Your car creeps along the
rutted quarter-mile driveway, headlight beams bouncing in the
dark through a tunnel of trees and bramble. Awaiting you at
the end of the line is a 64-year-old genius named Pierre Sprey
- a guy whose airplanes win wars, whose music recordings delight
audiophiles, and whose name still makes some three-star generals
splutter with rage.
After parking your car in
the weeds, you grope toward the unlit entrance of a century-old
mansion, four white columns across the front porch, plantation-style.
This is Sprey's home, his office, his think tank, his recording
studio. But, to put it mildly, the place is a shambles.A glance
through the front screen reveals peeling paint, cracked plaster,
a slab of plywood hanging at a crazy angle from the ceiling.
A piano sits in the middle of the living room. Tables and chairs
are piled with a riotous clutter of wires, books, boxes, batteries,
papers and CDs. There are stereo speakers as tall as Shaquille
O'Neal. Ribbons of copper dangle from a hat rack like drying
You are hardly the first
visitor to be taken aback.
"It looked like a mad
scientist's laboratory," recalls congressional staffer
"My first impression
was, how can anyone live here?" says writer Robert Coram.
"I was not anywhere
near prepared for what we walked into," says mandolin player
Tony Williamson. "The guys in my band looked at me like,
what have you gotten us into?"
"Hey," says Pentagon
reformer Chuck Spinney, a longtime buddy of Sprey's, "it's
luxurious compared to the house he used to live in."
The squalor, though, doesn't
matter, they say, and within a few minutes you're inclined to
agree. Sprey may well be the most fascinating person you've
never heard of. Influential, too, though not in the usual Washington
way of lobbyists or politicians. His is the power of the artist
or inventor in search of the cutting edge, of the thinker who
will pursue a good idea to the edge of reason even as the crowd
with all the money and titles herds to the same old places.
Doubters of the impact of Sprey's thinking can ask the Iraqi
tank commanders whose divisions were decimated by his aeronautic
offspring, the A-10 "Warthog." Probably the single
most effective weapon in the Persian Gulf War, it was built
in spite of an Air Force brass that bemoaned it as too ugly,
too simple and, yes, too cheap.
Or ask some reviewers for
CD Review or other music magazines, a community that regularly
raves about the quality of Sprey-engineered CDs. The recordings
released by his homegrown Mapleshade Studio make it sound as
if a band has assembled for a jam session in your living room.
It's an effect he achieves by building his own oddball equipment
and ignoring the recording industry's conventional wisdom of
mixing boards, overdubs and multi-tracking. Better still, ask
the guys who were so appalled to come upon Sprey's tumbledown
home, his rented rural outpost in the creeping D.C. suburbia
along U.S. 301, just east of Upper Marlboro.
Burke, the congressional
aide, who discovered Sprey through music but now consults him
on military affairs, says, "He's just a radically different
thinker, and has a different take on everything."
Coram, the writer, who has
interviewed most of Sprey's old gang at the Pentagon, says,
"He probably has the most intimidating intellect of anyone
I've ever met."
Williamson, the musician,
who coaxed his bluegrass band into recording at Mapleshade,
says, "The first playback did it for all of us. We passed
the headphones around, listening to the tape, and everybody's
jaws just dropped down to their knees."
Then there is Spinney, Sprey's
one-time partner in Pentagon rebellion: "Pierre goes into
things like a rapier. He is the ultimate empiricist."
So who cares, then, if his
cluttered household will never make the cover of Martha Stewart
Living. His mind is moving too quickly to notice the mess.
The problem with insulation
"That's the way he has
always been. He is extremely focused, and everything else just
falls by the wayside," says another ex-Pentagon buddy,
James Burton, who recounted their struggles to reform the Defense
Department in his 1993 book, The Pentagon Wars.
But his real magic, according
to Chuck Spinney's wife, Alison, is in making visitors forget
the surrounding mess as well, whether they've come for a gourmet
dinner, a recording session or to discuss the latest logistical
capabilities of the U.S. Air Force.
