I first met Paper Bag at Bebop Records and Fine Art. They were playing a benefit for a local musician and mutual friend named Mike Rosenthal of the Phlegm Fatales. I was very impressed by their music and even more so when I found out it was improvised. I had not previously been exposed to improvised music other than the occasional jazz tune.
I became so enthralled with the concept that I determined to attend as many of their shows as I could. Of course being as broke as I was at the time I knew this would not be easy to afford so I offered M. a deal. I'd help carry their gear if they would get me into the gigs for free. I didn't care about getting paid, I just wanted to be able to see the band play, I needed to hear all this improvised music for myself. Thus did I begin my career as Bag roadie and lifelong friend.
Soon after I started working for the band they were signed to a record deal with SST Records, about which at the time we were all thrilled. (Of course we later learned how misguided our excitement was in regards to SST.) The band had actually already recorded an album on their own so there was a complete album package ready for SST to release. The band got a number of gigs through SST's booking agency so there was a lot of activity for the next couple of years between many shows and recording the next couple of albums. I got a lot of practice loading and unloading the equipment. I also got some experience performing with the band thanks to California's liquor laws. A number of the clubs the band played at served alcohol and were age restricted to 21 and over. Since I was 19 or 20 at the time the only way the guys could get me in the club was to make me a member of the band for the evening, which they were kind enough to do. So I would wait backstage most of the show and then come out and read one poem with the band.
During these years I learned a lot. I learned about music, about recording, about friendship, family, business and on and on. Every performance was an education for me. Every recording session as well. I actively listened to what each guy was playing trying to intuit how they were able to create this amazing and unique blend of art,philosophy and noise. I felt tuned in to their state of mind despite the fact that from a technical sense I was a musical ignoramus. Still, I always felt privileged to be able to contribute in my small way to the cause of improvised music.
That for me was the main difference between Paper Bag and other bands. Most bands have songs and an image, the good ones have a unique sound, their own special approach to music. But with Paper Bag it always felt like we were fighting a holy war for the great god IMPROV. I felt like we were on a quest, that we were foot soldiers, the advance guard (avant garde?) in a great and important musical movement. As pompous as this may sound, I knew that what Paper Bag was doing was, if nothing else important music. These were not 3 1/2 minute pop songs to be lost in the miasma of the pop universe. This was music that would (or should anyway) change music and the act of creation for the future.
While my visions of greatness for the band may far exceed my grasp, I can without hesitation say this much: their music changed me forever. It altered how I listen to all music, how I look at art, watch TV, etc. It informed my own creativity, and my poetry is better because of what I've learned from Paper Bag. It affected my sense of spirituality, opening up my heart to different possibilities. It has, in short, affected every aspect of my life and living and I am all the better for it.
Because of my love for the band and all the members I was understandably saddened when, after Improvised My Ass was released they decided to call it quits. Of course a couple of years later when they decided to launch a new (albeit brief) effort I was first thrilled and then shocked and pleased when they asked me to join them as band poet.
Of course over the years the other guys had done poetry with the band but it was always in many ways a secondary aspect to what was primarily an instrumental project. Usually M. and Kenny would each take one or two turns with poetry. Greg and George also contributed poetry on occasion, most notably on the Music to Trash CD.
The poetry was the only part of the music that wasn't improvised. Usually written the day of the show or even just prior to going on stage only the writer knew what it said before it was performed. In keeping with the Bag philosophy of art is artifact/creation is the key M. always crumpled up his poems and threw them into the audience (where Tom Shannon and I often playfully competed to retrieve them).
When I was asked to join the band as the resident poet I was determined to bring something new to the group, specifically, improvised poetry. If I stopped and thought about it, I became incredibly intimidated by the concept, after all it's hard enough to get up in front of an audience and perform composed material let alone improvising it. And poetry is vastly different than music. On a musical instrument if you hesitate or flub a note it is much easier to cover it up or even turn it into something new and coherent. With poetry, if you hesitate or stutter you just hesitate or stutter, there's no getting around that. Plus there is the constant fear in the back of my head, what if I run out of ideas?
I was lucky enough to be working with people who are not afraid to fail so they were more than willing to let me stretch my creative muscles even if on occasion I did more harm than good. Thankfully I have reached a point now where I am pretty comfortable getting up and doing with words what the rest of the band does with musical notes. In fact I feel it is one my proudest accomplishments as an artist to do a complete performance or recording with nothing but improvised poetry, no notes, no cheat sheets, no shit.
Whatever happens with Paper Bag or its offspring in the future I know that I am a better person and a better poet because of my life with the Bag.
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