Feedback Fun

Brothers Russell, Ron, Ron, and Russell Mael of Sparks, in March 1975 and in 2020.

The Carpenters were a ’70s band, not Sparks.

Sometimes the news doesn’t always get things right—whether its today’s headlines, or something from the world of entertainment or sports. Of course, depending on which network one frequents will determine the quantity of inaccuracies and the degree of any particular one. (And, I’ll leave it at that.)

 

For the most part, I find NPR to be as dependable as any news network— hiring not just any journalist, but those with experience, specialization, and plenty of recognition from their professional peers. But, even with those kind of chops, they can fall short from time to time.

 

On July 6, I was listening to All Things Considered (ATC), and the Paris correspondent for NPR, Eleanor Beardsley, was reporting on the opening of the 74th Annual Cannes Film Festival. In her initial/overall report, she pointed out that the opening night film was Annette,a highly anticipated musical by filmmaker Leos Carax, or as some have described it—a modern-day opera. It stars the acclaimed French actress Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver as lovers, with music by the 1970s band, Sparks.”

 

Here’s a link to the story…

The part about Sparks caught my attention as I had just seen the Edgar Wright documentary, The Sparks Brothers.

 

“A ’70s band,” I thought to myself? Well, if they are a ’70s band, then the Rolling Stones and the Beatles are both ’60s bands, but I’ve never heard anyone refer to a band by a particular decade if their work covered multiple decades. And in the case of Sparks, their 25-album discography covers five decades.

 

Soon, I found myself on the NPR “report a correction” web page pointing out this poor generalization of a band that I’ve known since 1975. I briefly stated my argument (listed above) and concluded with, “The Carpenters were a ’70s band, not Sparks.”

 

I had no expectations on a reply except the type that says something like, “This is an automated response confirming that your message has been received by the NPR staff who research corrections,” which I did receive.

 

However the following day, I received an email from Eleanor Beardsley herself—I was almost afraid to open it thinking she was going to blast me and point out how Sparks was indeed a ’70s band.

 

Much to my delight, here is what she had to say:

 

Morgan Tyree,

I got your message about Sparks. Good to know. I’m sorry I didn’t know them. But I’m going to be doing a story about the movie so I will be able to speak more intelligently about the group in the second piece. How would you describe the band, what is the band’s pull, Who follows them? etc.

Thanks!

Eleanor

Eleanor Beardsley, Paris correspondent

 

I replied with a short response saying she would do well to simply watch the trailer for the Edgar Wright documentary. I also included the following:

 

For the most part, they have been on the periphery of the rock ’n’ roll radar, but steadily cranking out a very prolific (and influential) discography since the early ’70s. They don’t dislike commercial success and would certainly welcome it, but that is not what drives them in all of these years—definitely marching to the beat of their own drum (and their art). They did what Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) did before she did it—started in the States (Los Angeles in the case of Sparks), and moved to England where they had their initial success and notoriety with the album Kimono My House.

 

Beardsley responded almost immediately thanking me and asking if I had plans to see Annette.

 

Yet, another example of good journalism practiced at NPR—admitting they didn’t get it quite right and asking for advice in doing so.

 

Photos by: Michael Putland (1975 Sparks) and Anna Webber (2020 Sparks)

A Confirmation of Coolness… Finally

Russell and Ron Mael by Gems/Redferns

While I was laying half asleep the other day, I heard the NPR Morning Edition announcer going through the usual list of sponsors for their show—watered down advertisements that bypass the hype of a product, but simply say who they are.

In that cloudy region of my head I remember hearing something about a new movie/documentary titled the “Sparks Brothers.” Unlike most times, I hear something like this and forget about it, but given the title of the movie, I made a mental note right there in my state of near-awareness to google it when I was more coherent. 

As I was making that note, I thought of the band that I came to know way back in the 9th grade—Sparks—and wondered if this movie was about that same band. Although they weren’t called The Sparks Brothers, two brothers formed the band—Russell and Ron Mael—and it was called Sparks.

As it turned out and much to my delight, the movie is indeed about the band from my youth, Sparks, and the two brothers who created it—Russell and Ron Mael.

Before going any further, I must confess that I was never a huge Sparks fan—a fan for sure nonetheless. I did purchase several of their early albums including “Propaganda,” the album that contained the first Sparks songs I heard.