Says Alison (who refers to
Sprey as "the sexiest man I've ever met" as her husband
laughs along): "He's perfectly charming, and he can talk
to anyone at any level about anything, and make you feel great
Well, how about stereo speaker
cable, a pretty dull topic but one that can get him rolling.
It turns out that's what those copper ribbons hanging from his
hat rack by the door are. Sprey and engineering buddy Ron Bauman
designed them, and sell them in the Mapleshade catalog. Closer
inspection shows they're paper thin, and sleeved in something
like cellophane. Whatever happened to regular old stranded wire?
"We never use stranded
wire," Sprey says. "As soon as you put threads of
wire together, you start ruining the sound."
But what's with the clear
insulation? Wouldn't the plastic stuff from Radio Shack be sturdier?
"You have to think of
a wire as a field," he says, warming to the topic. "A
wire is almost like an antenna with a field around it that is
expanding and collapsing with the music. And the field around
the wire, no matter what the insulation, extends out to several
"The problem with insulation
is, all of them absorb energy from this field. When the field
goes through the plastic, it polarizes molecules in the plastic
... and that means the music is losing a little of its dynamic
edge. It takes the excitement out of the music, because the
dynamic peaks get compressed a little. And then, even worse,
the plastic re-releases the energy. ... But it's delayed, so
it's like a smearing.
"So, instead of hearing
a clean hit of a drumstick, it's a little spread out in time.
The pluck of the guitar is not quite so crisp. A singer's sibilance,
instead of sounding like a pure breath, it sounds a little like
Technical, yes, but somehow
Pick another subject. The
war in Afghanistan, for instance. Conventional wisdom says the
U.S. Air Force did a bang-up job by flying a relentless stream
of missions, right?
Sprey, still very plugged
in on these matters, shakes his head with a hint of impatience.
"It was a very puny
effort," he says. "In the Gulf War they were flying
1,000 to 1,200 sorties [missions] a day. In Yugoslavia, they
were flying 250 sorties a day. In Afghanistan they were flying
60 sorties a day. It was like a joke of a war. Of course, they
were maxed out. It's a sign of where we've gotten, because they
were totally constrained by [refueling] tanker capacity. F-18s
were tanking six times per mission to get to Afghanistan and
back. Taking a drink three times on the way in and three times
on the way home. So, with all the might and with all the $300
billion a year, we're only able to deliver 60 sorties a day
That sort of lecture is vintage
Sprey, Burton or Spinney would tell you, a brief pyrotechnic
display not only of his Filofax brain but of his world view.
"Things are rarely gray with Pierre, they are either black
or white," says Burton, now a member of the Loudon County,
Va., Board of Supervisors. "He was feared by many in the
Pentagon, and greatly disliked by many, because he took no prisoners,
he minced no words, and he was usually right."
'I made myself pretty unpopular
Maybe it's in his blood,
a French-German heritage offering a double genetic dose of certainty.
He was born in Nice in southern
France, the son of a classical violinist from the Rhineland.
His memories of the Old World are few and fleeting - beaches,
mountains, goats. In 1941, when he was 3 and Europe was coming
apart under the boot tread of the Nazis, his family moved to
New York. He grew up in Queens, attending a high school for
As a boy he devoured books
on famous air aces, not just for the heroic tales but for the
technical stuff - their maneuvers and stunts, the way the aerodynamics
worked. At age 15 he enrolled at Yale University, double majoring
in French literature and mechanical engineering.
In summers, he worked for
Grumman Aircraft, dreaming of someday designing planes. Evenings,
he'd sometimes hang out with local musicians who escorted him
into the world of jazz, a smoky, nocturnal realm where the reigning
deities were named Dizzy and Dexter, Miles and Bird, Monk and
His time at Grumman taught
him that it might take 20 years before he'd actually design
a plane, so in graduate school he shifted gears, taking a master's
in engineering from Cornell in statistics and operations research
in the early 1960s. Degree in hand, he moved into a slum apartment
on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The rent was cheap, but the
place was a dump, so he fixed it up and, with a friend, started
a reading center for neighborhood kids. At night he headed out
to nearby jazz clubs.
