It's hard to sum up the life that Alice Bag has lived so far as iconic Punk pioneer, songwriter, English teacher, activist, mother, and author, to list a few of her roles in no particular order. As a self-declared "bad-tempered woman", she is outspoken, but also extremely thoughtful and cogent about the world that we live in right now, which means that when Alice Bag has something to say, we ought to listen.
Her new album, Sister Dynamite, was released during quarantine, and takes her music is new directions through focusing on the energy produced when you get your live, touring band into a studio and capture their interaction and musical relationships.
Alice Bag was kind enough to join us for a chat on Tower's PULSE! and we delve into our current times, her history as the author of her autobiography Violence Girl, and why mothers are always right about hoarding memorabilia.
There's a lot of certainty in stating that whatever "The True Life Adventures of Violence Girl" have been for Alice Bag, there are many adventures yet to come.
HMS: How are you and your family doing at this time?
Alice Bag: We’re all still figuring it out. I am still sewing masks because I haven’t quite perfected a comfortable mask. My husband is working at home right now. My daughter ran errands for me this morning. We’re all trying to work out a routine during quarantine.
HMS: I’m very impressed by the mask-making. I’ve been unable to do that. I am using things I have in different ways, like headwraps and things.
Alice Bag: That’s impressive too. It’s all about being creative. My masks are not that good! The first attempt, I used this really firm elastic, when I made masks for my daughter and my husband, who were going to go to the market. They put their masks on and their little ears just flopped forward. I felt kinda bad. I’ve since figured out how to make masks that will stay on your head, but I’m still trying to find out how to make masks comfortable.
HMS: It's funny, I wish my grandmother was still with here us, because she was an amazing seamstress, and I feel like she would’ve figured out this whole situation in no time.
Alice Bag: It’s important to have those skills passed down. When I was living in San Diego, I took a community college class in sewing, and all the women there were in their 70’s. I was in my 50s and I was the youngest one there! They were so helpful in showing me what I needed to know. It was great.
HMS: That’s amazing that you took that course. Was there a particular reason, or were you just looking for personal enrichment?
Alice Bag: I got really into crafting when I moved to Arizona, and I didn’t know anybody. I had to be creative in ways that I hadn’t before. Because when I was living in Los Angeles, all my creativity was channeled into being in bands. 99% of my friends were musicians and if I was bored, I’d just say, “Hey, let’s form a band!” And we’d start making music.
But when I moved to a remote area in Arizona, I had to be creative by myself, so I’d go to the library and find a crafting book, or I’d watch something on The DIY channel, which use to have crafting. Now it’s all about home repair, but it used to have crafting shows. So I started crocheting, and painting, and doing all that kind of creative stuff that you can do alone. And writing songs, but only on my computer by myself!
HMS: I heard about your paintings. Please tell me how you got into doing paintings, and about your exhibition of portraits of female musicians.
Alice Bag: I think people were really just being nice to me! I took a continuing ed class at the community college in Arizona in painting. I took an oil painting class and painted myself, and my daughter, and my husband, all the usual suspects. Then I decided I was going to paint the women from the band that I had been in in the 80’s, which was Castration Squad, so I started doing that. A friend of mine saw my paintings on Facebook and said, “I can set up a show for you if you want to be part of a group show.” So I agreed and it was really great. There was a nice response, and all the paintings are sold now.
I had a hard time, though, because I was painting in my garage, which had bad ventilation, and I have bad lungs, so I ended up getting chemically-induced pneumonia.
HMS: Oh no!
Alice Bag: So my doctor told me to lay off the painting for a while. I kind of did and switched gears, starting to focus more on songwriting. I feel bad about getting back to painting, but right now I’m in mask making mode, and I’m getting back into songwriting now that I’ve figured out how to carve out some personal space while everyone else is at home.
[Portrait of Mary Bat-Thing (a.k.a. Dinah Cancer) by Alice Bag. Photo by Alice Bag]
HMS: Oh, yes, that’s a big issue for many people, of course. Everyone is different. Some people are able to jump right in with creative work, and some people are only just now starting to figure it out.
