The paradox of punk rock is that it’s superficially stupid music made by surprisingly intelligent people. Three chords, Chuck Berry riffing, a drummer who can keep a beat, a bass player who can’t, and a vocalist willing to flail around like an electrified monkey and spit out gobs of pointed words at an audience are all that most first wave punk bands needed to make infamy. When compared to the “hardcore punk” style that came after 1981- all one-minute tuneless buzz-saw manifestos against Ronald Reagan and cops- those early bands of the late 70s sound positively visionary. The L.A. punk bands hold a special place in musical history, drawing on Latino musical influences and the theatricality of Hollywood, while being immortalized in movies like Suburbia, Repo Man and The Decline of Western Civilization. (The book to read is Destroy All Movies by Zach Carlson.)
One such band, captured in Decline as if a snarling beast is captured in a net, was The Bags, a group that stood out because they had some genuine musical talent (listen here) and a front woman whose on stage persona was pitched somewhere between a femme fatale and Kali the Destroyer. That woman was Alice Bag, born Alicia Armendariz to a Mexican-American family in a home that was “tiny, even by the standards of a poor barrio in East L.A.” Here, she struggled to keep up in a school that was the first place she’d tried to speak English and in a home where her mother was frequently beaten bloody by her sporadically employed construction contractor father, a man she describes as both her hero and a monster.
Attending James A. Garfield High School, the struggling school depicted in Stand and Deliver, Armendariz had the classic punk rock adolescence, growing up awkward and chubby and picked on, gravitating to the gay, creative, and freaky classmates, idolizing Elton John and other glam musicians, and learning how to throw a punch. The Elton John love might seem strange, but remember that this was all pre-punk; I was reminded here of her contemporary Darby Crash who grew up worshiping Bowie. By the time the Ramones changed music in the mid 70s, Alice was well agitated and ready to explode. It’s no wonder the Bags are remembered as an important part of that first wave of LA punk that included greats like the Weirdos, X, Fear, the Plugz, and the Germs.
The last band came to mind while reading Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story because Feral House also put out the superb Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs, one of the best punk rock books I’ve ever read, about one of Bag’s close friends. Reflecting on both books, it’s striking how diverse, that buzz word of 2016, the early punk scene really was, especially compared to the battalions of straight, white, macho suburban boys who came right after to shout hardcore song after hardcore song about the evils of racism, sexism, and Republicans.
Clearly, Armendariz knows how unique her story of growing up in a cockroach-infested barrio is and the first third of the book deals with her upbringing. I was glad for the length because her memories of a bi-national upbringing and violent home life are vivid and important. Her chapters are short and punchy, like punk songs, and include recollections of characters like Crash, Exene Cervenka, Tomata Du Plenty, and Belinda Carlisle. I’m sure the film rights have already been optioned.
I’m finally struck most of all by how diverse the music was in that time and place. Try to find the commonalities between Black Randy, X, The Screamers, and the Go-Gos, aside from the fact that they all knew each other. Formula won out in the 80s, but for a brief time the oddballs made some truly interesting music. So, if this era and sort of book is your thing, you already know if you want to read it. I have a shelf full of these books and I found it crucial.