Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
Scott Weiland died recently at the age of 48, and a small part of my adolescence died along with him. It wasn’t necessarily a particularly important or treasured part of my past, but Weiland occupied a surprising amount of real estate in my own personal history. I imagine that holds true for many, if not most, members of Generation X as well.
When I was 17 I had a painful crush on a girl who once told me she made out with some sketchy dude because he looked like the lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots. From that moment forward, I associated Weiland’s razor-blade rasp and fiery intensity with painful teenaged romantic angst. But like a true professional music critic in training, I also saw Weiland and Stone Temple Pilots as the personification of the corporatization of what was once known as college, independent, or alternative rock.
I saw in Weiland’s eminently marketable brand of catchy if wildly derivative grunge a depressing cultural shift from the wild, raucous genius of Nirvana and The Replacements to the tamed and domesticated pop of artists like Bush and Goo Goo Dolls, who seemed like male models hired by a label, The Monkees-style, to impersonate genuine heroin-addicted super-geniuses.
In addition to being one half of one of the world’s greatest comedy duos, Jon Wurster is also the drummer for Superchunk and a sought-after drummer for hire. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he and partner Tom Scharpling delivered the ultimate knowing satire of hopelessly sanitized corporate rock with its “Mother 13” bit, which was commemorated for posterity as a Best Show Gems podcast.
“Mother 13” is so hilarious and dead-on that I think about it whenever anything even vaguely tangential to its subject happens, like the death of a man who had all that the segment’s hopeless rock-star wannabe Corey Harris strived so desperately and unsuccessfully to attain (fame, stardom, the ability to lord his tremendous success over others) yet was so famously miserable all the same.
“Mother 13” begins with Corey Harris (brilliantly played by Jon Wurster with just the right combination of publicist-mandated slickness and bratty arrogance) calling in to what he imagines is “Bobzilla” and his morning zoo crew. “Mother 13” nails all the details, particularly when it comes to names.
Mother 13 is a gloriously meaningless yet vaguely pretentious rock band name in the vein of Matchbox 20, Seven Mary Three, and Hoobastank. Even more inspired are the names Scharpling & Wurster came up with for the endless gauntlet of soulless corporate-sponsored Clear Channel festivals Mother 13 is playing for free for “spins” (plays on corporate alt-rock radio) in hopes that, if everything goes according to plan, they’ll be able to recoup their advance within two years.
Scharpling & Wurster have Mother 13 playing such exquisite word salads of faux-festivals as the “102 FM Vanilla Coke Garden Party”, Cleveland’s “Heineken Chips Ahoy Fun Rally”, Roanoke’s “Earthlink Pringles Summer Slam Jam,” and multiple dates on the “Taco Bell Muy Caliente Second Stage” at the “Jeep Outdoor Festival” with Train and Sheryl Crow.
These names irreverently convey the ugly shotgun marriage of consumer products and radio stations that package and sell rock and roll as if it were potato chips or laundry detergent. I particularly love the killer detail that these festivals are so beholden to their sponsors that they incorporate multiple brand names into one ugly train-wreck of a title: It’s not just the Earthlink or Pringles Summer Jam. No, it’s the Earthlink Pringles Summer Jam, and Harris has clearly been coached by the publicists who are his sherpas in the wild world of nascent rock stardom to get the names of these soulless aggregations of modern rock whores exactly right.
The title of the single Harris plays for Scharpling as proof of his band’s genius and the certainty of their Stone Temple Pilots-style superstardom is similarly perfect: “Wired.” Honestly, if a computer could be programmed to create the most generic conceivable rock song it would sound just like “Wired.”
Harris calls his band a combination of Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Who, Nirvana, and R.E.M, but judging from his music and his personality, it seems questionable as to whether he’s ever even listened to any of those groups, or merely knows of them solely as the most obvious set of influences any cocky young would be rock star could claim.
What makes “Mother 13” oddly poignant as well as spot-on and hilarious is the knowledge that for all his delusional bravado and unwarranted faith in himself and his abilities, Corey Harris is a victim of this game more than anything else. He’s a pawn convinced he’s destined to win a game he was rigged to lose even before it began.
Scharpling here occupies a familiar role as the voice of experience, the veteran who knows exactly what Harris and Mother 13’s future looks like, and where their major label ride will end (with them broke, exploited, and dropped from a label they were convinced really, really loved them) but is patently unable to break through Harris’ impregnable wall of self-delusion.
Scharpling tells Harris exactly what he’s in for, but Harris is too high on the unearned cockiness of youth to even allow for the possibility that his band is being exploited and that the only real outcome he can expect is abject failure and bitterness. If the saga of Mother 13 and Corey Harris were to end here, this would still be the essential, definitive parody of corporate rock opportunism and the silly little pretenders ground up in the star-making machinery. Remarkably, however, “Mother 13” is but the first part of a three-part opus filled with twists and turns and death and derring do (and the occasional “Blues Igloo”) that I will continue covering in the next two installments of this column.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.