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The Bags power back up; Asa Brebner’s second or third career
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Asa Brebner's official Web site

March 2, 1991: the Bags are playing T.T. the Bear’s Place for what sure looks like the last time. It’s a miserable gig, and for a number of reasons. Local stardom hasn’t translated into a national breakthrough. Their label, Enigma (which released their 1989 debut, Rock Starve), has gone out of business. The band are feeling old age creep in; some are about to reach — gasp — 27. Even the club is about to be gutted: "We were the last band to play before the original stage was demolished," singer/guitarist Crispin Wood remembers. Worst of all, singer/bassist Jon Hardy had lately dropped the ultimate bombshell on his mates. "I remember the moment," Wood recalls. "We’d played a benefit a month earlier, and he turns to us in the van and says, ‘I no longer have the desire to rock.’ "

February 26, 2005: all three members of the Bags are at T.T.’s for the first time since March 2, 1991. A few things are different. For starters, drummer Jim Janota has acquired twice as many drums, having switched in recent years to a double-bass kit. And the band’s morale is noticeably improved since the dark days of ’91. Their on-again/off-again reunion has turned into something permanent, and they even have a new album — Sharpen Your Sticks, on their own Oaf label — ready to go. And Hardy? "My desire to rock came back," he notes backstage after soundcheck. "I have a bakery in Gloucester now, and I always see Willie Alexander coming in, excited about some gig he’s playing, and I started to feel jealous."

Along with Bullet LaVolta, the Bags are the band most often credited (or blamed, in some circles) for introducing punk metal to Boston. Which means that they don’t have to worry too much about their sound having gone out of style since they last rocked. In fact, to a large extent, the new CD picks up where 1991’s Night of the Corn People left off. There is a key difference, though: the CD of Corn People had 13 songs and ran 69 minutes. (Granted, one of those songs was "Waiting for Maloney," the first and only lengthy rock opera about commuting from Allston to rehearse.) The new disc serves up 15 songs in 36 minutes: the sound is still metallic, but the songs are all punchy and punky. Meanwhile, the lyrics from Wood and Hardy amount to a puncturing of metal’s ponderous tendencies. Imagine the post-therapy self-loathing of Metallica’s St. Anger played for laughs and you’d have the Bags’ "Believer" or "Ass Kicker" ("You’re gonna kick my ass, that I do know — Kung Foe"). So forget about this being just a respectable comeback and call it the Bags’ best album. Period.

"Sometimes the Bags like to jam, or to get all spooky and arty," Janota says. "We didn’t do much of that this time. We thought it was the right thing to keep it angry and punky, as aggressive and loud as it could be." Adds Hardy, "It’s really hard for us to be too serious. We can’t write songs about breaking up with your girlfriend, since I haven’t done that since Ford was in office. When it comes to writing lyrics, irony is our best weapon." Concludes Wood, "We’ve had a year to do this album, so there was time to look at the back catalogue and say, ‘This worked and this didn’t.’ But really, the number one priority is to rock. I guess this is just how we do it."

If one thing has kept the Bags in the public eye over the past decade, it’s been the Rock School strip that Wood draws monthly in the fanzine the Noise. The funniest (and at times the most accurate) chronicle of the local scene that’s ever been done, the strip follows the career progress of an ill-fated outfit that’s never identified by name but looks a whole lot like the three Bags, complete with rock-animal drummer. "That’s a caricature I can accept," Janota says. "I think he made me a little too fat, though."

"I figure that the guitarist is the ego, the bass player is the superego, and the drummer is the id," Wood explains. "You can pick up a lot from being at parties — you realize that anything a band says can sound pretty pathetic when you take it out of context."

Friends since Lexington High School days, the three Bags didn’t stay far apart over the past decade. There was a one-off reunion show at the Middle East in 1997, and all three members contributed to an unreleased Rock School CD. (They do the voices in the animated versions on Wood’s www.rockschool.com site as well.) But they didn’t think seriously about reviving the band until two years ago, when they tried out a quartet line-up with second guitarist Chris Blue (Janota’s mate in both Rock Bottom and the Upper Crust). "At first we thought we’d just do weird instrumental stuff," Hardy explains. "That lasted for two rehearsals." Adds Janota, "Then we realized we’d have to play Bags songs if we played out, and we’d have to be the Bags if we did them."

The plan is to keep the Bags reunion low-key but long-term. Since Wood and Hardy both have families, there’s no plan to travel the country and court record deals. But the next album is already being planned, and they see no reason they won’t still be doing it in another 20 years. "What we’re doing now," Janota says, "in high school, we called it ‘making tapes.’ You go down to the basement with a tape machine, smoke some pot, make up some stupid songs." Adds Hardy, "It’s gonna be really long-term, we’ll still be doing this when we’re older than Willie Alexander is now."

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Issue Date: March 4 - 10, 2005
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