Considering my advanced years, I am way too old for musical prejudices, but I still experience knee-jerk reactions when confronted by the unknown, “Indie folk rock? No frickin’ way, man!” You see, they creep up on me occasionally, and I know it’s just teenage residue from when I thought everything except hard rock sucked, but I can’t help falling into a rut sometimes. I’ll find myself repeatedly listening to the same old records and feeling musically isolated. That’s when I know it’s time for professional intervention, so I turn to a few record store owners and musician friends who can direct me to exciting new sounds. Although I know plenty of hardcore vinyl audiophiles, I tend not to ask them for suggestions. I always suspect they’re recommending a particular record because it tests well on their systems.
I’m a participant in a turntable forum whose members have high-end pressings of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Texas Flood, but I’m not interested in comparing my $20 vintage copy to the $125 45-RPM double-LP set, which might not sound much better on my 30-year-old turntable. Furthermore, an esoteric pressing doesn’t teach me anything new or bring me closer to the building blocks of Vaughn’s sound, and that’s what I’m looking for these days.
In an interview for a Canadian television program Musique Plus, taped in Montreal in 1987, Vaughn reminisces about his earliest influences: Lonnie Mack, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimi Hendrix, and Buddy Guy. All credit is due to the interviewer who does a great job focusing on music and allowing Vaughn to speak uninterrupted during the concise segment. Wouldn’t it be great to have a similar program with artists talking exclusively about music that was life-changing and inspirational, without any product placement or grudges to vent? Well, I found it. It’s called What’s in My Bag?, produced by Amoeba Music in California.
I haven’t been to California in decades, but the next time I go I will head straight to one of their three locations in Hollywood, San Francisco, or Berkley. The stores look cavernous and reminiscent of the long-gone Tower Records in downtown Manhattan with all its merch, music, videos, and melange of customers browsing for music. What’s in My Bag? is a series of short videos, featuring all stripes of artists including musicians, actors, DJs, designers, and writers, who go through the store, fill their bags with assorted media, and tell stories about the items they chose.
Some of the most interesting segments are from lesser-known artists. Chicano Batman is described as an “L.A. Tropicalia soul band” influenced by metal, jazz, and blues, as well as South African, Brazilian, and avant-garde German rock. The members picked records by Johnny “Guitar” Watson (who influenced Frank Zappa), Curtis Knight and the Squires with a young Jimi Hendrix before he left for England, and the “Mexican soul” music of Los Grillos del Norte. I am fascinated by Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s playing style.
Necrobutcher, the bassist and founding member of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, selected INXS, The Cult, The Police, Beastie Boys, and Talking Heads. Mayhem certainly put the “black” into black metal as members dabbled in an extremely dark side of human nature, and if Necrobutcher (aka Jørn Stubberud) can make room in his heart for Depeche Mode, so can I.
I knew nothing about HAIM’s music, but the band, comprised of three sisters, is charming, entertaining, and knowledgeable – Este Haim studied ethnomusicology at UCLA. If I’d known that field of study had existed, I never would have gone to library school. HAIM picked Shania Twain, Donna Summer, Selena, ABBA, and the women of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, who sing hauntingly beautiful songs.
Huey Lewis’s bag was loaded with Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Johnnie Taylor, Tower of Power, and not a single Beatles or Rolling Stones album. The selection that stood out to me was Sinatra at the Sands (1966) with Count Basie and his orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones. I put that one on my streaming list.
Actor and comedian Jason Mantzoukas lived in Morocco and traveled extensively through the Middle East after college, and his selections included Alice Coltrane, Gal Costa, and Joni Mitchell, plus Berber, Thai, and Congolese music. He also chose Painted Shut (2015), an album by indie folk rock band Hop Along, featuring a wonderful lead singer, Frances Quinlan. If Mantzoukas ever offers a class or lecture on music, I will attend.
I am neither a fan of GWAR nor Insane Clown Posse, but both of their episodes were completely engaging. GWAR likes “lo-fi” punk bands The Spits, Dicks, The Toy Dolls, and Zeke, as well as Sepultura and Motörhead. ICP is into N.W.A., Sir Mix-A-Lot, Geto Boys, Public Enemy, and KRS-One. It turns out I have common musical interests with each group.
Among his country picks, which include Shooter Jennings, John Prine, and Lucinda Williams, actor and director Ethan Hawke inspired me to delve into Americana and buy albums by Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley.
An episode I have watched many times over features the incomparable Bootsy Collins interviewed by DJ Lance Rock. Before Bootsy became a funk legened, he and his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins (1943 – 2010) were members of James Brown’s backup band, The J.B.’s, for a brief period in the early 1970s. His historical scope and experience provide a wonderful survey of classic American music such as the Meters, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and Dr. John. Incidentally, Collins and Vaughn share a common appreciation of Lonnie Mack, Buddy Guy, and Howlin’ Wolf, which means I need to explore those three artists.
Amoeba provides a comfortable space for artists to share their favorite bands, and it doesn’t seem like anyone is trying to impress the audience. Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, wearing reading glasses, filled his bag with KISS, Joe Walsh, Van Halen, and Rush records. He already owns most of them but wanted the Van Halen album with the “hype” sticker, and a first pressing of KISS Alive (1975) with the blue “Bogart” label mastered by “RL” (Bob Ludwig). As a person who’s about the same age as Bach and loves those bands too, I can relate to his enthusiasm for special childhood albums.
Music is visceral, personal, emotional, and unifying, and that is why What’s in my Bag? is so captivating. Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was moved to tears as he shared his feelings about J Dilla (1974 – 2006), a producer, rapper, and legendary record collector.
It’s moments like those which reconnect me to the musical lifeline and deepen my appreciation for artists and genres I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. If anyone needs a little mind expansion or ideas for future purchases, there are more than 800 episodes with new ones added regularly.
Header image: Amoeba Music, San Francisco, courtesy of Amoeba Music/Jay Blakesberg.