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!

Sunday, January 06, 2013

La Isla de las Muñecas

The legend goes that the man who created the island of the dolls (La Isla de las Muñecas) was a loner named Don Julian Santana. He was haunted by the ghost of a teenage girl who drowned near his property. The teenager and two other young girls fell out of a boat in Lake Xochimilco. Two of the girls swam to safety, but the third one couldn't swim. No sooner had the two friends made shore than they noticed the third girl was missing. They bravely went back into the murky water to try to save their friend, but they couldn't find her. Frightened, the girls went back for help. That night, Don Julian believed he heard the voice of a girl calling out to him and in the morning he found her lifeless body. After that night, Don Julian was terrified of the ghost of the girl. He began collecting dolls to appease the restless spirit. Every time he went out, he collected more dolls from wherever he could find them; broken and discarded dolls served as well as new ones. The dolls made him feel safer, but only momentarily, as he was required to bring a new doll each time he passed the area where the girl had drowned. He was never completely free of her angry spirit. Don Julian continued to be plagued by her presence for the next fifty years and the dolls satisfied the ghost enough to let him live. Until 2001. That year, he had a heart attack and fell dead into the water at the exact spot where the girl had drowned. And he did NOT live happily ever after. — at Xochimilco.