Oy, the Mael Boys Already!

I’ve been a fan of sibling art-rockers Sparks for many years, from seeing them on Top of the Pops in the 1970s (John Lennon, Hitler on the telly, blah) to seeing them many times live at various locations with my cousin, also a fan. My wife, however, has never got the appeal; there’s a broad spectrum of musical taste that we do share, from Queen to The Monkees, but when it comes to Sparks she’s always failed to – employing some casual Sparksism – get in the swing. I don’t mind; couples don’t have to share every one of each other’s tastes – in fact, there’s something slightly odd about those that do. Nevertheless, these moments come along when worlds inevitably collide and something from my sphere of interest intersects with that of the missus; such a moment has just happened very recently.

The popular American comedy-drama Gilmore Girls, which ran from 2000 to 2007, is probably not something that I would have chosen to watch in my bachelor days; the fact that it revolves around three generations of women in an upper-middle class Connecticut family makes it, or so I thought, almost by definition a girl thing. Yet, a few years ago I was off sick from work during a time that my wife would regularly watch reruns of Gilmore Girls in the afternoon on one of the UK’s digital channels. As much of a surprise to me as anyone, I found that I really enjoyed the odd episode that I saw; it was witty, good natured and incredibly well-written. The only down side was that its warm cosiness sped my recovery and I had to go back to work after only a handful of episodes.

I kinda wanted to watch them all and my wife owned all 7 original series on DVD – but she’d loaned them to someone and never got them back, so that was the end of that. However, a number of years pass and COVID is upon us; in an effort to fill those long lockdown hours, we get Netflix, Amazon Prime and Britbox – the whole package. And guess what’s on Netflix? Only all 7 bloomin’ seasons of Gilmore Girls… PLUS the 2016 revival Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Well, we’ve got to watch it all, haven’t we? It’d be rude not to! So, watching Gilmore Girls becomes our cosy evening ritual during the long winter nights.

As early as the first series, Rory, the youngest of the three generations of Gilmores (I’m not gonna explain the entire premise to you – if you’re interested, go out and watch it) is supplying new CDs to her friend Lane, who hides her obsession with rock music from her deeply Christian Korean mother, and she says “I’ve got you the latest Sparks.” I was taken aback; Sparks’ following is quite cultish and I wasn’t expecting to hear their name evoked on what started as a prime-time TV show. There must be a fan on the production, I thought; later series confirmed it, with Rory’s boyfriend Logan listening to Suburban Homeboy in one scene and even a burst of Angst in My Pants as Rory’s mother Lorelei throws a cup of coffee over a wedding dress (don’t ask).

Realising that there was a link between Sparks and Gilmore Girls, I got on the internet to find out if there were any other references that I had missed – and imagine my surprise when I discovered that Ron and Russell Mael actually appeared on the show in the final episode of season 6! At the time we were only up to around season 4, so I was torn between wanting to see the episode with Sparks in it and not wanting to leap ahead to the end of season 6, because that would mean we were only one season away from the end of the regular series. It was a dilemma alright, but I was a good boy and I didn’t skip ahead in the episodes on Netflix, instead waiting patiently for the story in which Sparks made their appearance. Finally, towards the beginning of episode 22 of season 6, it happened… and it looked like this:

If you’ve not seen the episode and you’re wondering exactly what Sparks are doing in Stars Hollow, the story is this: the Town Troubadour (Grant Lee Phillips), who has spent the last 6 years wandering occasionally into shot providing a sort of ‘live’ musical accompaniment to certain scenes, is departing the town for pastures new – or so people think – prompting a deluge of musical artistes keen to take his place, including Ron and Russell Mael from Sparks, the members of Sonic Youth and several solo singers. Some have lines, others do not. Ron and Russell are the first to appear and perform directly to camera, breaking the fourth wall.

Sparks perform an excerpt from Perfume, a single from their most recent album at the time, Hello Young Lovers. They start at the sprechgesang section of the song, where Russell talks about the olfactory sense being the sense that most strongly evokes memories of the past, then taking great delight in delivering the line ‘Well, screw the past!’ on network television. There’s something surreal about Sparks’ appearance on the show because not only are they directly addressing the camera, as I mentioned earlier, but unlike the other acts, who’re largely playing acoustic instruments, Ron is playing a full-size Motif keyboard with no visible means of how he’s powering it. They’re not exactly your typical buskers, but their performance makes for a terrific start to the show.

Sadly, the advent of episode 22 of season 6 meant that there was very little of Gilmore Girls left, and our nightly odyssey was coming to an end. We watched A Year in the Life too, in which the producers managed to astoundingly reassemble a huge ensemble cast after over a decade (apart from the much-missed Edward Hermann, who sadly passed away 2014) and it stands up incredibly well in a market where many other belated revivals have fallen. It didn’t have any Sparks in it, of course, but y’know, you can’t have everything. And besides, there’s Sparks aplenty on the horizon, what with Edgar Wright’s movie documentary and another album in the works. I’m not sure I can get me wife interested in watching or listening to any of them though.

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