I certainly can't forget where I was the first time I heard first-wave LA punk band THE BAGS and their 45 "Survive". It was 1986, eight years after the record had come and went - but a new bootleg had just come out with the early Dangerhouse singles called "Me Want Breakfast", and the Maximum Rocknroll radio show played "Survive" as a means of posthumously talking up the incredible LA punk rock scene of the late 70s. You know how sometimes you just know you've heard what will become one of your all-time favorite pieces of music, even before it's done? We weren't even to Craig Lee's spazzy, broken-down guitar solo when I'd decided that this was the coolest punk rock record I'd heard to date. Not having the $25 or so (!) that it would have taken to buy the original single (though I learned upon returning to college that Fall that my much-admired punk rock cousin owned it), I bought the Dangerhouse bootleg that week - and was exposed to The Weirdos, The Dils, the early X singles and more all in one fell swoop.
So it was through my musical education of the next few years. Alice Bag and THE BAGS were among about three or four punk-rock standard-bearers and holders of the flame of the all-time greats (Germs, Weirdos, Flesh Eaters, Bags). Not knowing much about what ever happened to her after her brief time in the Masque/Hollywood spotlight, my friends and I used to imagine we'd seen her during our LA record-shopping trips in the late 80s - any time we'd see a tall Latina with wide eyes and short hair. We knew she was doing some stuff with the man known as Vaginal Cream Davis, but I felt that she was this elusive character who'd stopped making the scene a long time before.
Then about seven years ago, when I was doing my music blog Agony Shorthand, I got some "proactive" emails from Alice Bag, i.e. Alicia Armendariz, i.e. Alice Velasquez. What a coup! She liked my site! Alice Bag! I arranged a short email interview with her, which you can read here. I was really impressed that she'd easily weathered the storm of LA punk and post-punk heroin mania and self-destruction, and was now a happily-married mother and schoolteacher, still committed to the joint causes of social justice and keeping the internal punk flame alive. Now I know how she did it, because the second that her autobiography "VIOLENCE GIRL" went on sale, I snapped it up. Suffice to say, you should too.
The book is subtitled "East LA rage to the Hollywood stage", and its subtext is how Alice's at-times difficult, at-times stable upbringing in all-Hispanic east Los Angeles contributed both to her violent, angry on-stage persona and reckless life in Hollywood, as well as to her quick mental "sobering up" and exit from Hollywood and into a world of ideas, philosophy and eventually a life centered around helping others. She tells her tale as series of vignettes, usually chapters that are about 2-5 pages, often illustrated with photographs.
The first near-half of the book is about growing up - a childhood full of alternating great, "normal" memories and then memories of her beloved father beating her mother bloody on multiple occasions. While how this led to her wild-woman, banshee-on-wheels Bags frontperson persona is never explicitly stated, it doesn't need to be. Alice carried in her years of simmering anger at her father and a chip on her shoulder the size of Montana, and it served her well both as a singer and in keeping herself safe & strong during her late-teen Hollywood punk years. She makes the connections implicitly through chapter alternation and through stories of fights, near-fights, encounters with weirdos and drug-addled teenagers of all stripes.
I guess I knew it already, but it is clear that this was also a very grounded woman, despite some wayward years. When her time living the crazy life at the infamous Canterbury apartments was starting to hit the rocks of too much drinking and the introduction of drugs into her young life, she knew well enough to leave, and move back to East LA to live with her parents. She went to college and worked at a flower shop, even while still being the she-demon that fronted The Bags. She's a case study in "surviving", not to go for the all-too-obvious pun.
Those who might read this not as a life memoir but as a voyeuristic glimpse into the incredible LA punk scene of the time will also not be disappointed. There are various tales of The Weirdos, Black Randy, Darby Crash, the Middle Class, Kickboy Face & Philly and much more - even one in which Alice almost joins the nascent Go-Gos, which as she modestly admits, would probably have been a disaster. This isn't a Pulitzer-bait memoir full of lavish prose and weepy melodrama - not on an edgy imprint like Feral House - but it is well-written and -edited, and if I've got a complaint, it's that I would have liked to have learned a little more about the most recent 25 years of her life, which are unfortunately crammed together in the book's final paragraphs. She's obviously been a lifelong learner and explorer of her own psyche and has really come out the stronger for it, even as many of her punk peers peeled off into degeneration and death. Maybe I'll start the petition now for part two. Until then, you can pick up "VIOLENCE GIRL" right here.