Alicia Armendariz (aka Alice Bag) is a Los Angeles punk legend, not just for her groundbreaking first band the Bags (featured in Penelope Spheeris’s Decline of Western Civilization), but for her outspokenness, activism, writings, and embodying the D.I.Y. ethic instilled in her by her mother. Lucretia Tye Jasmine spoke with Bag for PKM.
When L.A. punk legend Alice Bag and I recently talked on the phone, she began the conversation by telling me her dog, Cinnamon, had died three weeks earlier. She said thinking about the Rainbow Bridge—a poem that has been adopted by the pet-loss grief community—has really helped her. Her voice is light and calm, and sounds like many flowers opening, undulating. It is melodic and sweet, like an extract of something very powerful, and philosophical. But when she sings, that extract explodes.
Since the mid-1970s, her voice has exploded on stage and on record with the Bags, which she co-founded as part of the first wave of L.A.’s punk bands. She described her tough childhood in East Los Angeles and her coming of age into the punk music scene in her powerful 2011 memoir Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story (Feral House).
Alice told me that “Punk rock is my therapy,” and singing has always just come naturally to her. The first money she ever earned was from singing. Miss Yonkers, her fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles, asked her to sing on an educational bilingual cartoon, and Bag earned $100—more than the monthly rent her parents paid. Said Bag, “I thought, ‘maybe I could be a singer when I grow up’”. She is still singing at 62, having released a solo album, Alice Bag in 2016, Blueprint in 2018, and Sister Dynamite in 2020.
But she didn’t tell her dad about her dream of becoming a singer because he would tell her she should strive to own the record company instead. “I think he treated me the way some men of his generation would’ve treated their firstborn son,” she said. “That’s why he filled my head with dreams.”
Alicia Armendariz was a chubby misfit, taunted for wearing white go-go boots as a kid but cherishing her individualism even when it made her lonely and outcast. She loved Betty & Veronica comics, learning lingo from them that her peers found odd. And, of course, she started singing at a young age.
“It was the one thing about me that people seemed to like,” she said.
Her parents met on a tranvia [streetcar] in Mexico. Her mom, Candelaria, was a widow in her late-30s when she met Manuel, who was five years younger. Born in 1958 at General Hospital in Los Angeles, Alicia was “a daughter of immigrants, from a poor neighborhood, who didn’t speak English. When I started school, the first message I got was ‘You don’t belong here’.”
Her second-grade teacher called her Alice, a name that stuck.
During financial droughts, her parents refurbished and sold items they found in Dumpsters. They’d find bolts of fabric, for example, and make things from that. Her mother saved the most luxurious fabric samples for a quilt that she made for Alicia, calling it the Queen’s Quilt after her father’s nickname for his daughter—La Reina del Mundo y de Otras Partes [Queen of the World and of Other Parts].
Her father had a dark and vicious side, though, beating her mom savagely. He once even asked 7-year-old Alicia to spit on her, and Alicia blacked out. When her father would be arrested for the abuse, with her mother in the hospital, she’d sleep on her older sister’s couch.
“It was a very scarring time,” she says now. “I think it really shaped who I became.”
Still, there were women in her family who challenged her father’s authority. “Those were the very first stirrings of feminism for me,” she recalls.
She didn’t want to be like her mom, so she decided to be more like her dad.
“That was a terrible, terrible place for me to go,” she said, explaining, “There’s no power in identifying with an abuser.”
When she was 20, Alice asked herself, “What am I turning myself into?”
Over the years, she “figured out that in relationships you can’t have somebody dominating somebody else…without it being detrimental to yourself as well as to the other person. The best possible thing is to have a relationship where both people can communicate with each other, and if you don’t have that, then it’s not worth having.”
Her father treated Alicia like she was special, and she believed it. “I believed that I could think for myself,” she said. It was okay for others to disagree with her because that way she could reach her own conclusions. “My father always told me I was beautiful, no matter what, and other people might not see me that way, but I know, in my soul, that my father saw me as I really am. He saw the beauty in me so I always see myself that way.”
