Tosh Berman’s “Sparks-tastic: Twenty-One Nights With Sparks in London” (Barnacle Books: 220 pp., $14 paper) is exactly what it sounds like: the chronicle of a 21-night stand in London, in which the rock band Sparks played every one of their albums, back-to-back-to-back. Berman portrays himself as the world’s most obsessive aficionado, traveling for a month to England, where he wrestles not only with loneliness and economic worries but also issues of identity.
“[S]ince we’re talking about pop music,” he writes early in the book, “we’re also talking about image — how one lives out a life that is also an image, while projecting that image to the outside world.” In a very real way, then, “Sparks-tastic” is a kind of dream journal in three dimensions, in which the dream in question is neither that of the band nor of the audience individually, but rather something that is shared.
Berman is a Los Angeles original. Son of the artist Wallace Berman, who died in 1976 at age 50 in a Topanga Canyon automobile accident, he was briefly executive director of Beyond Baroque and spent a long time working at Book Soup in West Hollywood before leaving last year. He runs the independent press Tam Tam Books, which specializes in “lost” 20th century writers such as the French novelist Boris Vian.
Recently, Berman and I corresponded, via email, about his book.
“Sparks-tastic” is about many things: Solitude, obsession, following one's instincts and, of course, the band Sparks. How did it evolve?
I pictured the structure of the book in my head before I wrote it. I knew there would be an introduction, an afterword and 21 chapters based on each album and show by Sparks in London. Also, I planned from the start that the book would not be a band biography, but more about my experiences in London seeing and thinking about Sparks.
My first thought — before even the possibility of writing a book — was to maybe see the first show, and then I thought, “Nah, you might as well see the second show as well.” The next morning I woke up knowing I had to see all 21 shows, as well as write the book.
Sparks is basically Ron Mael and Russell Mael. I discovered them by their third album “Kimono My House,” which hit me like a bullet. My first impression of Sparks was their visuals -- specifically the photograph of Ron and Russell on the back of that album. Russell, the lead singer, looks like the typical glam rock guy, but he had an edge. Ron, the older brother, was dressed in pre-World War II clothing, with a Hitler/Chaplin mustache. At the time I was shocked by this, and the juxtaposition with Russell in the photograph. It didn't strike me as bad taste, but more of pushing the envelope. Also, I was attracted to the duality of the Chaplin/Hitler image. Each character is the total opposite of each other, yet they share that mustache! Of course, Chaplin picked up on this with his film “The Great Dictator.” Nevertheless in a pop music format, it was almost a taboo image for me.
You write about loneliness and the double-edged pleasure of spending time by yourself. Do you think fanhood is a solitary pursuit?
There are two types of fanhood. One is the community, where you are part of a large group. The second is when you are devoted to an artist or band that doesn't have that community. Writing this book was about solitude for me, and most of it was written as a journal as the shows went on. My basic schedule was to wake up, eat a banana and drink a cup of coffee, write and then around 3 p.m. head toward Islington, where all but one of the concerts took place. Have dinner at Wagamama, an Asian food chain in London that is next door to the venue. See the show, and rush back to my room to write more. It was very much like a job, and any spare time, I would wander around London....
One of your most interesting moves is to write about the shows tangentially — you’re there, but it's not a song-by-song breakdown.
The song-by-song breakdown doesn't interest me. What interests me are the emotions or feelings that come out of a show. Watching Ron Mael on stage reminds me of a slapstick comedian, and then I start thinking of the English Music Hall, and by coincidence, the theater Charlie Chaplin played at, before he went to America, is just around the corner. I know Sparks are fans of the silent comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Stan Laurel, but how did that appreciation get into their music? Not only that, I also think about Ron and Russell as brothers and what that means to the concept that is Sparks.
My favorite artists, and Morrissey is another one, are those who bring their culture into their music or aesthetic plane. They don't come out of nowhere, and what interests me about Sparks is their strong visual sensibility that goes back to slapstick and English music hall humor, which by the way is unusual for a pair of guys raised on the Westside of Los Angeles!
What about the role of obsession? This is an obsessive book.
What fascinates me about an artist is not only what they produce, but also how they represent a culture. Sparks represents something larger than the two brothers on stage. It is music that has roots in the classic era of the Broadway musical as well as European cinema. Especially the works of Jacques Tati, who seems to fit perfectly in Sparks world.
If you ask about my favorite authors or favorite musicians, my first thought is in groupings — for instance, authors who wrote about Soho London life, or London Mod bands from the early '60s. Or the Yé-Yé French pop scene of the mid-'60s and the New York City punk scene of the early '70s. I like the individual bands, but the first thing for me is the scene or movement that those bands came from. After that, I get into the individual artist, writer or musician.
Speaking of artists, your father plays a big role in the book.
My dad Wallace Berman is to this day the important person in my life. Even though he died in 1976, I dream about him on a regular basis. I never got over the shock of his sudden death by car accident. As an artist he was fearless, and I think I picked up that aspect of his personality. He wasn't articulate in words, but by action, yes.
You write that punk gave you the liberty to start over, although you'd never really thought about what it meant to destroy the past.
The ground zero aspect of punk appealed to me right away. At the time, I was around 20 or 21, and had a lifetime of record buying as well as going to shows since I was 10 years old — or maybe younger, because I went to a lot of shows with my Dad and Mom. But the idea of rock being dead or destroyed … I liked that a lot. The idea of starting over in a radical mode really inspired me. Looking back it was naïve and innocent, but it was very exciting to me, although it was also a time of great despair, with respect to my father's death and dealing with the after-affects of that and all the changes.
Late in the book, you describe these Sparks shows as an extended conceptual art piece for both performers and audience alike.
These days it is not unusual for a band to do an album live onstage. Sparks, on the other hand, did their entire catalog live in London, 21 albums in 21 nights. Even the albums that didn't sell or attract attention! This struck me as an interesting concept, to present your life’s work from the beginning to the end.
Being a member of the audience who went to every show, I was on this journey with the band that was extremely intense due to different factors. One was financial: Could I afford to stay in London for that whole period? Also, how would I deal with the albums I wasn’t crazy about? In this sense, beyond economics, I had to trust the band. I never in my life took such a chance like this, where I was committed to the shows, which meant I had to stay in London no matter what, and confront a band's career. It wasn’t life or death (well, to me it was!) but here, it struck me that the fan made the same commitment as the band.