JUNE 2, 2012
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 sooner shudder to a halt than a swarm of vendors would engulf it from all sides. Men and women bearing large flat baskets on their heads sold sandwiches; little kids rushed up with plastic bags of sliced fruit, others sold candy or Chiclets, still others offered delicious-smelling steamed tamales on paper plates, or homemade champurrado. I felt sorry for the people in first class who couldn’t open their windows and were stuck with the white bread sandwiches, potato chips and soda pop sold on the train.
Beyond the image of Bag’s punk persona, the memoir’s title also alludes to the specter of violence that shadowed her home and childhood. The chapter that begins “My father was a monster” is just one of several that describe his physical abuse of her mother through a significant portion of their marriage. But Bag is also Daddy’s little girl, and Manuel Armendariz is a both “a villain” and “a good guy” who convinces her that she can be anything she wants: pilot, brain surgeon, President. Even when Bag chooses fronting a punk band over these more conventionally respectable career paths, her father empties the family’s savings account to buy her a keyboard after overhearing a band discussion. Bag’s unresolved relationship with her father is complex, and she ultimately attributes much of her adult resilience and “unfailing sense of self-confidence” to him.
As the adolescent Bag grows apart from her parents, she becomes involved with other young women who unite around their love of music: “This was a type of kinship that had been missing for most of my life,” she writes, “a sense of community that I had never known — feeling as I always had (and still often do) like a misfit, a weirdo, an outcast.” Bag and her high school friends indulge their Elton John and Freddie Mercury obsessions, try on the role of groupie, and then, inspired by The Runaways, form an all-girl band called The Femme Fatales. Bag’s boyfriend at the time, Nickey Beat, had already joined The Weirdos, whose first gig — on April 16, 1977 at the Orpheum Theater — was a punk rock wet dream: sharing the bill with The Germs (also making their debut) and Latino band The Zeros, with members of The Damned in the audience. For Bag, this was “an exciting and hopeful time,”
when our ethical and aesthetic values were being demolished and rebuilt, where each one of us on the scene could challenge one another in an attempt to tear down the old icons and virtues. At the beginning, most of us were optimistic and wanted to build something new and better, but the nihilistic impulse to destroy was like a dark undercurrent that would eventually rise to the surface.
She and fellow Femme Fatale Patricia Rainone would soon form The Bags, from which Alicia Armendariz took her stage name. Based in Hollywood yet rooted in East L.A., they were one of the few bands to bridge the city’s two primary punk scenes and their corresponding core venues, The Masque and The Vex. In a recent “brief history” of The Vex and Chicano punk in L.A. Weekly, Nicholas Pell describes how these performers “wore Chicano identity on their sleeves, incorporating Spanish lyrics, Mexican imagery and mariachi influences into the music.” Yet The Bags are, curiously, not mentioned in Pell’s article, even though Alice later played alongside Robert Lopez (a.k.a. El Vez), who is featured prominently.
Bag’s eyewitness account of the L.A. punk scene in the late 1970s encompasses crash pads, West Coast van tours, uncomfortable auditions, club bannings, and asylum commitments. During one memorable show, Bags fans trash The Troubadour; after the club is cleared out, Nickey Beat and Tom Waits come to blows over some trash talk conducted earlier at Canter’s Deli. In a few short years, we see the idealism and pluralism of 1977 decay into the dogmatic, and even more male-dominated, culture of hardcore. By the early 1980s, drugs had taken many lives, and Bag’s wariness of this “dark undercurrent” eventually leads her to move back home and pursue a career in education. By the time Spheeris filmed The Decline of Western Civilization, Bag’s relationships — to the scene, the music, her bandmates — had changed dramatically. Bassist Pat Bag (born Patricia Rainone, later Patricia Morrison of The Gun Club, The Sisters of Mercy, and The Damned) had left The Bags on such bad terms that they were billed as The Alice Bag Band in the documentary for legal reasons.
Violence Girl is one timely reminder of the still under-recognized role of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in shaping punk rock’s early sound and ethos. (There are others, including the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibition “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Culture,” which features Bag’s music.) While Bag identifies strongly as a Chicana, her friendships with various female bandmates are even more fundamental to her story. The punk scene’s characteristic aggression seems less patriarchal in Bag’s telling than it does in many other accounts, with men and women sharing equally in their antagonism toward established conventions and attitudes. The first time Bag stands up to a childhood bully, she feels “a thrilling new sensation, the experience of losing oneself in the heat of battle and the giddy adrenalin rush of the fight.” She gains street cred in the public school she attended after she accidently stabs her opponent in the throat during a brawl. And onstage, in the book’s opening scene, she appears “bouncing on stilettos like a fighter in the ring”: a gladiator who proceeds to rip the glasses off a hostile audience member and smash them beneath her heels. There’s plenty of volume in Violence Girl, conveyed both through Bag’s voice and the music she plays. She may not be the first woman who comes to mind when you think of punk progenitors, but this memoir carves out a legacy with the same sharp edge she used to create her persona in the first place.