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From Punk To Purpose: The Alice Bag Story

She made the unlikely journey from punk stardom to artist, writer, teacher and mom—and found happiness along the way. The first in a series on the reimagined lives of rock stars.

Photographs: L-R Donna Santisi, Gregg Segal
Photographs: L-R Donna Santisi, Gregg Segal,

by JoBeth McDaniel

Well-Being
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“Getting bored is dangerous,” says Alice Bag from the placid confines of an East Los Angeles diner. We’re just a stone’s throw from where she was born, raised poor by Mexican immigrant parents, and made her first, indelible mark as a pioneer in LA’s notorious and notoriously-dangerous punk scene. As the former lead singer for The Bags, Alice’s life was anything but dull: a frenetic whirlwind of banshee vocals, Elvis snarls, skintight dresses and crowds whipped into barely contained hysteria. It was an intense time of creativity and self-destruction. So many of her friends died during that period, Bag doubted she’d make it to 25, much less into her 50s. “We planned for a short life,” she says.

So much for plans. Now 56, Bag has been through more reinventions than rock itself. In the decades since the glory days of Hollywood’s punk scene, Bag has become an educator, a best-selling memoirist, a feminist activist, a blogger, a punk history archivist, a pastry chef and a dedicated mom. In the LA neighborhoods where she lives and teaches, she’s known as Alicia Velasquez (her married name). But the defiant, take-no-prisoners persona of Alice Bag is very much alive in everything she does. It’s a mindset that allows her to not just survive, but to thrive—to take on a seemingly endless number of transitions and challenges without flinching. Or being bored.

“Punk empowered me to really own my place in the world,” she says. “I think it’s about much more than just performance …  it’s a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of approaching obstacles and thinking they’re just imaginary.”

Alice and her band, The Bags, in their heyday, Photograph by Dawn Wirth

Punk empowered me to really own my place in the world. It’s a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of approaching obstacles and thinking they’re just imaginary.

Alice Bag

AN OUTSIDER MAKES GOOD

That attitude drove her from the start.  She was an outlier—a bespectacled, smart and pudgy kid speaking English as a second language who had few friends and tons of spare time. She became obsessed with music—the glam of Elton John and Bowie, the emotion of her dad’s beloved ranchero tunes, eventually the chaos and speed of the Ramones. She decided to put them all into a musical blender, crank it up to 1,000 revolutions per minute, and mold it into her own band. At first “we were teenagers with more courage than musical skill,” she laughs.

Before long, she had joined up with a ferocious band of “misfit toys”: the tight community of LA’s burgeoning 1970s punk scene. With pal Patricia Morrison she formed The Bags—so-named for the early gimmick of band members covering their heads with grocery bags during performances (no, it didn’t last). They were a sensation, as much for Alice’s unhinged screams and overt sexuality (a revelation in the male-dominated punk world) as for angry, confrontational songs like “Survive” and “Babylonian Gorgon.” She shared the stage with punk legends like the Germs and a barely coherent Sid Vicious. It was a wild scene. Police busts on punk clubs became as ubiquitous as the ODs, promiscuous sex, and riots that dominated those rattletrap places. 

By the time The Bags got their biggest exposure, as a highlight of the great 1981 punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, they were all but done. Bag joined several other groups —including the all-girl, punk-Goth powerhouse Castration Squad. But unlike most of her struggling Blank Generation compatriots, she had a secret life. In the daylight hours, she went to college, earning a degree in philosophy from Cal State; worked quiet jobs in flower shops; and sometimes lived with her parents to save cash. She began teaching in inner-city public schools, where bilingual instructors were in demand.

Her secret life became her main life. She got married, had a daughter (she has two more from her husband’s previous marriage), and for a time moved to suburban Arizona. It wasn’t the easiest of transitions, and at times she struggled with it. But even as she got deeper into teaching and parenthood, she never left music—or other forms of artistic expression—far behind. It kept her punk spirit alive. It kept her sane. And sometimes, when things got too quiet, she formed new bands to express herself. When the pressures of domestic life got overwhelming, she pulled together an all-female punk outfit called Stay at Home Bomb spotlighting ideas about socially enforced images of femininity. And yeah, they rocked.

But still, she wanted more. Once Bag turned 50, she looked around and realized she needed new goals. “I felt like I did when I graduated from high school,” she recalls. “What am I going to be next? Do I want to be a chef, a painter, a writer? I knew I wanted to make a change, but I didn’t know what direction to take.”

Family fun time: daughter Sophia, Alice and husband, Greg, Courtesy Alice Bag

I did so much in the first half of my life. But I can do all that and more in the second half.

Alice Bag

A REINVENTION TAKES HOLD

So the woman the Los Angeles Times once described as “taking the stage in torn fishnet hose and micro-mini leopard-skin tunic and exploding into convulsive, unintelligible vocals,” decided to explore … well, everything. She learned to bake pastries with a French pâtissier, studied painting at a community college, and started a daily blog and a website devoted to the history of the LA punk scene. And the blog gave her the confidence to write a raucous memoir: Violence Girl, published to rave reviews in 2012.

It’s now taught in university courses ranging from literature to gender studies to Chicano studies. Bag is often called upon to lecture, where students eagerly toss her questions about her angry lyrics (she says the rage can be traced back to her upbringing by a tyrannical, abusive father, who she calls “a monster”) and bizarre stage outfits (sewn and ripped at home, thank you very much).

She’s still moving nonstop. She’s thinking of going back to school for another degree, this one in woman’s studies. She’s polishing the edit on a second book. And she’s working on several music projects with friends, most of them survivors from the early days who still tour, still record, still fight the fight. She urges them to never give up the punk spirit. “I did so much in the first half of my life, but I can do that and more in the second half,” she says. “I am so much more centered now. I have more freedom and more knowledge now, and I have just as much energy, if not more.”

“I choose to challenge myself every day,” she adds. “Not just to play punk, but to live punk.”

Keeping the punk spirit alive: Alice Bag near her Los Angeles home, Photograph by Gregg Segal

Follow this link for Exclusive Alice Bag video @PurpleClover. Scroll down to listen to Alice’s beautiful rendition of Angelitos Negros.