An acquaintance with Sparks…
While attending Schrop Junior High School in the spring semester of 1975, Tim Kittinger and Terry Verble performed a lip-synch video in our 9th-grade English class of the Sparks song “Achoo.” This little in-class video was shot, recorded and played back in class. Beyond the quirkiness of the actual song, Terry Verble played the no-nonsense Ron Mael on the keyboards providing the lion’s share of the visual spectacle it was. Not long after that, I was chasing down the album for my own listening at home.

On a historical side note, I don’t recall a conversation in class about the video recording technology we used that day, but this must have been something very new for the time as VHS wasn’t out yet and Beta tapes had just been released. I’m guessing this was done on a Beta system the school had just purchased. Whatever the case, I recall watching the recording on a normal television after the production, not a reel-to-reel film that had to be processed.

At that time, I didn’t know how obscure Sparks was (or would continue to be), I just took it for granted that I was a little out of touch, and besides, Kittinger and Verble were way cooler than myself. Yet, looking back now, I wonder how my two classmates came to know of Sparks themselves, especially since few people in my circles knew of Sparks whether it was in high school, college, or any time beyond.

Given the suburbia status of Springfield Township just beyond the city limits of Akron, Ohio, it is still somewhat puzzling that there were so many eclectic students in my class (and surrounding classes) with a knack of discovering various non-mainstream acts like Sparks, or The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Todd Rundgren, and some of the local upstarts in The James Gang and The Michael Stanley Band. Although I really didn’t possess the same creative skills or smarts to be one of these students, I enjoyed their company, their keen wit and drew on their energy for those things beyond what were known and well established.

So, energized by this new movie release, I looked into how a few of us could have come to know about Sparks—way back in pre-internet, pre-MTV 1975.

Just who are Sparks?
Sparks (brothers Russell and Ron Mael) originated in Southern California, and like Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, they made their mark in the U.K. first—only before the Pretenders came along. It was after their success in the U.K. that Sparks experienced some popularity in the States, but it was somewhat limited to certain areas of the country—San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Cleveland.

Now the “How-We-Came-To-Know-Sparks Origin Story” was starting to make sense.

In particular, Cleveland’s WMMS jockey Kid Leo and his colleagues were playing Sparks, while the influential radio station sponsored a Sparks concert at the Akron Civic Theater on April 17, 1975 and a follow up show the next day at the Cleveland Music Hall. It’s very possible that my old junior high classmates had actually attended the performance at the nearby Civic Theater. And, given this was a time before MTV and music videos, attending the Civic Theater performance might explain how Verble knew how to mimic Ron Mael on the keyboards.

Passing it on.
It wasn’t long after the purchase of my first Sparks album that my best friend, Steve, who attended one of the Akron High Schools, also came to know of Sparks through me. In return, he would introduce me to other music that I adopted to my music collection starting with Jim Croce, Queen, Tom Waits, Jimmy Buffett and John Prine.

This started me thinking about how I came to know the various musicians and bands in my current music library—especially the ones that share a sense of obscurity with Sparks.

Seniors Mike Walent and Richard Sapronetti would have our art teacher, Mr. Bako, play The Sensational Alex Harvey band during my sophomore year with “Midnight Moses” becoming one of my favorite guitar riffs of all time.

The WMMS jockeys adopted and delivered Springsteen to Northeast Ohio before he was huge, Michael Stanley as he was gaining traction in Northeast Ohio and even the obscure live recording “Friday On My Mind” by a band from San Francisco appropriately called Earth Quake. This song was engrained in all of us as one of three songs played every Friday at 6.00 pm to mark the beginning of the weekend. The other two songs that kicked off the weekend were Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” and Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks.” (For those familiar with the WMMS Weekend Salute: Don’t think for one moment that I’ve forgotten Murray Saul. That’s a post of its own for another time.)

More recently, thanks to Wyoming Public Radio, I’ve come to know the music of Cincinnati-based singer and songwriter, Kim Taylor and Chicago/L.A.-based Gold Motel. Finally, during a field trip to Portland, a student of mine arranged for us to see Todrick Hall, while an episode of Letterkenny had my partner and I looking up Canadian artist Peaches and downloading some of her more-than-suggestive music.

Looking back, much of the more obscure music I’ve come to know over the years, seems to have come to me by way of these whimsical, short, odd (and yes, even obscure) moments in life where I happened to be in the right places at the right times. And, after watching this movie, I’m pretty sure I’ll be playing more of Sparks without the worry of explaining the music to anyone who comes along and says, “What/Who the hell is that?”

