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The beginning of Alice Bag's new memoir, Violence Girl: East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story, recounts a raucous scene that she commanded from the stage as front woman for the Bags. The visionary band were infamous for jolting audiences into a frenzied, possessed state, led by their lead singer's high heels, aggressive gyrations and ear-piercing screams. "How did I come to unleash the wrath of Kali upon the world of punk?" Alice Bag asks, reflecting on the experience.
That's the driving question of Violence Girl, which takes the reader through Bag's childhood in East LA to an early adulthood that coincided with the rise of the punk movement in the city.
Born Alicia Armendariz, Bag lived with her Mexican-born parents in a tiny, cockroach-ridden house on Ditman Avenue. She describes her father, Manuel Armendariz, as a "monster" and her mother, Candelaria, as a victim of domestic violence. Memories of the beatings—including belt lashings and hair-dragging—lend insight to the rage Bag would later blast onstage. Violence Girl shows the evolution of a Chicana punk from her days as a Spanish-speaking kindergartener to her first taste of the stage with a brown paper bag over her head, a gimmick that would give her band their name.
Building up to that definitive time in 1977, Bag's memoir shows an intimate portrait of the punk community in Los Angeles, when she and Patricia Morrison started the Bags. She tells anecdotes of being at the Germs' first show and the time Bobby Pyn (a.k.a. Darby Crash) ripped the paper bag off her head. Encounters with Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, stories of trashing the Troubadour, and the narrative of Bag's tumultuous relationship with Nickey Beat of the Weirdos all serve to cement the author's place in LA's punk history.
"I think you go through periods in your life in which you really feel like it's almost outside the limits of time and space," Bag says. "The whole time that I was involved in punk, it was very meaningful to me."
And then there are the stories of self-destruction. Bag details her heavy drinking and the way others around her became enamored of pills and, later, heroin. Her music wasn't enough to release all of Bag's pent-up rage, so she started cutting herself. [Editor's note: A sentence in this paragraph was corrected. See the end of the story for details.]
"I wasn't conscious of revealing too much; it was more about trying to reach out to others and share my experiences," Bag says. She credits her survival to eventually moving back in with her parents in East LA.
The Bags disbanded in 1979, but Violence Girl does not end there. Bag finishes college, becomes a teacher, travels to Nicaragua for a literacy campaign, marries, has children and seeks closure as her father dies.
"It's not a punk history," Bag says. "It's about my life, and part of it just happens to take place during this particular time when the punk movement was being created."
CORRECTION, Oct. 24, 2011: The original version of this story referred to Bag having an "alcohol addiction." Bag states now that, while she was a heavy drinker in her youth, she has never been addicted to alcohol. The Weekly regrets the error.
This article appeared in print as "Alice Bag Is Violence Girl: The Bags' former lead singer reflects on her Chicana punk life."