Sunday, April 17, 2005

Racism in The Early Punk Scene

Over the years, I have been interviewed by students and academics who are researching the East L.A. or Chicano punk movement. I always have to point out that I do not consider myself or the Bags to be part of that scene. Like the Zeros and the Plugz, the Bags were considered part of the Hollywood scene of the mid to late 1970's, although we had Chicano members. The East L.A. scene really picked up speed in the early eighties, had their home base at the Vex rather than the Masque, and was spearheaded by bands like Thee Undertakers, The Brat and Los Illegals. I'm not able to speak about their experiences because I assume that they were different from mine.

I think that the early punk scene (1977-1979) was a somewhat unique time in that race and gender roles were pretty much discarded. What we were doing was so new (at that time) and counter-cultural (is that a word?) that no one had time to label us or put us in boxes. There was no one to say, "you can't do this or that because you're
a) a woman
b) a chicana.
So my own experience was that those gender/race barriers did not exist for me personally. I saw myself and was seen as a performer, not as a "Chicana/Female/Punk" performer. Those distinctions did not arise until much later, I would say towards the end of 1979, when the original punk scene had started getting major media coverage.

The first group of punk rockers was a special group of individuals. Most of us had been outcasts in high school. Venturing out into the world at large for the first time, we were almost incredulous at finding accepting, like-minded peers. We were unified by our sense of being "the other" or "the outsider." Since we had all been ostracized for being different, we bonded over that shared experience and came together as a group.

Also, many of us in the early scene dropped our surnames and adopted punk names: Pat Smear (who was black), Kickboy Face (who was French), Alice Bag (that's me). This helped us to create a new identity for ourselves. I don't think we were trying to escape racial prejudice, it was more like breaking from the past. Picking your new name was almost like a rite of passage. At the same time, new names leveled the playing field because nobody knew your ethnicity just from your name. Some people, like Diane Chai of the Alleycats, did not change their names and no-one thought less of her for being Asian. She was just cool.

In fact, I experienced much more prejudice from the Chicano community than I ever did in the punk scene. I remember wanting to join MECHA after the Chicano moratorium and discovering that I was too weird to fit in. Being into Glitter Rock, I dressed differently and had a different perspective from the people I met in MECHA. My impression was that the MECHA leaders were big fish in a little pond and they had no room for freaks like me. There was plenty of room for freaks in the big pond so that's where I went. Years later, as an adult, I watched again as people who identified themselves as Chicanos spent hours arguing over who was "chicano" versus "latino" versus "hispano". They spent more time refining and narrowing the definition of what was "Chicano" than actually creating art or doing something constructive. In order to grow and continue to be meaningful, they needed to accept those who had been previously marginalized like women, artists, lesbians and gays. My experience with the punk movement taught me to define for myself what it means to be a chicana and reject the definitions and limitations that are imposed on me by others.

But to get back to my original point, I don't want to sugarcoat this by telling you that there was no racism in the early Hollywood/L.A. scene, because there was, but for the most part people didn't tolerate it. When we lived at the Canterbury and the Berlin Brats came in wearing swastikas, a whole bunch of us harrassed them, yelling at them "die, Nazi pigs!" and "take off your swastikas!" Eventually, the Berlin Brats changed their name to the Mau-Mau's and stopped wearing swastikas. Another infamous racist was Farrah Faucet Minor, the subject of X's "Los Angeles", who "had to leave" because she "had started to hate every nigger and jew, every mexican who gave her lotta shit..." My guess is that she had always hated us and I'd like to think that maybe I was the mexican who gave her a lot of shit.


Jenny Lens said...

I am so glad Alice brought up this topic as people ask me about it quite often. They don't get that punk was a VERY SMALL band of outsiders who found/made new communities/families. What would our legacy be if we inflicted the same intolerance as others? Listen to our songs -- they rail against division and warn of the dangers of "ism," whether classism, sexism, racism, religious intolerance, etc.

I know for a fact Farrah particularly aimed her vitriol at me, saying "Hitler was right -- Jews should be burned." She always said more, but at that point my shock turned to tears and I couldn't hear anything. I could only watch Exene watching my reaction.

