. And it sounded fancy cause it was from The Waldorf. My main course was always Salisbury Steak!

Q: Salisbury Steak? Isn't that just a hamburger patty with gravy?

Alice: No, Salisbury Steak is made from wild, organic Salisbury. Free Range Salisbury Steak - it's really good. You should try it sometime. I think they carry it at Whole Foods.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Angel Baby

My half sister Yolanda was 10 years old when I was born, so I literally and figuratively looked up to her. I remember her teaching me how to do the Twist. When my mom wasn’t home, I could always count on Yolanda to boss me around. I didn’t mind. She didn’t yell like my father was prone to do, and she didn’t talk to me like I was simple, which my mother tended to do. My sister always took the time to explain things to me, at times seeming wiser than either of my parents.
In my eyes, Yolanda was the most beautiful girl in the world (not counting Sarita Montiel, who I considered the most beautiful woman in the world). When I was a little older and we moved to the Ditman house, my dad and I would watch beauty pageants together on TV. We’d take a pencil and paper and score the contestants. We’d see who could pick the most winners after each elimination round. Once, my sister walked into the living room while we were doing this, and I remember looking at her and thinking she could beat them all. After that, I hounded her for weeks, begging her to enter a beauty pageant. I could imagine my sister on TV, having a crown placed on her head and having a big bouquet of roses handed to her. She’d smile at us through the television screen and I would be jumping on the couch with joy! I was sure she’d be a winner, but my sister dismissed my pleas with a flattered giggle, and eventually I gave up.
My sister was the only other person besides my mother and I to experience my father’s rage on an ongoing basis, and when I think about it now, it must have been harder for her to bear than it was for me, because he wasn’t even her natural father. He was just some random ogre who beat up her mom. My sister and father rarely spoke to each other except in the most cursory manner. Yolanda had lost her real father to cancer at a young age. It would have been nice if my dad could have given her a father’s love, but I don’t think she wanted it from him. I suspect that Yolanda deliberately tried to make herself invisible when my dad was around. Whenever possible, my sister stayed out of the house.
When we moved to Ditman Avenue, my sister Yolanda entered Stevenson Junior High School and met Angel Lujan, with whom she would eventually get married and spend the rest of her life. Yolanda spent most of her time after school at Angel’s house. When she and Angel did come to our house, they could usually be found making out in the narrow space between the neighboring apartment buildings. Being a typical little sister, I’d sometimes spy on them and throw rocks at them, and Yolanda would toss back empty threats at me. It seemed like Yolanda had managed to find a little piece of happiness and a way to save herself from the ugliness that thrived in our home. I don’t blame her for moving away from home at the first opportunity.
Yolanda died of cancer a few years ago. Being at my big sister’s side during the last few weeks as she struggled to fight off the inevitable was heartbreaking, because she was in excruciating pain. The type of cancer she had was incurable, and the doctors sent her home to live out her final days with her family. All we could do was try to dull her pain with morphine, but on the day she was sent home from the hospital, the nurse practitioner was delayed in getting to her house, and Yolanda began to moan for help as the drugs wore off. Panicked, Angel and I tried to figure out how to ease her suffering. I thought seriously of calling a friend who might have access to heroin. Finally, the drugs arrived and Angel, unable to see clearly through his grief, asked me to administer the painkiller into her mouth. “You can’t give her too much,” he said to me, but he needn’t have, since we were both thinking the same thing. Yolanda was in so much pain by then that all I could think to do was to help her by ending it. Every time she awoke and cried out in pain, I gave her more morphine to ease her suffering. In the end, I honestly think I may have taken my sister’s life by overdosing her on painkillers.
I dedicate this version of Angel Baby to my beloved older sister, Yolanda. This song will always remind me of you, sis.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

