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Violence Girl

How a young bilingual Latina became one of punk’s enduring icons and helped create a new musical universe.

Alice Bag | Violence Girl | Feral House | September 2011 | 43 minutes (7,823 words)

 

By the autumn of 1977, new bands were popping up all the time. Seemingly every week, someone who had been in the audience the week before was now onstage in their own band. The Masque reopened in mid-October with a gig featuring a band called the Controllers. The Controllers weren’t really a new band, in fact they had been one of the first bands to rehearse and play at the Masque from its inception, but they had never had a proper coming-out show, so I think of their October 15th show as their debut. Their music was tight, fast, and melodic, and some of their songs were almost poppy which was nicely balanced by the imposing figures of Johnny Stingray and Kidd Spike, who sang up front and played with a ferocity curiously incongruous with their lighthearted lyrics. The band would evolve and get even better over the next several months, with the addition of an old friend of mine named Karla Maddog on drums.

When punk came along, it was just the perfect vehicle to express who I was as an individual. It was something completely new and wide open. Just a couple of years later, that would change, and people would have to fit into preconceived notions of what punk rock was or wasn’t, but the early scene had no such limitations, because we were the ones creating and defining it. If you had been at the Masque in 1977, you would have seen very eclectic shows, ranging from the Screamers to Arthur J. and the Goldcups, from Backstage Pass to the Controllers. There was no clearly defined punk sound, no dress code; all you had to do was show up and make your presence known. The movement was one of individuals and individual expression, each of us bringing our heritage and formative experiences with us in an organic and, in my case, unplanned way.

In late October, Slash magazine held a benefit concert at Larchmont Hall. A band called X opened that show. I had met John Doe and Billy Zoom before, and I liked them both. I had only one memory of Exene, and it was a bad one. Exene had an obnoxious little friend known as Farrah Fawcett Minor, a nickname she shared with Cheryl Ladd, who had been given the moniker after being selected as Farrah Fawcett Majors’s replacement on the hit TV series Charlie’s Angels. Exene’s friend bore no resemblance to Cheryl Ladd; she was a short, dishwater blonde who dressed with no originality and showed up at par- ties to whisper about others. F. F. Minor was one those women who try to make themselves feel superior by claiming they aren’t like ordinary girls, as though all women share an inherent weakness which she had managed to rise above. She was a racist, misogynist, anti-Semite, and a wimp. If she had ever had the gumption to look me in the eye while spewing her malice, I would have happily punched her in the face, but she spread her poison in backhanded, cowardly ways that allowed her to avoid standing up for what she said.

I remember one time I was standing in the kitchen at a party when Farrah leaned over and whispered something to Exene about Mexicans. I heard the word Mexican, but I didn’t hear anything else. She was looking in my direction, so I looked at her and said “What?” She looked away. “Did you say something to me?” I added.

“No, I was talking about something else,” she replied. I stared hard at her until I made her uncomfortable enough that she left the kitchen. Years later, when I heard the X song Los Angeles (which is written about her) I remember thinking that the line “every Mexican who gave her a lot of shit” was about me.

I loved the intense pogoing and euphoria that came from dancing with a sweaty crowd of people caught up in the excitement of the music.

Unfortunately, my extreme dislike of F. F. Minor had tainted my view of Exene. There’s a saying in Spanish: Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres, which means “Tell me who you hang out with and I’ll tell you who you are.” I realize now that it’s not a very good way to judge people, but at the time, I was prejudiced against Exene because of her association with Farrah. My first impression of the band reflected that prejudice; I liked everyone but Exene. That early impression of her would change as I got to know Exene better, and my appreciation of her band would also increase.

There was another band on the bill that night that I hadn’t seen before. The Avengers were a San Francisco band featuring a strong lead singer with a powerful stage presence and a unique sense of style. Singer Penelope Houston led the band to instant success. The audience loved them, and it wasn’t long before we were all walking around singing their songs. L.A. quickly adopted the Avengers, who I think always felt as much at home in L.A. as in San Francisco.

The Dickies, who also played the Masque that month, were another band that scored an immediate home run with an approach to punk that was completely different from what we’d seen up until then. Their lead singer, Leonard, sang like a bratty little boy, taunting and teasing and inviting the audience to play along. The Dickies were really fun to watch, their songs had lighthearted lyrics, and they weren’t afraid to use props onstage.

