Sparks

Some might find me borderline attractive from afar

But afar is not where I can stay and there you are

—-Sparks, Johnny Delusional
Sparks, Propaganda album cover.

There are so many thousands of streaming choices, yet it is so hard to find something to watch.

For some reason I chose the documentary The Sparks Brothers on Netflix. The title is a joke, of course, there are no Sparks Brothers. There are brothers – Russel (the good-looking heartthrob singer) and Ron (the odd-looking genius songwriter and keyboardist) Mael – and there is Sparks – a long running (25 albums and counting) and very odd band… but there are no Sparks Brothers nor Brothers Spark.

I have a little history of Sparks fandom. I missed their early years – we forget in this internet age how difficult it was to track oddball musical groups from Kansas and Nicaragua – no matter how interesting and good they were. I do think I saw them on Don Kersher’s Rock Concert in 1974 – but other than Ron’s Hitler mustache and strange demeanor – I didn’t remember much.

A decade later they re-invented themselves to fit in with the MTV generation and they had a hit song, Cool Places:

I hat a bit of a crush on Jane Wiedlen (at any rate, she was my favorite Go-Go) and I became a Sparks fan. My roommate was also a fan (and a more accomplished student of popular music than I) and we actually went to a concert at Tango – on lower Greenville – here in Dallas – probably in 1983 or 4. I remember the show and really enjoyed it – but Tango was my favorite spot in the world at the time (I was in my mid-to-late 20’s) and any concert there was a blast.

Not long after that I was married then with kids and any attempts at keeping up with alternative music was drowned out in a three decade long tsunami of art projects, soccer practice, and working my ass off to pay for everything.

Now, from watching the documentary, I discovered that the two brothers went through a number of dry spells – but kept reinventing their music and getting the occasional hit in the occasional country and have survived until this day. I think I’ll dial them up on Spotify and make up a playlist.

The fun thing about these documentaries that follow a band for decades is how you can watch and relate what the band was doing to your own life at that time. It actually manages to give a little more perspective on your time in this world of strife and pain.

I learned a few interesting things about the band. One, I had never appreciated their lyrics. Ron writes from the heart – and though the songs are often funny and quirky – they had a dark heart. I think I’ll copy some over, there might be something to learn, some inspiration in there somewhere. There sure are a lot of them.

Another tidbit is a live project they did – in 2007… at that time they had 20 albums out and were about to release their 21st… they performed all their albums in order, one per night, for 20 nights – culminating with their new album on the 21st. Think of how hard this would be – hundreds of songs – they rehearsed for months – how would you remember the songs from the 1st album while you were working on number 20?

Finally, I learned that Russell Mael had a brief affair with Jane Wiedlen back in the day. Lucky dog.

Here’s my current favorite Sparks song:

The Return of the Dancing Frogs

Even though it was over thirty years ago, I remember the first time I walked into Tango like it was yesterday. I had been living in Dallas for a couple years – living just off Lower Greenville in the Turtle Dove apartments behind the Granada Theater. Farther down the street, in Lowest Greenville, Shannon Wynne built a new nightclub.

It was a huge converted bank building – and it was something else. There was the big main room with a balcony all around – a great place for live music. There was a terrible restaurant in an unbelievably loud room off the balcony. The walls were lined with televisions, all screaming nasty early 80’s rock videos. Then, down a back stairway, was my favorite spot – the Aquarium Bar. This was an elevated dance floor – sort of like a big, rectangular boxing ring, that filled all but a narrow strip around the edge of the room. All night extremely loud dance music would boom from speakers only a couple feet over your head – while the lights spun and flashed. Behind some sort of glass wall costumed dancers would sometimes perform in fish suits… I think.

You had to be there.

I think the wildest night I was there was one concert – Brave Combo opened up for Joe “KING” Carrasco and the Crowns, with Johnny Reno and the Sax Maniacs playing backup. Believe it or not – the last set was filmed (badly) and is still available on blurry Youtube.

(If you have time to watch this video – check out the interviews – a young Mike Rhyner at 5:55 and a very, very young Lisa Loeb at 11:10)

The place was fantastic, but it lost money hand over fist and closed after little more than a year. The bank building was torn down and a Taco Cabana Mexican Fast Food restaurant went up in that spot.

But what most people remember Tango for was the frogs on the roof. While the bank building was being renovated Bob Daddy-O Wade was commissioned to make a half-dozen giant frogs to be placed on the roof. Dallas (at that time, especially) had no sense of humor and the city decided, in its infinite bureaucratic wisdom, that the frogs (two dancing, one each playing the guitar, saxophone, trumpet and maracas) were in violation of the city sign ordinance and had to come down.

The court battle made the national news:

New York Times Article on Tango’s Frogs – DALLAS SIGN PANEL BANS 6 GIANT PERFORMING FROGS

and after much hullabaloo they were exonerated and allowed to stay. Not long after that, the place went belly-up and the frogs were sold off.

Three went to the roof of a mega-gas-station south of Dallas. I used to see them down there whenever I drove to Austin and meant to stop and get some pictures (for old times’ sake) but never pulled it off. The other three (guitar, sax, and maracas) went to Chuy’s Mexican restaurant in Austin – then on to the Chuy’s in Nashville, where they still are.

Googlemaps Street View of Nashville – there are the frogs!

So now, after all these years, I read in the paper that the three frogs (the dancing pair and the trumpet player) have returned to town and have been placed on top of the Taco Cabana at the same spot were Tango used to sit. They even seemed to get permission from the city first.

I had to see this. I rode my bike down to the DART station – took the train to the underground CityPlace station and rode the extreme escalators up to the surface. It was a short bike ride on to Lower Greenville where, as clear as could be, were the three frogs up on the roof.

They had hired a talented local mural painter, Stylle Read, to repaint the frogs and bring them back to their state of glory, then mounted them up on the roof.

A lot of people were stopping and taking pictures of the frogs. Talking to them, I was the only person old enough to have actually been in Tango when it was open (most had never seen or heard of the frogs, a few had seen them at the gas station).

It’s sort of a silly thing, but I feel good that they have come home.

Dancing frogs on the roof of Taco Cabana

Dancing frogs on the roof of Taco Cabana

Artists' Signatures - Bob Wade, and Stylle Read

Artists’ Signatures – Bob Wade, and Stylle Read

Dancing Frogs and a 5 Dollar Chicken Fajita Bowl.

Dancing Frogs and a 5 Dollar Chicken Fajita Bowl.

Frog Playing Trumpet.

Frog Playing Trumpet.

They're Back!

They’re Back!