Tom Scharpling first met Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster in 1994, after a show in New York City. Scharpling had written one of the first in-depth articles about Superchunk a few years prior for his fanzine, 18 Wheeler.
"We just kinda hit it off. We had similar senses of humor and we both liked Chris Elliot and his TV show, Get a Life," Wurster recalls.
At the time, Scharpling was hosting a music show on New York radio station WFMU but still years away from his eventual writing gig on the TV show Monk. He and Wurster kept in touch, and a couple of years later they hatched a plan.
"We would just talk on the phone a lot and discuss weird things that we saw on TV or weird things that were happening to us in our lives," Wurster recalls.
One of those topics was the 1998 trial of Oprah Winfrey. After Winfrey disparaged meat on her TV show, a group of Texas cattlemen decided to take her to court, accusing her of slander. After the judge dismissed the case, Oprah exited the courtroom and declared, "Freedom not only rings, it rocks!"
The remark struck Scharpling and Wurster as pretty damn funny.
"It got us talking about what constitutes something ruling, rocking, etc. What sucks? What rocks? What rules?" Wurster says. "So we came up with this stupid book that purports to be the ultimate argument settler when it comes to rating bands or artists."
The book-"Rock, Rot, and Rule"-never really existed. But that didn't stop Scharpling from interviewing the "author," Ronald Thomas Clontle, on his radio show in 1997. During a call-in segment, Clontle enraged Scharpling's listeners with his bizarre opinions about music.
The Beatles rocked but "didn't rule," he said, because they had "a lot of bad songs." He also said Madness invented ska.
Of course, Clontle was a character channeled by Wurster, and, judging from the reaction that night, the ruse worked. Tapes of the segment began making the underground rounds-remember, this was 1997, pre-Napster, pre-YouTube, pre-instant proliferation-and the radio sketch comedy of Scharpling and Wurster was born.
The only major difference between what the duo did that night in 1997 and what they do now is that they no longer take calls from actual listeners.
"A few months [after "Rock, Rot, and Rule"], we would be doing a bit and people would call in and say "Oh, this isn't real,'" Wurster says. "We had these bits kinda planned out by that point and the flow and energy of what we were doing would be so kyboshed by people calling in to say "This isn't real, is it?' that we stopped taking calls after that."
The pair's comedy has morphed into an odd collection of characters-most hailing from a fictional town around Philadelphia called Newbridge and all voiced by Wurster-who call in to Scharpling with their strange stories. Newer additions featured on the recent Scharpling and Wurster three-CD set, The Art of the Slap, include the hoagie-loving "Philly Boy Roy," a buffed-out computer repairman named "Horse" and "Trent L. Strauss," a schlock director of D-rate horror flicks such as "Entrails II: The Gouging and the Toolbelt Killer."
But the greatest moment on The Art of the Slap features "Corey Harris," lead singer of "Mother-13." Harris tells the story of his band's attempt to become the first to play atop Mt. Everest. Harris does the interview from a hospital bed while recovering from injuries suffered during the attempt. He explains that others on the expedition weren't so lucky-the legendary Buddy Guy was left behind in a "blues igloo," E-Street Band sax player Clarence Clemons resorted to cannibalism before the Power Bars ran out and all 28 members of the Polyphonic Spree perished on the mountain.
Harris was kind enough to grant CityBeat a short interview about the Everest incident and future plans for his band:
CityBeat: How has your life been since your band's performance (almost) at the top of Mt. Everest? Have most of the bodies been recovered? What about the chorus pedal?
Corey Harris: I'm still not 100-percent positive the other guys in Mother-13 actually perished. I've read in the Nepal tabloids that a couple of them have been spotted partying at local night spots, but you can never really believe those rags, can you? The chorus pedal was discovered at one of the base camps. I guess it got blown down there by the avalanche. My manager, Rupert, is actually trying to get it placed in the San Diego Hard Rock Cafe.
Is your son Skystalker anxious to see the Transformers movie coming out this summer? Is he old enough to realize he was named after a Transformer?
This is kind of a sore spot. I left Skystalker with a neighbor and had every intention of coming right home after we rocked the summit. I figured it would only take a couple hours to sled back down. Unfortunately, after the Everest disaster, I was laid up in Kathmandu for several weeks. During that time, Sheila Larson-my total skeez of an ex-wife-had a judge issue some kind of cease-and-desist order on me regarding Skystalker. I can't even see him now, which is so tough for me, in part because I need to borrow money from him.
Have you found any new guys to keep Mother 13 going since you lost all your bandmates? If so, do you have any festivals lined up that you're hoping to play this summer?
I have started a new band-Corey Harris' Mother-13 Featuring Corey Harris. We have a new sticker that we're touring in support of, a new record deal is imminent, and Rupert says it's almost certain we'll be on this summer's "Purina/Hefty Who Let the Cat(food) Out of the Bag Tour." It's also looking like we'll get to play on the actual festival grounds and not in the remote parking lot this time.
Would Clarence Clemons have eventually resorted to cannibalism even if he'd never stepped foot on Mt. Everest?
Good question. Although he'd frequently enjoy a four-course meal during Bruce's "Growing Up" rap on the "Born in the U.S.A." tour, Clarence never seemed like the kind of guy who'd sample human fare. Then again, they said the same thing about a couple of those dudes on that soccer team that went down in the Andes back in the early '70s.
If you were to try to climb Everest again, would you skip the excessive drinking and snorting of cocaine the night before?
I doubt it. Y'know, when you're so deep into the lifestyle, it's hard to have any perspective. Although I haven't sold quite as many records-yet-as The Stones or Vertical Horizon, I know I truly belong in that world. And it just so happens that doing copious amounts of rails, rocking the bottle and tapping tail is a major part of that world.
To read and hear more from Scharpling and Wurster, visit www.stereolaffs.com.