A couple of weeks after their Masque gig, Nickey and I went to see the Dickies at the Starwood. It was my birthday, and Leonard climbed the top of the stairs leading to the backstage door as he dedicated a song to me called “You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla).” In a Tarzan-inspired move, Leonard tried to jump from the PA scaffolding, in the process breaking one of his ankles and spraining the other. I was watching him attentively since the song was dedicated to me, and I could see that he was really hurt, but the band didn’t stop playing. After the show, Leonard was rushed to Cedars-Sinai, and I made Nickey drive us there. I felt somehow responsible and wanted to at least check on his condition, but we never got to see him because we weren’t immediate family, and I suppose he was in no mood for visitors anyway. That little happy-birthday dedication would put the Dickies out of circulation for a month, and Leonard would do his next show in a wheelchair.

* * *

Before too long, Patricia and I were done with Joe Nanini and Geza X. We didn’t seem to be on the same page. Geza in particular had a very different aesthetic, and some of the things he thought funny and clever we found infantile and obnoxious. The final straw came during a fight between Joe and Geza in the back seat of my car, which featured the boys spitting beer on each other and all over the windshield. Since I was driving, Patricia leaned over the seat to break the two apart just as they launched fists at each other, and she ended up getting simultaneously punched by both of them.

“YOU’RE FIRED!” she yelled at them, and that was that. Janet also got the boot — or she may have quit of her own volition; I think she may have had an offer from Kim Fowley to work on another one of his projects, but I can’t say for certain. Whatever the exact reasons, the band went through a quick overhaul, but we never stopped booking shows.

Patricia and I put another ad in the Recycler seeking female musicians. This time we could boast of having upcoming gigs and we even had a little bit of press in fanzines and in Slash. Once again, most of the respondents were male. We auditioned people at Wilshire Fine Arts, booking rehearsal space for one night and allowing each person an hour. At the end of the night, Patricia liked a redheaded, curly-haired rhythm guitarist who looked a whole lot older than us and seemed nervous and itchy during the audition. I didn’t like him. Truthfully, he just seemed kind of nerdy to me, and although I had been an uber-nerd growing up, I no longer thought of myself that way, and the last thing I wanted to do was go back to being lumped into the nerd category. Patricia spent the next hour talking me into it, and I finally, grudgingly, agreed to let Craig Lee in the band.

Patricia had swayed me with the argument that Craig had lots of good songs. Where we had struggled to write our eight-song repertoire, Craig seemed to have an endless supply of songs. He’d hand me four or five sheets of lyrics at each rehearsal and ask me, “Do you like any of these?” From there, we’d usually try them out, dump a few and keep only what we liked best. Craig always encouraged me to make any changes I liked and often allowed me to write my own vocal melody, which was a perfect situation for me, because I was all about melody.

I was the product of a school system that had stunted my language development through Structured English Immersion. Whenever I got stumped looking for a word, I tried to express myself using English cognates of Spanish words that I knew, but cognates can be tricky, and my strained translations often led to meaningless or awkward sentences. It eventually dawned on me that my lyrics sucked. Craig, on the other hand was a writer. He had written scripts for TV and had even sold some porn. The more I learned about him, the better I liked him.

Whenever I got stumped looking for a word, I tried to express myself using English cognates of Spanish words that I knew, but cognates can be tricky, and my strained translations often led to meaningless or awkward sentences.

We were still drummerless, but my boyfriend Nickey was kind enough to sub for us until we could find a permanent replacement. He was quite good, so we were only too happy to have him on loan from the Weirdos. To celebrate our new configuration, Dawn Wirth offered to take some photos of us at Hollywood Memorial Park (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery). Nickey wore a mask, so that when we got our new drummer, he or she could claim to have been behind the mask. It was a silly idea, but aside from the fact that my nalgas are showing, the pictures were great.

The only problem with Craig Lee playing guitar was that he was primarily a rhythm guitarist, which meant we still needed to find a lead guitarist before our upcoming gigs. The Recycler once again brought another duo to our doorstep. A guy named Johnny Nation called us. He and his friend Ricky Stix wanted to audition for the band. The two seemed perfect. They were fun, friendly and could play well. We thanked Nickey for filling in and immediately started rehearsing with the new lineup.

It wasn’t all that unusual for bands to change members frequently in the early days. As new people entered the scene, they’d often be recruited into existing bands or form new ones of their own. I recall Geza X forming a band called the Jerrys (named for his love of a certain comedian who was adored by the French people). I can’t recall seeing them play, but Geza soon popularized the use of the term Jerry as a name for anyone who was being annoying or obnoxious while thinking they were funny, as in, “Stop being such a Jerry!”

