Tuesday, May 29, 2007

86'd from 88 and Other Stories of Aggression

I am still corresponding with a doctoral candidate who is doing research for her dissertation. Several of her questions required me to do some self-analysis and this is one having to do with my reputation for being a "Violence Girl."


Michelle Habell-Pallan wrote in her book that you were often accused of being “too aggressive onstage.” I have also read that The Bags were known for inciting chaos at your gigs and were banned from many venues. Could you give me any specific instances of these events (you being called “too aggressive”; audience chaos and how/why you think it started)?


Some people think that my aggressive tendencies surfaced when I became involved in the punk scene, but they’re wrong. I was still an adolescent when I discovered that aggression, or the threat of violence, could be a powerful defense mechanism. The reason I was labeled as aggressive in the punk scene had to do with my being accustomed to violence and being used to defending myself physically.

I think my aggression issues really came to a head after my first year of middle school at Robert Louis Stevenson Junior High in East L.A.

Me, looking a little timid at Robert Louis Stevenson Jr. High.

Steeped in domestic violence and then experiencing gang violence at school, I started to believe that the world was divided into victims and aggressors. I decided that I was never going to be a victim. It seemed like the less painful option. I was still in junior high when a girl in my class was relentlessly taunting me. One day, she pushed me hard as I was walking up the stairs. Fed up, I quickly turned around and shoved my open palm towards her to push her back. As fate would have it, she had a Bic ballpoint pen in her mouth at the time and I shoved it through the back of her throat. From that point on, the school bullies stopped calling me names and throwing things at me. By the time I graduated from jr. high school I had developed a tough exterior.

Me and my Dad on Grad Day from Jr. High.

I’m sure that my determination not to become a passive victim was largely driven by seeing my father and mother’s relationship. I realized that they were both actively fueling the cycle of domestic abuse. My mother could have walked out at any time and in fact, I encouraged her to do it on several occasions but she never did. I came to view victims as weak and somehow complicit in their victimization. Even though I didn’t necessarily want to be an aggressor, I felt if I had to choose one role or the other I’d choose what I viewed as the stronger role. I’ve since come to the realization that aggressors can be just as weak as their victims, but at that time I believed otherwise.

In 1976, after graduating from Sacred Heart of Mary High School, my parents gave me a choice of a new (used) car or a trip to Europe as a graduation gift. I decide to continue borrowing the old Ford Falcon and see the world. While in Austria, I nearly provoked an international incident when a drunk in a pub grabbed and locked in on my ass like a pitbull. I promptly smacked him across the face and pretty soon all the Americans at my table were yelling at the pub’s regular Austrian customers. We were all thrown out, thanks to me.

Back home, I got a part time job at a flower shop in Montebello. One day, I was packing up a lady’s flower order and as I bent over to get a box, my manager walked behind me and succumbed to an irresistible urge to slap my butt. I, in turn, succumbed to an irresistible urge to slap his face. That sent him scurrying to the back of the store. The customer, an older lady who witnessed the whole scene, told me she was proud of me and that I’d done the right thing. I rang up her order and walked to the back, ready to punch the clock and be sent home. Instead, I got an apology. I figured that maybe violence was not always a bad thing. I wasn’t the type to turn the other cheek, that’s for sure.

The first show the Bags played at the Masque in 1977 was all a blur to me. It was like I blacked out during the set. The reviewer in Slash said that I was yelling at the audience to “MOVE, FUCKERS! MOVE!” and it’s true that I couldn’t stand complacent audiences. I needed energy to feed off and so I exhorted the audience to keep up with me. Rather than aggressive, I would describe myself as confrontational and trying to engage the audience, but I suppose it’s all in how you choose to label it. I suspect that if I were a man, I would have been called "intense" or "energetic" but since I am a woman, my attitude seemed to catch people off guard.

Me with a bloody lip at the Hong Kong Cafe, photo by Louis Jacinto.

The Bags were the first punk band to headline the Troubadour in 1978, which ended with the place being trashed and our being 86'd from that club. We were subsequently 86'd from Madame Wong’s for a similar reason. The same thing happened with Club 88 when they started having punk shows. The Bags played a few shows there before being 86'd for being “too aggressive." Although I couldn’t play there, I didn’t hold it against them and I continued to go and spread my love and support to the bands that played there. One night, The Dils were playing. I was dancing in the audience when somebody grabbed my crotch. I looked down and there was a hand clutching me. I grabbed the wrist attached to the offending hand and without missing a pogo beat I turned, jumped into the air, and slammed a hard fist into the pervert’s face. It was a really nice punch too because my whole body went into it. The guy was wearing sunglasses which broke apart, slicing a nasty gash into the flesh around his eye.