I must thank Farrah because I too realized I needed a new punk name and asked people like Tomata to help me. But it was during one of Farrah's usual drunken tirades at the apt she shared with Exene and John that she named me "Jenny Lens."

I tell that story all the time because a) it's important to know "Los Angeles" was based on a real woman b) Brendan and Mark Spitz, in "Neutron Bomb" left the door open that she was only kidding IMMEDIATELY after the paragraph I relate that story, hence neutralizing what a horrid woman she was c) she meant every taunt d) we can sometimes get something meaningful from our enemies.

One night she was so awful to me that I was screaming and finally fled the apartment. I heard later the police came. I know Mexicans hung out in the parking lot behind the apt. I like to think they reported a woman screaming. I have to laugh at that -- what I wouldn't have done to see their faces, these strange punks dealing with the cops!!

Farrah taunted other Jews and infamously got into a fight with the Dictators' lead singer's girlfriend. The Dictators sing "they didn't know we were Jews" in "The Next Big Thing" and never hid the fact they are NY Jews. Instead of crying, his girlfriend hit back, causing Farrah to be 86'd. I always thought it was the Starwood, but I recall shooting the Dictators at the Whisky. But they came here so often, it may have been the Starwood.

Recently an early Jewish female punk related many stories to me of not only Farrah, but the Brits she hung with. I don't want to betray her confidences, but I was shocked at the things they'd say when she was in their presence, knowing she's Jewish. They didn't give a damn who heard them or the effect.

Because of my conversations with this other early performer, I began my "Jewish Punks" page. I think it AMAZING that so many creative people in LA, NY, England, SF and elsewhere are Jews. Is it because we've always been part of the arts and entertainment or we are "scrappy outsiders" as I wrote on my site? Whatever, Jews are known for accepting other "minorities" or outcasts, so we didn't let it deter us.

A HUGE factor is, as Alice has related so many times on her site, we were very, very intelligent, self-educated, creative people. Those kind of people don't tend to let others' definition of who they are stop them. We are driven to create and found a perfect outlet to do so.

Farrah found a bit of respite in England, known for its anti-Semitism. Many European Jews tried to flee Nazi Europe and Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, was the Ambassador to the Court of King James and convinced England and FDR to keep the Jews out during the 1930's. There's a myth Jews were too stupid or trusting to flee Europe. The reality is no one would take them. Hence the need for the State of Israel.

Many Jews wore swastikas in the early days. I come across it so many times in my photos and briefly wore little swastika earrings I got at a Harley Davidson store. I posted a shot of Maicol Sinatra (Michael Schwartz, RIP) and Hal Negro (Martin Goldberg) at the Masque. Maicol is wearing a large painted swastika on his shirt. But it was meant to take away its power, not buy into it. We did it to shock people. Many of us were fans of the Mel Brooks movie, "The Producers" and followed Brooks' theory that to take away power, make fun of it. Today we can't because people would take us too seriously.

Farrah meant it. Fortunately, she was the minority, as Alice so rightly relates. We didn't tolerate sexism and racism because we truly did our own thing and fuck anyone who gave us a hard time. It wasn't easy -- we were fighters and risk-takers. I don't want to make light of what we did. It was tough and rough to survive, but so much fun and so worth it!

A great many of my lovers were the Mexicans who worked at the restaurants and lived downstairs from me. I lived across the street from Tower Records. I love men of color, what we call black, brown, whatever. Although I had more black lovers in college, the wild '60's. I always wondered why more blacks/African-Americans were not involved in punk. Yet people like Black Randy and Blondie were among the first to incorporate rap when it was very, very unknown. We all influence each other -- it's as simple as that. IF we are open and don't bicker over definitions, again as Alice to brilliantly discusses.

Thanks again for bringing up yet another misunderstood part of what punk was about for most of us, especially those of us who truly lived the lifestyle and created something, whether as a regular audience member or an artist. We were performers, photographers, writers, created fanzines, buttons, clothes, makeup, managed, wrote songs and that's only part of it. We had little time for racism.

jenny lens
a nice Jewish girl in spite/addition to being a punk

MrBaliHai said...

