January 28, 2020

Book Review: Sparks-Tastic Twenty-One Nights with Sparks in London

by Susan Adele Wiggins

My wish is that you may be loved to the point of madness –André Breton

By 1876, with his complicated relationship with King Ludvig II of Bavaria reconciled, Richard Wagner’s master-minded musical festival, devoted to his own compositions exclusively, was finally complete and ready for staging.  The Bayreuth Festival, which mounts Wagner’s personal oeuvre, is an annual celebration of all things Wagnerian.  Despite a determination to raise funds independently of the King, he had encountered enough financial difficulty, from the staging of the festival to the building of his personal opera house (Bayreuth Festspielhaus), to come crawling back, desperate for more scratch.  Luckily with the funds the King provided, the Festival scheduled and the opera house built, Wagner presented his Norse saga trilogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, otherwise known as The Ring Cycle. The four operas staged one after the other, beginning with Das Rheingold on the 13th of August and ending three operas later with Götterdämmerung on August the 17th, the cycle demanded of its audience four nights at the opera house, listening to 15 hours of music.  The Ring Cycle has been performed at this point, give or take a world war or two, annually close to 138 times.

In 2008, the pop band Sparks, not to be outdone by said German composer, staged The Sparks Spectacular, a twenty-one night cycle performing one album from their opus per evening, in chronological order.  The Spectacular, performed by this Californian band led by Ron and Russell Maels, included the latest and as the time of the event, the unreleased album Creatures of the Deep.  In total that comes to 250 songs, and totaling approximately 15-1/2 hours of music, beating out Wagner, depending on the pacing, by a cool thirty minutes.  

Endurance theatricals attract a rare bird, drawing the most intrepid who hunger for such an experience,  as the  performer(s) and their audience scale metaphysical heights together, although somewhat uncomfortably. Whether on the stage, or on one’s feet/ass, stuffed in a velveteen theatre seat, or seated cross-legged on a lumpy picnic blanket, nothing can prove comfortable after the first couple of hours or days.  But these super fans are not there to be comfortable. They are super fans.

Why do such a thing you ask? Well if you’re a fanatic, the question does not exist.  And if one can claim that Richard Wagner and Sparks have anything in common, as I’ve just done, it’s because their fairly fanatical fan base will appear no questions asked.  There will be absolutely no trouble selling tickets.  Tosh Berman, author of Sparks-Tastic, 21 Nights with Sparks in London asked very few questions either, beyond the odd existential one, before he purchased a plane ticket against sound judgment (skint), made up his travel itinerary, kept to a strict non-budget (skint again) and boarded a plane from L.A. en famille against all practical reasons to do otherwise.  Even when casually mentioning, at his then day job at a prominent Los Angeles bookstore, his plans to another Sparks superfan, Morrissey, the response was “You’re crazy.”  And although one might think a book resulting from such an adventure would just be about all the songs he liked or how much he’s always been such a huge fan, the book offers a somewhat different and far more entertaining read.  It is rather a travelogue, a mash-up of worlds upon worlds, a good deal of it memoir, and an investigation into the mind of a Sparks super fan which I’m sure he’d have no objection being called. 

The author of Sparks-Tastic, 21 Nights with Sparks in London, may not object to the nomenclature, as he himself proudly and matter-of-factly describes himself as obsessed.  This is partly due to the visual image they project, with one foot in the Modernist twentieth century, and the other god knows where.  Into the strange and wondrous “Sparks” world, a locale he’d never been before the age of 20, but would like to stay for as long as possible.  He had suffered a bout of Beatlemania as a young boy, brought on by his father, the late artist Wallace Berman, and became rather taken with the fantasy of swinging London in general.  Berman describes adolescence where he felt like a miserable teenage angst-ridden anachronism on the dirty hippy side of Topanga Canyon, California.  Although they could have been just another random pop band with intriguing cover art, Sparks arrived into his world just at the right time and with their third release Kimono My House (1974) clutched in his hands, Berman’s brain happily exploded.  It was an operatic, music hall, pre-war Berlin-esque pop inspired release, fueled by an aesthetic and world view he seemed to have been waiting for all his life.

Moreover, it is this album as well as their release Propaganda (1974), which threw him a life and a life preserver before he knew how much he needed one. It encouraged him to find a new vision of himself, if for no one other than himself, and if all else fails, a fetching soundtrack for his life, if it insisted on remaining the same. So he lopped off his hair, took to wearing suits, and wore just a touch of baby powder on his already pale face that left the juicy red lips to pop all on their own. Surely no one in the Topanga Canyon was doing anything like this.  And hopefully now he could find a girlfriend.

As previously mentioned, there are times when the right record comes into your life; right when you need it most and supplants a void that otherwise would become unbearable.  Once in your possession, life is not only bearable it’s fantastic and you couldn’t be luckier than to have this gift.  It’s a life saver, a game changer; the world looks different, better. And you can have the experience or visit the places it takes you it over and over.  This is the most perfect album. The world was one way before the listening, and now another.

However, before he had constructed a solid new persona from his newly found inspirations, the world defied him once again. At the age of 20, in 1976, Tosh Berman’s father, artist Wallace Berman was killed in a car accident.  A major presence in the California art world, he is often considered the “Father of Assemblage art” and most noted for his publication Semina.  Berman, had shared many music highlights with his son, taking him to shows as a youngster such as the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The New York Dolls and David Bowie, which created an even deeper hole, now that he could not share this one of several passions with him.