You’re in LA right now, right? Do you have a personal space to work?
Alice Bag: Yes, I’m in LA. I do have a little office I’ve created for myself. But when my family is home, I feel like it’s the weekend! My husband sometimes feels like it’s the weekend, and he’ll barbeque for us and make cocktails at 12 o’clock in the afternoon! And then I want to eat, and drink, and pretend it’s a holiday every day. Which is great, but it’s been awhile now, and I need to get some work done.
Now he’s got a place to work, and I’m over here. Our daughter actually moved into the garage. Our other two daughters are on their own, so we’re good.
HMS: That “weekend feeling” is a real thing! It was really strong for the first couple of months. It was so tempting to just sit and stare at the news for several hours a day.
Alice Bag: Yes, I was glued to the TV. First the health crisis, then the economy, then shortly after that, everything with Black Lives Matter. It was just one thing after another drawing me to watch nonstop news, or read nonstop articles, and feeling like the world was in flux. The reality that we had become accustomed to, which was in some ways comfortable and in other ways uncomfortable, had changed. But some of those changes have been really exciting.
Alice Bag: But some of those changes not so much! I look forward to the day when I don’t have to put on a mask and can wear makeup again.
HMS: Yes! I put on makeup the other day and totally forgot about the mask, and had to take it off again or it gets everywhere.
Alice Bag: Better yet, you forget you put on lipstick, and after you take off the mask, not only is the lipstick all over your face, it’s all over your mask.
HMS: That’s the worst! I think, regarding watching all the news, it was hard to get to grips with the feeling that everything was focused outside of yourself. It was hard not to get caught in that stream of information. It’s so great that you’ve been able to carve out time to work on things.
I will eventually ask you about your new album, I promise!
Alice Bag: Oh, that’s okay. I’m totally into all these other things. It becomes important to make a mask that I feel like I can walk around my neighborhood comfortably. One where I feel I can breathe, and don’t have to pull it down constantly to take a deep breath.
HMS: So, the making of the masks is really about improving your life? To create something that will make you feel more like yourself?
Alice Bag: Exactly. It seemed like the right thing to do to make masks. A friend of mine was actually making a whole bunch of masks for a hospital, and she took them in, and they told her that the masks weren’t up to standard. I felt so bad for her. I decided I was just going to make them for family, or maybe a few friends, but I would hate to think that I made a mask that wasn’t good enough and might make someone sick. That was scary to me.
But because I live in Los Angeles, within a few weeks, I started seeing men and women selling masks. Because we have a garment district, a lot of people started making masks. I think as long as you’re covering up somehow, it makes everyone feel more comfortable.
HMS: Yes, I think anything is making some difference. It makes a statement to wear them, saying we care about each other.
Alice Bag: I agree. I feel that way, too. I am a bad-tempered woman, and sometimes I run into people, and I think, “Oh, I’m going to tell this person off.” I saw this guy in the market who wasn’t wearing a mask, but I saw it around his neck. And then I thought, “Is it worth it to get into a fight with this guy? Or should I let it go? Could he have a medical reason?” So, I kind of made excuses and cut him some slack. I am going to admit that I sometimes thrive on confrontation…
Alice Bag: …It was annoying to me to walk away and not say anything. But then I also thought, “Maybe there’s a reason. Cut him some slack. It’s definitely not worth what we’ve seen, where people are actually resorting to violence when people call them out for not wearing masks.”
HMS: Oh, yeah, that stuff’s crazy.
Alice Bag: I don’t want that. I just want to move away from that person. But it does anger me.
HMS: It’s hard to know what kind of reaction you’ll get in a volatile time. For the same reason, I don’t say anything in that situation, though I think I’m less courageous than you. I just don’t know if the reaction that I’ll get will be more than I bargained for. Sorry to be a downer!
Alice Bag: Oh, no. It’s just the reality of what we’re living through right now.
