Reflections in A Bag Of Glass: Living by the Paper Bag Theory

by

M. Segal, 2/2001

 

After a great deal of prodding, badgering, etc., I have decided to write a collection of remembrances and feelings related to Paper Bag:. I have previously been unwilling to, having often been accused of being the band's 'voice'. Let me say this early on, and don't forget it, because I hate defending myself against people's misconceptions: I am not, nor have I ever been the alleged spokesman for anybody but myself. The perceptions and attitudes I state are mine alone. As the sage Stan Lee oft' quipped, "nuff said."

Paper Bag: as a band was not my idea, yet it was. It's sort of that 'universal consciousness' situation, comparable to the invention of radio, the lightbulb or Mutually Assured Destruction; credit was due to more than one. So let this be accepted as my version of the Theory's creation: Greg and I are the creators of all that is Paper Bag:. Others added, fine-tuned, extrapolated, refined, but The Brothers Segal hatched this one. Period. While Greg and I had spent many hours discussing the importance of improvised music, we each took a separate path leading to the band's inception. Greg has eloquently expressed his imputes in writings included on this website.

My conversion began in 1976, at a chance jam session with a guitarist named Mark Solomon. He lived above a dance studio in Venice, Ca., and was one of a clique of hard-core improv musicians, mostly inspired by jazz and European avant-garde. These guys were exceptional, and they were serious; dead fucking serious. I did not own a drum set at the time (didn't until 1979) so I brought all the percussion I owned. The dance studio also boasted a storeroom of amazing percussives, there at my disposal.

That evening I felt a special magic. It was elusive, perhaps intangible, but it changed me. The music we played was obviously pulled from the air, but it exhibited a tightness that astonished me. This was the land without fences I had always assumed existed, but could not find. A door had been kicked open for me, and although the steps were short and tentative, I walked on toward a strange, artistic destiny.

From 1976 to 1982 when Paper Bag: was formed, I mainly continued as all musicians do, playing tightly composed music. This was the world I'd come from, and was very comfortable there. 99% of all my stage and session work was as a team player, composer and songwriter. But my occasional forays into improvised music began to change my focus. Great music was spontaneously created on those occasions with help from brother Greg, 'Fear' bassist Lorenzo Buhne, keyboardist Mark Olson, drummer Glenn Thilman, guitarists Kevin Goodman and Bob Lansing, and many others.

I spent a short period of time in a band called 'E-Wrecktor Set'. The trio consisted of myself, doing a combined ethnic/avante-garde percussion thing for the first time, and a keyboardist and drummer of note. These guys went on to relative fame and success, and don't need a plug from me.

This band's music had composed 'skeletons', crammed with long improvised passages. The experiments I performed were done live, and that was very exciting. Many a fire marshall shut us down, intimidated by my glass smashing and use of large basins of water to diffuse cymbals and sheet metal.

Soon enough, the two fellows dumped me, convinced I was insane and musically eccentric.

When Greg and I decided a band effort was in order, we were not completely into the theories that made Paper Bag: what it was. We, like many a jazz band, worked improvisations into a loose, rehearsed framework. It was easier to do this, considering our first bassist and keyboardist did not want to leave everything to chance. Their fear was both reasonable and understandable.

Only Greg and I knew what all of this was leading to. It was, after all, our dream. The various musicians that came and went back then did not have the guts to wring control from chaos. Only Richard Derrick, bass visionary, and guitar pioneer Ken Rosser, showed the balls necessary to jump off the cliff. The others in the early phases, no offense meant, are eminently forgettable.

The first Paper Bag: lineup that functioned with the daring experimentalism Greg and I desired happened when Kenny Ryman and Ken Rosser joined our asylum.

Ken was a young man when he blessed us with his participation. He drove from Orange County to L.A. twice per week (whew!) to rehearse with a band that had no promise, audience, record dealÖ nothing. Yet he burned with a musical art so pure and brilliant that he inspired me to be my best. Although he left in 1985 to pursue his goals as a more traditional jazz and session musician, I continue to consider Ken one of the finest improvisers I have ever worked with. It is my pleasure to work with him on numerous gigs to this day, including The Carter Brothers, George Radai's 'Ritual', and others.