For as much as there is a pre-Sparks Tosh, there is also a post-father Tosh.  The albums were an inspiration. However, the devastating loss of a parent, the reminder of Life’s ticking clock.  “We get it, we get you and we’re going to help you out,” that much he understood from Russell and Ron.  “There’s nothing strange about you at all. We’re going to help you out.”  They offered him a musical balm for a devastating personal loss in the form of a vinyl disc. The “why” and the “how” still evaded him.  On the other hand, “better get on with it,” was the message from a father now gone. And time was running out, or so it seemed.

It’s not so uncommon that a member of a pop band that you adore walks into your place of work but, this being Hollywood, that indeed happened. A casual and serendipitous meeting in the back of the bookstore by the gift wrapping paper, Berman approaches Russell Mael, and formed a fragile bond, a friendship in the making.  He confesses his admiration, makes a personal request of him to write an introduction to Evguenie Sokolov, an upcoming TamTam publication.

Sparks-Tastic, continues on the Continent, with Berman accompanied by his mother and uncle in Paris for the opening of the exhibition Traces du Sacré at the Centre Pompidou which includes works of art by his father.  Shortly following the opening, the group returns to the States without Berman, leaving him behind to his own devices for a week.  Alone and at times slightly buzzed on cheap French red wine, he wanders along his beloved Saint-Germaine-de-Prés, muses over Fantômas, tries to grocery shop, visits small cafés and the Cimetière du Montparnasse.  He ruminates while roaming the Jardin du Plantes and the Fountain du Medicis.  He cogitates over the Fountain du Medici, Baudelaire and pop icon Serge Gainsbourg. It is a lonely and slightly melancholic time leading up to the big event.

Sparks-Tastic, is divided into four parts: his decision to go to London; Paris; his 21 nights in the audience of the Carling Academy in Islington, and his return home to Los Angeles.  His 21 nights consume the majority of the book. He attends each and every performance faithfully, and spends the following day, chronicling that event.  There are bad albums that sound far superior live, there are bad albums that play badly live.  There are shows where the vast number of ticket holders is middle aged and as the entire discography is played, evening by evening, the crowd gets younger and younger.  He is at times as taken with the audience as he is with the performances.  They become familiar faces, all together and yet, even when singing the lyrics en masse, alone in their own private Sparks worlds.

Although the theme of this book is, on the one hand, about a unique musical extravaganza, it in turn inspires Berman to examine other themes that nearly supersede the tale of being a rabid fan.  One is the clashing between the pop band’s image and music, and in turn, between their lyrics and arrangements.  Ron Mael’s slightly menacing appearance bears as much resemblance to Adolph Hitler as it does to Charlie Chaplin.  There are not many musical groups whose members are as intimidating visually as they are attractive musically as an act like Sparks.  Another is the seduction arising from a lyrical paradox of grounded in wit, charm and a poisoned knife in one’s side.   A title such as “Throw Her Away and Get a New One” and “”When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)” are good examples.  Even while trolling through the punk era, one would be hard pressed to find a similar set of paradoxes.  Punk looked like it sounded.  If the image is threatening it is so to reinforce the band’s musical style.  Not so with Sparks.  The lyrics are witty and droll despite a keyboardist Leni Riefenstahl may have known personally.  

Berman is surrounded by the ghosts of genius and criminality in Islington and Soho as the majority of the writing is done in these two locales.  Too many to mention, his knowledge of London, a lot of it rather lurid, is astonishing and he successfully syncs it into whole experience. But if Paris is any hint, one will encounter pages saturated with the ghosts of the Kray Twins, Joe Orton, Charles Hawtrey, Andew Loog Oldham, Charles and Mary Lamb, and Robert Fraser should give one some idea of the dizzying interweaving of tawdry history, genius,  pop stars and hustlers should give a hint to the reader.

In addition, Sparks-Tastic reveals Berman’s admiration for artists who successfully create self-contained worlds.  His admiration is not limited to the band but extends to individuals such as Walt Disney, Jacques Tati and Liberace.  The greatest artist is one that rejects the real world and creates his/her own from which they needn’t withdraw.  It’s a rejection of the world, of which he really wants no part.   He will turn his back on adult responsibilities and remains forever within a cocoon of pop music.  The artist can accomplish this as easily as the fan.  The outer world is rejected, and an inner world made public allows for the artist to remain within a safer place from which they need never surrender to the mass hallucination called reality.  Who’s to say which reality is more potent?  For Berman it is the artist’s world and if he could remain in it forever, he would.

Sparks-Tastic, 21 Nights with Sparks in London is a fascinating and intriguing read for those interested not only in the band, but of cultural history of Paris, but more importantly London.  Berman shares his personal history and private musings in a fashion so intimate, vulnerable and with such witty immediacy that it is a marvel that it is a book about a rock event.  It is far more than that.  It’s a near perfect mélange of what he hears, what he thinks and what he loves.  One would be hard-pressed to find another example of writing about rock and roll and its effect that compares.  It is truly one of a kind.

***

Sparks-Tastic Twenty-One Nights with Sparks in London

By Tosh Berman

Tosh Berman is the founder of TamTam Books, an independent publishing company specializing in twentieth century international literature—by authors such as Boris Vian, Guy Debord, and Serge Gainsbourg – devoted to the purpose of reprinting los masterpieces, presenting them to a large English-speaking audience.  He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Lun*na Menoh.

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