MIDWAY THROUGH The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris's 1981 documentary about the Los Angeles punk scene, a number of young men are interviewed, talking head-style. They recount their gleeful participation in the scene's accompanying violence and their disdain for hippies, cops, and girls. One describes how much he enjoys beating people up because he's doing "something he's good at," and says he doesn't have any girlfriends because "girls are terrible." Another talks about how he's hit lots of girls in the face, adding that he doesn't like girls very much. Later in the documentary, Lee Ving, lead singer of the band Fear, is filmed beating down a young woman from the audience after she spits on him.
In between these scenes is footage of Alice Bag, one of L.A. punk's earliest female frontwomen — for the band The Bags — strutting, screaming, and holding her own on stage in a hot pink dress. In her recent memoir Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story, Bag (born Alicia Armendariz) doesn't focus only on the battles that she waged as a woman in L.A.'s male-dominated punk scene. We learn just as much about her coming of age in the 1970s, in a home complicated by domestic violence, in an East L.A. neighborhood succumbing to economic decline, and in a public school system that fostered conformity over cultural pride. Music becomes Alice's greatest solace, and much of Violence Girl chronicles her "self-guided audio adventure," from the ranchera music beloved by her Mexican father, the blues of Bessie Smith, and the soul of The Supremes to the glitter and glam rock that helped define her personal style.
Like Lavinia Greenlaw in her 2008 memoir The Importance of Music to Girls, Bag's book excels at providing a detailed recollection of a woman's lifelong romance with music; if "romance" isn't too slight a term to describe the salvation music can provide to a troubled kid in a bad situation. Bag is initially introduced to the contemporary sounds she came to love through her older sister, and she soon wakes for school early to play DJ on the family's stereo console:
I'd found myself. Listening to rock music and talking about it felt like I was discovering my way home. I made new friends who were all rock fans, but not just ordinary rock fans; they understood the appeal of rock artists who were pushing against convention . . . Suddenly, everything was gloriously colorful and open to endless possibilities.
Yet Bag doesn't take her "audio adventure" too seriously; she recalls an era when teenage girls stalked Elton John's gold limousine outside L.A. arenas. While her growing identification as an "audiophiliac" takes center stage, Bag also writes engagingly about other youthful obsessions — kung fu movies, Mark Spitz, fad diets, cheerleading — and the surrounding culture and landscape of Los Angeles in the '70s. We visit classic movie theaters like the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway and tag along on childhood summer vacations in Juarez, lucha libre wrestling matches at Olympic Auditorium, and horse races in Tijuana. On a train to Mexico City, Bag's family can't afford the first class air-conditioned car but, characteristically, she portrays the limitation as an opportunity:
At each station along the way, the train would no...