Punk literature is often given to tiresome romanticizing and rehashed clichés, but Alice Bag's recent autobiography, Violence Girl, offers a poignant, personal story from the unique perspective of a poor Hispanic woman raised in East LA. The book focuses on Bag grappling with her Chicana identity and feminist politics while fronting her seminal 1970's punk band, The Bags. In the radical punk scene of late-70's Hollywood, she found the strength to reconcile a tumultuous relationship with her abusive father and acquired skills that propelled her pursuit of political activism and teaching later in life. In this interview, Alice reflects on her early experience with punk and glam rock and analyzes the role of her book and persona in the larger feminist and Chicano movement. In the Bay Area this week, Bag will be reading and performing short acoustic sets: Jan. 11, San Francisco Public Library, Main Branch; Jan. 12: Amoeba Music, Berkeley; Jan. 13: 1-2-3-4 Go! Records, Oakland.
How has the book tour been going?
It's been great. My publisher is very small, so I book all my readings, do the networking and even have to buy my own books and then resell them to stores where I'm reading. The feedback I receive is really what keeps me going. It encourages me to book another show and drive across the country to some place I've never been before and sleep on somebody's couch so that I can read in front of strangers.
Was there any "punk literature" in particular that inspired your own autobiography?
No, I don't feel like that was the reason I wrote the book. My husband convinced me to start the book by blogging about it. I wouldn't have thought to write the book on my own because I didn't really think of myself as a writer. When my husband presented it to me in terms of blogs, it became much more manageable.
What do you think of the progress that female musicians have made in the past 30 years?
It's phenomenal. It's really impressive how many young women have taken the time to hone their craft. The ones who haven't honed their craft and pick up whatever they use to express themselves and start to create are inspiring and impressive too.
Do you ever wish that female musicians were more political?
No, everybody has their own place that they're coming from. Some people are overtly political and some people will come into it at a different point in their life. A lot of what we experience in our personal life will eventually come out in our politics. I wasn't very political when I was young. That didn't happen until later. Even now, I've changed again. I'm not very involved in mainstream politics. I'm interested in social change but not necessarily supporting political candidates, or trying to get a particular bill passed. I'm much more into changing the system completely.
I wouldn't want to put any kind of pressure on someone to be anything more than they are. If they have political, social, or artistic issues they want to discuss, that's great. Even if it's personal, a women's art becomes political simply because their voices have been quiet for so long.
The phrase, "Cultivating my own isolation," was used repeatedly in the book, and it seemed a particularly interesting notion to me. Would you like to expand on that idea?
It was a struggle between feeling that I was different, wanting stick to my guns and be true to myself, but at the same time craving human interaction. There were two things pulling at me. The need to be accepted and relate to others and the worry that if I'm true to myself, I'm not going to receive that acceptance.
Did your early interest in glam rock allow you to be true to yourself and have that interaction with others?
Well, that was the beginning of it. There was quirkiness and an otherness that made one a lot more open to the differences making us feel isolated.
It seems like there were a lot of people who made the transition from the glam or glitter scene to punk, including you. Philosophically and aesthetically, those are two very different scenes. Why do you think that transition occurred?
I think there are similarities. Both things were pushing against convention and rejecting the kind of music that was most popular at the time. Even though glam was really elaborate, orchestral, and theatrical, it wasn't being played on the radio. Punk was taking things, breaking them down and throwing it back at the mainstream. Both things were challenging the musical status quo. I saw what they had in common. It was less intimidating to start a punk band than become a glam musician. It was available to you and you could have it right now. You didn't have to wait until you are a virtuoso. You don't have to be Brian May to get up on stage and do something meaningful. You don't necessarily reach people in the same way, though. I still enjoy listening to a song by Queen, and I still enjoy listening to a stripped down punk song. They offer different things.
The use of the word "Chicana" on the cover of your book was interesting to me, why did you choose to use that term?
Well, let me clarify that the tag-line, "A Chicana Punk Story," was put in by my publisher, but I'm glad they did. I want to claim that. The fact that I wasn't part of MECha, for example, doesn't mean that I'm not a Chicana. I'm a woman of Mexican-American descent who is politically aware and interested in equality for Chicanos. It's not a political party; it's more general and inclusive. At least, I would like to see the Chicano movement be more inclusive and welcome people who are not Mechistas or who have different ideas. When I first tried to be involved with the Chicano movement, I was laughed at. I was really into glitter, I looked funny, and I was made to feel like a weirdo who couldn't possibly be serious about my Chicanismo. Those people are trying to keep others out. Since I didn't look like them or listen to the same music, I wasn't seen as political enough, and that's detrimental to the Chicano cause. If the cause is equality, we need to include as many people as possible, including people from other races. As you can see, I embrace the term "Chicana" and use it. I am concerned with Chicano politics but I don't feel like I have to agree with or follow any kind of party line. I'm my own kind of Chicana like I'm my own kind of feminist.
Next: Bag considers whether punk rock is a constructive form of expression, or simply an outlet for rage.