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.


Anonymous said...

Wow! It sounds like that crotch-grabbing creep got something to remember you by!

Don't mess with Alice Bag, you have been warned! Awesome. You are the godmother of riot grrl!

Anonymous said...

Alice, I hope you're writing a book, and these kind of stories are in it. These are the kind of details that makes sense of what happened, instead of just being sensationalism and hype.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen this photo of you at the Hong Kong Cafe before. It's amazing! But the link to Louis Jacinto didn't work! Can people buy his photos? You look so full of rage and the blood spilling off your teeth is just awesome. You are SO HARDCORE!

Anonymous said...

Although I did'nt live in L.A. at the time, I used to go there a few times a year, and would go to punk shows. I saw the Bags a few times, and I never thought you, or the scene itself - prior to 1980, that is - were all that violent. On the few occasions we me casually met, you were always friendly and congenial. Am I missing something?

Alice Bag said...

That's because I'm alot like Toto from Wizard of Oz: I'm gentle...with gentle people, that is!

I'm poisoned blood when I'm pissed.


Jenny Lens said...

Alice, after an incredibly wonderful day that turned nasty in the evening, praying that just once, just once I could have a perfectly wonderful day, your stories had me laughing out loud. Laughter: the best remedy!

Thank you for your honesty. And I too never knew this side of you til your website/blog. Bless you for sharing!

Mark Martinez and I were discussing the layout of my Rizzoli book today. He was concerned I'd be angry if he told me something that might upset me. I told him he's my best friend and nothing he could do or say would anger me. I welcome his honesty!

He pointed to a shot of me, saying I looked so aggressive that people will think I'm a dyke! Of course Mark knows I am 100% straight, with a great lust for men.

I laughed and told him that's not the first time someone said my aggressiveness was "too male" (another of his phrases). What is it with our society equating aggressive, honest women with a loss of femininity? I'm not implying lesbians are not feminine. Others are saying that.

Well, I gotta be true to myself. And that photo stays in my book. Cos it shows the real me, although certainly not in a flattering manner. It takes great courage to share that photo to my public who think you and I led some kind of charmed life being involved in punk as early participants.

Yes, it was a great time, but individually we dealt with serious personal issues, just like everyone else. The photo's honesty is the reality/truth that the woman behind all my photos is one dealing with deep anger, passion, sadness, confusion, pain, disappointment, and most of all, frustration.

This mainly stems from desperately not knowing how not to be a victim nor the weak aggressor. That is the struggle that you handle with such grace and dignity (these days!).

I focus on my art, my photos, my stories. And through my art and the good people I've met because of my art, I find the happiness to balance the pain of domestic violence, internalized so long ago.

And that violence is never ending due to displaced anger from strangers and people I know. It's a constant struggle to react to inappropriate behavior from others so I don't perpetuate their violence, whether verbal, psychological or physical. Dealing with the public makes one very vulnerable to unwarranted attacks in ways people would never believe.

Thank you again for sharing stories of how you reacted and became stronger for it. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And dealing with it makes you stronger!

godoggo said...

Jesus, sorry if I messed up your day, Jenny. I actually wasn't even pissed. Typically, I was slow to get my thoughts together for a response, then poof!. But I emailed them to you.

LouisJacinto said...

Great entry Alice (and your new website page looks great!). I was telling my husband yesterday that we, as the last and youngest of the boomers, gave the world punk rock and the intitial liberation it provided in no longer needing to do anything that corporate America (or corporate World) said we needed to do - ever again! I never felt punk rock was violent, but just this surge of liberated energy that we found in the initial punk philosphy. It was boundless and absolutely wonderful! Keep writing about it for us and for the kids who missed it and want to know more!

Anonymous said...

Hi Alice,

My name is Steve Lafreniere, and am an old (older than you!) friend of Vaginal's and Ron's. They used to stay with me in Chicago, and that's where Vag gave me my treasured copy of the Cholita cassette oh those many years ago. (Will it ever be released on CD??)

Anyway, I just discovered your blog and have read several months backlog so far. I'm amazed. There are loads of good blogs out there, but very few truly great ones like yours. I came up in the glam and punk scenes in Denver (yes, we existed--all 20 of us) and your stories have made an important connection for me between who I was in that time and place and who I am now. Thank you for that.

Today I was listening to Chinga Tu Madre while reading the AARP Newsletter, so just know that you're not the only old punk out there!

God bless ya, Alice.

Alice Bag said...

Dear Steve,

Thank you for the nice comments. Ms. Davis spoke very highly of you.

The scary thing is I was watching TV when "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" by the Buzzcocks came on. It was being used in an AARP commercial! Right then I knew I was old.