* * *

My parents seemed to have settled into a comfortable holding pattern, and, for the first time in my life, I witnessed a sort of friendship develop between them. Ever since my father’s illness progressed to the point where he could no longer work without my mother’s assistance, he seemed to have a newfound respect for her. She, too, seemed more sure of herself, picking up the slack by taking on small construction jobs under my father’s tutelage. My dad, who still had his contractor’s license, would go out, meet potential employers and bid the job, only accepting jobs that did not entail heavy lifting or that were too physically demanding. Ideally, he would accept small painting or tile-setting jobs that my mother could do with a minimum of assistance. My father would go with my mother to the job site and direct her through the things she didn’t know how to do, which worked out well, because my mother was used to my dad’s foul temper and was willing to work in a subservient role. In exchange, my father was grateful for my mother’s help, which allowed him to feel like he was still the family provider even though it was mom doing the grunt work. He was happy in the role of instructor and foreman, but after a while my mom learned enough from him to be able to complete many jobs without needing him for anything but his contractor’s license. When he realized this, he eased up on her, maybe even learned to treat her as an equal… Well, almost as an equal. He never hit her anymore. He wasn’t strong enough, and even though he could still spew out cuss words like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, the fury in him seemed to have been tempered by age and the realization that he was dependent on my mother for everything.

I suppose for some men this arrangement would be emasculating, but my father was remarkably comfortable with allowing my mom to work and find her self-confidence through her new abilities. It’s strange to think that a man who had a history of wife-beating had such a positive reaction to the new, self-sufficient woman my mother had become. He began asking her opinion about work and household finances, and even went to the market with her just as a social outing. Necessity and the demands of survival required him to swallow his pride.

With my parents doing well, I no longer felt like I had to stay around to protect my mother. I knew from an early age that I was the only thing standing between my father and homicide. Even as a little kid, my crying and holding onto my father’s leg while he tried to beat my mom seemed to have some emotional if not physical pull on him. I had been in the role of defender for so long that whenever I contemplated leaving home, I always felt guilty about abandoning my mother and perhaps jeopardizing her safety, but the time had come for me to move out and move on with my own life. I had no idea I would be taking my parents’ emotional baggage along for the ride as if it were a suit- case packed with my favorite dresses.

Nickey had regular paying gigs with the Weirdos and he was giving drum lessons to earn extra money, but my paltry savings had dwindled and I needed cash, so I decided to apply for a job at a Jack LaLanne Gym in Montebello. I don’t know what prompted me to think I would be a good fitness instructor. I wasn’t athletic, and although I was relatively thin at the time, I was out of shape; but I wasn’t going to be deterred by feeling that I was unqualified. I wore high heels and a tight, slimming dress to the interview and was hired on the spot, not for my figure but for my bilingual skills. Nobody asked me how many sit ups I could do or how much I could bench press. They’d train me, the interviewer said while handing me a little bright orange smock that would be my uniform. All I had to supply was the black leotard and tights that would go underneath.

I knew from an early age that I was the only thing standing between my father and homicide.

Each instructor would be responsible for at least one floor class and one in-pool class each day, in addition to training individuals and giving tours to new members.

We worked 10-hour shifts on the full days — 12 hours total, with an hour for lunch and an hour for dinner — and a five-hour shift on Sundays. I liked it, because although the gym closed at 10 p.m., there was still time to change and go out afterward, and I wouldn’t have to work the next day.

Training was fun, but I especially liked teaching. I found leading the exercise classes invigorating because I could motivate people and get them to push themselves a little further each time. Women looked to me for answers, they confided in me, they trusted me. I felt proud of them when they achieved the results they wanted and commiserated with them when they slipped into old habits. In many ways, the gym classes were like being onstage. I was the focal point, but each person was there because they wanted to be, they brought their own expectations and energy into the mix, and we fueled each other. *I was a good instructor, just the right blend of dominatrix and kindergarten teacher. It was my first experience with leading a class, something I really enjoyed and would return to later in life.

Meanwhile, Nickey had heard of an apartment building just a block away from the Masque, on Cherokee Avenue, where the rent was cheap, the apartments were large and the property manager welcomed punks. We made plans to investigate this place called the Canterbury as soon as possible.

* * *

Walking up the path through the slightly overgrown gardens leading to the main entrance of the Canterbury Apartments, I immediately noticed that this apartment building was much nicer than the place where Nickey was currently living. There was a dusty old fountain on the path which hadn’t seen water in many years, save for the few dirty puddles of rain that gathered around its uneven base, but one could see it was a lovely touch that had once welcomed a more refined breed of tenant.