See the official Sparks Brothers trailer HERE.

Another Nominal Post

This was a spectacular flight over Ten Sleep Canyon on the western front of the Big Horn Mountains, but the flight itself was truly nominal.

Nominal. Why isn’t it more popular to use in everyday conversation? During the Perseverance mission to Mars, that word must have been used over 100 times during the last couple hours of the vehicles final approach to the red planet. NASA has been using it for years. Why hasn’t it caught on yet?

 

Even Elon Musk used the word recently when he tweeted about newest Space X Starship prototype, “Starship landing nominal.”

 

A typical dictionary definition for nominal is something like, “functioning normally or acceptably.” Yet, how might it sound in everyday language?

 

“Hey Morgan, how are you?”

“Oh, I’m pretty much nominal.”

 

“His graphic design project is nominal.”

 

“That was a nominal meal!”

 

Perhaps the problem with “nominal” is it sounds too much like “normal,” and for anything to be normal, it’s just not worthy of  mentioning.

 

In this day and age, we don’t like talking about things that are nominal. In fact, we seem to prefer hearing about one’s troubles or misfortunes rather than about all things that are nominal in their life.

 

Still, I think it has a chance. If the word “dope” can go from the nickname of drugs to something that is fantastic, there’s certainly hope for “nominal” as well.

Waste & Aesthetic of Energy Systems

Wind Farm, Iowa

Because I’ve been pretty outspoken against fossil fuels over the years, a few people I know like to remind me of the wind turbine blade landfill near Casper, Wyoming—pointing out to me that after the blades have been used up due to wind erosion and whatever else wears them down, they have a dedicated place for disposal in this supersized landfill. Currently there is no recycling options for them other than covering them with dirt (see link below).

 

Their reminder about this always strikes me as a little odd. They say it as if the fossil fuel industry has nothing in comparison, or almost as if they are unaware of any waste or discarded material when it comes to the fossil fuel industry. When in truth, much of the fossil fuel waste is simply laying around unused where it was last operational or it simply ends up in the everyday landfills. Further, harnessing the wind and sun have no significant residual by-products like that of the fossil fuel industry.

 

Just because the fossil fuel industry has no “dedicated” spaces for their trash, doesn’t mean there is none. I would even reason based on the wide variety of equipment you find in any oil or gas field that the amount of trash probably surpasses that which is generated by renewables—for the simple reason there are fewer moving parts when it comes to renewables, especially with solar. Further, whether the waste is renewable or not, I’ll bet my paycheck that the waste generated by renewables is far less toxic than the waste coming from fossil fuel operations.

 

Regardless, I’m not here to argue which industry generates more waste. The point is anything that is of this world generates waste—automobiles, appliances, construction, medical equipment, textiles, printing and publishing, shipbuilding, agriculture, hospitality, aviation, etc. Sooner or later, everything wears out, and waste is the result, period.

 

Then there is the aesthetic of it all. Granted, anything man-made in the wilderness is not great, because, well… it’s man made and doesn’t look natural. So, given the two offerings of a fossil fuel landscape or a renewable energy landscape, I’ll take the renewables every time. Not because they can’t be seen, but because the visual they offer includes simple lines and shapes along with various patterns, and a minimal amount of peripheral and chaotic related structures. (See photos).

 

Yes, a wind farm can be seen from far off, but it is anything but ugly. Keep in mind, power lines and their transmission towers are just as visible from far away whether they carry electricity from a coal-fired power plant or a wind farm, and are probably here for a long time to come.

 

Lastly, there is no odor associated with renewables—and certainly nothing that can make you dead before you hit the ground like hydrogen sulfide (H2S). 

 

I’ve witnessed many travelers stopping and just simply gazing at a wind farm for its grandness, quietness and simplicity. But, I don’t recall (ever) hearing someone say, “Let’s go out to the gas fields and look at the structures,” or “Let’s go watch the pumpjacks!” Not to say there are some exceptions to this twisted idea.

 

 

Which would you rather view?

Attack from Below

Shoshoni Punks.

Today I flew my drone several times on the way to Casper, Wyoming for a recruiting trip. One of my “sorties” was in the small town of Shoshoni, Wyoming. As I was driving through town, I saw that the old “downtown” area where they leveled the derelict buildings was mostly vacant, but the community appeared to have built a nice little basketball court with a fence around it—and their were some young males playing there. I didn’t get a good look, but if I had to guess, I’d say they were freshman or sophomores in high school.