In 1966, he moved to Washington,
part of a new cadre of analysts being brought together by Defense
Secretary Robert McNamara. Dubbed the whiz kids - "young,
arrogant and very smart," Sprey says - their mission was
to crawl into the deepest regions of the Pentagon budget in
search of fat and dysfunction.
Sprey was assigned to analyze
the way the armed forces moved troops and supplies to the front.
At the time, the C-5 transport plane was the hot hauler for
the Air Force - expensive, but supposedly state of the art.
"I made myself pretty
unpopular by pointing out that trucks were much more important
than airplanes," Sprey says. "The tonnages moved by
airplanes are tiny. Trucks are what count in the theater of
war. Well, that wasn't very glamorous for all those guys, so
I got fired from that job." He was moved to the NATO group,
analyzing all the forces for Europe. "They told me, 'You
take tactical air.' So I dove into that."
Air Force doctrine then,
much like today's, relied heavily on "interdiction bombing,"
blowing up enemy bridges, supply lines and supporting infrastructure.
The enemy at the time was the Soviet Union. Sprey dug up studies
that laid out the array of targets in Eastern Europe - "hundreds
and hundreds of targets" - and calculated how many missions
it would take to destroy them.
"It turned out you could
have three times as many planes as anybody would ever buy for
the Air Force, and the Soviets could still launch an attack
with 90 divisions, and reinforce 30 divisions a month."
The Air Force wasn't exactly
thrilled with the study. A particularly disagreeable colonel
brought in the country's top fighter pilot, the legendary John
Boyd, to shoot down Sprey's thesis. Not only had Boyd made a
science out of fighter pilot skills, he was an analytical genius.
Sprey expected "a struggle
to the death." But he and Boyd had read the same books
on air aces and hit if off. Instead of shooting down Sprey's
analysis, Boyd invited him to help with another project, the
development of the F-15 fighter. It was a fine partnership,
though not without its own dogfights. "We had some knock-down,
drag-out battles," Sprey says. "He was incredibly
pig-headed, and so was I."
In the end, Sprey says, the
Air Force "ruined" the F-15. "They put so much
[technological] crap on it that, after all the beautiful work
he'd done, they ruined it. That's when we decided to go underground
as bureaucratic guerrillas, designing the F-16." The result
was the world's most maneuverable fighter jet, although it,
too, was later "ruined" by additions of expensive
and unnecessary features, Sprey says.
But bigger things were yet
in store for the Boyd-Sprey team. Along with Burton, Spinney
and a colonel named Robert Dilger, they began the Pentagon's
tumultuous reform movement, announcing their arrival in late
1979 in an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled "Muscle-Bound
As Burton later explained
in his book: "Their goal was to change the military's thinking
about people, tactics, and strategy; the kinds of weapons the
Pentagon bought; the manner in which these weapons were tested;
and the budgetary decision-making process associated with buying
and fielding those weapons." The reformers' test of a weapon's
effectiveness: How well does it work for the pilot, or for the
soldier in the field?
That sort of thinking had
already produced the A-10, Sprey's proudest achievement. He'd
long given up on the idea of becoming an aircraft designer,
but backed into the job anyway in the early 1970s, finding himself
heading the design team for the Air Force's first and only close
support attack plane - a plane for getting down and dirty in
support of infantry, going after tanks and artillery at low
altitude. Naturally, the Air Force wanted little to do with
the project, leaving Sprey's team plenty of autonomy.
The result wasn't much to
look at. The A-10's wings don't slant prettily as with most
fighters. They're perpendicular, and bulky-looking engine tubes
are mounted on either side of the body just in front of a wide-finned
tail. Its looks earned the nickname Warthog, and its low speed
had few pilots clamoring to fly it. But it was built to take
a licking from ground fire and keep on ticking, and it was maneuverable
enough at low speeds and altitudes to let a pilot easily spot
and hit targets.
For all that, Air Force brass
still hated it, and kept trying to kill the program, even after
a test against 500 tanks in the California desert produced stunning
results. It was only deployed during the Persian Gulf War in
1991 after the military high command insisted.
All it did was out-perform
virtually every other weapon. Of 1,500 Iraqi tanks destroyed
in the war, the A-10 is credited with taking out 1,100. It also
took out about 1,000 of the 1,200 artillery pieces destroyed.
