From Bag-Head to Bag-Man

by Tom Shannon


In 1986, you would often find me in my dingy Hollywood studio apartment, burning incense to cover other herbal aromas wafting about as I blasted some prog-rock classic LP (much to the chagrin of the old lady who lived above me). Sunday evenings at 7pm I would tune the radio to 88.9 FM, a.k.a. KXLU, Loyola Marymount College Radio. DJ Splat Winger would often be spinning such gems as "Tambourine Man" as interpreted by William Shatner intermingled with Genesis bootlegs or the latest from some obscure new talent he'd found such as Djam Karet or the Freshly Wrapped Candies. Often, if these bands were local, they would perform live on Splat's show which was aptly called "Brain Cookies."

A band in particular caught my ear one evening. The band was Paper Bag. I was really enjoying the music, but was perplexed by their description as an all improvisational band. How could this be? The arrangements sounded tight and structured, rarely meandered and often seemed to stop on a dime. I had many questions and soon found myself phoning the station and speaking with their bassist, George Radai, who quickly handed me over to percussionist M. Segal. He answered some initial questions and took my name and address. Within a few days I received a copy of their demo tape "Victimless Crime." Soon after, I saw them perform at a local club. I introduced myself, and, from that point forward, developed a relationship with the band that obviously continues to this day. In those days, I was playing bass in a post-punk, neo-prog, thrash-metal band called New World. Paper Bag and New World eventually played a show together and the highlight for me, was getting to sit in on a rotation with them.

Paper Bag influenced my creativity in many ways. I learned a lot about improvising, which I later incorporated into my own band, in my own way, when I formed a new band in 1987 called Death & Taxe$. The Segal brothers introduced me to many of their musical influences, including some of my now favorites: King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Captain Beyond.

I became quite the Bag disciple, going to every gig. I yelled suggestions from the audience such as, "mixed-meter jam!," or requesting songs from previous recordings, knowing full-well they would not repeat a performance, but having fun with them all the same. And, as Dave McIntire mentions in his article, I would chase after the crumpled, discarded pieces of poetry they would toss out. I still have a file full of them somewhere.

Over the years, I've had the privilege and opportunity to work with many of the Bagsters in various configurations such as the heavily improvisation-based, fusionesque, instrumental trio, The Strange MF's with M. Segal; a bass duo known as Bass Desires with George Radai; and a one-night-only performance featuring myself on a guitar/bass/harp hybrid I built called the "Garp," Greg Segal on his "Bowed Device"(a guitar with a modified bridge to facilitate playing it with a violin bow) and Kenny Ryman playing a bizarre invention of his called the "Vacuumette"(a clarinet mouth-piece and horn attached by an expandible section of vacuum hose). I also asked fellow Bag-Head and future Bag-Man Dave McIntire to front my new band-in-the-making, Death & Taxe$.

In the Summer of 1999, it was my esteemed pleasure to accept M. Segal's proposal to form a new version of Paper Bag to play a one-off benefit show for Zoogz Rift. I certainly felt I was qualified. I knew the rules or "Bag Theory" if you will and was prepared for the challenge. And when the gig went over well and M. asked if I'd like to continue working within the format, albeit under the new moniker, "Bag:Theory," again I gleefully accepted. In the old days, as a fan of Bag, I often dreamed of being involved in the process and thought I could handle it. I didn't realize the full scope of the challenge though. To continually come up with fresh, innovative, improvisational ideas is only one small part of it. The biggest challenge is being able to relay those ideas quickly and succinctly to the other performers, especially when you're in the spotlight at a gig. Often I find that what seems like a great idea in my head is laborious to explain to the other musicians or gets interpreted in a way completely different from what I had expected. And, of course, the converse is also true: sometimes a hastily spoken or very abstract idea becomes a miniature masterpiece of improvisational soundscaping. What I've learned is that that is much of the essence of the Bag Theory: it may not always be beautiful, but it is always improvised.


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