I pulled over at the public restrooms located a little farther down the main drag and decided I would fly my drone over the railroad track until I reached the new basketball court and capture a couple images of the new recreation space.

The drone was about 60-70 feet high as it made its way toward the court—higher than any trees in town. I could see through the drone’s camera that the young men/boys must have heard the drone because they stopped suddenly and looked up as they started walking toward the other end of the court where the drone was. Although I wasn’t over the court, I must have been close enough that they heard the whirling props.

One of the youth took the basketball and threw it in the direction of the drone… not coming close at all. But then I could see that the other boys were squatting down on the side of the court and suddenly came running toward the drone with a throwing motion—no doubt, probably picked up some rocks and were heaving them in the drone’s direction.

Naturally, I flew away and found a couple other things to photograph before bringing it back to the rest stop and continuing my journey towards Casper.

But, that little incident stayed with me as I made my way down the road—considering the action from Shoshoni’s youths. I was reminded of the old movies about aliens visiting Earth and how humans are often portrayed as violent and militant in their first contact of those things that are a mystery to them.

I wondered, if I had walked down their with a camera around my neck, would they have thrown rocks at me too? Probably not, but something less familiar to them like a drone was immediately perceived as what… a threat, someone spying on them in their public basketball game? Maybe they just wanted to see it crash, but I found their vicious reaction a bit disheartening.

I thought of myself at the same age and wondered if I would have reacted the same way. I’d like to think I would have only stopped and observed—maybe even a little wave at the small aircraft suspended overhead.

Many people who are born and raised in Wyoming often display or express suspicion of those who aren’t the same. If I was given $100 for every time someone told me to “go back to Ohio, Arizona (or even California),” I’d be a rich man by now. Perhaps these youth in Shoshoni had simply illustrated that same, small-minded temperament.

Volunteers Needed

George Floyd under the knee of Derek Chauvin.

There’s a contingency of individuals out there who insist that George Floyd died from a drug overdose instead of affixation. I suppose it is possible, but a little experiment needs to take place first—and a simple experiment at that.

Starting with the defense team of Derek Chauvin (or the jury), one of its members should step forward and volunteer to be handcuffed, face down on the asphalt and have the weight of a… say, 180-pound man kneel on the back and side of their neck for almost ten minutes.

It would be an easy test to refute the claim that Mr. Floyd was indeed murdered by Chauvin. All they’d have to do is endure about 10 minutes of what is likely to be an uncomfortable experience—but certainly survivable, right?

And just to make sure that nothing goes wrong, unlike George Floyd’s experience, this little test will be closely monitored so if—for example—the volunteer passes out, the pressure will be released and a medical expert will be there to revive them if needed. They would also have the option to “tap out” much like a mixed-martial arts contest if they feel they can’t go any longer.

That seems like a simple enough request. Who wants to volunteer?

Midwest Midnight

The following was written for National Public Radio in response to their request (for listeners) to answer the following question: What music has changed your life? This post first appeared in October 2007.

An Akron Goodyear Factory Building… now gone.

Growing up in Akron, Ohio, working-class rock-and-roll music seemed to find its way into nearly every home—ours was no exception. And while Dylan, Springsteen, and Mellencamp permeated the airwaves, the one song that stirred me to my soul (and still does to this day) was written and performed by a singer and band that fell just short of national stardom status—Midwest Midnight by The Michael Stanley Band.

Stanley once said that Midwest Midnight was, “…the most honest song I’ve ever written,” and it was the first song that spoke to me about my hometown—or at least that part of the country that I called home. Stanley’s anthem left me feeling that there was no denying who I was or where I was from—no matter where I chose to live following my high school graduation in 1978.

It’s funny how one can know the words of a song by heart after all these years and still only possess a vague notion of the song’s intended message—such is art. Today, the lyrics of Midwest Midnight are still abstract to me and at 47-years-old, I would have thought this little mystery would have been solved by now. Perhaps I really don’t need to know what Stanley was trying to say because his song has woven its way into the fiber that defines me, which is understood, but not necessarily articulated.

Living in the wide-open spaces that straddle the Wyoming and Montana border, I consider myself a Westerner now. And while my taste in music has expanded exponentially over the years, every now and then my MP3 player will select Midwest Midnight in the shuffle mode and I’m instantly taken back to the world of Northeast Ohio—its overcast skies, industrial skylines and its proud, working-class ambience.