The stone courtyard floor clicked under the stiletto heels I wore in an effort to look my best, which meant I looked like a 1950s call girl with a too-tight thrift-store dress, pointy, red patent-leather spike-heel shoes, and a matching red patent-leather purse. Nickey had also tried to present himself in the best possible light by not wearing out-and-out Weirdos clothes.

Nickey hadn’t had a regular job the entire time I’d known him. He made his money from gigs, and since the Weirdos had become increasingly popular, he’d also started giving drum lessons. He did well in both jobs, but I was the one with the regular paycheck. My gig at Jack LaLanne’s afforded me the hours I liked, a small amount of cash, and I was in better shape just for doing my job.

We knocked on the manager’s door and were greeted warmly by a slightly heavyset black man who asked us to call him Reverend. “That’s what everyone calls me — The Reverend.” I felt more comfortable knowing that I was dealing with a religious leader, which was the only context in which I’d ever heard the term Reverend used — this being before the notoriety of the Reverend Jim Jones. I figured the guy would, at the very least, be responsible and trustworthy.


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The Reverend was a good-natured, amicable man. As soon as he saw my meager but regular paycheck stubs, he offered to show us a nice “roomy apartment with a great view.” He closed the office and escorted us to a small elevator with an old-fashioned expandable gate. The three of us got inside and the little box began moaning and groaning like a constipated old man trying to pass a large bowel movement. We barely made it to the top level, the fourth floor. (Several months later, the ancient elevator cable actually snapped, and the elevator remained inoperative, with the cable hanging outside of the cage.) Our apartment was right by the fire escape, and if you went out and stood on it you did have a lovely view of Hollywood Boulevard on one side and the Hollywood Hills on the other. My faith in the Reverend was confirmed. The apartment felt spacious: The living room alone was about twice the size of Nickey’s bachelor pad on Santa Monica Boulevard. The kitchen had room for a breakfast table, and it was equipped with a large refrigerator, a stove and lots of freshly painted white cupboards. The bathroom wasn’t exceptional, just a pedestal sink, tub, and shower, but it didn’t have any of the rust and urine stains we’d had to deal with before, and the tiny white hexagonal tiles on the floor shined as though freshly scrubbed. A double-size Murphy bed was hidden discreetly on a side wall. It was a dream come true!

Punks who grew up in different areas of L.A. might have seen the Canterbury as a dangerous, run-down, vermin-infested flophouse, but you have to remember that I had grown up in a dangerous, run-down, vermin-infested neighborhood, so it’s all a matter of perspective. For some, this was truly slumming, but it wasn’t too far from where I’d grown up. Nickey and I couldn’t wait to move in, and the Reverend was as accommodating and hospitable as a southern belle. We quickly signed on the dotted line and started packing.

My parents weren’t thrilled about the move, trying every trick to get me to stay at home, but my mind was made up. Once they figured out that they weren’t going to win this particular argument, they reluctantly gave me their blessing.

“Take the Falcon,” my dad insisted. “It’s yours.” I knew my parents considered the old Ford Falcon my car, even though it had been my mother’s  car. My father never drove anymore, so they kept the Dodge Dart that had belonged to my dad and gave me the Falcon as a parting gift.

My mother gave me an additional gift: a Sears credit card. “For emergencies only.” My parents had no other credit cards. I think more than anything, the credit card symbolized my mother’s trust in me. I only used it on a couple of occasions: once, to buy nuts to eat because I ran out of money and had a few days until payday, and another time to buy an umbrella because I was caught in the rain. Other than that, I kept the card safely tucked away. I wanted my parents to see me as independent, successful, and responsible.

In short order, the Canterbury became L.A. punks’ messy little crib. Soon there were at least two or three punk-inhabited apartments on every floor, which made us feel like we owned the place. It also solidified our sense of community, because now we were seeing one another every day. The Masque regulars moved in. You could walk across the hall in the middle of the night and borrow a cup of rum from a neighbor, and nary a night went by without some kind of impromptu party breaking out in someone’s apartment or at the Masque, which was only a block away. Brendan, knowing all of us, never charged any of us to get in — band or no band.

In short order, the Canterbury became L.A. punks’ messy little crib.

The guys at the friendly nearby liquor store came to know us personally and took us at our word when we claimed to be 21. The Two Guys from Italy charged a dollar for a huge slice of pizza and often gave us extras just for being regulars. Rum and pizza became my favorite breakfast combo. As a friend wrote on an old picture of us at the Canterbury: “…And life once again became a veritable Eden.”

