Agony Shorthand

Friday, March 18, 2005

I've been intermittantly in contact with ALICE BAG over the past few months and figured, hey, let's get an interview going. Ms. Bag/Velasquez/Armendariz has long been a heroine of mine, thanks to her lead role in one of the world's Top 5 original recipe punk bands of all time, THE BAGS. Their quartet of scathing, raw and poundingly melodic original recordings ("Survive", "We Don't Need The English", "Babylonian Gorgon" and "We Will Bury You") stand proud next to any 1977-78 group you can throw up against them, and it's high time the historical record began capturing this unambiguous fact. For years I'd been wondering where Alice stood in relation to her legacy, before finding out that she'd been keeping the flame alight through various under-my-radar musical projects all these years. Moreover, her website is an absolute monster treasure trove of original Los Angeles punk items, including fantastic Bags and WEIRDOS videos, audio recordings, flyers, stories, tales and whatnot. It's worth a few hours of poking around all by itself. Alice was kind enough to put fingers to keys to answer Agony Shorthand's questions, only mere days after her most recent band STAY AT HOME BOMB called it a day. Thanks very much to Alice for taking the time -- here it is:

Agony Shorthand: You're now, through your web site, one of the true keepers of the original LA punk flame. Did you feel that it wasn't being portrayed correctly in books & in articles, or did you just have a lot of cool ephemera to share?

Alice Bag: Both. Everyone has their perspective and their own reasons for trying to document the early L.A. scene. I certainly have my own agenda, one of the items being to shed light on the overlooked contributions of women. I once heard history described as "the distillation of rumor," and I saw that happening with some of the accounts of the early L.A. punk scene, many written by people who weren't even there at the time. The L.A. punk scene did not begin and end with Darby Crash, though one might think so by reading some of the accounts out there - not to take anything away from Darby and the Germs; they inspired me to get onstage and I considered Darby a friend. I still think the Weirdos have not been given their due - the scene really coalesced around that particular band. More than anything, I'm hoping that the website will spark people's imagination and inspire them to start their own movements. That would make me very happy.

If it had been left entirely up to me, the website would not exist. It was my husband's insistence that we build a web archive and make available to punk fans the considerable collection of photos, flyers and newspaper clippings that my mother had secretly kept after I had tossed them in the trash twenty five years ago. After my mother passed away, we discovered boxes and boxes of things she had squirreled away in a shed and in the garage. She was a pack rat and never threw anything away. I'm very grateful for that, now.

Agony Shorthand: What, if anything, do you regret most about The Bags' brief life?

Alice Bag: It's a difficult question to answer because I did what I thought was right at the time and I've never been one to second guess my decisions. Whether that's a good or bad trait is debatable, but I've tried to stay true to my own vision. I suppose I most regret not recording a full album's worth of material when the Bags were at their prime, with the lineup that recorded the Dangerhouse sessions. Listening to those songs now, many of them hold up. I'm sure that's a very common regret among my peers from the L.A. punk scene. I'm grateful that we had the chance to record the little we did because many of my contemporaries never had that opportunity.

Agony Shorthand: At the time, did you think of Los Angeles as just another punk scene among many (SF, New York, UK, etc.), or did you feel/know that LA had something special?

Alice Bag: My opinion is that punk started in and came from New York. That's because my first exposure to punk was through reading Creem, Circus and Punk magazines and because the Dolls and Ramones were from NY. Certain British bands I grew to love over time, but I was already listening to the Ramones before I'd ever heard the Sex Pistols or the Buzzcocks. When I saw the Weirdos for the first time, that was what did it for me. They were instantly the greatest band in the world and no one could convince me otherwise. So yes, I felt that Los Angeles had the greatest band in the world, so that naturally meant we were the best. That's where "We Don't Need The English" on the "Yes L.A." comp came from, the confidence that we were not a pale imitation of some other, better scene somewhere else, but that we had our own distinct sound and style which was the equal of any other punk scene. You have to understand that what people think of as the early L.A. scene literally consisted of no more than 50-100 misfits who all congregated within a one-mile radius of the Masque and Canterbury Apartments. In a city as sprawling as Los Angeles, ours was highly concentrated and very tight-knit community. We all knew each other. We did pretty much nothing aside from party, work on our bands, art, writing, Canterbury roommate Sheila and I worked at an Arby's Roast Beef for about two weeks before we got fired but that was as serious as we got about employment. I never compared our scene to San Francisco's, but they had their share of good bands and there was a lot of cross-pollination. In fact, Jello Biafra was a good friend of the Bags and he often hung out with us on tours. I remember crashing on Penelope Houston's floor when we were in SF.

Agony Shorthand: You told me that there's very little material to put together to make a Bags CD. What is out there that you know of?

