Sunday, January 22, 2012

Year-End Inventory III: Books I Dug

Alice Bag greets you from the cover of Slash,  May 1978.
Greetings, my Irregulars, from Your Irregular-In-Chief. It's a chilly, sunny Sunday afternoon in Denver. I'm in my friend's apartment, X live bootlegs on the hi-fi, a glass of cool, fresh water at my hand. My leg is healing nice-like, the advent of an ACE bandage doing wonders in my recovery and mobility. The leg's still tender and I have to be careful with it. But the pain's more like a dull ache now, rather than the skull-piercing shredding of my nerve endings it has been, which has made me a prisoner of a bed or couch for a few weeks now. That feels like a massive improvement. So, back to work for real, tomorrow.

I come to you today realizing I'd promised a reading wrap-up for last year. I do have to say that, due to funds, etc., that 2011 was not a year I either purchased or read much that was new. For the most part, I caught up on oldies I'd yet to read from either other pals' collections (such as Charlie Solus' vast James Ellroy archives) or things I found in thrift stores or used book stores for cheap. In the case of Ellroy, I had to marvel at his crisp, clean language, the brutal honesty, the ability to use real life events as a literary springboard, and his amazing ability to capture marginal life in mid-century Los Angeles (as well as pulling back the rocks and exposing the worms and snakes crawling beneath the city's showbiz surface). What strikes me as Ellroy's peak, American Tabloid, goes well-beyond the L.A. city limits to encompass the whole of America in the '60s, which is a rather daunting task. Still, he accomplishes that with ease, and the rest of his oeuvre definitely places him as the latest in a long line of great poets of Los Angeles' underside: Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, even John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Bless him for that.

Then there are my other newfound discoveries: Alex Cox's X Films: True Confessions Of A Radical Filmmaker (Soft Skull Press, Berkeley, CA, 2008), which not only offers frequently hilarious behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of Repo Man, Sid And Nancy, and various other Cox films that aren't as well-known, but also serves as a primer in how to be an independent artist in an increasingly corporate world, with all the joy, rewards, and ugliness therein; Mark Evanier's Kirby: King Of Comics (Abrams, New York, NY, 2008), a huge, lavish, hardbound celebration of the man who was arguably the greatest comic book artist ever, Jack Kirby; Billy F. Gibbons' Rock & Roll Gearhead (with Tom Vickers, 2008; softcover edition from Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2011), loads of hilarious philosophy and autobiography around the edges of beautiful photographs of the vast twin guitar and custom car archives of the ZZ Top guitarist – eye candy deluxe(!); and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces (Grove Press, New York, NY, 1980), possibly the funniest novel I've ever read, and certainly the best I've read set in New Orleans or in the early '60s. How this has never been made into an equally epic and hilarious film is beyond me; Jack Black would certainly make a great Ignatius J. Reilly....

Of the few new titles that jumped into my shopping bag last year, my favorite was Alice Bag's Violence Girl (381 pages, $17.95 softcover, Feral House, Port Townshend, WA 2011, Subtitled East L.A. Rage To Hollywood Stage: A Chicana Punk Story, this should clue you in to what's great about it: It's not just another punk book. True, Alice Bag is as iconic figure as Darby Crash or anyone from that Masque scene. She was of that original generation of fierce punk rock women (Patti Smith, Penelope Houston, Joan Jett, Exene, The Slits, Poly Styrene) who made questions of gender irrelevant and inspired with their brilliance, their ferocity, and their righteousness. But there's a lot more to this book.

Like I said, this isn't merely an L.A. punk history. This is Alice Bag's story. So we get taken back to that environment which spawned Alice: From her parents' origins in Mexico to the Los Angeles barrios where she was raised. We see that Alice was given an odd mixture of love and abuse, mostly due to her father. He would tell young Alicia she was exceptional, that she could do anything, and nurtured her artistry...then lash out in drunken rage at her mother in the next breath. She was equally shaped by weight issues and her own ethnicity, until a mix of the Chicano and glam rock movements in the early '70s helped her burst whatever shell was there and gave her pride and determination. Then came punk and the formation of The Bags. And Alice Bag emerged a sexy, rampaging, intelligent force.

L.A. critic Ken Tucker tries to turn the town onto The Bags...and then undersells their 45?!

Fortunately for her, despite some inclinations in that direction, Alice only dipped into the debauchery and self-destruction inherent in punk rock Los Angeles. Moving back into her parents' home midway through might have helped, giving her some literal and philosophical distance from the damage that was developing among her peers. And even after The Bags' imminent death, Alice kept creating, either musically or in other areas, and eventually graduated college and became a school teacher. As a teacher, she remained an activist, centering on educating and encouraging the underprivileged, even spending time teaching in Nicaragua in the mid-'80s. She continued following and acting on her principles and beliefs, and has benefited for that.

Amazing, what can be done with some photo booth strips and a Bic pen....

Like the Alex Cox book I mentioned earlier, Violence Girl should serve as an inspiration to the young artist and rebel: For once, the heroine doesn't self-destruct. Alice Bag stayed on the course, rose above, and keeps doing what she set out to do. Punk rock doesn't have to kill. Nor does environment. Yes, there are happy endings in punk rock – and life – sometimes....


  1. Alex Cox articles used to show up in UFO magazines in the '80s and maybe '90s. He had some unique viewpoints. Jack Kirby is looked at in an almost Philip Dick way these days, I guess starting with folks looking back at his '50s-era 'Face on Mars' story. Check out the sci-fi prophecy now being read into his comic books:

  2. Alex Cox is definitely a fine writer, as well as having (as you noted) a unique perspective. This, perhaps, is why (at the least) his most famous movies resonated, and continue to.

  3. Ahhhh , Alice Bags . Thanks for that Tim . Ironically enough , I just put Violence Girl in my queue at the main library . Due to empty pockets , that's my source for reading material as of late . Indeed , I'm looking forward to reading it now moreso what with your blog .