The punk scene was now growing exponentially. There were the creative refugees from other scenes, like the van packed full of Phoenix “Cactus Heads” that arrived one night at the Canterbury, disgorging its contents of Consumers, Feederz, future Germs and Bags after a hot, uncomfortable drive across the desert. Nickey’s popular drum lessons brought new friends into our lives: The beautiful, petite and wickedly funny Shannon Wilhelm, the proto–Johnny Depp cool/bad boy Terry Graham and Masque tomboy/heartthrob/future Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler all signed up for lessons with him and were soon regulars at our fourth-floor apartment, as was Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, who did not sign up for lessons but liked to come by and serenade us all the time.

Not everyone was welcomed. There were outsiders who were destined to remain outsiders, people who just didn’t get it. These people were shunned by the early punks because they held onto values from another time or because they tried to destroy what we saw as ours. Musically, the outsiders were slick musicians with new, “punk style” haircuts, who wanted to take the music back to the studio heads (they were too school for cool); and anyone connected to the old music establishment, even marginally connected people like Kim Fowley, who was widely regarded as delusional and self-absorbed by most of us. He may have claimed to be a punk insider, but we considered him a joke. Another type of outsider was the type of type of person who thought that a leather jacket meant you could push a woman in high heels off the dance floor, steal someone’s guitar, or in any way try to destroy what we considered ours. All it took was a look at each other and that person would be literally body-slammed on all sides until they left the dance floor, if not the premises.

I didn’t see the early scene as cliquey, but we did recognize that we had something special, and we wanted to protect it. I found myself getting in fights at concerts around this time. Holding my ground near the front of the stage had never been a problem for me. I loved the intense pogoing and euphoria that came from dancing with a sweaty crowd of people caught up in the excitement of the music. Almost always people looked out for each other, helping a fallen comrade get up if they slipped and being careful not to bump each other too hard. Now we were watching for those who were intentionally bumping or kicking maliciously. Sometimes people would try to bully their way to the front of the stage by hitting or pushing; girls were especially vulnerable, because many of us wore high heels, and a hard shove could knock a girl over. When a bully targeted any of my girlfriends, I stepped in. My protective instincts went into high gear and my fists were swinging before I could think about it. The experience was exhilarating and timeless, not unlike sex or any activity in which you are so immersed that time stands still. *I always felt satisfied after a fight, like an ancient thirst had been quenched. *Protecting home turf may have been the catalyst for a confrontation, but the thrill of a brawl was intrinsically pleasurable for me, and, eventually, I would learn to provide the catalyst if one wasn’t readily available.

I guess I was protecting what I saw as my new home and my new family. I don’t know if I picked up traditional gang values somewhere along the way or if these were values everyone shared. Maybe I was merely working through some latent childhood issues. I never stopped to think it through, but I do know that I started to get a reputation as a violent girl, as much for my stage antics as for my behavior in the audience.

The rage and aggression that were released onstage were like a leaky faucet that I couldn’t completely turn off when the performance was over. Without my being aware of it, the pent-up feelings of anger were constantly dripping and starting to overflow into other areas of my life.

* * *

Los Angeles held its collective breath for the date of the upcoming Sex Pistols concert, in vain. When it became apparent that the Pistols would not be playing L.A., some of us were a little insulted, but the band had decided not to play any of the large American cities. For some unknown reason, they decided to play smaller cities in the Deep South. I’m not sure what the intention was, unless it was to push themselves closer toward self-destruction, which is exactly what they did.

San Francisco’s punk scene was smaller than L.A.’s but it was still larger and more progressive than some of the other cities the Pistols played. Some newspapers later claimed that San Francisco had been chosen because it had the largest and strongest punk scene on the West Coast, and that would be incorrect. San Francisco had a thriving scene and it was and still is one of the coolest cities in the US, but, as Malcolm McLaren later stated, the Pistols avoided the major entertainment capitals of New York and L.A. because he didn’t want to risk the band not living up to their hype.

I have to take a minute here to defend L.A. against the prejudice that plagues it. Unfortunately, we have always had to put up with people’s assumptions that Los Angeles is entirely populated by superficial, rich beach bums and starving actors. That assumption is incorrect. Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and I am proud to say that our punk scene reflected that diversity. The early accusations and assumptions that people made about the L.A. punks being somehow lightweight or derivative when compared to San Francisco, New York or London would be proven wrong by history, evidenced by the numerous groundbreaking bands and styles that blossomed from our scene.

But I digress. Despite the slight to Los Angeles, we all felt compelled to see the Sex Pistols. Carpools were arranged, those who could afford it booked hotel rooms, those who couldn’t afford a room made arrangements to sleep on friends’ floors, and pretty much everyone who was part of the L.A. scene packed up to make the eight-hour drive up to San Francisco. Craig Lee wisely arranged a weekend showcase for us and the Germs at the Mabuhay Gardens, so we could at least catch some of the Pistols’ overflow and make a bit of money to recover expenses for the trip.

