November 9th, 2007 | Interviews

christine hale

Alice Armandariz was the singer of the Bags, one of L.A.’s signature bands and an awesome presence in the many Masque photographs. She takes a break from moving to answer questions from Mae Moreno. (UPDATE: This is the complete interview!)

I’d like to begin by asking where you are at this stage in your life: physically, emotionally, and in your dream state!
Right now I’m at a point in my life where I feel like I’m ready for new adventures. I’m at a place where I’m happy with my past and eager to try new things. I think middle age is an opportunity for people to look back at their life to-do list, check off the stuff they’ve done, and go out and do the things that are still on the list.
I recall a line from Trudie Arguelles in We Got The Neutron Bomb—something she said about the kids in the Hollywood scene during the transitional stage from glitter to punk, and about how the kids she met then were wounded from broken and abusive homes. We now know those kids would go on to found and feed the punk movement. What was your home life like? I’m assuming religious—perhaps strict—as you attended an all-girl Catholic school.
Like many of the kids Trudie mentioned, I came from a dysfunctional family. My half brothers and sisters all fled the home battle zone early as they were much older than me, and I was alone in the crossfire for much of my childhood. My father was abusive to my mother and I was often thrust in the middle of the beatings, trying to defend my mother. On some occasions my father would ask me to join in and insult or humiliate my mother. I guess that’s why I turned into an angry, aggressive performer instead of the sweet songbird I wanted to be.
Did you really wear platform boots to Catholic school?
No, not boots. I wore platform tennis shoes with my Catholic school uniform. They went well with my prescription Elton John-style Rhinestone glasses and my Bowie haircut. I’m being kind to myself by calling it a Bowie haircut. I actually used to cut my hair in the girls bathroom at school with those little silver school scissors. I also dyed my own hair, so you can probably picture the bad dye job and bald spots. Yes, I’d say my sense of style did not go unnoticed at Sacred Heart of Mary High School, and I thought they were looking at me because I looked so cool!
Can you pinpoint one person or event from your childhood—positive or negative—that propelled you out of the shadows and up on stage? I want the experience that really marked the turning point—knowing you had to contribute, not just consume.
I’d wanted to be a singer ever since I was very young. My elementary school music teacher Miss Yonkers liked my singing and often had me help her with her lessons. Those music lessons were the bright moments in my pathetic dismal childhood. Those were the times when my schoolmates—who usually made fun of me for being a fat, four-eyed, bucktoothed loser—had to try to be as good as I was. YESSSS!
Was your family supportive of your artistic endeavors? Was there another artist in your family at the time?
My parents were both very supportive of all my endeavors. They fought with each other but they showered me with love. In fact, they stayed in their rotten marriage just for me.
For those not familiar with the Bags—later the Alice Bag Band—can you detail how the Bags came to be and what message, if any, you and the band hoped to convey?
In the beginning, we wore paper bags on our heads.The band the Bags was originally supposed to be a band made up of musicians whose members had a secret identity, like a comic book superhero, or like the band Kiss. The paper bags were like masks that could be decorated to depict your mood, or send a message to the audience. My friend Bobby Pyn thought the bags on our heads were a bad idea, so during our first few shows he would show up, stand at the front of the stage and grab at me. If he got his hands on me—and he always did—he’d pull me into the audience and rip my bag off. Eventually we just tossed the bags and kept the name. It was always The Bags, not Alice and the Bags. In the movie The Decline Of Western Civilization the director was forced to change the name because of a dispute with band co-founder Patricia. Much to my dismay, the band was billed as the Alice Bag Band. I would never have chosen that egomaniacal-sounding name. I would have shortened it to Alice Bag and just left the Band part off completely—just kidding.
During the band’s initial line-up, was the creative process diplomatic or dictatorial?
The creative process in the Bags was a bit like the people in it—erratic and eclectic. Some of our songs were spontaneous; most were not. Craig Lee became the principal writer and I think he was the only real business-minded person in the band. I thought of him as an older brother who I respected but enjoyed irritating from time to time.