She says, “You may not know it, but I’m beautiful.”
In the summer of 1970, at a march in East L.A. organized by the National Chicano Moratorium Committee to protest the Vietnam war and its drafting of so many Chicano boys and their higher-than-average mortality rate, Bag realized she was part of a minority group. She felt proud to be part of something powerful, and understood that there were people who wanted to hurt Chicanos (a complex term that felt empowering in the context of organized resistance to exploitation).
But in high school, she felt judged by a Chicano activist group she’d wanted to join; her gold platform shoes, glitter-strewn jeans and Elton John obsession set her apart. So she switched schools, where she became a cheerleader and performed as Elton Jane in the school talent show, wearing rhinestone glasses, a feather boa, and her highest platform shoes. She wanted to form an all-girl band, like Josie and the Pussycats.
She read Star magazine, the magazine for groupies, when she was in junior high school, and Punk, about the New York punk scene, when she was in high school. It seemed like groupies were “these cool girls that were sexually free, and that were creative and cutting-edge.” Punk was an invitation to say what you have to say and not worry about expectations.
She met Marlene at a concert and they decided to form a band. Marlene was pen pals with the musician and groupie, Cherry Vanilla, whose poem, “Memo to the Muddy-Minded Members of the Music Medium”, deeply affected Bag. “I remember that particular poem really made me think about what she was feeling and how she was treated,” she said.
After following Marlene’s advice to make a play for a local band’s guitarist, she said,”I felt like I was just inflating somebody else’s ego.” She decided to be the rock star instead of the groupie.
Listening to rock music felt like she was finding her way home, she writes in her 2011 memoir, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story, tracing the emergence of her punk rock pedagogy. Bag says her life became stereophonic with artists whose music defied society.
“I think punk is bigger than just a musical genre. I think it’s really about an attitude and a way of life,” she says. “And I think the music was…a tool to make the changes that you wanted to see.”
In 1975, when she looked for Elton John and his gold limousine outside the studio where Cher’s TV show planned to have him as a guest, Alice met future Bags bandmate, Patricia Rainone, aka Patricia Morrison (Gun Club, Sisters of Mercy, The Damned). At the Starwood, Alice, Marlene, and Patricia met DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, which led to an audition for Kim Fowley (then manager of The Runaways), who turned them down. But a show at the Orpheum in 1977 galvanized Alice and Patricia. (Marlene had left the band by then). On that exciting night, the Germs, the Zeros, and The Weirdos proved that anything was possible. Alice and Patricia placed ads in The Recycler for new band members, but guys mostly responded. Geza X, a rhythm guitarist who introduced them to drummer, Joe Nanini, joined.
“I think punk is bigger than just a musical genre. I think it’s really about an attitude and a way of life”
After that, Rainone/Morrison suggested they wear paper bags onstage and, just like that, the Bags were born. Alice decorated her bag with cat eyes and lipstick. They played their first show at The Masque, and during the show, Darby Crash pulled off Alice’s bag. Soon after, Craig Lee (guitar) and Johnny Nation (drums) replaced X and Nanini.
Alice’s parents, who’d given her a trip to Europe for high school graduation and her mother’s Ford Falcon when she moved to Hollywood, went to a Bags’ show. Her dad stood on a chair for a better look, and they both cheered.
When the Bags were approached by director Penelope Spheeris to appear the documentary, Decline of Western Civilization (1981), Alice was hesitant. She didn’t want to give away that much control, and she’d never worked with a director. But the band outvoted her.
“Gluttony” – The Bags, in performance, from Decline of Western Civilization:
It took a long time for Bag to watch the documentary. Her band was falling apart then, and the documentary wasn’t representative of the punk scene she experienced, which was more diverse, and less homogenous, with way more POC, women, and queers. Punk attracted a bunch of people who didn’t fit in, and “we…created a community that actually valued the things that society rejected in us.” But she’s glad she’s in Spheeris’s documentary because it gave the band recognition, and she gives props to the filmmaker for getting it done, especially considering the cock-block of filmmaking.