The rage and aggression that were released onstage were like a leaky faucet that I couldn’t completely turn off when the performance was over.

Winterland was packed that night, leading more than one newspaper to marvel at the huge punk scene in San Francisco. In truth, probably half the crowd was from L.A., as well as other smaller cities in California, Oregon and Washington. Somehow, I missed the Nuns, who were on the bill that night, but I managed to see the Avengers, who played a great set. I think the band was well aware that they would be playing for one of the largest audiences of their career. They were well rehearsed and did one of the best shows I’d ever seen them do. The Pistols did not. That’s not to say that their show wasn’t exciting to watch, I had looked forward to the show and enjoyed the band’s set, but the individual members seemed to be struggling. It was almost like watching a couple of friends bicker over dinner. The band’s inner turmoil was palpable onstage, and it made me feel like an intruder eavesdropping on a private dispute. After listening to a few songs near the front of the stage, I allowed myself to drift back and ended up walking around the back of the auditorium, talking to friends before the show was over, which was very unlike me. I usually preferred to be up front, wrapped up in the excitement of the crowd and the music, but this show was different. The energy wasn’t coming from the stage or the music. I watched Sid Vicious, who seemed to be the most connected to the audience, baiting and engaging them. He was charismatic, but there was a self-destructive air about him that made me uneasy.

A more private encounter with Sid would happen that weekend, when my friend Hellin showed up at the Bags’ Mabuhay show with Sid Vicious in tow. We had already started playing when they walked right up to the front of the stage. I*t was very exciting for me, because I thought Sid, despite his masochistic streak and in all his wild, out-of-control glory, was coolness personified. Now he was standing in front of the stage watching me. He smiled, the sweet, crooked smirk of an adolescent, bobbing his head in time with the music and draping his wobbly self over Hellin’s shoulder. They seemed very snuggly and smitten with each other. I could see them from the corner of my eye now and then, and I was trying to stay focused on my own performance, but the next thing I knew Sid was up on the stage.

[ADD FLYER]

He rolled around on the floor in front of the amps like a kitten playing with a ball of yarn, then he got up and came over to me and put his arm around me. I got the distinct feeling he wanted to share the microphone with me and join in the chorus of the song but I knew there was no way Sid could possibly know any of our songs so he just hung onto my neck, still smiling and swaying around the stage with me. He reached for the mic a couple times, but I hung onto it, because as much as I liked Sid, it was a Bags show, not karaoke night. It was very much like having Bobby Pyn onstage with me, except Sid was really having trouble staying vertical. After a few minutes he went down and started rolling around the stage again, in time to the music. I looked at Hellin who looked at me, and an unspoken understanding transpired between us. She helped Sid up and walked him toward the skinny wooden staircase leading up to our dressing room while we finished our set.

After the show, we were greeted by Hellin and Sid, who was barely conscious when we walked in. The playful, adolescent smile had faded and all that was left was the babble of incoherent speech. Hellin stroked his hair tenderly as Sid passed out on a bench in our dressing room. She was his angel of mercy, and she asked if they might stay up there until someone came to pick them up. We were only too happy to try to help, although I think Craig was truly worried that Sid would OD long before anyone could get there. *It was kind of sad, seeing my idol all fucked-up, wondering if he was going to be all right. I remembered my old school friend who’d had her stomach pumped after having ingested too much booze and an unknown quantity of pills. I recalled the many times I’d seen kids OD in the nurse’s office at Stevenson Junior High. I also recognized a little of myself in Sid. I could certainly get out of control, mostly when I was onstage, but also if I’d been drinking. A little bit of the coolness seemed to fade away, but not much. After all, except for our brief onstage encounter, I didn’t know Sid at all.

There was a part of me that chose to ignore the side of Sid that was flawed. I wanted the Sid that I’d created in my imagination, a tough, troublemaking bad boy who challenged the audience with his defiant, unpredictable behavior, not the stumbling, incoherent Sid who had to be helped up the stairs. I will always hold a special place in my heart for Sid. I can still see him with his bleeding, scratched-up chest and low-slung bass strap, better suited for knuckle-walkers. A few months later, when Hector from the Zeros would teach me to play bass, I would set my strap so that the bass hung as close to my knees as possible, in tribute to bad-boy bassist Sid Vicious.

