The Mad Scientist of Sound

In airplanes or audio equipment, technology for its own sake has no place, says Pierre Sprey, Pentagon bad boy turned music guru.

Cover Story

March 03, 2002|By Dan Fesperman | By Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

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 pasta.

You are hardly the first visitor to be taken aback.

"It looked like a mad scientist's laboratory," recalls congressional staffer Jaron Burke.

"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 about it."

Anything?

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