[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
More than 30 years ago, in Washington, D.C., I secured a copy of a single by a Los Angeles band called The Bags. The two-song 7-inch, released on Dangerhouse, had a girl on the cover who looked right at you with huge eyes. The songs, “Survive” and “Babylonian Gorgon,” were great and made many of my mix tapes.
A few weeks ago, the girl on the cover of the single sent me her new autobiography, released on Feral House Press. It's called Violence Girl, and the author is Alice Bag. I read it from cover to cover. If you are a fan of the classic, early punk music that was happening in the late 1970s here in Los Angeles, this is a well-written and informed read from someone who was there from the beginning.
Alice wasn't one of those who turned up late to the game and benefited from the hard work and innovation of the L.A. punk bands and musicians who came before her. Rather, she was in one of the bands that got the whole thing started. She was at shows you could only wish you had seen. She was there at the start of a musical revolution that not only changed the L.A. music scene forever but was an extremely influential part of the spread of punk and independent music all over America. The local punk scene in Los Angeles picked up speed very quickly and forced the LAPD to confront a youth movement that continues to this day. More importantly, she helped put a lot of females on the stage, where normally only men were allowed. Punk rock changed that forever, and Alice is one of the first who got up there.
This scene was so full of great bands that fans in those days would have been spoiled for choice on a weekly basis. The Germs, The Weirdos, X, Black Randy, The Controllers, The Skulls, Catholic Discipline, The Screamers, The Dickies, The Plugz and many others all played locally and frequently. Alice was there in the middle of all of it, for better and sometimes for worse. That scene was living very fast and dying very young, to borrow a phrase. (But it's true.) Many of those people are gone now.
Alice is real L.A. — born and raised. In Violence Girl she details life with her parents. Her father was by turns kind and protective and also dependably violent, inflicting severe physical harm on Alice's mother on a regular basis. Alice's mother took the abuse, perhaps to keep the family together. Both parents are featured throughout Violence Girl; while they had their problems, they remained very supportive of Alice.
Her life was heavily shaped — and ultimately transformed — by music. As a high school student, she was a triple XL Elton John fan, but it was punk rock that changed her life and inspired her to express herself. She sets up her transition from an overweight and shy girl into a confrontational punk chick very honestly and courageously.
Damn, it's rare that someone at the real beginning of something so monumentally influential is around long enough to put it down in writing. Violence Girl is not some sentimental look back at how great it all was. Alice, without exaggeration, allows the reader to understand how exciting and in-the-moment things could be — but also how quickly and easily things can go bad and come to an end.
And come to an end it did. The Bags made one single, played some wild shows and then promptly fell apart. It was sleepless, dangerous and thrilling, and then it was over. By the early '80s the scene had changed radically, and what had come before was never to be repeated. With The Bags in the middle of it, it was a time of incredible innovation, explosive creativity and recordings that stand the test of time.
I recommend Violence Girl. I hope you check it out, but I hope you don't stop there. Please investigate Punk Pioneers by ace photographer Jenny Lens, who captured the scene so perfectly. The late Brendan Mullen — the man who started the Masque, a ground-zero venue in Hollywood — left behind a slew of books documenting the scene. I also direct you to Live at the Masque: Nightmare in Punk Alley, the artwork of Gary Panter and, if you can find them, copies of Slash magazine. It was quite a time.
And then there's the music. The Dangerhouse compilations — where you can hear The Bags, albums by X, Germs, Weirdos and Black Randy — are excellent source material. These were true artistic misfits at work, and their being able to pull this music out of the ether makes it all the more compelling to listen to these songs.
Los Angeles, then and now, has always been full of people who come from elsewhere to make it happen. For that reason, there are always different influences in any artistically and creatively driven scene. The early L.A. punk scene benefited hugely from that. Many of the bands made elaborate costumes for shows, they turned gigs into events, they took it to the streets, they smashed the status quo to pieces. It was obviously much more than just music and just being in a band.
These bands, these people, they make a lot of other scenes seem lightweight, almost timid. It was one memorable and lasting bang. Nice one, Alice.