Back in my early days, I was punk. Now, rumor has it that most punks would ever refuse to identify as punk, and that the word punk is as loose a description as hipster or yuppie, harkening back to something that used to be more solid, more defined, and probably more in the ’70s. While I agree with maybe a third of this, punk to me, while synonymous with music, fashion, and a community, was about a fuck-it-all attitude.
As a teenager stuck in the deep south, punk was a bit of a life raft, a way into another world of being that offered me choices beyond “working-class slut who aint going nowhere” or “potential southern belle if she really, really tried (but probably not)”. However, in loving what it offered, I could scarcely count on one hand the amount of other women there, much less the amount of women I knew in punk bands. The potential to be thrown into the cheerleader box was ripe, and being a young woman without her fuck-all wherewithalls in a heavily male-dominated scene often felt like being more of an accessory rather than an active participant. So when a friend introduced me to Alice Bag of The Bags, it was a miraculous moment of finding a badass punk chick whom I could look up to, a gateway to other women performers (Patti Smith! Siousxie Sioux!, Ari Up! Courtney Love!) and really, a template for understanding that my own femme style was punk as fuck, no matter what was being said.
So when I found Bag’s book, “Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage To Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story,” I knew I was going to be in for a ride. Alice Bag (aka Alicia Armandariz) details with excruciating memory the highs and lows of being a member of The Bags, one of the first bands on the LA punk scene. But to get to the point where Alicia becomes Alice, and Alice becomes Alice Bag, the book starts where most of society’s first wounds come from – childhood and family. Growing up in East LA, Bag is a child of re-marriage, bearing intimate knowledge of the working class blues and stretching the pennies to the terrifying experiences of witnessing the abuse of her mother at her beloved father’s hands. Over and over she laments the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of her father, an inner-monster potential she feels brewing within herself a little later on the stage. She is hell on stilettos, someone who dares you to shake, motherfucker, shake – a woman who screams en mi mero mole, both literally and metaphorically. She becomes what she sings:
She’s taken too much of the domesticated world, she’s tearing it to pieces, she’s a violence girl! She’s a violence girl, she thrives on pain, she’s a violence girl, you can’t restrain!
But Bag’s story can’t just be defined as that. Her book is a dedication to so many of the things that defined her, as well as her natural evolution into the badass punk chick she would soon become: being “the fat kid,” having a dire love for all things Elton John, including the outlandish style to match, and seeking constantly to find community. There’s no over-glossing or even a touch of romanticizing, as is common in biographies of musicians (though Bag’s story is an autobiography). There is just her truth. When she finally begins to feel out the very inklings of this thing called “punk,” you see the lights flick on and something click. She isn’t meant to be the groupie – she never was. She was meant to be a hard, screaming, frontrunner, a formidable female of the take-no-prisoners punk attitude that captured disenfranchised kids everywhere. Punk is a balm, a muse, a voice – it’s a pair of fishnet tights and an attitude that defines violence girl. It eventually becomes a staked claim in a scene that encouraged you to burn, burn, and burn, until finally, you had nothing left, a dilemma Bag encounters firsthand when the walls of the punk lifestyle come crashing in, whether from watching friends shoot up in the bathroom or having the literal walls of her abode cave in on her. Bag walks away, though not completely, but removes herself from a destruction that, while it exemplifies so much of the attitude of the time, also ends up eating many alive. By moving back in with family, there is a normalcy to her experience – seriously, when is the last time you heard of a musician moving home to untangle herself from all the muck that surrounded them? It’s a situation that so many, especially of my generation, are familiar with, whether for reasons like Bag’s or for reasons of their own. It’s life.
This is why “Violence Girl” is so undeniably good. It doesn’t rest on the laurels of just this one experience – even with all there is to tell. This major moment in music and cultural history is just a catalyst for Bag’s continuing journey, one that includes band troubles, finding her own form of feminism, living in Managua, Nicaragua at the height of the US embargo and the U.S./Contra conflict, to jumping forward to other parts of life – romance, death, children. While they don’t take up so much of the book, these things leave just as deep an impression that the personal is political and that what it means to grow up in a world that can be downright cruel. But life can’t be heartbreaking all the time, even when it is at its worst, a theme that fills the pages of the book. Life is what it is and we make of it what we can.
A fore-mother who has dealt with the murk and kicked ass doing so, Bag gives readers so much to digest when they finish just this part of her tale. So I’m only left with this as a marker of what I have possibly experienced via written word:
“I’m bouncing on stilettos like a fighter in the ring. I charge out to the edge of the stage, full of adrenaline and fire, singing to the faces in the front rows. They are my current, my source of energy. I urge them to engage. I know there’s something in them, some inner carbonation lying still, waiting to be shaken.”
It’s all I can do to not be just as shaken, not to feel my own inner something being awakened – one part raw anger, one part full potential, and one part fire, a fire that has to be part of one of those universal “things,” the deep, dark, unknown that exists within everyone, waiting to be unleashed upon the world. Bag is inspiration, Bag is power, Bag’s words fuel. While the world can feel so very separated in terms of language, religion, race, gender, class, and the violence these things sometimes bring, there is universal power in someone just speaking their truth. I’m just thankful that Alice Bag did it.