It was on this past Sunday morning that Air America's Johnny Wendell broke my heart. We never met, but that didn't matter. Our relationship was built on his on-air straight talk covering a gamut of political and local concerns, and my occasionally calling the station in hopes of one day weaseling past his screeners. Sure, there were those Air America babes, Stephanie Miller, Rachel Maddow, and my future wife, Randi Rhodes. And it wasn't like my man crush on Keith Olbermann would amount to much, especially with Jason Bateman and Richard Lewis in the picture. Restraining orders aside, Wendell was just a better fit, our platonic co-dependency of his needing listeners and my needing to listen disfunctioning along just fine. But this Sunday, an event occurred that has forever changed that dynamic, one that will haunt me 'til the day I stop being a lefty which is never.
I was driving along the 110 fielding an endless call, my muted cell phone shoved against one ear, the radio kind of blasting in the other. It was now around 9:30 with Johnny Wendell on the air and Frangelica waiting in the wings. I had to cut the call short when I heard Wendell enlightening his audience on the true definition of "schmaltz" which then segued into a rant on the Rick Rubinization of Neil Diamond. Initially, it appeared to be a conversation starter for an overdue deflating of the godlike Rick Rubin. But my jaw dropped into my lap as the conversation then shifted to the imminent release of the Meet Glen Campbell album, a progressive project with many alternative "cover" songs for which I suggested tracks and helped sequence while at my former label. I thought, "This is amazing! Johnny Wendell's gonna talk-up...no, wait." I suddenly realized where Wendell was heading with all that schmaltz and Diamond speak.
From his perspective, there was no point in old pop icons -- especially of the lamest, easy listening variety -- reframing themselves as "hip" by recording cool cover songs since they themselves would never be cool. My take differs a bunch. I believe that a song's subtexts and nuances are not necessarily beyond an artist's grasp if it was written outside of his or her older demographic. Both are valid arguments, the former far more entertaining a stick with which to poke the turtle. And, in fairness, he was right about Meet Glen Campbell in that it was as calculated an image makeover as Diamond's latest efforts produced. It's mostly a vision of its producers, but they're due a backpat for toning down that shiny Goodtime Glen image, steering it away from random wholesomeness. There are no smiley "Rhinestone Cowboys" a-galloping in "aw-gee" wonderment. Sonically, this album's recordings are more like Nick Lowe's late '70s, compression-driven productions with Jimmy Webb-era orchestrations than generic and purposeless Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart romps through songs of the decades.
Admittedly, the album sports mainly base hits and doubles including two Tom Petty She's The One covers with "Angel Dream" and "Walls," plus the Foo Fighters' "Times Like These," U2's "All I Want" and Jackson Browne's classic, "These Days." However, its home runs include the opening track, Campbell's cover of Travis' "Sing," as well as The Replacements' "Sadly, Beautiful," both coming off as convincingly dark and respectable tributes to their respective writers. No one should be surprised given the singer's Nick Nolte-esque DUI mug shots and his disastrous, tabloid marriage to Tanya Tucker. The album's strangest attempt is his born-again take on "Jesus" when compared to the pathos-rich Velvet Underground version. Thankfully, with an aged Campbell at the microphone, it comes off as scruffy, not like some Jesus-lite anthem.
That brings us to the dubious tracks (cough... "Grow Old With Me" ...cough). And when Wendell debuted Campbell's emotionless attempt at Green Day's "Good Riddence (Time Of Your Life)," the recording's soullessness effectively proved his point. Even with Dana Perino's help, this obvious misstep could not be spun, not even on the radio. Wait, it gets worse. Confession allegedly being good for the soul, that was one of my suggestions, along with songs by Conor Oberst, Son Volt, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Leonard Cohen. Though there was every shot Campbell would have nailed the Green Day track, sometimes, the stars don't align.
Even in a not-so-perfect world, I think Johnny Wendell's and my interpretation of this album can co-exist. And it's not so far-fetched that Wendell was using that setup as some backhanded way of plugging the album, his rocker image remaining untarnished by his generous shout-out. So, okay, the luv is still there, what was I thinking. I'm looking forward to the coming years of stalking his broadcasts and singing along with his signature punky bumpers. And taking a cue from his Sunday morning pre-break inquiry, I'll revisit his question (or something close to it): "Should older pop artists 'hip-up' their images by recording contemporary or 'alternative' material?"
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008