Alice Bag: New stuff pops up from time to time. I recently received a copy of two live sets from a show in 1979, recorded in their entirety. I'm not sure if we'll be able to release any of it, but I'm working on it. The other stuff I know of consists of the four Dangerhouse songs, the Elks Lodge live set, the live set (video) from the infamous Troubadour show, various and sundry live bootlegs, Disco's Dead (which was not our song), an early recording of a song called "Bag Bondage," and a studio recording which the remaining members did after Pat's departure. This last recording has yet to be seen, but we are told it exists and Artifix is working with the owners. Also, I suspect that someone has the entire live set which was filmed for the Decline movie, but that footage does not "officially" exist.

Agony Shorthand: Everything I've read about Craig Lee makes me think he was an unheralded prime mover in LA punk, as well as one of the true driving forces behind The Bags' music. Can you say a few words about what he meant to the band (beyond what's on your web site)?

Alice Bag: I'm glad you surmised Craig's importance to the LA scene. He was not only the driving force behind the Bags, being chief songwriter and business manager, but he was actively involved in several other punk and post-punk bands, Catholic Discipline being the most infamous. He was a working "industry" writer before he joined the Bags, having actually penned scripts for 70's television shows like Room 222 and The Mod Squad. So he brought his writing talent to the Bags and his songs were so much better than what we had written, he naturally assumed that role. He was very much a take-charge personality and he would book our shows, collect the money, handle publicity, all the dirty work. Craig went on to become a music journalist and championed the L.A. scene in the LA Weekly and later, the LA Times. He co-authored and edited what is still widely considered the definitive book on the West Coast scene, "Hardcore California." He was very involved in the art punk scene that arose in the mid-1980's and is sorely missed by those who had the pleasure of knowing him.

Agony Shorthand: Tell me a little bit about how the band came to be known as "The Alice Bag Band" for the Decline of Western Civilization film.

Alice Bag: The short version is that after Patricia and the band parted ways, Patricia owned the name The Bags and we toyed with various names, but couldn't decide on one. When the Decline movie came up, we were labeled the Alice Bag Band for purposes of the film by the film's producers. We tried to keep it going under that name for a few months but the wind had gone out of our sails.

Agony Shorthand: You said something on your web site that I'd like to know more about: "Once we started trying to be "label worthy," we lost the energy that made the Bags and punk rock unique". Was there a really time when The Bags were being courted by labels, and how did your sound change as a result?

Alice Bag: The Bags were never seriously courted by any record labels, as far as I know. A&R people would periodically show up at punk gigs. The bands were getting press and filling clubs, so they must have sensed there was something there, but big record companies were cowardly then and they still are. There was absolutely no way that bands like the Bags, Germs or Screamers would have been signed to a major label. I still don't hear anything quite as confrontational as "We Will Bury You" or "Richie Dagger's Crime" on the radio, no matter what people say about punk being mainstream nowadays. One thing that will never come into fashion is challenging the expectations of the typical consumer.

Getting back to your question, the Bags' music did change fairly rapidly over time. Having recently listened to recordings spanning the short life of the band, I can hear how we progressed over the roughly two and a half years of our existence. Some of the changes were good. We practiced a lot and were pretty tight musically, but my live vocals were always inconsistent. I'd get excited and dance all over the stage and lose breath and pitch control. If we played a club with bad sound it was always tough because I needed to hear myself in order to stay on key. Anyway, I felt a lot of pressure to sing on key, so I tried to focus more on pitch and subsequently became more self-conscious. In doing so, I gave up the very thing that had made me different, which was the ability to lose myself on stage.

Agony Shorthand: How have you enjoyed going through the majority of your life with "Bag" as your known surname?

Alice Bag: Most days I just go by "Mrs. Velasquez" or just "Miss" because my students don't know me as Alice Bag, and that suits me just fine.

Agony Shorthand: There was that strange period in the early 80s where so much of LA punk seemed influenced by "horror" and the goths. Did Castration Squad see themselves as part of the Christian Death/45 Grave crowd, or were you something else entirely?

Alice Bag: Patricia Rainone (Pat Bag) and I used to have sleepovers in high school and I remember staying up late with her, watching vampire movies. I remember her wrapping a knee high sock around her neck before bedtime to ward off vampire bites. I'm sure she took that sock off in fairly short order, and she cultivated a beautiful vampire look long before the word "Goth" appeared. Mary Bat-Thing (Dinah Cancer), Shannon and Sheila (who were both in the Piranhas) were all similarly inclined towards the darker side. Shannon and Patricia came up with the idea for Castration Squad and that band pre-dated Christian Death and 45 Grave. In fact, Castration Squad gave Christian Death their very first opening slot and gave 45 Grave their lead singer.

Agony Shorthand: I may have missed something, but is Castration Squad happening again?

Alice Bag: We are writing again but there are time constraints. We're all moms now, except for Shannon, obviously, who is dearly departed.

Agony Shorthand: Does your daughter appreciate the irony in your (recently disbanded) group Stay At Home Bomb, and understand her role in the band's creation?

Alice Bag: No, and perhaps that's for the best. She might take offense. Maybe when she's older, if she has her own children, she will be able to appreciate the inspiration for Stay At Home Bomb.