Best of all, though, it brought most of its pilots home safely,
sometimes after taking repeated hits. Coram tells of a video
showing an A-10 returning from an attack with holes in the wing.
"The pilot dismounts,
kisses the aircraft then runs like hell," Coram says. "Pierre
saw that, and I think it was one of the great moments in his
life. He is just a great patriot, and I think he has accomplished
more for this country than any 10 generals who never did anything
but get promoted."
Sprey has few good things
to say about most of the rest of the Air Force's arsenal. Stealth
aircraft? An expensive folly. Hard to fly. And anything but
Today's other fighters?
"A fighter airplane
today is just a technology laundry list," he says with
dismay. "It's not something to execute a mission and shoot
down other airplanes. It's just there to carry technology and
to create a vehicle to funnel money to defense contractors."
Wildlife in the Steinway
All through his years as
a Pentagon employee and consultant, Sprey stayed in touch with
the world of jazz, kept befriending musicians, and in the mid-1970s,
began carting a reel-to-reel tape machine to clubs to record
his friends in action.
"At that point I wasn't
anxious to create the world's greatest sound," he says.
"I wasn't even an audiophile. It was mainly kind of an
archival instinct to record great stuff that I'd attended."
It would be left to his old
buddy from the A-10 project, Bob Dilger, to turn Sprey into
an audiophile, a true believer in high-end stereo components.
It happened in the early 1980s. By then Dilger was a Pentagon
outcast. He'd put his engineering skills to work re-designing
an expensive stereo turntable. Sprey scoffed at the $1,000 price
tag. "Give me a break," he'd say. "I can get
one for fifty bucks and it turns the records at the same speed."
Then one day, while visiting
Sprey in Washington, Dilger set up a high-end stereo system
in the living room and asked Sprey to take a listen. "It
took all of about 45 seconds," Dilger recalls. "And
he said, 'I have been converted.' "
For Sprey, it was a revelation,
"an order of sound I'd never heard before," and he
quickly upgraded the equipment for his recording sessions at
clubs. A few years later, another friend nudged him further.
It was Shirley Horne, a singer-pianist
he'd taped many times. Sprey had an old piano lying around in
his apartment that he thought she might be interested in playing,
a 1911 Steinway left behind by an ex-girlfriend. Trouble was,
it was falling apart. "There were cracks in the case,"
he recalls. "Wildlife inside. And I was starting to feel
very guilty about it." He hired some guys to rebuild it,
and when they returned it four months later he called Horne.
She fell in love with it, he says.
"So I said just treat
it as yours. Play as late as you want. ... One night about 3
she's sitting at the piano and she says, 'Pierre, baby, I want
to make my next record on this piano, and I want you to be my
Sprey was then living elsewhere
in Prince Georges County, another big old house called Mapleshade.
They spent two weekends recording. "We had a ball,"
Sprey says. "Shirley brought in some friends, some of her
drinking buddies. And we cooked, and served food and just had
a great time. So I decided to hang out my shingle as a weekend
He was still doing military
consulting, and the more he looked at the music business, the
more it reminded him of what had gone wrong at the Pentagon.
He was determined never to fall into the trap that seemed to
have ensnared the recording industry - a blind (or perhaps deaf)
devotion to new technology for its own sake.
"Essentially, all the technology you have today works to
hurt the music," Sprey says. "It makes life convenient
for engineers. It allows you to take people who can't make music
very well and allows a lot of them to sound pretty good."
But all those electronic
bells and whistles - the extra reverb, the extra equalization,
the compression, all those things so convenient for engineers
- "take a little life out of the music. And by the time
you've applied 50 or a hundred of those things, the music doesn't
sound anything like it would if it were played in your living
Top-notch jazz talent was
soon knocking on his door. Saxophonist Clifford Jordan came.
So did sax great Hamiet Bluiett. Pianist Walter Davis Jr. stepped
inside the house, took one look at the clutter and the strange
equipment and said, "Ah, Edison's lab."
Within three years, Sprey
had let his consulting business die and was recording full-time.