Kenny Ryman was a born Bag:man. Greg and I could never have dreamed that a man so intense and experimental would enter our ranks. He played keyboards, yet he didn't like to. He was incredibly musical, yet hated the trappings of traditional music. His was the way of the tape loop, endless cassettes, electronic toys/junk, angry poetry and unmasked loathing for the world's chronically complacent. No one who ever heard what he had to convey, let alone saw him live, will ever forget him. Sadly, Kenny's falling out was permanent. He became disillusioned with improvised music, which would one day be the fate of all involved, myself excluded (it was running 'the business' that burnt me out). He also was very angry with me for being a womanizing, dope-smoking, negative thinking artist-writer-musician type. Being angry with me for those reasons was sort of like shooting fish in a barrel, so I never really knew what the problem was, and most likely never will. He, like the other members of P.B., had at one time or another accused me of hogging some non-existent spotlight. In a room of silent men, the one who coughs gets the attention. If the poor guy didn't have the confidence to chime up and speak his mind, he shouldn't have been pissed at me about it. The other boys soon realized the folly of this illusion, but Kenny did not. I will always respect and love him, and know that Paper Bag: would not have been so important to me had he not participated. I hope he is doing well.

Greg Segal is a man of extreme courage. He is willing to experiment in any musical direction, to walk into the fire believing he will not burn. He may be the only person I've ever known that I would, without reservation, call a genius. Music has always been 'his way' or 'no way'; and I am proud that for that glorious period of time we walked together as artists, friends and brothers. His vision and style defy intelligent comparison or affixed label. And even though I could often sense the frustration on his face when the band recorded or performed, Paper Bag: is still among his finest moments. But Greg is a perfectionist, and the inherent lack of perfection eventually wore him thin. His need for something more personal led him in other important directions. He defines a realm of guitar improvisation that did not exist before he took us there. I truly hope he never loses sight of the importance of that.

When Ken Rosser departed, Greg, Kenny and I decided to give an eager bassist named George Radai an audition. Those four-track recordings became part of Paper Bag:'s first release, 'Victimless Crime', and our first SST release 'Ticket To Trauma'. Not bad for a guy just sort of, ya' know, auditioning. This man blew my fucking mind. His power and ideas left me quite speechless. People used to watch him play, their maws agape with amazement. Loud, busy, inventive, masterful, and truly admired, George was to become the band's intellect. His thought process, as displayed on stage and in the studio, put him miles beyond most of his contemporaries. His inclusion made Paper Bag: immediately more accessible, insuring the four-record deal that was to come.

It is important to mention the great artistic headway made when poet Dave McIntire entered in. Although it was at the end of the band's life, he was an incredible front man and wordsmith. Like a disgruntled monkey running around with a loaded Uzi, he was both amusing and deadly. After Ryman left us as a trio, my interest as poet dwindled. Adding Dave to cover the verbiage made Paper Bag: feel like a fucking rock band. He improvised his words and challenged the listener/observer with his powerful presence. My only regret is that we didn't stick it out a little longer, once we'd added him to the improv stew.

As for my own participation, easy explanations are not on hand. It's hard for me to really discuss my own merit as a musician or creative person. You'll have to pardon these clumsy attempts, because it really is the best I can do. I can start by mentioning that I have never cared much for Paper Bag: critique. I avoided reading reviews of my work as an improviser because I genuinely didn't give a fuck. When it came to composed material, I truly did care about the feedback. But this Bag: thing was very different.

