RIP HER TO SHREDS Alice Bag

Currently on a reading tour to promote her
recent memoir, the erstwhile Bags vocalist, punk legend, art teacher and
stay-at-home mom hasn’t lost a beat.

 

BY MIKE SHANLEY

 

Alicia
Velasquez apologizes frequently for talking at length, as she offers detailed
answers to queries about her musical past. Laughing as she asks, “What was the
question again,” she sounds like a far cry from Alice Bag, the tense,
aggressive woman who fronted the Bags, or the Alice Bag Band as they were
identified in The Decline of Western
Civilization
, Penelope Spheeris’ documentary of the Los Angeles punk scene, circa 1980. But
Velasquez and Bag are one and the same, a native of the East L.A. barrio who
grew up loving Elton John and went on to front one of the bands that made up
the first generation of Los Angeles
punk bands.

 

The
Bags recorded output is small: the single “Babylonian Gorgon” b/w “Survive” on
Dangerhouse, which also put their “We Don’t Need the English” on the one-sided
clear vinyl compilation Yes L.A. (Their only other studio recording, “We Will Bury You” wasn’t released until
1992 on the Dangerhouse Volume 2 compilation.)
But their performances were legendary, starting with the first few when they
actually performed with bags over the heads for anonymity. Like many of their
peers, they got onstage when their convictions were still a little stronger
than their sound. By the time they appeared in Decline the band was tight but burning out. (Spheeris rechristened
them the Alice Bag Band due to a dispute with ex-bassist Patricia Morrison
[later of the Gun Club]). But their gritty sound stands out against most of the
bands in the film, many of whom seem to predict the shift towards hardcore.

 

 

 

 

Velasquez,
born Alicia Armendariz, recently published Violence
Girl
(Feral House), a memoir that tells her of days growing up in a Chicano
household marked in equal measures by both abuse and support. She rejects the
second class status typically handed to women in rock and roll. She and her
friends get their minds blown by bands like the Weirdos and decide they can
play a show before they have a full set of songs. Along the way she meets
people like the Germs’ Darby Crash, with whom she has hours of philosophical
discussions.

 

Each
chapter was written as a blog post,
so none last more than a few pages. Yet each entry is filled with depth and emotion. She discusses her post-Bag life as
a teacher, including a brief, chilling period in Nicaragua.
Many of her peers have passed away, but the book avoids going into emotional
details about that, with the exception
of Crash, who overdosed early on. This straight-shooting perspective works
because it acts like a welcome respite from the overly romanticized sentiments
of some similar books. Now living in Arizona
with her husband and teenage daughter (she has two grown step-daughters), Bag/Velasquez
is currently on a reading tour of the East Coast. (See her official website, or
below, for dates.)

 

 

 

 

 

BLURT: What made you decide to write the
book?

ALICE BAG: I
was living in San Diego at the time
and a friend of mine was writing a play and interviewed me because she wanted
to learn more about what it was like to grow up in East
L.A. in the ’70s. We were having drinks and I started telling
her stories, and at some point she looked over at me and said, “You should
write a book.” And for some reason it stuck with me. When I went home that
afternoon, I told my husband. He turned to me and said, “I’ve always told you
stuff like that and you never listen to me because I’m your husband.”

        And my whole thing is, I never think of
myself as a writer. But my husband wouldn’t let it go. The next morning I woke
up and he set up a blog specifically for me so I’d write my memoirs. He said,
“Try a little bit every day.” And when I thought of it that way, it became
pretty manageable. And I think that made the writing in my book is really like
punk: It’s not polished at all, it’s concise, not a lot of filler. But you can
feel the passion.

 

It’s interesting that, while you talk about
the early Bags’ shows, you don’t talk in great detail about the songs. The
recordings only get a passing mention.

I
wasn’t really that involved in the recording process. I didn’t realize that I
could be. I thought I could go in and sing my parts and then I’ll be done. I
didn’t participate as much as I should have. I didn’t realize that I could sit
there and have input into what the drums or the bass sounded like, or how the
mix was going to end up.

        The Bags only recorded four songs. Then
for Decline of Western Civilization,
the whole set was recorded. Truthfully I was not really pleased with my
performance. I had a hard time with the movie so I never listened to the music.
At the point the band was really transitioning.

        We had a falling out with our bassist.
She was a founding member and really a big part of the group. The band was
falling apart at that point when were captured
on film and immortalized. [Laughs].
It was a painful process for me to watch it. “Oh this is what we’ve become.”

We were
not originally supposed to be in the movie. We were replacing the Go-Go’s, who
were asked to do it. They had a problem with the contract. So Penelope came to
us. I think she wanted other women in the film and that’s why she chose us. I
feel now that that it was sort of an incongruous choice. The Bags don’t seem to
fit in as well with the flow of the movie. I’m not sure that it’s a good thing
and I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing either.

        But I was talking to Robert Lopez who
was in Catholic Discipline [fronted by the late Claude Bessy, editor of Slash]. He was saying that when he sees
that film he feels that our two bands are the ones that stick out as weird and
not really fitting in with the others. And I think that’s because we were like a
throwback to the very early L.A.
scene that was very diverse and embraced all that quirkiness and weirdness. As
punk evolved it lost some of that diversity. The Decline for a long time was a difficult thing for me to watch.
I saw the way in which we didn’t fit it in which the band was breaking up… Oh
sorry – I’m going off again.