On Writing Violence Girl, DIY, Community and Creativity

Interview with Alice Bag, July 2013

(this is part of a larger project examining the intersections of feminism, creative writing, and punk)
Reposted with permission from http://heyitsunclefranklin.tumblr.com
                            ***********************
Your writing has taken many forms — lyrics, blogs, and now memoir with the publication of Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story. What inspired you to write the book?
A friend of mine was interviewing me for a play she was writing about East LA. We were at a bar, swapping stories about growing up on the east side during the 60s and 70s. We were all laughing when she turned to me and said “you should write a book." Her words stuck with me.
The next day when my husband went to work, I found the laptop left open to a new webpage he had created for me. It was a blog site called “The True Life Adventure of Violence Girl."  I’m a comic book and graphic novel fan so I especially loved the ring of “True Life Adventures." I got sucked in and started writing: an entry a day, every weekday. Over the course of the next ten months, I wrote what would become my memoir, Violence Girl.

What influence have DIY ethics had on your motivation to write?
At the point in my life when I started writing Violence Girl, I didn’t even see myself as a real writer. I was blogging regularly at the time  but I couldn’t imagine writing a whole book. Blogging is a manageable commitment, you don’t need a lot of time or planning to do it and it’s very DIY; anyone can write and share their thoughts and feelings with the world. You don’t need to major in journalism to have a successful blog, you just have to have something interesting to say and figure out a compelling way to say it.
The idea that you don’t need to master a technique in order to create something meaningful or useful is the essence of DIY (and punk) to me. I often joke that I wrote my book using the punk rock method: short, fast stories, hammered out with more honesty than ability. It worked for me, and I think readers who connect with my book are willing to look beyond my writing limitations.
My roots are in performance, and I think it’s important to note that having an audience or a community to provide encouragement and feedback during the writing process really helped me. When I was blogging “True Life Adventures of Violence Girl," I picked up followers along the way to whom I felt connected. They gave me daily feedback and encouragement on each new installment, they even pointed me towards potential publishers when I finally finished writing my story.  I felt like I had a community behind me who wanted to see the book published.  

You’ve talked about the importance of documenting the creative output of social and art movements. How does the desire to create recorded history inform your writing?
Writing the book was something that I really did for myself. I didn’t approach it as a documentarian, it was more a journey of self-discovery and healing. As I was writing about my childhood I realized that for those I love to really know who I am, they have to understand what shaped me. After a while, I realized that other people might be facing some of the challenges that I faced while growing up and might benefit from reading my story, so those are the things that informed my writing. There is certainly a historical element to the book, not so much about the creative output of any particular artist but about what environmental conditions led up to punk and fostered the movement’s growth. I consciously avoided the documentary approach towards the LA punk scene because other books have already taken that approach and I wanted to tell a much more personal story, one I hoped would be more universal and not just of interest to punk fans.

What role do you feel the presence of community — be it through punk, one’s cultural identity, etc. — plays in fostering creative development?
It’s huge! As I mentioned earlier, I felt like my community of blog followers really carried me. They encouraged me every step of the way. When I didn’t feel like writing and would skip a day, they gently reminded me that they were waiting for my next blog entry!
Community, especially the community I built through social media, also played a big part in the success of my book tour. I booked my own tour - it was all DIY, cold calling places or getting suggestions from Twitter and Facebook friends. If friends were currency I would be a millionaire. I had so much help from people across the country who helped book readings, offered to play with me or offered me a place to sleep. My publisher is a small publisher and does not offer tour support so it was all DIY, punk rock style. Hugely rewarding, especially for an old bag in her mid-fifties; it felt like the fucking fountain of youth to be on the road, playing, reading, meeting new people and it would not have happened without my communities supporting me every step of the way.

In Violence Girl, you connect the trauma of abuse to your involvement in the punk scene. How do you feel punk can act as a site for meaningful catharsis?
Sometimes you just can’t verbalize what you’re feeling because you may not even be consciously aware of what’s triggering your emotions. When I was younger, I didn’t understand where my feelings of anger and violence were coming from and I didn’t know how to deal with them. Luckily, punk came along and gave me an outlet. Through punk performance, I could vent and forge the raw emotion that was bubbling up inside of me into something creative rather than destructive.
Beyond that, I think punk is really empowering in the long term because it encourages self-determination and challenges the status quo. As part of the punk community, I came away with the feeling that if we were able to create a movement that continually changes the course of art and music, then we can create a movement that changes the world in many other ways. That is enormously empowering.