Another interesting little chunk of history, Alice.

I remember not digging the Nazi imagery of the Ramones (I don't know if that came from Johnny or Dee Dee or both), but understanding that they were using it for shock value.

As you know, I went to Whittier High which was about 40% Hispanic, 50% Anglo, and 10% Armenian (we had exactly 2 black students). Most of the divisions were along income lines rather than race. Whittier had really rich kids living in the hills, and lower-middle class kids who lived along the border with Sante Fe Springs and Pico Rivera. There was some tension between the surfers and the lowriders, because...ya group raised the rear wheels of their cars, and the other lowered them, but for the most part nobody gave a shit about your ethnicity.

X-8 really hated being identified as a Mexican, or labeled as anything; he was the senior class VP and an honor student, so he was regarded as a image I think he successfully shed!

Anonymous said...

punks unite!!!!

Anonymous said...

Racism in early punk appears to have been on a mostly person by person basis. There were no racist groups until the mid-to-late 1980's. Most early racist punks were usually found out and removed from the scene in one way or another. Such was the case with the CONTROLLERS first bass player, D.O.A. Dan. When Dan showed up the the Punk Fashion show at the Palladium wearing a huge swastika shirt and later carved a swastika into his bass guitar, Johnny Stingray and Kidd Spike kicked him out of the band. They didn't appreciate the negativism that he was bringing to the band and the unwanted negative attention. Instead, the CONTROLLERS added Karla Maddog to their band who, I believe, was the first black female drummer in punk!

Alice Bag said...

Maddog probably was the first and was definitely one of the best, black, white, male or female. Thanks for recognizing her, she deserves special mention. said...

I hope this is the Alice Bag I've been looking for.. retarded with computers, friend, and I'm sending a question out into the void for lack of better email address. I watched an excellent film and I'm trying to track it down... any help would be most appreciated.. I believe it was just called "Alice Bag," featured a girl talking to a camera one-on-one, skits mixed in, humorous and devastating accounts of the process of art school, ending with her (accumulated?) remorse over Kurt Cobain's death. I need this film, and I can't find it anywhere. Please, someone email me, save my life, find this tape. This crazy web madness has only brought me to you---are you this person that I am looking for?

Greg Velasquez-webmonkey said...

I hope we can alleviate your pain and suffering by directing you to the following link regarding a pop/performance artist out of NY named "Alex Bag."

According to our dear friend, Ms. Vaginal Davis, said artist adopted her stage name in homage to the lovely author of this here blog, but considering the source, we recommend that you take this story with more than just a dash of salt.


Please let us know if this helps to ease your torment.

Theresa K. said...

Alice - this is a wonderful post and I know a few Jewish punks and people that I've re-connected with through these blogs we do all appreciate this post so much! Like my friend Mike Appelstein from St. Louis, Mo who sent me an email that said:
"Anyway, does my heart good to see folks like Alice Bag speaking on it." and he's talking about Anti-Semitism.
Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

as a mexican american growing up punk in the los angeles suburbs,i had alot of acceptance within the scene and that was what punk was, something to call your own, something fun artisticly, musically, and there was a real sense of fitting in to something fresh and new, all of us who couldn't stand the hum-drum of boring people and boring music formed new scenes and it felt good... but times ran into assholes or "skinheads" not sure if they really knew what they were about, but who thought they were better than me because i was mexican, they would call me a poseur and i thought is the only cool punk supposed to be a white boy with suspenders and army pants? that's not what it is all about, it's about unity, and embracing fun cool music and just having fun in an otherwise boring world...

Anonymous said...

didn't the alice bag band play with china white and 100 flowers on the last bnight of the starwood? I remember the dance floor with rodney spinning on tuesdays and thursday nights....,
quincy atomsv

Anonymous said...

Hello, just wanted to say that it was nice to "meet" you on Antonio López's blog. And to read about you on this blog.

Isabel (del Rosario)