I had known since my earliest days that I was different from the rest, never expecting or desiring to be understood. At no time in my life had these feelings become more pronounced than during my tenure as a Bag:man. It is not easy to explain this total aloneness, and harder still to explain why I reveled in it. Even with my improv mates at my side, I never felt so coldly, beautifully alone. No, I didn't space out, forgetting that I was part of a team and jamming in my own world. It was the inner agenda that was mine. In this place of freedom, I was sad about bad write-ups and slim audiences only on behalf of the other boys. It used to hurt me deeply to see them go home after another poorly attended gig, depressed and overly critical of their wonderful performance. It is no surprise that the promise of greater acceptance led them from Paper Bag:. As for myself, had we been able to reach our sizeable European fan base, I could have continued dancing in the land without fences until I dropped dead. Soon after Mark Olsen left the band to prepare for sexual reassignment, he was visiting and we reminisced about our lives in music. He looked at me with a long face and said he felt sorry for me, feeling the world would only appreciate me long after I was gone. He claimed I would always walk alone. He was relieved when I informed him that I was quite used to it. I am not a great musician. Hard working, somewhat inventive, and I give a damn. I have never given less than all I'm worth, and always take the music over parties, girls, dope, drink, et all. But I'm not a great musician. Most of the drummers I know can play circles around me. My unusual percussion style is neither ethnic, avant-garde, classical or traditional. I cannot read music beyond the most elementary of charts. My rudimentary training is evident in a lack of overall technique. If I don't see myself as a great musician, you may ask why I even bother. The answer is that I need to. No more than I could cease any other body function (shitting, pissing, eating, breathing, blinking) could I stop creating music. If I have to mention what I feel are qualities, the list is short. First, I am unique of approach. I am different from any other percussionist you will ever hear. My eyes see where yours do not. My ears seek sounds you have not yet heard, rhythms you have not yet felt. Second, my style is aggressive. I may play soft, but I never play timid; I may play sparse but I refuse to play simple. Last, I believe in what I'm trying to do. Few that have heard me are indifferent in their assessment. I will always be pleased that I seem to inspire love or loathing, and rarely anything in between. I've been called a well-schooled intellectual, a musical buffoon, a genius and a hack. While I don't see myself as any of these, shit, I do love the disparity of opinion. I am, after all, here to entertain and annoy.

Now the poetry aspect of Paper Bag: was my idea, although soon Kenny Ryman became equally responsible for making it part of the band's sound. Eventually, Greg and George offered their work, most often to excellent effect. Spoken word, in the fashion I was used to, was a tool I had to try using. I would write my words usually just moments before we walked on stage, or before recording. Sometimes I'd go through previously written pieces, scramble, rearrange them and bring them for performance. My delivery seemed far too dramatic and not enough cathartic to engage most people. Because I was neither a railing madman or a beat-street poet, the audience really couldn't pin me down. I enjoyed wadding up my written words and tossing them off the stage like garbage when finished; it was usually the only times my readings garnered applause. The other boys tell me our most venom-dripping critiques were leveled at our spoken word pieces. One day, when I'm more in the mood to reminisce about the details, I can let you in on some of the repercussions of our poetry. On L.A. radio ('I Smoked Dope With Judge Ginsberg') in Boston, WZBC ('Hymn of the Borderline Activist') the reaction to Ryman's 'Dachau' on our release 'A Land Without Fences', we pushed our stinky foul 'n nasty words right down everybody's throats. I can only hint coyly at the utter joy I achieved making such trouble, and making so many people angry. The most intense reactions were always achieved when the music and words locked together. I remember the band had a 'record release party' for 'Music To Trash'. At the height of the evening we played the CD for the crowd. The last piece is the somber words and music of 'I Wish You Love'. It brought the raging, loud party to a dead halt. I could hear people sobbing softly to themselves, as if the piece had been written about their own deepest grief.

Some really did get the poetry attempt. Some truly enjoyed it, and were inspired by it. Some actually saved my fucking discarded words, diving onto dirty club floors to retrieve them. They're the ones that made every moment of it worthwhile.

I will always feel that Greg and I have a lot of guts. We created a band that was flawed and imperfect, but daring and passionate. My dream had been to take my stories/experiments out into the world, mostly on my own terms, and call it music. My ingenious brother gave me an excuse to pursue this madness; because he was my partner in crime, the madness was validated. The inclusion of Ryman and Radai enabled Greg and I to play with ideas in sound and rhythm that would have otherwise been impossible. We created great art, us wacky boys.