After the show, the guy’s buddies were gunning for me. Kickboy (Claude Bessy) stepped in to talk to them and asked me to explain to them what had happened. I gave it to them straight and it seemed they were satisfied with my account as I was allowed to leave the club. Later, we heard that the guy (who required 22 stitches around his eye) wasn’t satisfied with my account.

A few days later, I was back at another club I’d been 86'd from: Madame Wong’s. I went to the bathroom and as I was walking out of the stall, a tall Latina put her arm up and blocked my exit. She identified herself as the girlfriend of the man I had injured and told me she was going to kick my ass. She looked like she could do it, too. I washed my hands and asked her to step outside with me. On our way out and as we were walking down the stairs, I told her I would fight her, but I asked her if it was worth fighting to defend a man who went around grabbing women’s crotches. We started talking and after a while we decided to go to the liquor store. By the end of the night, when Scarface showed up to see if his woman had avenged his honor, he found us both sitting outside - drunk, laughing at him. I honestly couldn’t see myself fighting that girl. I felt bad that she had such a creep for a boyfriend. I hope she dumped him.

In conclusion, I'd say that I deserved my reputation for being aggressive and The Bags were just a perfect vehicle for expressing that aggression and anger onstage. I would have directed it elsewhere and expressed it in another way had it not been for the Bags. It was the best form of therapy I could have hoped for.

The Bags perform "Violence Girl" at the ill-fated Troubadour show.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Others

I'm doing an email interview with a grad student who is working on her dissertation and she's asked me some thought provoking questions. Question #5 gave me a bit of trouble and I've decided to share it with you.


If we consider woman and chicana as “other” within a white patriarchal society and punk as also projecting itself as a type of “other” in society (or a place for “others”—societal “rejects”/rejectors of all kinds), how do you feel your own understanding of yourself as “other” in this society was a force in your work as a punk artist? Can you give any specific examples of how this worked for you (particular lyrics, songs, things that happened at a gig, etc.)? [I’m familiar with what you have said about how punk allowed a certain space for anybody to play, etc. I’m mostly interested in how as an artist you may have taken “otherness” or some subjectivity that would “normally” be considered marginal, or even “abject” (such as women in rock, chicanas in rock, women in control, etc.) and made it a center.]


One of the challenges I have with explaining my role in the early punk scene to academics is the tendency to assume that I was rebelling against society because of being marginalized as a female or as a Chicana. I don’t think being an “other”- meaning a woman or a Chicana - had as much influence on my music as being caught in the middle of domestic violence and witnessing gang violence as a child. I’ve said it before, but I witnessed gang shootings on a regular basis both at school and in my neighborhood. Instead of finding a safe haven at home, it was even worse because the people that I loved most were in constant danger of being attacked. Those experiences have more to do with survival. If you think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you’re not going to worry about defining yourself as a woman or a Chicana or part of any social movement when you’re just trying to stay alive and trying to make sure that those you love are not being killed or beaten. My motivations were much more basic and primal.

I didn’t think about being the “other” when I was on stage performing. Alice Bag was really defined by that little kid, helpless in the corner watching her mom being beaten up. Suddenly, I was powerful, strong and full of rage and it poured out of me, unrestrained. I’ve read that some people consider me an early “hardcore” performer, but that’s only because the emotions and anger I expressed on stage were real, not part of a stage act. Brendan Mullen recently wrote about my first performance at the Masque that he’d “never seen a woman so angry.” How much of that had to with being the “other,” I don’t know. Being a woman, being economically disadvantaged, being a Chicana were all ingredients mixed up in the explosive recipe that produced Alice Bag.

I was watching the Henry Rollins show today and I was struck by how much more intelligent and articulate he is than the average talk show host and it occurred to me that this was true of many of the early punks. I think that a lot of my punk peers were especially intelligent and/or creative individuals who may have seen themselves as “other”, but only in the sense that society did not “get them.” They were not suffering from any inferiority complexes. Rather, they were holding onto their sense of individuality and the things that made them special because they knew that they were right and society did not value their individuality. I think being “other” for us was like feeling that you had a magic wand but that you didn’t know how to use it. You knew you were different and special and the thing that set you apart from others also defined you and could be your source of power if you could figure out how to tap into it.

I guess I thought of myself as a misfit because I had been ostracized the whole time I was growing up. When punk came along, it was just the perfect vehicle for me to express who I was an individual. It was new enough and open enough to allow itself to be defined by people like me. Just a couple of years later, that would change and people would have to fit into preconceived notions of what punk rock was or wasn’t. The early scene had no such limitations because we were the ones creating and defining it. If you had been at the Masque in 1977, you would have seen very eclectic shows, ranging from the Screamers to Arthur J. and the Goldcups, from Geza X and the Mommymen to The Controllers. There was no clearly defined punk sound, no dress code and all you had to do was show up and make your presence known. The movement was one of individuals and individual expression, each of us bringing our heritage and formative experiences with us in an organic and in my case, unplanned way.