* * *

Upon our return from San Francisco, we discovered that while almost all the Hollywood punks were out of town watching the Sex Pistols implode, the local fire marshal had quietly slipped into the Masque to do a little demolition of his own. The results were disastrous for us. The Masque was cited for violations of several fire safety codes, the most significant one being insufficient exits. Brendan was required to immediately shut the club down until he could correct the violations and pass inspection. I’m not sure how Brendan intended to create more exits, but he was determined to keep the Masque open, whatever it took. Most club owners would have tucked tail and run for the hills, but, to Brendan’s everlasting credit, he was a punk fan first and a club owner second, so he chose to stand and fight. Local bands, fans, sympathetic press, and small independent record companies all came together to volunteer their services.

A huge two-day Save the Masque benefit concert was organized at a rented auditorium in the Elks Lodge (now the Park Plaza Hotel, near MacArthur Park). The Bags were slated to play, but just days after returning from San Francisco we’d fired our two latest members, one of whom we’d diagnosed as having kleptomaniacal tendencies. The pair came as a package deal, so we opted to dismiss them both. I think they were actually happy to go, as Ricky and Johnny hadn’t particularly enjoyed the trip to S.F. with us, and the feeling was mutual. With shows booked for the next two months, we had to move quickly to fill their spots. The ads went up in the Recycler, but we couldn’t find satisfactory replacements for our two expelled members. My boyfriend, Nickey — who was becoming the go-to guy for bands needing a drummer — once again came to our rescue. Even before the Elks Lodge Benefit we had a show booked at the Troubadour, a venue that didn’t usually book punk bands, and Nickey already knew our songs from having filled in before.

The rage and aggression that were released onstage were like a leaky faucet that I couldn’t completely turn off when the performance was over.

The Troubadour show would come to be remembered as the first clash between the old-guard established clubs and a new breed of clubgoers. The “Troub,” famous for launching the careers of such soft rockers as the Byrds, Jackson Browne, and the Eagles, had hitherto resisted the impulse to book punk bands, but someone in the box office was watching their competitor, the Whisky a Go Go, filling the house with bands like the Weirdos and the Germs and decided to take a chance on the Bags. It was a decision they’d live to regret.

Just a few days before our show, a chance encounter at a deli with one of the Troubadour’s favorite sons, Tom Waits, ensured that the night would live in infamy. But for this story to make sense, I have to take you back a few days.

There’s a popular all-night Jewish deli in L.A. called Canter’s. One night, the deli was crowded and a group of us were standing around waiting for a table. Canter’s had an amazing bakery with well-stocked display cases that always captured my attention. On this particular evening, we stood around gawking at the goodies when my friend Lauren saw someone she knew. She introduced us and we made polite conversation, then we left her talking to him because our table was ready. I thought nothing of the incident, because I didn’t know her friend was a celebrity. When Lauren rejoined us, she told us her friend, Tom Waits, had asked about my band and was interested in seeing us, so she had invited him to our upcoming show at the Troubadour.

We left the restaurant, but the topic of Tom Waits came up again later, and some of our group knew who he was. “He really liked you,” laughed Lauren, “but he didn’t like Nickey. He wanted to know why you were hanging out with ‘that dipshit.’” When Nickey heard this, he was furious, but it seemed that by the date of our gig at the Troubadour, it had pretty much been forgotten.

The Troubadour had long rows of tables and chairs lined up to the front of the stage, for audiences to sit and listen to music as they sipped their drinks. There was a two-drink minimum strictly enforced to sit at these tables, but the punks who showed up to watch the Bags that night had a solution to that problem: They just dispatched with the furniture by chucking it into a big pile in the middle of the room.

Just before our set began, someone came backstage to tell us that Tom Waits was in the audience and sitting right up front. Nickey’s temper flared as he recalled the insult from the other night, and he walked out onstage ahead of the band to call out Waits in public for “talking shit” about him behind  his back.

“Tom Waits is a famous asshole. And he called me a dipshit. He called me a dipshit behind my back. Well, I’m standing right in front of you. You’re a fucking bloody cunt!” Nickey taunted him as the audience roared its approval. Tom just sat at a small table near the front of the stage with his entourage and didn’t immediately respond, but the gauntlet had been thrown.

The Bags launched into our chaotic set, which saw the club get ripped apart by our fans, like the scene in Night of The Living Dead when the zombies storm the farmhouse. I saw Dim Wanker, the bassist from F-Word, hanging from one of the club’s rafters. Shit was flying everywhere, all hell broke loose; I saw a chair sail through the air, missing Tom Waits’s head by mere inches. He didn’t flinch and stayed cool while bedlam erupted all around him, but his posse was taking notes.