He saw that he also needed to start his own record label, "otherwise
these master tapes were never going to see the light of day."
His home soon became a hangout
as much as a studio. Musicians stayed overnight. He cooked for
them, drank with them, never put them on a clock. "I make
that a matter of principle," he says. "We record as
long as anyone wants to play. We start as late as you want or
as early as you want. I've had sessions where Clifford Jordan
started at 8 or 9 in the evening and went until 11 the next
The only missing piece in
Sprey's formula was someone who could help produce the recordings,
a calming personality who could help regulate the occasionally
volatile chemistry between performers. The answer was pianist
Larry Willis, a fine musician and composer in his own right,
who now lives at the house when he's not touring.
recording technique, like his airplanes, is deceptively simple.
He records on two tracks, not 32. Analog, not digital. His custom-built
microphones look like spatulas or funny little boxes. There's
all that weird wiring. And he doesn't use a mixing board - or
overdubs, compression, noise reduction or reverb. If that sounds
primitive on paper, so did the A-10. The proof is in the results.
recordings are excellent," raved Down Beat magazine, "featuring
a crisp, live sound." "Something important is happening
in Upper Marlboro," said CD Review. "To sit down with
a small stack of your very first Mapleshades is a revelation."
'Like a mad scientist'
On a warm night late last
summer - Sept. 10, as fate would have it, before Sprey's attention
would be diverted to matters of air sorties and fuel capacity
in the skies of Afghanistan - we find Sprey and Willis hard
at work with a crew of musicians. Singer Selena McDay is here
to belt out some tunes with a small band led by Artie Sherman
on a Hammond B3, the organ with a calliope roll heard in everything
from gospel to "Green Onions." McDay had heard about
Sprey's studio, but still wasn't quite prepared for what she
saw when she walked in the door - a phenomenon Sprey calls "Mapleshade
He has set her up with a
mike in the entrance hall, where the wood floor and open space
gives her voice better resonance. Sherman warms up on the B3
a few feet away. The drummer sets up on a raised platform atop
cinderblocks, beneath the angled sheet of plywood. McDay points
to the copper ribbons that still dangle from the hat rack.
"I thought those were
insect strips when I first saw them," she says with a laugh.
"I'm not easily impressed, but I'm in awe. One thing I'll
say, there's nothing traditional here."
That includes the business
arrangements. McDay has brought a fax with her. It's from Sprey,
and says, in part, "Selena - Here's the standard Mapleshade
contract; feel free to improve."
For the moment, Sprey is
tweaking and adjusting microphones, puttering around the room
in battered white sneakers, khaki shorts and a sport shirt,
silver hair gleaming in the dim light. He crouches with a flashlight
tucked between his knees, peering at a microphone through a
pair of magnifying glasses with a head lamp. "He really
does look like a mad scientist," McDay says.
A few minutes later, he checks
to see if everything is ready. McDay's allergies are acting
up, so he offers a glass of ginger ale, with fresh ginger grated
into the glass. Before the recording starts he shuts down the
refrigerator, the furnace and any other appliance that might
muddy the current for the reel-to-reel recorder. His other equipment
runs off packets of D-cell batteries that Sprey has painstakingly
Just another night at Mapleshade, in other words.
Move ahead a few months later,
to a chilly night in January. The brambles and trees lining
the long dirt driveway are bare and waving in the moonlight.
Willis, who will soon be touring again, sits at the piano, tinkering
with a composition, scribbling notes as he tests a few bars
on the keyboard.
When he stops for a break,
Sprey gets him a beer and a chilled mug to go with it, then
fetches a bowl of homemade chili and a mug of tea for a visitor.
Sitting nearby is one of
his latest audio products - blocks of solid maple to place beneath
your stereo components. He and his buddy Bauman tested several
materials and concluded this was the best, so they purchase
a supply of maple that gets cut at a small sawmill down the
highway, then planed by some Amish guys using water-powered
Otherwise, none of the clutter
seems to have moved an inch since September, and the cushions
on the couch still slide out from under you if you sit there
for more than a few minutes. But Sprey is still oblivious to
it all, still focused on his music, his friends and whatever
else might be darting around in his mind.