At the time, did you genuinely feel that you, your band, and your peers were revolutionizing music? Did you know that you were making something as relevant to the future as it was to you at that moment in time?
I know many people have said that they knew that they were in the midst of something important. I never did. I thought it was important to me, but I had no idea that punk would touch so many lives and give rise to many deep cultural changes. For many people who believe in punk, it is much more than a type of music or a clothing preference. Punks take things into their own hands, question authority, circumvent mass production, create, originate, and when necessary, annihilate. Real punks are a threat to the status quo, to corrupt governments and to multinational corporations. Real punks don’t always look like mall punks, but sometimes they do.
You mention noticing Trudie at a Kiss concert in Long Beach Arena—an arena!—and then running into her later in Hollywood. Was the scene around the Masque as intimate as it reads to be?
The scene was very small and very intimate. So much so that some might call it incestuous. As it grew larger, it started to splinter and some people were unwelcoming to newcomers. I think that despite my hard exterior I was pretty friendly. Share a drink with me and we’d be instant friends.
Being female and Latina, did that present any obstacles for you in the scene or was it an asset to be female and ‘exotic’ in the scene?
I never felt that I was treated as anything other than a human being by the people involved in the punk scene. Being female was not a liability as the large number of women who were involved in the early scene can attest. Neither was being a Latina. At a certain point my band got a bad reputation because of our aggressive behavior and unruly fans, but that was well deserved. I am nobody’s victim. I very often confuse people who get in my face with punching bags. You can take a girl out of East L.A., but you can’t take East L.A. out of the girl.
Can you recall any specific events that, for you, sounded the end of L.A. punk and signaled the shape of things to come?
Yes, I remember one particular show where I looked into the audience and I realized that it was made up of people who were not connected to me—or connecting with me—in any way. They were there to ‘make the scene,’ hang out, act tough, fight with each other—whatever—but they were not there to hear the Bags. Up until then my performances were all about interacting with the audience. I never wanted to make background music. I think I knew then that there was a new breed of punk on the horizon and that I had to move on to something else.
What are your thoughts on ‘music’ today? How it is made, what is being made, and the way we experience and consume our music now as opposed to then?
Music today is just as exciting and creative as it was in 1977—if you know where to look for it. There are lots of young musicians making their own recordings, putting out their own merch, exploring with new sounds and instrumentation, planning their own tours. The Internet has made it possible for us to hear small unsigned bands from all over the world. That’s a good thing but I still feel that the best way to experience rock or pretty much any kind of music is live, in a club setting. Mainstream radio is just as bad or even worse than it was back in the seventies when punk started. The whole music industry has become slick, sophisticated and geared towards image-driven pop stars who are as interchangeable and disposable as the products they sell, from sneakers to cell phones.
How did the closing of the Masque affect the scene? I’m wondering if the bands were maturing and growing up and out of the Masque?
You know, I hear people talk about how there were other venues for punk rock other than the Masque, and it’s true that there were clubs who would book punk bands who could draw a drinking age crowd, but the Masque was more than a venue. It was almost a clubhouse. Brendan wasn’t selling liquor and he wasn’t making big bucks off admission fees. He was just doing what he wanted to do. He opened his doors to a bunch of strangers, welcomed us in, and gave us a place to express ourselves and create. I think the fact that the L.A. scene was so strong was because it was unified and interactive. We were living, working, and creating in many of the same places like the Masque and the Canterbury. Those places were like little greenhouses for us. As those circumstances changed the scene changed. I’m not sure if the closing of the Masque affected the scene as much as the natural evolution of the scene itself and the influence of outsiders affected the closing of the Masque. The scene just grew beyond the Masque and the original tight-knit community unraveled around the same time.
How do you want to be remembered at your passing?
Truthfully, if you want to remember me do it now. I won’t give a shit when I’m dead.