How has your relationship to creative expression changed over the years?
I still tap into my anger from time to time but these days, I usually know where it’s coming from. Over the years, I’ve realized that the only limits to my creativity are the ones I place on myself by saying “I can’t do that, because…" There really aren’t any limits when we stop making excuses for why we can’t do something. I think I’m much braver as an artist now than I was 35 years ago and I’ve learned to value the ups and downs of getting where I want to go because the only failure is not to go after your dreams.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Rolling Crones and Old Bags

It's been a few days since the L.A. Zine Fest and the panel discussion I did with Allison Wolfe and Drew Denny,  but I'm still feeling a little giddy about the whole thing. A big part of the fun was having the opportunity to meet these ladies I'd never met before and collaborate with them, even if it was only briefly and on just one song. It was still meaningful and memorable for me. It's always exciting and rejuvenating to work with new people who have fresh ideas and approach creativity from a different perspective, and it's especially thrilling if the new people happen to be smart and talented women.



After reflecting on the experience, I realize that there are a few points I'd like to clarify. During the introduction, the moderator (who did an absolutely wonderful job, by the way) described Allison Wolfe as one of the mothers of the Riot Grrl movement, then started to introduce me in a similar fashion as one of the 'mothers of punk' but stopped herself, perhaps noticing the age difference between me and Allison. She suggested that maybe she should say a 'grandmother of punk,' but I objected. I want to clarify why I object to that label. It's not because of age. I'm 54 years old, I have gray hair and I'm comfortable with my age. I am perfectly happy if you call me a punk rock vieja, an old bag, or a crone (I even wanted to form a band or have a mentoring program for and by older female musicians called 'The Rolling Crones' at one point) but I object to being called a grandmother because I'm not a grandmother.

I have three daughters who are all in school. They're all young women who are very responsible, they behave in a way that I am very proud of, they've taken charge of their sexuality and the fact that they're not mothers is something that I'm happy about. My daughters have chosen to put their studies first at this point in their lives and they're waiting to have children until they're ready. They are exercising their choice, a choice that many of us have been fighting for years to be able to offer them. Another thing is that when I was young, it was quite common for relatives to harass young women about when we would get married and have children. I don't ever want my daughters to feel that pressure. They can marry or stay single for as long as they want, they can have children, adopt, or do neither. And for those reasons I ask you to please feel free to call me old, but please don't call me a granny.

By the way, I want to reiterate that I think K did a great job as moderator and this is in no way meant as a criticism of her!

Another point that needs clarification is that a recent article mentions that when I was in the Bags, I wore a paper bag on my head to escape stereotypes. This is only slightly different from what I said, but it's a significant difference because it deals with intention. In my early L.A. punk band, the Bags, we wore paper bags on our heads primarily for fun, to hide our identities and challenge the audience. They were not worn in a conscious attempt to avoid stereotypes, although that was an unintentional bonus. Creating the bag characters forced our audiences to focus on the music, the bag masks, the performance. We felt like we went in with a clean slate. People didn't know what to expect from us and that was fun and liberating. We also had punk names which were associated with our band; this was something we borrowed from the Ramones. Having a band last name also blurred ethnic identities. Torn thrift store clothing and safety pins were worn by rich and poor alike, further helping to blur class distinctions. Finally, the music was raw and unpolished, which opened the door for many novice musicians.

Part of what made the LA. scene so diverse and open to new ideas was that we focused on what we had in common: the creativity, the desire for innovation. That isn't to say that we didn't value our backgrounds or that we tried to hide them - we did not. We approached our creative community as individuals who didn't feel valued by the mainstream, in many cases we didn't even feel at home in our own hometowns, where many of us were seen as weirdos. We found our tribe in the punk community who valued originality.

