‘I’m in the Band’ Ep. 3: Allison Wolfe and Alice Bag Talk Stalking Elton John
Decline of Western Civilization, the 1981 go-to documentary of the early L.A. punk scene, provided me with my first glimpse of the powerhouse that is Alice Bag. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, she was the front woman of the Bags.
Trying to claim space in my own subcultural music scene, I was drawn to this fierce woman writhing around on stage, glaring into the audience and screaming into her microphone. This image, and those of other hard-to-access female punk pioneers, paved the way for girls like me to pick up the mic and start our own bands.
In her 2011 memoir Violence Girl, Alice describes growing up in an abusive household in East L.A. and how she transitioned from glam fandom to finding her voice in punk rock. Alice self-published a second book, Pipe Bomb for the Soul, detailing her volunteer work experience in 1980s Sandinista Nicaragua. She also studied philosophy in college and became a public school teacher in order to give her students what had been missing for her as a kid.
Alice continues to make music, perform, write, give talks and agitate for social justice. She’s finishing up her second solo album for Don Giovanni Records, which explores topics such as gender inequality and the white (in)justice system. In this third episode of I’m in the Band, Alice tells host Allison Wolfe about the early days of Los Angeles punk, fighting historical erasure as a queer women of color, and her lifetime of cultural activism.
On cultural activism and historical erasure… I define myself as an artist. If I don’t have some type of creative expression, my life is not worth living.
I don’t think there has to be only one type of activist. When people think of an activist, they think of somebody out marching or collecting signatures. It’s within your community, it’s within your grasp and even within your family, that you can make real change. One of the ways I try to do it is by writing songs that bring attention to subjects that I feel need more attention. Or by creating a website where women can talk about their experiences in the early L.A. punk scene, when their experiences had been largely ignored by people who were writing books. They wanted to know about one or two of the popular bands, and everything else that went into creating that scene was just erased.
I’m sick of being erased as a woman, as a person of color, and as a queer person. Every part of me has been subjected to erasure. I want my presence felt so that some other young Chicana, some other young queer, some other woman will feel like, ‘I can make a difference, and I will be seen and heard.’
On growing up in an abusive household… My father was very abusive toward my mother. He beat her, dragged her around and kicked her. He did all of this in front of me. Being a child experiencing domestic violence, even though it’s not directed at you, you’re in the household absorbing all that negative energy and violence. I would feel sick, get stomach aches and just want to go to sleep. I was experiencing depression and trauma. I have a lot of anger, trauma and rage that didn’t come out until I was much older.
I identified with both my mother and my father. There was definitely one person on top making all the decisions, ruling with an iron fist, and there was one person that was underneath, being subjugated. I felt terrible for my mother, but I just felt like, ‘I never want to be the person that’s underneath. I never want to let this happen to me.’ So in many ways, I identified with my father.
I felt like you either had to be the one on top or the one on the bottom. For years, I didn’t realize that neither of those positions is a position of strength. A position of strength is being able to work and connect with other people. The other stuff is just an attempt to control things that you can’t control. You can’t control other people.
On performance as release… When I started performing live and I realized that I had anger issues, I sort of went out of control on stage. I wasn’t singing pretty. I was transforming into this monster that people were afraid of. I’m so grateful that I had punk as a sort of therapy, where I felt like I could do whatever I wanted.
And it helped that I was wearing a bag on my head. That gave me a feeling of anonymity. It was a feeling of being out of control, but also having power, having a voice when you felt like you didn’t have a voice for so long, like you didn’t matter. Being on stage and having a microphone, having people watching you, even if you were going crazy, it felt like you had a voice.
On David Bowie… In middle school, a friend introduced me to the music of David Bowie. David Bowie seemed like an outsider, even though he was a huge rock star. He was dressing in a way that was challenging to gender stereotypes. He was not only presenting this ambiguous sexuality, but he was also barely human. You’d look at him and think, ‘Where did this creature come from?’ He was intriguing to me because, if I felt like an outsider, David Bowie was like this extraterrestrial creature that was performing this wonderful music I loved.
On rock magazines… All through junior high and early high school, I was into glam. During those glam years, I really aspired to be a groupie. I felt like groupies were the closest that a girl could get to being involved in music. I blame rock magazines for that, because they would give such little attention to women that were rocking.
I remember Suzi Quatro, if she was in a magazine, she’d get one eighth of a page. Even though there were women creating music, they were not given their fair share of attention. They were treated like, ‘Here’s a sprinkle of this weird thing that’s happening: women in rock.’ A curiosity. The normal thing was for women to be throwing themselves at rock stars.
On stalking Elton John and starting a band… I was a total Elton John stalker. I had friends who were also stalkers and were living in other parts of the city and going to other schools. So we’d meet at our stalking sites. If some rock star was gonna be at a certain hotel, we might arrange to have lunch there. Oftentimes all we could do was buy a soda — ’cause we couldn’t really afford to hang in the same places — in hopes of catching a glimpse of someone.
I formed my first band by hanging out with these other girls who were also huge fans. We all wanted to play guitar, I don’t know why. But, at a certain point, we decided that different people were gonna play different things. I was assigned vocals.
On meeting and being inspired by the Germs... As we were waiting outside [a club], we saw this group of young kids come in. They were our age, but they acted a lot younger. They were crushing food and throwing it at each other and spraying spray cheese. We introduced ourselves and they said they were in a band called the Germs, and this was their first gig. And then they started laughing and said, ‘We don’t know how to play!’
When we saw them on stage, they were a hot mess. They really didn’t know how to play. People were laughing, screaming at them, telling them to shut up. That particular show and that particular performance were inspirational to us. It showed a certain rawness and wild creativity. We were just like, ‘We don’t need to play like Queen. We can just get on stage now.’
(Photo credit: Amina Cruz)
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