The punk rock autobiography can be a numbing and predictable beast. Told from the comfort of hindsight, these stories often follow a narrative arc of youthful frustration, grimy fame, and drug abuse, giving way to survival and some measure of wisdom. Along the way are detours into gossip, bravado, and name-dropping, all in the interests of promoting—and laying claim to—the gutter-scented mystique of the early punk movement. It can be easy to lose sight of what drew people to this scene in the first place, of punk’s appeal to the often very inexperienced, creative individuals who embraced this chaotic art and music movement. Fortunately for readers whose curiosity has not been drowned in the seemingly endless stream of self-aggrandizing cynicism, Alice Bag’s 2011 memoir, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story, provides a panacea. Told in bite-size, episodic pieces adapted from her long-running blog, Violence Girl is a heartfelt look at one woman’s involvement in an unexpectedly important moment in pop cultural history.
Bag establishes her unique point of view in the very earliest sections of the book. Unlike the portraits of alienated (and prolonged) adolescence evoked in other punk tales, Bag depicts herself as a person with a strong connection to her family and to her Mexican-American cultural roots. Nearly half of the book is spent on her pre-punk life. Her childhood with her parents in East L.A., her experiences at an all-girls high school, and her enthusiastic embrace of glitter rock all shaped the punk-rock frontwoman she became. Teen Alice is creative and motivated, but the distance of time finds the author looking back with poignant self-awareness on her young self. Many of these anecdotes tend towards the gentle: a particularly embarrassing spur-of-the-moment haircut, Elton John fandom that reached ridiculous levels, and struggles with dieting that are painted as naïve rather than self-destructive.
Not everything is benign in Bag’s world, however. She details the complex and often violent relationship between her parents without flinching or becoming vindictive. She’s honest about the impact of her father’s brutal outbursts without engaging in hyperbole. These episodes are more powerful for being portrayed with such frankness: Bag eloquently recounts what it’s like to witness domestic abuse with all the attendant guilt, frustration, and anger she experienced afterwards. It’s one case among many where the author demonstrates her willingness to engage head-on with the complex, flawed realities of the human beings in her life.
The Violence Girl of the title refers to the rage that threatened to overtake Bag throughout her young life. Half-sparked by the cathartic freedom of punk rock and half the legacy of her father’s episodes of fury, Bag has a complex relationship with her anger. While it frees her from the stereotypical expressions afforded to young women, she experiences episodes of ferocity that damage her friendships and make her question her beliefs.
Bag’s involvement in L.A.’s nascent punk movement is portrayed less as a matter of rock-‘n’-roll destiny than as a wonderful surprise to the author. The most intense (and perhaps typically “punk rock memoir”) section of the book details Bag’s time living at the Canterbury. This notorious apartment building was ground zero for the L.A. punk scene, with a rotating cast of tenants and visitors that included members of the Weirdos, the Go-Gos, and the Germs. As frontwoman for the Bags, the author recounts moments of fierce engagement with the audience, transcending the restraints of her youthful performances in talent shows and as a cheerleader. She sketches the shifting identity of the punk world, from one of unbridled expression to a world of increasingly homogenous appearance and behavior. It is fascinating to watch the transformation of a scene where performative violence and personal experimentation are encouraged into one that becomes increasingly threatened by thuggish behavior and drug abuse—unfortunate outgrowths of these initial creative streams.
The Bags (credited as “Alice Bag Band”) in Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization
The freedom and joy of a brand new scene characterize the bulk of Bag’s stories, and she excels at underscoring the youth and naivete of many of the participants. Instead of filling her story with cartoonish social climbers, junkies, and toxic lunatics, the author demonstrates remarkable empathy even when recounting unflattering stories. From bandmates with scatological obsessions to mentally ill eccentrics to casualties of heroin abuse, Bag shines a light on the humanity of each figure she discusses. Her genuine friendships with many of these people make it all the more heartbreaking when several fall prey to self-destructive behavior. The contrast between her energy in forming (and holding together) the Bags and her hesitancy to commit to being a fully fledged member of the all-girl, proto-goth band Castration Squad speaks to the spirit of nihilism that eventually overtook the punk scene.
At the dawn of the Reagan Era, Bag’s priorities began to shift, and while music and performance remain part of her life, the increasing conservatism of American culture drove Bag to seek a way to create meaningful change. The closing pages of the book see her gaining fulfillment through teaching, which she discovers to be an act as transformative and radical as anything she did on stage. Her time spent as an educator in war-torn Nicaragua gives her perspective on her own upbringing in East L.A. and the relative degrees of “need” in the world.
Readers seeking a positive and—dare I type it—empowering account of creativity and community will delight in this book. Less a story of redemption than a journey of self-discovery, Alice Bag’s Violence Girl is the rare punk rock story that reveals humanity instead of reveling in squalor.
Written by: Tenebrous Kate
Author: Alice Bag
Publisher: Feral House (United States)
Publication Date: October, 2011
File Under: Music / Memoirs