The sexism of the punk scene documented in Spheeris’s film seemed possible to topple because of Alice Bag’s badass equipoise onstage, I tell her. “Being who you are, even if nobody else is like that,” I said.
Bag tells me that punk is “demystifying the use of the tools and also knowing that anything can be a tool for whatever you want to do and feeling empowered to create change.” She writes songs to deal with her feelings and perceptions.
Punk attracted a bunch of people who didn’t fit in, and “we…created a community that actually valued the things that society rejected in us.”
There was a lot of partying during those days at The Canterbury, where she lived, so much so that The Whisky named a drink after her: The Real Alice Bag cocktail (pineapple, lime, and rum). She began to self-harm with cutting. She struggled with her boyfriend, Weirdos’ drummer Nickey Beat. Around 1978, after an experience with astral projection, she decided to move back home and earn her college degree.
“I’ve always felt like I had to have my own expectations for myself,” she explained.
Paying for her books and tuition at college contributed to her work ethic. She worked at Jack LaLanne, she worked at a flower shop, and, after securing her bachelor’s degree, worked for 20 years as an elementary school teacher. Teaching taught her more patience, and to take responsibility for communicating.
“I’m not ashamed of fucking up,” she said. “That’s how you grow.”
She’s guested on the recordings of many LA bands, conducted an oral history about women in Los Angeles punk, and took on more responsibility and creative control in her own band, playing guitar and keyboards, writing songs, booking shows, and learning to pace herself. Bag released the LP, Sister Dynamite, this year, and an EP with Cliquey Bitches was also just released.
It’s weird, she says, not being able to play shows and feel the interaction with an audience at a concert. Nonetheless, she’s remaining creative while being safer at home, making masks that match dresses, a series on YouTube called Fit for the Apocalypse, and writing songs. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
Bag feels like she never fully appreciated her mother. “I saw her as weak, but she was strong in ways I didn’t understand when I was younger,” she said, pointing to how her mother made their clothes, their meals, their house clean and orderly. “If I saw something and we couldn’t afford it, my mother would figure out a way to make her own version at home.”
Her mother also taught Bag how to sew a blouse by clearing off the kitchen table, putting newspaper on it, tracing a shirt on the paper, cutting it out, placing the pattern on fabric, cutting the fabric, and sewing it together.
“She was magical,” she said.
Her mom gained independence by working outside the house, eventually working alongside her husband as a carpenter when he couldn’t do the labor. When her mom was 70, she climbed onto the roof to repair it. “My mom was so punk and DIY.”
Bag wrote 2018’s “Se Cree Joven” about ageism, after she overheard two women judging her for not dressing her age as she shopped at the 99 cents store.
“It’s about somebody criticizing the way a woman looks,” she said. Being young and white and thin is one way to be beautiful, Bag says, but “there are so many amazing ways that a person can be beautiful.”
Her drummer’s grandmother sports a wheelchair in the video created for the song, which was directed by Marisé Samitier. “I felt like the women in the video all had their own style…Every woman had her swagger.”
In 2018, Bag released her song about gender and race-based pay disparity, “77.” Riot Grrrl co-founders, Allison Wolfe and Kathleen Hanna, contributed. “A feminist is a person who believes in gender equality,” Bag says.
ALICE BAG – 77 Featuring Kathleen Hanna and Allison Wolfe
In Violence Girl, Bag discusses learning about U.S. imperialism and the bias of American education while working in Nicaragua, where she realized teaching someone to read is a revolutionary act. Bag wrote a second book, 2015’s Pipe Bomb for the Soul. I ask Bag for ways to be activist. She says: stay informed through multiple and alternate sources; have conversations; join organizations; contribute money.
Bag sometimes sings in Spanish because “some of my experiences happen in Spanish.” A lot of Chicanas tell Bag they identify with her. “This is really important to me, because I know Chicanas are not visible enough in the media.” Bag wants to amplify their visibility. “It’s important to turn up the volume on all the voices that are underrepresented. I think the thing that needs amplifying is the visibility of women of color.”