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Q&A: Alice Bag and Cecilia Kuhn 

Wednesday, May 6 2015
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The androgyne with the black hair in the pink, one-shouldered shift shakes her head back and forth as she clutches the microphone. She's singing about pot roasts and calories, a woman wrestling with weight and hunger, her mouth wide open. On the word that gives the song its title, her deep chant ascends into a shriek: "Gluttony!" In this late 1970s footage from the seminal documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Alice Bag tackles a quintessential feminist issue — body image — with full-throated punk rage.

Ever since Maureen Tucker pounded the Velvet Underground's drums with mallets and Patti Smith proclaimed herself a "Rock'n'roll Nigger," women have found punk to be a liberating force — and punk has been shaped by gender disruption. Nowhere has that been truer than in California, where women have been integral to the genesis and growth of underground rock, from the Runaways to the Avengers to L7 to Tribe 8 to Le Butcherettes. Decline, the movie that in many ways put L.A. punk rock on the world map (and is finally being released on DVD and Blu-Ray this summer), was made by a woman and featured three bands (out of seven) with frontwomen.

"The punk scene in Los Angeles was co-created by women," said Bag (aka Alicia Velasquez). "There was a woman booking punk bands at the Whisky a Go-Go, women (from Backstage Pass) co-signed on the lease for the [punk club] Masque, and helped to physically transform the space from a basement into a rehearsal and performance venue. Women were present in all areas. We were writers, photographers, musicians, zine makers, roadies... you couldn't get away from us if you wanted to!"

The lived connection between raw power and girl power became overt in the early 1990s, with the Riot Grrrl movement, and went geopolitical in recent years with Pussy Riot. But bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were building on the legacies of barrier-breakers like Frightwig, the all-female San Francisco band that played bristling psych-rock before grunge was even born, with liberationist lyrics like "my crotch does not say go."

Today you can't spit at a Burger Boogaloo fest without hitting a woman musician. Berkeley's the Memorials, fronted by belter Viveca Hawkins, follow directly in the hard-rock-influenced lineage of Frightwig. Oakland's Shannon and the Clams play kitschy garage pop and sing, "We are not under mind control." Kim House of L.A.'s Kim and the Created is a modern-day Iggy Pop via Theo Kogan (Lunachicks).

Two pioneers of West Coast punk will take the stage together for the first time May 13 at Oakland's Studio Grand, for a night of words and music. I'm blessed enough to somehow be on this bill, talking about the Southland girl group that doesn't get enough credit for helping set off the global punk revolution, the Runaways. I sat down with Alice Bag and Frightwig drummer Cecilia Kuhn to ask some questions about punk and feminism.

Do you remember when you first discovered punk rock?

Alice: I started reading about punk when I was a senior in high school. I had off-campus lunch and I used to walk to a nearby liquor store to buy snacks and look at its rock magazines.  One day, Punk magazine was there waiting for me.

I think Patti Smith was in it and I was a fan of Patti so she was my gateway drug. I had watched Patti perform at the Roxy in Hollywood and she completely shattered my preconceived notions of how a woman could behave on stage. She had a beautiful raw energy and rock star sexuality. I was mesmerized by her animal magnetism and androgyny. Her words were her sexual organ and they penetrated the whole audience at once.

Cecilia: It was in the late '70s, I was living in Houston, and the Sex Pistols' album came out. I was highly interested in anyone who was so outrageous. In Texas that was like a relief to me. To come out and be rude, after having been taught to be polite all my life ... their attitude was what got me, more than the music. I wanted that energy! For me, it's all about energy.

What punk female artists have influenced or inspired you?

Alice: I love Patti Smith, Poly Styrene, Gloria Trevi ... you know, I could make a very long list but I'd only end up kicking myself for forgetting someone.  I am constantly being inspired by female punk performers and women who are not performers but live their lives with a punk-rock attitude, like Malala [Yousafzai]. I think she's punk.

Cecilia: I knew about the local female artists in S.F. and I liked them, but when the Go-Go's had a hit, that really impressed me. Suddenly, women were on the airwaves and I felt like I could be part of that! I think people forget what it was like in the early '80s, how rare it was for women artists to be in the mainstream. You must remember that it was considered a big drag to have more than one woman in a band, and it was never done. Fleetwood Mac was considered very avant garde for having two women. 

Is there a connection between punk and feminism?

Alice: Definitely. Punk is about challenging authority and that is exactly what feminism does.

Cecilia: There can be. But feminism, like punk, is very individual. I've met punk women who were comfortable in the patriarchy and didn't seek to change anything at all.

What was the local punk scene like when you first started hanging out in it? Were women welcome?

Cecilia: Yes, women were welcome. It was very wild and colorful, and people were a lot more accepting back in the late '70s. We had many different styles and kinds of music at the local club. People had more of a sense of humor back then, and were more mellow. Women were in bands, managing groups, and consuming this art form.

Why do many people associate punk with a masculinist aesthetic?

Alice: Because, for a while, punk became male dominated. Jocks tried to turn punk into a mixed martial arts sport. Go play football, motherfuckers!

Cecilia: Through the years, a certain attitude evolved that pushed out anything subtle, quiet, and contemplative. Now, the lowest common denominator, angry young men, defines the music and the energy. And why not? I mean, it's the angry young men who come to all the shows. Why would you put on a show of old-style punk rock when the audience only wants to hear their preferred music that's very loud and very fast?

Have you ever felt alienated from punk because you're a feminist?

Alice: Hell no! I'm like a bull, put a red light in front of me and I'll just charge!

Cecilia: No, not at all. I know there are punks and rockers who don't want anything to do with "politics," but it's not my job to change them or fix them.

Have you ever felt alienated from feminism because you're a punk?

Alice: No, but I do sometimes hear women judging each other and I realize it's something we're going to have to get over if we want to succeed.

Cecilia: Oh no, not at all. I am a self-defined feminist. No one is going to alienate me from how I define myself! I know there are feminists who don't understand punk energy or who have other preferences. It's a big world and not everyone cares for punk. I'm fine with that.

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Evelyn McDonnell

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