If there's anything else you'd like to know, I can always be reached on your handy computer at: mdsegal@earthlink.net Anything of musical value I might happen to be doing will be forever posted on the 'paperbagtheory.com' site.

If you've cared enough to bother reading this shit, I thank you.

 

M. Segal

2/7/01

Hollywood, California, USA

 

(Note from G.S.: After receiving this in my e-mail, I wrote M. back and commented on the piece. A few days later I received an addendum to this piece, directly responding to things I'd said in my letter. So for the sake of completeness I include here the pertinent excerpt of that letter, followed by M.'s addendum.)

 

To M. Segal from Greg Segal, 2/7/2001:

I really enjoyed the Bag piece you wrote, itís wonderful, and I will be posting it within the next day or so, Iíll tell you when itís up. As always I will post it as delivered. Our memories differ on the introduction of spoken word into the band. I recall suggesting it during one very charged after-rehearsal discussion- it was just me and you outside Humphreyís, Richard had already headed home- but I immediately bowed out of actually doing it myself. I was only comfortable doing it on tape (which Iíd already done on early versions of some of the Night Circus stuff) but not live since I absolutely hated my delivery. (Still do- canít listen to "Moving Off Into The Long Night" without wincing, although I do wince just a little less nowadays.) You said you didnít mind doing it and promptly took up duties, developing your own style in the space of a rehearsal or two (at most- I seem to recall it came out pretty much intact and only very minor points got refined later). The idea came up because we were brainstorming how to make the band and its wild concept somewhat accessible to an audience. You were of the opinion that we needed some kind of vocals, but doubted that any kind of singing would be anything other than lame. I brought up Damo Suzuki with Can and you thought that just proved the point. I had to agree- it was only marginally successful. And at that point, thinking of my own work on Night Circus, which had been inspired by the Doors, Arthur Brown, the Moody Blues, and even Eric Burden (Spill the Wine)- at that point, I suggested poetry set to music. (Iíd been writing NC for about 2 years at that point but had only recorded a few demo versions of some of the poetry pieces- I wouldnít really get down to business with the recording until Kenny and I started working on it in....either December of í83 or January of í84.) It was that same night that we discussed having a unified band image of some sort, but we didnít decide on black and red until a rehearsal or two after that. It was also that night that you decided to take on management of the band. Most importantly, it was that night that you insisted that we drop the semi-improv framework and go all improv, all the time- never to evolve into structured pieces. (Little did we know how that urge for structure would eventually find an outlet- rotations, the roller coaster, the Theory itself, which we forged as we tried to figure out what the hell we were doing.) Anyway....I found your piece very moving, very no-nonsense and straight to the point, a minimum of rhetoric- really fine stuff and I canít wait to get it up there.......

 

 

Addendum to

Reflections In A Bag Of Glass

By M. Segal 2/2001

 

My brother Greg and I have things about us that are amazingly similar (dark humor, dark circles, boyish good looks, enormous ten inchÖ) and things that could not be further apart in concept or action. The latter category must include how we remember the very same occurrences.

In my previous writing 'Reflections In A Bag Of Glass', I alluded to the notion that the inclusion of poetry in the Paper Bag: experience was my doing. When Greg responded to my essay, he was able to remember, with fucking pinpoint accuracy, various discussions leading toward the use of spoken word. As is most often the case, my recall was more a pastiche of images and concepts, abstract in a pre-Alzheimer's sort of way. Greg was certainly correct about these discussions, which centered on finding a way to include lyrics/poetry as part of our concept without it sounding lame.

At that point, I decided to come up with some pieces in the style of ranters that I most admired. This abstractly included The Last Poets ('The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'), Charles Bukowski, Arthur Brown, Jim Morrison, Rod Serling, Hitler and Jimmy Swaggart.

It is Brother Greg's constant, sad duty to remind us other Bag:men of the reality of matters. His memory reigns supreme!

 

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