Recap: The Legendary Alice Bag Kicks Off RBMA

The first LA installment of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival kicked off last Friday at MOCA’s Ahmanson auditorium as fans gathered to soak up words of wisdom from feminist punk icon, Alice Bag.

Born Alicia Armendariz, a Chicana from the East LA barrio, Bag was the lead singer and co-founder of the seminal LA punk band, The Bags. She sat down with Teri Gender Bender (Teresa Suarez) of Guadalajara-based punk band, Le Butcherettes, presented in partnership with Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano LA and the One National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. It was a joy to see these two women, who represent the older and newer generations, “fan-girling” over each other, in mutual admiration and respect, and shared love for the Archie comic series.

Alice radiates magnetic charm, with bright purple hair and her signature wingtip cateye. Now approaching age 60, she is the best version of herself: powerful, confident and unstoppable. Teri, whose legs are covered in dramatic bruises after a recent show, questions Alice about her onstage persona and transforming the trauma of her abusive home into sheer power, unleashing rage onto unsuspecting audience members. Alice and Teri both share a similar experience as performers where they are almost in an out-of-body state, not conscious of the chaotic fury spilling out of themselves.  Alice recounts an incident from her book in which she singled out a male heckler at a show and grabbed his glasses off his face and crushed them to pieces under her heels. It was through her performing that she could process the internalized terror she had endured as a child.

Alice Bag Live at the Mabuhay Gardens January 1978/courtesy of Alice Bag

Through her intersectional work as an activist, youth educator and punk visionary fronting bands such as Castration Squad, Phag, Cholita, and Las Tres, she has inspired and empowered new generations. Bag has published two books, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage To Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story and Pipe Bomb For the Soul, detailing her teaching experience in Nicaragua in the 1980s, where she was influenced by the teachings of Paolo Freire. She also talked about her work with Chicas Rockeras, a rock camp that empowers young girls in Southeast LA through music. Throughout her career, she has stayed true to her punk ethos of fearlessly living on her own terms, while working tirelessly on social issues ranging from immigration, LGBT rights, education, female empowerment and more.

Bag never stopped to think about the societal odds stacked against her. Her father, despite being physically abusive towards her mother, had always encouraged her, even convinced her that she could become the president of the United States or a brain surgeon someday. This fantasy started to fade when she realized that people who looked like her were never be in positions of power. It was through a music teacher who got her a paid gig that she discovered that singing could be her ticket out of her brutal home life. While many of her female friends focused on being groupies, she was adamant about carving out her own space in the male-dominated punk scene. She staked her claim as a punk hero while proudly maintaining her identity as a Chicana, boasting her love for Ranchera music and Lucha Libre.

Alice Bag and Margot Reyes, Cambridge Apostles/courtesy of Alice Bag

When old video clips are projected onto the screen, she cringes at the young version of herself. One such clip was taken from a show at The Troubador involving a full-on brawl after Tom Waits instigated a beef with her then-boyfriend and Bags dummer, Nickey Beat. She does not enjoy watching old footage of herself seemingly discombobulated and unsure, as though “floating in air”. Another clip was pulled from Penelope Spheeris’s 1981 Decline of Western Civilization, which Bag described as having overlooked some crucial bands in the early LA punk scene, such as The Screamers and The Weirdos. She looks back on this time as being the onset of The Bag’s breakup amidst the deteriorating punk scene plagued by drugs and toxic masculinity.

Bag is simultaneously a fearless pioneer and down to earth, happy to talk to people who are interested in her story. “I feel honored to be in a position where anyone cares what I have to say”. She deals with all the normal struggles of being a parent. she relayed a humorous story in which her teenage daughter was embarrassed to be seen shopping with her. She chalks it up to being a good parent. “Kids should be taught to question authority. You are their first authority figure, so they should rebel against you. But you have to remember to take care of yourself so you can nurture the ones you love”.

photo Rick Castro

Always relevant, Bag lists some contemporary artists who inspire her. The list includes her friends and collaborators Lysa Flores as well as Phranc, who she teams up with in the band Phag, plus Riot Girl mainstays Alison Wolfe, Kathleen Hannah,  Irene Diaz, Victoria Ruiz of The Downtown Boys, and the all female rock band, Fanny, fronted by Filipina singer June Millington. Alice just hosted ‘Turn It Up’! – A benefit to aid in the relief efforts for Mexico and Puerto Rico on Oct. 12, at The Echoplex. Guests included San Cha, Maya Jupiter, Dorian Wood, Teri Gender Bender, Lysa Flores and more.


photo by: main: Greg Velasquez / background: Suzanne Hunt