In the earliest years of LA’s punk scene, Alice Bag was one of its leading lights. The Bags – or Alice Bag Band, as we on the east coast whose only exposure came via the Decline Of Western Civilization on VHS knew them – was a groundbreaker, the first woman-fronted band to hit the Masque. During their brief existence, they rarely played outside LA and released only a single and some compilation tracks, but their reputation and influence persists.
On the day we spoke, she had just completed a musical project of a different sort – teaching at a week-long rock and roll summer camp for girls.
“I’m just finishing a week with Chicas Rocqueras, a week long program that helps young girls build their confidence and gain some useful skills. It’s just a week of camp, they choose an instrument, we have small groups where they focus on just that instrument, and then after lunch we go to a process to figure out what sort of music they want to play, and sort themselves into bands. And that first day they pick a name and start writing their first song. It’s so exciting, it goes so fast… There’s a concert tomorrow! Seven bands, seven songs.” Getting young people on stage a week after picking up an instrument? What could be more punk than that?
Recently, Bag has emerged as a talented writer, publishing the 2013 memoir Violence Girl, which covers her youth and emergence into the punk scene, and more recently, Pipe Bomb For The Soul. The latter is a collection of her 1986 diaries during a month-long trip to Nicaragua, where she taught in a local school and learned a completely new way of life. This was during the conflict between the ruling Sandinista party and the Reagan-backed Contras, and learning how to respond to the frantic uncertainty of life during wartime becomes a central theme of the book. While initially challenged by the living conditions, she managed to adapt quickly and find a lot to appreciate in her surroundings.
“It’s like rock and roll boot camp, an accelerated experience. So when you go live in a different country, I was living with a family there so I was forced to experience everything they experienced. At one point, maybe during the first week, we had been eating beans every day and there was nothing else on the menu. And I thought, I’m going to go the store and help us out and buy something, share it with the family. And the woman at the store basically told me, ‘Who do you think you are? That you can come here with your money and get anything you want? We’re not like that here. Here, if something is available, it’s cheap enough that everyone can buy it, so it’s not going to be on the shelves for long,’ So you have to learn very quickly to adapt, and not to insult people, and say, ‘Yes I can survive on beans, that long.’”
She also makes some discoveries about the educational process in the country, which was based primarily on intuitive learning through questioning, as opposed to rote memorization. While taking classes on how to improve her own teaching skills, she became deeply affected by the book Pegadogy Of The Oppressed by Paulo Freire, and saw an opportunity to see his ideas play out.
“As I was talking to a fellow teacher, she told me that Freire had been invited to Nicaragua, to develop their literacy campaign. I thought, what a great opportunity to see what this looks like. This whole idea of challenging the banking, the process by which we become receptacles for information, which is what’s happening now. You see it as young as kindergarten, these kids come in, they’re just taught to learn these abstract symbols, memorize sounds that mean nothing that go with these abstract symbols, and string them together to make these sounds that in the end, will maybe mean some words that may or may not have anything to do with their reality. And it’s disappointing to me.
“What I experienced in Nicaragua was students, little kids as well as adults, would go into a literacy classroom, and they’d discuss something from their book. There would be a sentence, it might say something to do with the revolution or agrarian reform, some concept, and there would be this discussion. And you didn’t have to agree, you just had to know what the sentence meant and what it meant to you, and how it affected your life. And respect the other people’s opinions. So that whole process of dialogue, or critical thinking, is missing from our educational system.
“It makes me sad for our educational system, makes me sad for our children, and makes me sad for myself, because I was raised that way. But the whole reason I became interested in going to Nicaragua was because I had just started teaching, and most of the children I was teaching were from Central America.
“Unfortunately some of those gains have been lost over the years. I didn’t go back to Nicaragua, I stayed in touch with the family for a few years, and then I lost touch with them. There still is a literacy campaign, from what I’ve seen, it’s not done the same way… I’ve seen pictures of people looking at a TV during a lesson, and I can’t imagine what kind of dialogue would be facilitated through that sort of situation…
“Part of the beauty of the literacy campaign was you had people of all ages, especially the youth, going out into remote parts of the country, and interacting with people they wouldn’t normally interact with and learning. You know, like the city folks learn from the country people, and they learned about each other’s way of life, and they worked cooperatively to make this dream of literacy and empowerment for all, a reality.”
A busy month of events promoting Pipe Bomb through LA will kick off Friday, June 26, at Lethal Amounts in Downtown LA, She’ll be holding the official release party, reading from the book and performing, along with DJ sets by Maricon Collective. She’ll also be appearing the following day at Brown, Round and Unbound, in what’s billed as a “body-image discussion” with Gloria Lucas, founder of Nalgona Positivity Pride.
Don’t expect to see the Bags’ name come up at any of the occasional reunion shows held by her 1977-era companions; following the death of founding members Rob Ritter and Craig Lee, she’s claimed no interest in playing those songs with anyone else. But she’s remained active with several memorable projects in the years since: the Castration Squad with Phranc and Dinah Cancer, the beloved Cholita!, a collaboration with performance artist Vaginal Crème Davis, and most recently, Stay At Home Bomb. She’ll be making an appearance on the forthcoming solo album by Legal Weapon vocalist Kat Arthur, and recently played in the Bay Area with the backing of Frightwig. “I am primarily a musician, that’s always going to be my first love. I stopped playing in bands when I moved to Arizona (from 2007 to 2013)… I lived in a remote area, so I wasn’t surrounded by a group of friends that were musicians like I have in Los Angeles, so I had to find other ways to be creative.”
Now that she’s back at it, and living in LA, let’s hope there’s more to come in the near future.