Excerpt from Midwest Midnight
Why can’t she see what she’s doing to me
If that bandstand girl only was here
And I’m living the dream, getting lost on the screen,
doing Presley in front of the mirror…
And I’m hanging around, getting high on the sounds
of the ladies and electric guitars
Cross a double yellow line to who knows where
with six sets of glory a night in some bar…

(CHORUS:)
Midwest midnight
Ten thousand watts of holy light
from my radio so clear…
Bodies glistening, everybody’s listening
as the man plays all the hits that you want to hear.

Postscript: Michael Stanley passed away on March 5, 2021 after a short battle with lung cancer. His last performance was in March of 2020 at the Akron Civic Theatre just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Here’s a video of Stanley singing another early song and a favorite, The Rosewood Bitters, recorded in his basement on April of 2020.

In 2019, WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz interviewed Stanley for his Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award. LISTEN HERE for the interview.

Inocculation Observations

Today I received my first COVID-19 vaccine. It was fairly uneventful, yet here I am somehow writing about it. I filled out a one-page form and before I knew it, I was taking off my jacket and rolling up my sleeve for the curly-haired, red-headed nurse.

In our short visit, I found her sense of humor and bed-side manner a pleasant surprise given the gravity of a pandemic. She said sternly, “Morgan, take off your clothes,” and then chuckled. The only reply I could come up with at the moment was, “Gee, I haven’t heard that in a long time.” If I could do it all over again, I probably would have said something even more self-deprecating like, “Oh, you’ll be so disappointed.”

I knew a few people there for the same reason. I found it amusing how some of the men—older of course—felt the need to remove their shirt rather than roll up their sleeve to receive the vaccine. I don’t know, maybe it was a long-sleeve kind-of-thing, but I was reminded of my father. Even in his late years, he never had second thoughts about being shirtless. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Regardless, after I turned 40, I felt pretty certain that no one would see me shirtless in public even if it was Jay-Lo wagging her “come hither” finger at me from her hotel balcony.

My partner, Mish did her fair share of socializing with the medical staff as well—especially after her inocculation. We sat together afterwards and she told me of her moments with the nurse and needle—as we witnessed another shirtless, old-guy with man-boobs directly in front of us receiving his vaccine.

Looking around the cavernous room of others visiting at the fairgrounds I considered how normal mask-wearing was becoming in any given social setting. I wondered if this new norm might have some staying power long after the pandemic is behind us. If one needs any evidence to support such a possibility, look no further than  the Japanese culture and their practice of mask-wearing, long before any pandemic was on the horizon. It seems very possible that the rest of the world will now see the wisdom in that practice of social hygiene. 

The actual shot was pretty typical of any—like a bee sting that doesn’t last very long. Six hours after getting the shot, the only thing I have noticed unusual is that my arm is sore where I received the injection—reminiscent of the occasional charly-horses John Polinger administered back in junior high. I do feel a bit fatigued as well, but that’s more likely just attributed to another Thursday and knowing that the bulk of my class load is behind me for another week. Whatever aches or pains come with this vaccine, I’m thinking they’ll blend right in with the aches and pains that come with a 60-year-old body. 

Stay tuned for Part II.

A Recipe for a Greater America

The Mars rover Perseverance is slowly lowered to
the Martian surface by the onboard sky crane.

You want to talk about making America great (again)? I’ve news for you—it’s already here.

It was on full display this past Thursday in NASA’s Pasadena, California Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) when the Perseverance rover was lowered onto the surface of Mars after a seven-month journey covering over 300 million miles.

No matter how you look at it, the landing of the car-sized Perseverance on the Martian surface was a great event that went without a hitch. And, great events don’t happen without great people running the show.

As I witnessed this event unfold, I started noting how many people of color and how many women were part of this show—starting with Swati Mohan, the mission’s guidance, navigation, and control operations lead. I have no idea what the demographic breakdown of the mission’s team is, but it certainly didn’t resemble anything like those Apollo missions with a room full of Anglos assembled in Houston’s mission control back in the 60s and 70s.

I read recently that NASA as a whole still has a long way to go in terms of diversity, with 72% White and 34% women employees. I’d be surprised if those were the same numbers on the Perseverance mission team.

If we truly witnessed greatness the other day—and I believe we did—then the recipe for greatness was right in front of us in the diversified gathering of individuals who define the Perseverance mission to Mars.