HMS: Could I ask you a question about your writing? You’ve written two books, as well as your music writing. What led up to the making that leap to publishing your first book? I heard it had something to do with going to a comic convention with your daughter?
Alice Bag: I moved around a little bit in the past few years. We were living in San Diego, in I think 2008, and we had gone to Comic-Con. My husband had asked me, “What would you call a comic book, if you had a comic book?” We had seen Jane Wiedlin, who had a comic book out at the comic convention. I said, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the ‘True Life Adventures of Violence Girl’”. And ‘Violence Girl’ is the name of a song that my guitarist had written about me.
I mentioned it casually to my husband, and around the same time, a couple of friends of mine drove up to San Diego from LA because they were going to be writing a play. They were with a group called Buchlalis de Panochtitlan and were writing a play called The Barber of East LA and they wanted to know what it was like to grow up in East LA in the 60’s and 70’s since the play was going to be set during that time.
They took me to a bar, sat me down, got me drunk, and told me to tell them a bunch of stories. I did tell them a bunch of stories, and in the course of the conversation, one of them turned to me, and said, “Why don’t you just write a book?” And at the time, probably because I had been drinking, I thought, “Well, yeah. Why don’t I? That’s a great idea. I’m going to write a book!”
I came home and told my husband, and he said, “Yes, I’ve been telling you that for ages, but you never listen to me.” Long story short, he got up in the morning and went to work, and he left our laptop open on the kitchen table. He had started a blog for me called, “The True Life Adventures of Violence Girl”. And he said, “Start writing!”
HMS: Oh my god, that is so sweet.
Alice Bag: The fact that he did that for me. It was kind of a challenge, an invitation but also a challenge. So, I started blogging my book. I published every day, which meant that I didn’t really have to do a full outline. I didn’t have to plan too much. I just had to figure out what I wanted to say that one day. And once I started, I started picking up followers, and that was encouraging. It was also an expectation.
People would write in and say, “Hey, you missed a day. What happens next?” That’s how I got started writing. When I finished blogging the whole book, I wrote a message at the end, saying, “This is the end of the blog. What should I do with the blog now?” And the people who were following the blog sent in different suggestions, most of which were about publishing the book.
One person said to send it to Feral House, and that seemed like a good choice. I had seen some of the books they had put out, and I had liked them. I sent them ten pages, and I think within a week, they said, “Yes, we want it!” That’s how I got started.
HMS: That’s amazing. Blogging has been a very interesting genesis for a lot of writers. I was a late adopter, but it totally changed the course of my life within a couple of blog posts. It’s a weird turning point for technology and access to readers.
Alice Bag: When you think about it, blogging is very Punk Rock because you do what you feel, and there are really no rules about it. It doesn’t demand that you study before you write something or follow certain guidelines. It’s all about expression. It’s open to everyone with a computer.
HMS: Yes. Certainly, so many people than before have access to write and reach others. How did you know when your blog was done?
Alice Bag: I think at a certain point, I did go through the story, and I saw where it was going, and which things had to be resolved. I was doing it very free-form. I had photographs and things. Because I had moved from Phoenix to San Diego, then back again to Arizona, I had a bunch of my personal belongings, like photo albums, and things that I kept when my mother died.
There were things, like photos from childhood, which were in plastic tubs, because I hadn’t really put them away. I remember emptying out several big plastic tubs that had things like my mother’s rent receipts, tons of photographs, and little newspaper clippings she had saved of me. Or concert promotions. Flyers that she had saved. I never saved that kind of stuff, like flyers, or photos where I didn’t think I looked good. I would throw them in the trash and my mother would take them out and keep them. I found all that stuff when she passed away, when I cleaned out her house.
So then I had boxes that I was drawing on to fuel my writing, to fuel my memories. But then I realized, “Oh, there is a bigger story here.” It really had to do with how my father’s abuse had affected me. It changed me and turned me into the person that I am today. Seeing my parent’s relationship had a deep and lasting effect on how I see the world. Especially on how society sees and treats men and women, and the power inequality between the genders.