With regards to defining myself as a Chicana, I recall a previous interviewer asking me about bands such as Malo, Tierra, and other seventies Chicano rock bands and I replied that I remembered cruising and going to dances at Kennedy Hall in East LA and listening to the music which was being played on every car radio (and 8 track!) in East LA at that time. It was the soundtrack of my youth and whether I acknowledged it or not, it is logical to assume that it crept into my psyche. I don’t see my music as an extension or offshoot of the Chicano music scene but I suppose it could be argued that it is, simply because I am Chicana, but if I am to be included in this category, I demand that the limitations of the label “Chicano music” be expanded to include atypical Chicana experiences.

The Chicano movement of my youth had no use for Bowie and Elton John freaks like me. It was very clear that I was too weird for them. I would have liked to be part of Mecha and help define what it meant to be a Chicana but I don't think they wanted my input. So I did not define myself as Chicana for many years because that movement had in fact rejected me. It wasn't until much later that I decided that I would define IT and I would call myself a Chicana and they would just have to deal with it. But it seems that movement has grown up and is not so self-conscious and is more willing to embrace those of us with hitherto questionable lifestyles, ideas and attitudes.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Women In L.A. Punk, Part XXIII - Debbie Schow

My home computer recently crashed and took with it quite a large portion of my online archives at www.alicebag.com. That's bad news because it literally took my husband months and months to scan the images and write the code for hundreds of web pages. The good news is that the vast majority of the Women In L.A. Punk section is intact, with the exception of a few photos. It's important to me that this series of interviews remains available for researchers and those who are curious because it provides a direct, unedited source of first-hand recollections for the women who lived through and created the early L.A. punk scene.

One of those women was Debbie Schow. Debbie Schow and I met briefly at Kim Fowley’s cattle call for Venus and the Razorblades, his post-Runaways project. Debbie had been involved in the local music scene before punk really took off in L.A. and she started photographing the bands and scene. Later, when Nickey Beat joined Venus and The Razorblades, he introduced me to her formally. I remember her being unusually serene and elegant and I wondered what someone like her was doing hanging out with Kim Fowley.

Blue Debbie by Debbie Schow.

Debbie was around to photograph the transitions from glitter to punk, then punk to post-punk. She is also a musician in her own right. She’s started to go through her archives of negatives and I’m certain we’ll be seeing more of her work in the future. For now, Debbie has graciously allowed me to share some of her photos of Wall of Voodoo, X and others, including a previously unpublished color photo of X at Union Station in Downtown L.A.

Click on the Women In Punk thumbnail to read her interview:

Monday, May 07, 2007

Giddy Old Biddy

I’m back in AZ now, but I’m still giddy from all the excitement of playing the Silver Lake Film Festival. I had an unforgettable time. From the moment I stepped off the plane until I got back on my return flight, I had the feeling that L.A. was as happy to see me as I was to see it. It all culminated on Saturday night with a show that made me feel like I was back at the Masque. Certainly the stage was about the same size and height and the crowd was every bit as fresh and enthusiastic as we were when we were 17. Never mind that I’m 48 - when I’m in the moment, the concepts of age and time are meaningless. It was only the next morning when suffering from punk rock neck that I remembered my age. It was worth it. Everyone looked like they were having fun and I know for sure that nobody could have possibly had a better time than I did.

I have so many people to thank: first of all, Ian Brennan for talking me into doing a few songs and making me feel secure in the knowledge that he was dealing with any business details that had to be taken care of. Lysa Flores was the first to step up and volunteer herself and her band to back me on any songs I wanted to do. She learned the songs from a CD, organized rehearsals, shlepped me back and forth all over town, gave me vocal tips, bought me presents and pretty much treated me like a queen. Without a doubt, Lysa is the most generous performer I’ve ever worked with.

Thank you to Jane Wiedlin, who graciously found time in her busy schedule to present me with the award and the fantastic guitar case. Sorry about the Adrien Brody moment, Jane - I couldn't help myself!

Thank you to the musicians. As Flames Evil eloquently put it, "You had an amazing band of badasses to back you." I can’t think of a better way to say it. David Jones, Garrett Ray, Gaby Godhead, Sharon Needles and Judy Cocuzza - each player a star in his/her own right - provided the tight, rocking music for me to scream and screech over. Not to mention guest backing vocalists Angie Garcia and Teresa Covarrubias.

Beyond all that, any musician knows that you can plan, practice and rock ‘til you’re blue in the face, but without a receptive audience, it’s just masturbation. The audience was made up of equal parts Class of '07 and Class of '77 alumni. Some bobbed their heads while holding onto walkers, while others dove into the center of the chaos and were lost in the frenzy. I was lost in the frenzy. So lost that I fucked up lyrics, sang in weird keys and forgot to sacrifice the virgin during Modern Day Virgin Sacrifice. Does anyone really give a shit? I don’t think so. I think we really had something. At least it was good for me.