 

So you haven’t shown it to your kids?

Oh god,
no! One of the reasons I did want to write the book was my kids never knew this
side of me. I have two step-daughters who know me as the teacher who brings
them art projects to do. My daughter who was around me more knows that I play
guitar and write songs. Sometimes I go off and play with a band. None of my
girls we were really aware of my punk rock background.

 

How do you look back on the early punk
days? Did it feel like you were in the middle of a revolution?

I don’t
think I had the historical perspective. It felt revolutionary, what we were
doing. It felt radically different. But I didn’t have the context to realize
that it would spread, that it would change music. I really think it has had a
long term effect that I couldn’t have possibly imagined.

And I
think more than anything, it really had a long term influence on people that
were involved in punk. It really changes the way that you approach life, the
way you feel like you can empower yourself. You feel like you can pick up an
instrument and make a statement and your voice is heard onstage. The next step
is, “I can be involved in government.” You become very aware of your strengths.
And the concept of someone else
keeping power out of your hands is really an illusion.

        When I first got involved in music, I
thought we had to wait for somebody or some record company to discover me and
pay for my recording and put out my record and pay for my tour. When punk rock
came along I realized I don’t have to wait for all that. I don’t even have to
wait until I’m a decent player. I can just get up and do it. I think that
attitude has always been with me, once I discovered punk.

 

You wanted to play music anyway before punk
rock came along, right?

I
always wanted to be a singer because my first positive stroke came from my
music teacher in elementary school. So it always seemed like the one thing that
I was confident about and that I was good at. I wasn’t good in the way that I
thought I’d end up. I imagined myself …singing great multi-octave songs. That’s
very different from what I ended up becoming known for. [pauses] Growling and screaming. I have no regrets. I’m happy.

 

Was there any hope among the bands you knew
to “make it,” in any way or was that sacrilegious?

I think
we all wanted to not have a day job. We wanted to be working musicians. I don’t
know if we wanted much more than that. For me, the important thing was I wanted
to have a voice. I didn’t even know what I wanted to say, but I wanted to feel
like I could be heard. And also another secret goal of mine was to meet Elton
John on equal footing. So he would take me seriously and think of me as a
possible wife. [Laughs]

        My experience in glam rock [was] the
way that women got close to a man was by becoming groupies. I was coming out of
that frame of mind and realizing, hey, this isn’t working for me. If Elton John
becomes interested in me, he’s not going to take me seriously. So I have to be
a musician, someone who he respects so that he falls in love with me and
marries me.

 

It was refreshing to see you talk about
Darby Crash in a way that proved he wasn’t just some whacked-out drug addict.

First
of all he had a great sense of humor. He didn’t take himself seriously, but he
was very smart. He’d talk about anything with you. It is kind of sad that he
became a tragic figure and that’s what people focus on – the destructive side
of him. When I was close to him, he was very playful, very much about playing
pranks on people, or telling jokes or getting drunk and doing stupid things.

        People have asked me about the Germs
movie and I haven’t seen it. And I think probably one of the reasons I didn’t
see it is because I would rather remember Bobby Pyn [Crash’s original stage
name] with my own memories because that’s when he was close to me. That’s when
he was real to me. In the later years we were not close and he became very
dark. And I don’t know that we would’ve been good friends at that point. We
probably would’ve continued to argue.

 

Have a lot of old friends come out of the
woodwork for your readings?

Even
people that I haven’t met. Friends that I’ve met on Twitter and Facebook invite
me out to their city. I figure if I can get a little cluster of readings, it
can pay for itself. I figure I’m 53 years old, so I’m not
going to let this book just sit in a box in my publisher’s basement. I’m making
sure that it gets some attention.

        In the past, I didn’t record as much as
I should have. I didn’t promote things the way I should have. I’ve learned over
the years that you can’t just rely on someone who puts out the book or the
record to do the promotion. You really have to be involved in the process. I’m
really trying to do that.

        It’s been really fun for me to go
places and meet people. And it’s challenging for me to sleep in someone’s
rehearsal room. It’s fun. I was a teacher for a very long time, and I was a
stay at home mom. I’ve done so many different things, so to be back on the road
and promoting the book – it’s really exciting for me. And being out of my
element, challenging myself to do stuff that’s not necessarily comfortable.

 

 

Current Readings:

February 6: The Flywheel, 43 Main Street (In the Old Town Hall),
Easthampton, MA 01027. 8:00 pm

 

February 7:
Bluestockings, 172 Allen Street, New York, NY 10002. 212-777-6028. 7:00 pm

 

February 8: Goldenwest Café, 1105
West 36th Street, Baltimore, MD 21211-2410. 410-889-8891. Show starts at
10:00 p.m., with War on Women

 

February 9: Joint
Custody, 2337 18th St NW (at Belmont Rd NW), Washington, DC 20009

8:00 p.m.

 

February 10: The Marvelous,
208 S 40th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. 215-386-6110. 8:00 p.m. With Carmen
and 3 Jane

 

February
11:  Providence Public Library, 150 Empire Street, Providence, RI
02903-3219

401-455-8000. All ages. 7:00 p.m.

 

February 12: Boston Aviary,
48 South Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

Free, all ages, starts at
8:00 p.m.

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