“I Didn’t Want to Just Be a Fan, I Wanted to Be the Rock Star”: An Interview with Alice Bag

alice-bag
Alice Bag
Alice Bag is a little bit of everything. She’s an activist, feminist, author, and punk rocker. She may be best known as the lead singer and co-founder of the first-wave LA punk band, The Bags, but has gained notoriety in the writing world, too, with her books Violence Girl and Pipe Bomb for the Soul. She was kind enough to converse with me about her works (both musical and literary) and to indulge me on issues of feminism, fearlessness, and her obsession with Elton John.

Hi Alice, thank you for agreeing to this interview. My first question is about Violence Girl. I heard a little rumor that you came up with the idea to write the book while at The Whistle Stop in South Park, San Diego. That’s one of my favorite haunts! Any truth to that? What inspired you to write the book?

That rumor is true. I was living in North Park when the idea of writing a book first crossed my mind. I had gone to The Whistle Stop with a group of friends who belonged to a theater group called Butchlalis de Panochtiltan; they were writing a play called The Barber of East L.A. In preparation for their play, they wanted to find out more about what East L.A. was like during the 60s and 70s. We went out drinking to chat about it and before long we were all telling colorful stories about growing up in East Los. Teresa Covarrubias and Diane Gamboa were also at that meeting and shared their own stories. At one point in the evening, one of the women turned to me and said she really thought I should write a book. She said it in a way that made it seem like a possibility, or maybe it was the booze filtering what she was saying. In any case, her words struck a chord with me and shortly after that I began writing.
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Alice’s first book, Violence Girl

That idea of women encouraging each other reminds me of the book as well. For me, one of the most satisfying things in Violence Girl was the fearlessness that all the young women you knew from the early LA punk scene days had when it came to making music. What was it about the punk scene that made it so accessible to women? So accessible to anyone feeling marginalized? 

I think that for those of us who got into the punk scene early, the field felt wide open. We really felt that as pioneers, we would define what punk could be in Los Angeles. We were not following any sort of format. In fact, we were guided more by what was not punk (male-centric, over-processed, cookie cutter garbage) and figured anything inventive and different was punk. Women’s voices, because they have been silenced in the past, definitely brought a new perspective.

That sense of fearlessness that you approached music with, did you have that same instinct as you broke into the writing world?

Yes, my experiences in punk music definitely helped what I took on writing. I think my book is written in a punk rock style, each entry is like a punk song- short, unpolished, irreverent, and occasionally funny.

Any fun stories from those days that you haven’t shared in writing yet?

Not any that I can think of right off the top of my head. Most of the stuff I’ve written about, but it’s funny because sometimes I start telling the story and my husband (who I think has heard all my stories) will add a detail that I’ve forgotten in the retelling, other times I’m surprised to find that I’ve told him stories and not written about them.

One of my favorite parts of Violence Girl is how you detail how obsessed you were with Elton John when you were younger. I have a tendency towards obsession myself. A lot of people look at that word negatively, but how do you think obsession really fueled who you became?

For me, being an obsessive fan was a form of escapism. I threw myself into a fantasy life that involved Elton John. I could let my dreams in the wild, without ever having to deal with the strain of real teenage relationships. Besides, the teenage relationships of the people around me seemed boring compared to my fantasies of jetting all over the world, seeing new places and meeting new people being completely immersed in music…I lived a glamorous fantasy life!

I think at a certain point being a muse, or the partner of a musician seemed about as close as a woman could get to being a rock star.

It’s funny because even though I am a successful musician now, it all goes back to being a devoted fan. I’m constantly being inspired by new and old music. I love touring, seeing different groups in every city. Sometimes when I’m watching a band, I lose myself in the music; it’s a great feeling.

My life isn’t as glamorous as the world I used to dream of when I imagined myself married to Elton John, but it is much, much richer than I could have ever imagined.

How different was creating your second book, Pipe Bomb for the Soul, from Violence Girl? Your time in Nicaragua was touched upon in your first book. What made you realize that the stories needed their own space?

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Alice’s second book,. Pipe Bomb for the Soul
My second book was based on a diary that I kept when I was living in Nicaragua so in many ways it was more of an editing project. I didn’t want to rewrite the diary, but I wanted to add some explanation where needed and also to add a bit of historical perspective. When you’re writing a diary, you’re not writing for an audience, so there’s no need to explain who people are or what the social and political climate is because you’re already aware of what’s happening around you. So the trick was to keep a diary sounding like a diary while providing assistance to the reader.
The reason I decided to write Pipe Bomb for the Soul was that when I toured with Violence Girl, I often had people ask me for more details, more stories about Nicaragua. I realized that I could easily tell many more stories because I still had my journal, so I decided to turn it into a book and put it out myself.

In one of the entries for Pipe Bomb for the Soul, you mention coming back to the States from Nicaragua and feeling culture shock in your own home country. That was in 1986, but the sentiment feels very poignant to this day. Can you elaborate on that idea a bit more? 

I think that the effects of the culture shock I felt when I returned to the United States after living Nicaragua have stayed with me for a very long time. It makes me aware of the privilege we have here and how that privilege affects the rest of the world.  It became clear to me, that day when I returned to the U.S. from Nicaragua, that we are all interconnected. People, businesses, and manufacturers are interconnected. If we are buying goods cheaply in the United States, they are being made cheaply somewhere. We have to share resources fairly with the rest of the world; if we don’t it will create strife, unrest, war.

Both your books have a DIY feeling to them insomuch as they are stories “stitched” together, if you will. It feels like you’ve created your own aesthetic. What is it about this approach that really works for you? 

My book, Violence Girl, was originally a blog called “The True Life Adventures of Violence Girl.” I chose to blog because blogging is informal; it’s a daily account of your ideas, thoughts, concerns. I’m not a trained writer, but blogging is accessible to everyone. It’s not threatening and it never feels overwhelming because if you don’t feel like doing it, you can just skip a day. Writing a book seemed like a huge undertaking and breaking it up into blog entries made it much more manageable for me. Writing those vignettes everyday also forced me to be disciplined. I fell into a pattern. I’d pack my kid off to school, eat breakfast, and start writing. Now here’s the trick: I would not allow myself to have lunch until I was finished with my blog entry. I’m sure it sounds strange, but it worked for me because I get awfully hungry!
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The Bags, 1978, photo by Melanie NIssen

I can certainly identify with that! Okay, finally, what are you listening to these days?

The Sex Stain, Big Eyes, Downtown Boys, FEA, Trap Girl, Bleached, and Taco Cat.

*All photos were found at http://alicebag.com/

To learn more about Alice Bag and her work, please visit http://alicebag.com/
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