Thank you L.A. You made this old bag really happy.

P.S. Thanks also to Suzie, who has posted this video footage of the show on MySpace:

Alice Bag

Thanks to Closed Circuit TV who posted this video of Babylonian Gorgon.

Alice Bag "LA"

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Off With Their Heads!

I am very saddened by the footage and images which are now being broadcast all over the world from my hometown of Los Angeles. I love my city. Despite all its problems, pollution and craziness it really hurts to see this. What the hell is happening to us?

I've posted some of the local reporter's footage below. The video is filled with searing, unforgettable images, but the moment that brought tears to my eyes occurs about 2 minutes into the clip. A man carrying an American flag is desperately backing away from the advancing line of riot squad police. First, he uses the staff of the flag to help support and raise a fallen demonstrator from the ground and then he resorts to using the flagpole to defend himself against the batons of the police.

The initial shock and sadness that I felt upon learning of this latest example of police brutality has quickly given way to anger and frustration. I am frustrated that we are still dealing with apparently uncontrolled police violence towards people who have the constitutionally guaranteed right of lawful assembly. Never mind that the initial estimates of "bottle throwing agitants" grew from 15 individuals by most of the first accounts to "50, 75, 100" people by the time Chief Bratton spoke to the press this morning, as if magnifying the imagined threat to the police could somehow justify the unjustifiable tactics employed.

Photo by Rick Loomis for the LA Times.

Now Mayor Villaraigosa and Chief Bratton are both promising an investigation and pledging accountability. Somebody better be held accountable, because when someone in charge fucks up, then that person's head has to roll. That's the way accountability works in the real world.

And believe me, somebody, or several somebodies, fucked up big time on May Day in MacArthur Park. And as a Los Angeleno and a U.S. citizen, I want their heads on a fucking silver platter.

The LAPD owes the city some answers
May 3, 2007

John Mack of the Los Angeles Police Commission summed it up neatly Wednesday afternoon at City Hall when he said: "This was not a pretty picture."

He was referring to videos of LAPD riot cops in action Tuesday evening in MacArthur Park. Once again, a small number of officers appears to have created another PR nightmare for the department. Even their boss, Chief William J. Bratton, said he was disturbed by what he called inappropriate behavior. I wasn't there, so I'm not sure exactly how this ugly chapter unfolded at the end of a long day of peaceful demonstrations by immigrant and workers' rights advocates. Bratton said that 50 to 100 agitators, as he called them, got into a skirmish with police. Witnesses said the knuckleheads were throwing bottles at cops, several of whom were injured.

But what followed, much of it captured by news crews, raises more than a few questions.

Video shot that evening shows police moving in on MacArthur Park like they were taking Iwo Jima. They ordered people involved in peaceful demonstrations to move out. There was confusion, with some people leaving and others lingering as the drama played out.

Then we see officers aiming rifles to fire foam bullets.

We see civilians go down.

We see fear and panic.

We see a man holding a child and running for cover.

We see a nasty bruise on the belly of a man hit with a foam bullet.

We see police wielding batons, ordering reporters to scram, shoving two television cameramen, tussling with another member of the media and pushing Fox 11 news reporter Christina Gonzales away as she tries to help her fallen videographer.

Gonzalez reported that police had ordered her to get into her van and "shut the door." But the reporter, whose husband is a retired LAPD cop, didn't want to be sealed off like that, unable to "videotape some of the other people" who were "getting roughed up, to put it mildly."

She was later taken to the hospital with what she thought was a dislocated shoulder, but she turned out to be OK. She said her videographer was treated for a wrist injury.

"I have never seen anything like this," Gonzalez said on Fox 11 early Wednesday. She said that while police were trying to herd reporters and others out of the way, she heard them laughing and saying: "Double time, it's tussle time."

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, was in the park for a peaceful rally that suddenly turned chaotic.

"I started hearing gunshots, people started screaming, people with children started running, hiding behind bushes and under trees," Salas said. "I couldn't understand what was happening, but I saw a man get up after a big old rubber bullet hit him in the side."

Salas tried to escort families out of the area, but it was unclear what directions might be safe, and more shots could still be heard. "My biggest concern was that the police weren't discerning between" agitators and "the vast majority of people who were there peacefully."

I'd like to know what commanders were in charge and what they were thinking. I'd like to know if police aimed rifles at specific targets or into the crowd. I'd like to know why police thought it was OK to rough up or muzzle reporters who were simply doing their jobs. And I'd like to know how this will be avoided in the future.

A lot to ask, maybe. But Bratton promised several investigations, and the public deserves answers in double time.