This review ran in the most recent issues of Degenerate and Maximumrocknroll. I also had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Alice for SF Weekly. - Sam Lefebvre
Punk literature is often given to tiresome romanticizing and rehashed clichés, but Alice Bag’s recent autobiography, Violence Girl, is written from the perspective of a poor Hispanic raised in East LA by a tyrannical father. She inherits an acute awareness of the duality of man, a Catholic-guilt complex, and the self-consciousness of an awkward girl who could not relate to her peers. Finding solace in the seething anger of punk, Bag’s story focuses on her time as the front woman for a pivotal early Hollywood punk band, The Bags. Immersed in the first wave of punk in California, her skeptical predisposition informs her writings and she carries the voice of an outsider. Punk reinforced the negativity of her violent childhood and ultimately forced her to reconcile and grapple with it as well.
Although Alice Bag is best known as a punk musician, the book takes time to reach that point in her life; instead it focuses in candid detail on her childhood. Whether it’s the volatile experience of loving a father who encouraged her one day and beat her mother the next, the abject failure of East LA public school in the 1960s and 1970s or the enticing sexual ambiguity of glam rock, all facets of her childhood are analyzed in depth. She not only describes those experiences in a compelling way but shows us how those early obstacles endeared her to the extremism of punk rock. Bag’s depiction of Hollywood from the early days with no expectations, through the establishment of scenes in cities along the West Coast that allowed The Bags to achieve notoriety, and onwards to the explosion of hardcore punk in the suburbs is shown from the lens of a young girl as equally enamored of the eccentric liberation found in punk as she is critical of the tendencies towards excess and self-destruction. Of particular riveting significance is her tumultuous friendship of Darby Crash, as she watches the development of his nihilistic outlook and crypto-fascist treatment of his fans lead to his tragic suicide.
The violent rage Alice Bag channeled into her confrontational live performance is explained as a reaction to her violent childhood. What she refers to as her father’s “duality,” his tendency to both abuse his wife and fawn endlessly over his daughter, is reflected in Bag’s combination of philosophical pontificating and willingness to violently engage with little provocation. In this sense, punk became an outlet for her rage that wasn’t entirely healthy, even reinforcing the negativity she grew up around, but eventually her peers’ self-destructive habits begin to take a lethal grip on her scene, and the fierce independence she learned in the punk scene becomes a tool for redirecting her life.
Bag’s story also details her membership in Castration Squad, an early, all-female gloomy punk band that had considerable influence on the proliferation of death rock and goth in 80’s LA. She was a reluctant member of the group, having retreated to her parent’s home to focus on school, but found some solace in joining the all-female band she had always desired. When The Bags were initially conceptualized, Bag and Patricia Morrison craved an all-female line-up, but when men repeatedly arrived to audition, they accepted the mixed gender dynamic. Later, when Bag witnessed her friends form The Go-Go’s, her reaction was bitter-sweet. She adored the concept of an empowered, all-female punk band, but her support was tempered by a longing to join. With Castration Squad, that dream materialized, but her life had already begun a new trajectory towards education and a global perspective.
After completing college, Bag travels to Nicaragua after the wake of a revolution, and upon returning to California, she becomes a teacher in the very school system which she depicts as a tragic failure during her own childhood. Of course, the story is not completed, since Bag is still continuing to create, inspire and educate today, but the largest conflict of her life seems to resolve in one of the final chapters. That dramatic and poignant reconciliation is with her dying father; the most profound enemy and inspiration of her entire life.