L.A.'s original punk Alice Bag is back, and she has a lot to say on her first solo album
Alice Bag, who was in the vanguard of the Los Angeles punk rock scene, had stepped back from music for much of the last decade and a half. New songs would occasionally appear online, but it wasn’t until this month that Bag reemerged to release a proper solo debut.
The absence wasn’t for a lack of things to say.
Bag, who stood as the all-too-rare female Latin American voice in the male-dominated punk scene of the 1970s, has come back with an 11-song self-titled album that aims for topicality. Among the subjects Bags takes on: immigration, sexual assault, date rape, the education system.
“I would burst with anger and dissatisfaction with the way things are going,” says Bag, who offstage goes by her married name of Velasquez.
In that sense, little has changed since Bag was an architect of late ’70s punk outfit the Bags. With a reputation that bordered on the manic and compulsive, and a penchant for performing in tattered clothes, the Bags were short-lived but trailblazing.
And ferocious onstage. Bag, now 57, is open about her youth and teenage years, saying punk rock served as a salvation from living in an abusive home in East Los Angeles. Her new song “He’s So Sorry” puts a sugary, girl group spin on the subject of domestic abuse and the struggle one has in actually leaving a damaged relationship.
The rage that I felt when I was growing up and was a little kid and didn’t have an outlet -- suddenly, I was on a stage and I had a voice.
— Alice Bag
“A lot of Alice Bag in 1977 was someone who was dealing with dramatic stress, dealing with the consequence of abuse -- the rage that I felt when I was growing up and was a little kid and didn’t have an outlet,” she says, “suddenly, I was on a stage and I had a voice. A lot of the rage came out.”
The Times in 1978 described her as possessing a “raw sexuality not for the fainthearted” as well as “shattering accepted ideas about a woman’s role in music.” That’s the Alice who’s seen in the 1981 film “The Decline of Western Civilization.”
She performs a record release show for her new, self-titled solo album, released by New Jersey-based independent label Don Giovanni Records, at the Echo on Saturday night.
She’s no longer frantically yelling – at least not on every song – and the work captures her diverse background and interests. “I listen to everything from Bollywood to ranchera to gospel,” she says. “Trying to sneak in a peak at those influences in an album that would sound cohesive was difficult.”
Life experiences figure heavily into the work. Bag, for instance, was an elementary school teacher for more than 20 years, and she doesn’t hold back her feelings on the education system amid the frenzied, bass-driven energy and vocal snarls of “Programmed.”
Elsewhere, “Weigh About You” is all cabaret spookiness, with violins that sway like an alley cat’s tail and contrast with sparse keyboards. “Incorporeal Life” and “Inesperado Adios” pull on the artist’s Latin background, while “No Means No” chronicles a date rape – and the sentencing after – with full-on howling emotion as an abuser gets locked away.
That song feels especially of the moment in wake of ex-Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s six-month sentence in a sexual-assault case and the outrage that followed. In Bag’s “No Means No,” the judge shows no leniency for the accused.
“When I think of a song like ‘No Means No,’ I want it to be true so badly,” she says. “I really want to see more judges that hand down sentences that are like, ‘You’re going to prison for what you did,’ and not what happens in real life, where somebody gets away with a six-month sentence. That’s infuriating to me. I wish I could sing that and have the consequence that happens in the song be a real consequence.”
She credits her time as a teacher for bringing a sense of clarity to her lyrics. She notes that in her days with the Bags, she didn’t always get the translation right, as Bag sings and writes largely in English but grew up speaking Spanish. In the Bags song “Survive,” for instance, Bag says she used the word “commodity” because she was thinking of “comodidad,” the Spanish word for comfort.
“I was quick to get in arguments and often get in fights,” Bag says of her pre-teaching days.
“Working with children, I found that I couldn’t ever be angry at a child. If there was a problem communicating or reaching the child, I felt like it was my responsibility to figure out how to communicate what I was trying to say. I think I became a more effective communicator. I learned how to clarify my thoughts. When I was younger, I was more about what I’m feeling. My songs were often just expressions of my mood.”
Now, she’s an author – having written two books – and a lyrical storyteller. Take “Inesperado Adios,” a heartbreaking ballad in a traditional Spanish style that reflects on her days as a teacher as well as the immigration debates dotting this year’s election season.
Bag talks of watching one of her students – a high-achieving young woman – become distant. She ultimately found out that the girl’s father had been detained over his immigration status.
“I did my best to help, but there was nothing I could do,” she says. “I wanted to express what they were going through in a song. I’m hoping people will connect to it and see how somebody feels who has given so much to this country.”
Immigration, assault, rape – Bag says she doesn’t feel a duty to be in activist in her work; it’s simply what she is passionate about.
“I remember growing up and having people say that there are certain things you don’t talk about at the dinner table,” she says. “You don’t talk about religion or sex or politics. Well, then I’m going to go eat on the TV tray. Those are the only things I want to talk about.”
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