HMS: Thank you. That’s a great story. There’s a story behind the story that’s a great story.
When you found that stuff that your mother kept, had you forgotten about a lot of it? Did you know she was keeping it?
Alice Bag: I didn’t know. My mother was a bit of a packrat. She was raised during the depression, and she would not throw stuff away. I had socks that I’d had since elementary school that she would just mend. Nobody mends socks anymore, but my mom did. I had a bunch of homemade clothes. But yes, if I threw something away that she thought had some value she’d keep it. Because she was older, she knew. Things like newspaper clippings, I’d think,
“I read it. I don’t need to see that they mentioned my band, or that my band is playing at The Whisky [a Go Go] on this date. Why do I need to know that fifty years later?”
But it turns out that it was a very good thing that I could see that, because I could then write about a memory that was attached to this or that concert, and know when it happened, and know who else was on the bill because there was a flyer. Or because there was a clipping from a newspaper where it was mentioned. In that case, it was really valuable.
HMS: That’s so exciting to hear about that. Because we’re also talking about an era where there’s not often a lot of preserved history in written form, especially if it was smaller venues. I know that you’ve done some interviews that you’ve archived on your blog, too, so thank you for doing that.
That story about finding items that your mother kept really resonates with me because I had the same experience this year. After my mother passed away, and I cleaned out her house, I found all these documents. I have traveled a lot, so I never kept things, and I thought I had no record of my life. But she was always keeping stuff, and I didn’t know. Now I have this whole cache of stuff.
Alice Bag: Yeah! Did you by any chance find post cards that you had sent her from different places?
HMS: Every single one I ever sent was there. It was crazy. It’s a huge, wonderful, nice thing that she did for me.
Alice Bag: I love that! That’s wonderful.
The other thing that’s valuable, too, is looking at the old photos that I wanted to throw away. I look at them now, and I think, “Oh, my god, I’m not ugly. Look at me! I look cute!” It’s how your perspective changes as you get older and can see yourself more objectively. You can say, “Okay, if I looked at this person, and it wasn’t me, I could say, ‘Hey, you’re cute. You’re fine. You don’t have to worry about that. Nobody is looking at your butt.’”
Whatever perceived flaw we had when we were younger, now when we’re older, we can look at ourselves and really enjoy how cute we really were, you know? I feel like perspective is everything. I feel like I’ve really learned to appreciate my body and who I am. And the quirkiness of things that are unique about me, like my crooked nose. Whatever it is that’s weird about me, I’m just going to hang with it.
I like it. I can love it now, because in twenty years it’s going to be gone. I’m never going to look cuter than I am now.
HMS: There’s a lot of wisdom in that. Even looking back at digital pictures from a few years ago, I totally know what you’re talking about. I thought I looked terrible when those pictures were taken, and I look at them now, and I think I look good. I realize I’m never going to be that young again and I wonder why I didn’t just appreciate that time. And I know I’m going to feel the same way a few years from now, looking back at now!
Alice Bag: Right! So why not just get that mentality from when you’re 70, but get it now?
HMS: Yes, it’s very empowering. We all need to do this.
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"In the past few years, I've had to reassess what it means to have a national identity. Do you consider yourself English now that you have lived in England for so many years? What does it mean to be English? I ask myself a similar question: what does it mean to be American? I grew up loving this country, I grew up being fiercely patriotic. Even now when I see the corruption in our government and the bigotry of a large portion of our citizens, I can still see the beauty of America's spirit, trying to shine out from under the muck. As for culture, I think of myself as a citizen of the world. I love that there are cultural differences between us, but I do not value those who dominate or suppress human freedom in the name of race or religion. I cannot be silent when women or minorities are discriminated against. Multiculturalism is a difficult dream to achieve. We have so much to learn before we can be consistently respectful of others. I know it would be a challenge for me. I am so damn opinionated! But can you imagine what a beautiful world it would be if we did achieve it?" A letter to Patricia, August 2011
Stay tuned for the second part of our conversation with Alice Bag!