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Jon Wurster, professional crank-caller

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Jon Wurster, professional crank-caller

From the 12th row of Alltel Pavilion's elite seats, Jon Wurster should be able to hear. One dozen speakers hang 20 feet from his head. But just as Gavin DeGraw launches into "Chariot," Wurster goes either deaf or incredulous. "What?" he screams over DeGraw's too-loud piano and cute-boy audience prodding, Wurster's face slack-jawed and scrunched up in disbelief.

Two seconds earlier, DeGraw had hammed it: "C'mon, I want to see those cell phones. Light 'em up, put 'em in the air."

By this point, the cheesy showmanship is too much, anyway: Five songs ago, DeGraw was in the audience flanked by security guards, personally greeting 2,000 of the 5,000 member anti-crowd in Alltel Pavilion. Just one song ago, DeGraw was standing on a stage-left speaker, singing his too-bleached soul and making the devil horns rock sign with his left hand, a cross on a choker strapped to his neck. He's clean-shaven, his laundered brown hair falling from beneath a khaki cap. This isn't the picture of rock 'n' roll which Wurster--who has been drumming in bands from The Right Profile and Marah to Superchunk and Whiskeytown since the early '80s--had in mind.

Of course, neither is Butch Walker, the opener for Degraw and headliner Avril Lavigne. The hyperactive Atlanta hitmaker and former Marvelous 3 frontman bounces around manically, spitting guitar picks onto the crowd, behaving onstage mostly as if he needed a hug--or, at the least, a sucker punch.

When he descended the stage and plopped down four rows in front of Wurster, the mop-top, normally smiling drummer offered the biggest, saddest frown he could muster, later admitting that he hoped the Ritalin-deficient singer would spot (and/or confront) the grimace.

"He didn't do that last night in Charlotte," explains a mid-40s man who spent half the set bouncing around with his pre-teen son.

"Wow," Wurster offers before grinning and leaning in for the whisper. "Boy, I wish I woulda been at that one."

Wurster was busy last night, though, crank calling Tom Scharpling's three-hour radio spot on WFMU, an independent radio station in Jersey City. He's been doing it every Tuesday night for eight years, and it's turned into a career. Scharpling and Wurster operate on a completely loose system of suggestion, and the show makes good use of musical arcana and opinion. "It's totally perfect," he explains. "Both of us spent our childhoods reading Creem and that kind of stuff, listening to records. And now we get to use it."

After Oprah beat her Beef Council charges in 1998, she emerged from an Amarillo courthouse and proclaimed, "Freed speech not only lives, it rocks." Scharpling and Wurster not only chuckled, but they also used that idiotic axiom as the basis of their first collection of call-ins, 1999's Rock, Rot & Rule, an audio lexicon of off-the-cuff, high-brow music snobbery. The pair's monthly series in the music magazine Harp debuts in November, and they stay busy with commercial script writing.

Scharpling and Wurster met at a Superchunk show in 1994, where the Chapel Hill four-piece shared a New York bill with My Bloody Valentine and Pavement. Scharpling was the first person to write about Superchunk, praising them in a New Jersey fanzine in the late '80s. At the show, Wurster and Scharpling bonded over Chris Elliott's Get a Life and Smash, a fly-by-night MTV VJ who hosted Headbanger's Ball.

They kept in touch, and in 1997, they started talking about ideas for skits. Wurster was set to call into Scharpling's show, introducing the character who would eventually helm Rock, Rot & Rule, Ronald Thomas Clontle.

Hot Rockin' Roddy came next. Scharpling had purportedly replaced Roddy at WFMU, and--on that first night of cranking, when most listeners still wanted to know if this stuff was real--he was grouchy. His ire was justifiable, of course, as he had been relegated to a Quiet Storm, soporific smooth jazz gig.

"Roddy called last night actually, and he was spinning records on a crabbing ship in Alaska, keeping the sailors awake," Wurster says. "He was actually implicated in a few wrongful death charges out there."

They don't take call-ins during skits anymore, as most WFMU listeners recognize Wurster's recurring role. But they still find plenty of ways to keep things interesting, developing ideas from the idiotic things and people they see everyday. Part of the charm comes in the duo's repartee. These are as much conversations as they are skits--hilarious, tangential excursions of deep-cut references, contradiction-exploiting wit and 80 years of combined cultural immersion between two friends caught in amusing situations. It's evident that they laugh about it as much as anyone.

During "Kid E-bay," the 31-minute closer of Hippy Justice, Wurster and Scharpling's third comedy album, Danny, a scheming online entrepreneur who uses illegal software to inflate others' bids on his wares and to freeze his bids on others'--falls down the stairs, breaking both his legs and arms. He spends the next half-hour talking to Scharpling about The Replacements, The Stones and Britney Spears.

"We were worried that some of that stuff was too heavy, that people that didn't get the references or didn't know this band or these album cuts or obscure covers," explains Wurster."But one of the biggest compliments we have gotten is that people that don't get it still find it funny."

On Hippy Justice, Wurster's characters start out innocent enough: There's the car salesman whose partner is Gene Simmons; the two-inch-tall, 32-year-old with the high voice; and Hippy Jonny, who runs a peace-and-love commune in New Jersey. But, in an instant, they all take diabolical turns: The car salesman steals Scharpling's phone number and charges his credit card with a 4-Runner, the miniature man is a maniacal racist, and Hippy Jonny produces "farm-fresh battery acid" and voted for W. They all end up threatening Scharpling's life, and he almost always ends the conversations with repeated "Oh, I hate you!" assertions.

"I've never thought about it, but with those characters, there's no self-awareness that it's even happening," he opines. "But I see that potential in people at places like this, having arguments in front of everybody with no self-editing or care at all, being total jerks."

Around 9 o' clock, Wurster seems to be weary of places like this and of big-time-headliner Avril: "One more song, and I'm good."

On the way out, he notices a gothic candelabra descending toward the stage. The rock stops and an interlude of minor-chord cellos settles under low-lights. A piano sits at center stage. When the lights come up, there is Avril, seated, singing a ballad, all traces of what seemed to be goth gone, save that sore-thumb candelabra above her head. Wurster stops short, leans against the wall and smiles. In a minute, he pushes off the wall and heads out, laughing and grinning.

Strike three: Rot.

Scharpling & Wurster's new album, Hippy Justice, is out now on Stereolaffs.

  • Jon Wurster, professional crank-caller

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