During those early years, that was what suited me. Later, I found that in order to continue to fuel my personal growth and creativity, I wanted to dig deeper into my heritage and identity. Other elements of my personal story started to surface in my work and I think I've become a better artist and a more effective communicator because of it.

But I don't want to babble, babble on. Back to the panel. I found the conversation about how each of us had dealt with gropers in the past enlightening. Allison told a story of having a male audience member cup her butt during a performance, only to have the dude checked by the mostly female audience members at her show. I punched a guy who grabbed my crotch. Unfortunately for him, he happened to be wearing glasses that shattered under my fist and sliced his face open. Drew said she tried to deal with sexual intimidation with a sense of humor. I found her reply a little scary but after she explained it, I could see that what she meant is that the ultimate goal of gropers is to intimidate and her approach was to turn the tables. She said she knew it was not for everyone, but I think I'll try it. I'll see if I can come up with a joke while they're taking the groper out on a stretcher!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Rainy, Blurry LA Weekend

The past two days have been a little like looking at the landscape through the window of a speeding car. I woke up at 5 am last Friday (that's 4 am California time), got my family out the door, walked the dog and drove across the desert through a glum, gray drizzle. I showed up early at The Echo, excited to try on my new role as MC. When the doors opened, people poured in: fashion-forward music fans, lumberjacks and hard-looking punks with sweet, generous dispositions. The 'Help Mike Atta' show was on its way to becoming a big success!

The gray-haired punk brigade was there, many of them turned out to be the parents, relatives or friends of the younger punk bands. It reminded me that the most valuable things we leave behind are the little seeds of inspiration we manage to plant in the young.

I was not feeling particularly inspired that night, running up and down the stairs between the two stages, announcing bands, forgetting names and generally being my most un-charming. I had watched a Kathy Griffin show a few days prior and I thought to myself, "I'm funny - I can do that!" Wrong. I'm funny in a family setting. I've decided to leave the MC profession to other, more charming and witty hosts. I mean, I actually got the first band's name wrong and called them White Light, White Stripes and finally their correct name: White Night. Que verguenza!


A big, huge thank you to all the bands who participated in the Help Mike Atta concert. The amount of respect and cooperation between musicians was lovely to behold, everyone worked as a team and at one point the stage manager smiled at me and said "I can't believe it - we're a little ahead of schedule!" The Echo/Echoplex team was flawless and professional. Special thanks to Lisa Fancher, Liz Garo and Mike Patton who spearheaded the organization of this benefit.


I got home at 2 am, chatted with an old friend until three, woke up and went into the recording studio to work on a project I'm doing with Robert Lopez. Later, I stopped for dinner with my pals, Tracy and Angie Skull and started the gradual shift back down to Arizona speed.

Heading back across the desert, I had several hours to contemplate the beauty of friendship: musicians and artists who come running from all directions to help a friend in need without thinking twice, old friends who open their homes to host me whenever I come to town, friends who come up with spur of the moment creative projects that somehow become reality.

My friends, my hometown, my community. I love you, L.A.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Mike Atta


If you've ever seen Middle Class play, you know that Mike Atta's guitar playing drives every song and if you've ever met him, you know that you are in the presence of a real charmer. Mike and his Newman-Blue eyes are lady killers and when he smiles, he smiles with his soul.


Mike and I played together in Cambridge Apostles for many years and we became very good friends. I went to many of the Atta family dinners, picnics and poker nights. Although we were very close during the eighties, our paths drifted in different directions and we eventually we lost touch with each other but I've never stopped thinking of Mike as a close friend.



It came as a shock to me when a mutual friend told me that Mike was diagnosed with cancer. The friend told me they were putting together a benefit to help Mike pay for very expensive treatments and I immediately jumped aboard. I hope you will join me and many of Mike's other friends who just happen to be in great bands as we do our best to support Mike and his family in their time of need.



I will be emceeing the benefit concert taking place on Friday, January 25th at the Echoplex. Come pogo and stomp the shit out of cancer!