Following our set, the audience was hustled out of the club. Normally, bands are encouraged to break down and load out their gear immediately after the set, but something was different this time. The Troubadour’s staff was telling us to wait until the audience had left, and they wouldn’t let us remove any of our equipment from the club. That’s when we knew something was wrong, and we started looking for a way out. All the exits were blocked by burly bouncers and the doors were barred. We weren’t going anywhere until the damage to the club and Tom Waits’s reputation had been resolved.

Patricia and I were pushed out of the way while the bouncers and Tom’s entourage made a circle around Nickey in the entryway to the club. Remembering the gang jump-ins I’d witnessed in school, I immediately thought they were all going to gang up on him and kick the shit out of him. I started to panic. Patricia and I began pushing frantically at the doors, trying to let some of the punks back in. Through a crack in one of the doors, I caught a glimpse of Hellin’s face, and I yelled to her, “Help us! They won’t let us out!” She and several others put their hands in and tried to pry open the doors before the bouncers pushed them shut again and locked them securely. We could hear our friends outside the club, yelling and pounding on the doors now that they knew we were in trouble.

‘Tom Waits is a famous asshole. And he called me a dipshit.’

It turned out that the circle was just to keep others from interfering while Tom and Nickey fought it out. It wasn’t very long before they were both rolling around on the ground and the fight was declared a draw. The circle broke up and Tom’s entourage whisked him away, at which point Patricia and I were allowed to scoop up Nickey, who couldn’t stop talking about the fight.

“I had both of my hands in his mouth and I was going to rip it apart!” He raised his hands to demonstrate pulling apart Waits’s mouth. We were just glad to have Nickey back in one piece. The Bags were allowed to escape with our hides intact, but the Troubadour was declared off limits for punks from then on.

After the Troubadour show, we were pretty confident that we could do the upcoming Masque benefit without a lead guitarist, but Craig was insecure about his ability to handle lead guitar, especially for our most popular song, “Survive,” which began and ended with a jazzy guitar riff and begged for a scorching solo in the middle. A few days before the show, Craig suggested that we get a sub from another band, but his asking for permission turned out to be a mere formality, because Craig and Nickey had already asked Marc Moreland about filling in. Marc was a fantastic guitarist, but he was already playing the benefit with his band, the Skulls, and he was worried that they would be upset if he played with another band. Nickey countered that he was playing drums in practically half of the bands at the benefit, which was sort of true. Could he play with a bag on his head to disguise himself? Marc asked.

“Yeah!” said Craig, “Let’s all wear bags!” Nickey joined in the campaign. “It’s not fair we get to be in the Bags but we never get to wear bags on our heads,” he argued, but by this time, Patricia and I were done with the gimmick. They were hot, mine always got ripped off my head because of my proximity to the audience, and we hadn’t worn them in months, so we saw no reason to go back to them. Patricia had begun to develop her distinctive proto-Goth punk look, and her pale beauty, set off by her unusually long black hair, was already garnering new fans for the band. “No!” we said decisively. “But Marc can wear one if he thinks his band will be mad at him,” we offered as a compromise.

The night of the show, Marc happily sported a bag on his head (no tampons!), but with his distinctive Gibson Flying V and aggressive, squalling playing style, no one was fooled. Everyone knew that Marc Moreland was playing with the Bags, including his bandmates in the Skulls, and nobody showed the slightest concern or resentment. The spirit of the two evenings was one of cooperation, coming together for a common cause. At the end of the night, Craig came up to me and Patricia and said he’d had a great time, with one caveat: “I’m going to surprise you one day and wear a bag onstage,” he threatened. But he never did.

This show was perhaps the first time the local mainstream media (in the form of the Los Angeles Times) officially took note of the burgeoning scene, estimating that approximately 500 punks had attended the two-day event. The Sex Pistols may have imploded upon reaching the shores of the Pacific, but our little homegrown movement of disaffected weirdoes and outcasts was exploding.

***

Alice Bag was there at the origins of L.A. punk, at the famed Masque and Whisky-a-Go-Go, hanging out with Darby Crash and the Go-Gos. But she started as Alicia Velasquez, and English was her second language. She knew Mariachis better than rock music. A certain violence was passed on to her from her Mexican-American father. Alice’s feminist qualities were seen in the notorious Castration Squad band she formed in the late ’70s. Her band Bags was featured in the notorious documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization. She currently lives with her husband and two daughters in Phoenix, Arizona.

Excerpted from Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story, by Alice Bag. Published by Feral House. Copyright © 2011 by Alice Bag. All rights reserved.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath