Whenever Alice Bag takes the stage, class is in session. Whether she’s playing in the belly of a dive bar or a large theater, the punk icon from East LA and former schoolteacher looks into a crowd of fans young and old and knows they’ll absorb chaos from the pit as well as the wisdom of her words.
Each set spans four decades’ worth of material and is delivered with the pointed anecdotes and the tenor of a fiery university lecture amidst bouts of excited seizures and aerobic dancing, her electric-blue hair swaying to the stampeding rhythm of guitar, bass and drums. She screams the lyrics of classic tunes such as “Gluttony,” “Survive” and “We Don’t Need the English” with the same passion she gives to the tunes on Blueprint, her second official album, which was released last month on Don Giovanni Records.
During a recent show at UCLA, Bag’s role as punk-rock professor is clear. Wrapping up the second night of the Curating Resistance symposium inside the Ackerman Grand Ballroom, hundreds of fans—mostly college-aged—swarm the front of the stage as Bag paces in pink Chucks, backed by her three-piece band and a troupe of young spandex-clad backup dancers known as Pony Sweat. “For this song, I want you to think about someone who makes you angry,” Bag says, gearing up for the 1978 song “We Will Bury You.” “Perhaps if you had this person in front of you, you’d like to tell them a few things that maybe you’ve been holding in. Sometimes, I write letters, and I rip them up, and I don’t send them. Sometimes, I march; sometimes, I crochet little pink beanie hats. Sometimes, I have to scream it out and let them know how I feel.”
At that moment, someone in the audience yells, “Fuck Trump!” The crowd cheers.
The energy of Bag’s message toes the line between destruction and rebirth, the very fabric of the scene she helped to build. As with most of us, her life and career create obstacles that require her to make choices that determine the person she will become, which influenced the title of her new album. Both the album and its title track came to her while Bag was having construction done on her house in L.A. “We had a blueprint, and every now and then, something would come up and we’d have to find a solution, [such as] how to get the garage converted into an apartment for my daughter,” she says. “And I thought about how my life is sorta that way, too.”
Whether she was pursuing music or activism, being a bilingual-education teacher in an elementary school, or raising a family, her solutions for problems almost always involved playing music. The singer born Alicia Armendariz started the Bags in 1977 with Patricia Morrison as a way of finding her voice in the world. After the group ended in 1981, Bag contemplated going to law school to become an attorney, but she could never escape the grip that performing and music had on her. Within months, she was in another band.
In addition to authoring two books, Violence Girl (2011) and Pipe Bomb for the Soul (2015), Bag has played in various musical projects, from earlier bands such as Castration Squad to later outfits such as Stay At Home Bomb. Bag released an eponymous debut in 2016, and the momentum from that carried over into her second album despite not having a steady backing band to create with. “I had a big chunk of time where I felt I couldn’t tour, but I had all this energy and really wanted to write, so I wrote a big chunk of those songs [for Blueprint] in those spring and summer months,” Bag says. “It’s hard to get the lyrics flowing, but once I get past the initial block, it all comes out.”
What flowed out was a barrage of life experiences, public grievances and positive affirmations. “Writing about education came from my time as a teacher,” Bag says. “Writing about domestic abuse came from having a father who was abusive to my mother. A lot of it is personal experience and also conversations with friends that have forced me to think about things differently.”
The track list includes songs that show the complex struggles of a veteran activist and feminist. While her last album often felt propelled by Trump-fueled rage, Blueprint is constructive in dealing with other issues surrounding her fight against right-wing oppression—sometimes in unlikely ways. The upbeat “Turn It Up” features a saccharine ear worm of a chorus that is something Bag would typically shy away from. “I can’t usually write that type of song, but I used it to counteract the abyss of negativity that I was about to fall into,” she says. “I said, ‘I don’t want that to constantly absorb me.’ So I decided I’m still gonna fight, but I’m also gonna look at the big things.”
Other songs are heavier and more historical. The album’s first single, “77” (featuring Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill), references the gender pay gap that still exists today, while “White Justice” was written about the Chicano Moratorium, a broad-based coalition of Mexican-American groups including the Brown Berets who organized an opposition to the Vietnam War.
That tune was created for a specific event honoring the stories of Latina activists in downtown LA. “[One of the organizers of Chicana Power] told me, ‘It’s not enough for you to commemorate what happened in 1970; you have to figure out how it connects to what’s happening today,’” Bag says. “So when I wrote my song, I tried to make it broad enough so that people could see that some of the same issues we were having then are issues we’re having today.”
Aside from her words, one of the things Bag does best is teach by example. Witnessing her onstage, she is free of society’s labels, acting as young and vibrant as she wants, and taking on the system one song at a time—and that is why young punks will always look to the blueprint of her life, which she lives exactly the way she wants to. Recently Bag released a video for the song “Se Cree Joven” (Spanish for “She Thinks She’s Young”) inspired by an experience that happened to her in a 99 Cent Store when she overheard two women talking about her in Spanish judging her for her punk rock style and blue hair. “When I would look at them they would pretend they were shopping, I don’t know if they just thought I didn’t speak Spanish or what but I didn’t say anything to them, I went about my business,” Bag says. Though she was definitely angry about it at the time, she used that emotion in a positive way and flipped it into a song written in Spanish about embracing who you are no matter what anyone else has to say about it.
“When I look in the mirror, I know that is the person who I created,” Bag says. “I’m not here by accident; I’m not in this situation because something happened to me. I’m in this situation because I made certain choices. And I feel powerful because if things don’t work out, I take responsibility, [and] if they do work out, I get to take all the credit.”
Alice Bag performs with Fattycakes and the Puff Pastries and Trap Girl at the Echo, 1822 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 413-8200; www.spacelandpresents.com. Sat., 5:30 p.m. $10. 21+.
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.