The comedian, podcaster and author talks Alex Wisgard through the songs that changed his life, discussing underdogs, authenticity, and why Lana Del Rey is better than Tom Waits.
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  • Post published:20/07/2021
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If you’re reading this, there’s a higher chance than not that you think you know who Tom Scharpling is.

In fact, it’s more than likely that you’re already a fully paid-up “Friend of Tom” – a devoted listener to The Best Show, his long-running podcast and weekly cavalcade of “mirth, music and mayhem”. If that’s the case, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

You might not know him by name, but there’s every chance that you or someone you know has laughed at something Tom Scharpling has been involved with. Maybe you’ve watched his videos for the likes of The New Pornographers, Kurt Vile and The Postal Service, read his astonishing spec script for Grown Ups 3, or seen his work writing for Monk or What We Do in the Shadows. Most likely, you’ve been charmed by his voice work in Steven Universe as the titular character’s van-dwelling rock star father Greg. In fact, he was cast in the role because the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar was a long-time Friend of Tom who later simply became a friend of Tom’s. Suffice to say, all roads lead to Newbridge.

However you come across his work, his comedy career is a rare one. After all, Scharpling is a funny man who isn’t focussed on being the focus. Whether safely behind a radio mic or ensconced in a writers’ room, his preference has always been for characters – including his self-confessed “heightened” Best Show persona. With this month’s publication of his long-awaited memoir, It Never Ends, that all… uh …ends. Considering how much time Scharpling has spent in front of a microphone over the last three decades, the extent to which he’s been able to keep these formative stories to himself is nothing short of miraculous.

“It’s very strange.” Scharpling explains from his home studio in Los Angeles. “For somebody who shares as much as I do on The Best Show for as long as I have, these were things I deliberately didn’t share. Partly because I didn’t want to – it’s not like I was like, ‘Oh I’ll sell it for a book.’ It wasn’t anything calculated like that. But the medium of a book felt by far the way I needed to tell some of these things, because I needed to control the way I told it and make sure I’m telling it correctly.”

However familiar they are with the man and his work, readers will be stunned by much of It Never Ends, which often hovers somewhere between shocking and devastating. That I’m being so vague about its contents should give some indication of just how unexpected they are – very rarely has discussing a comedian’s memoirs felt so potentially spoiler-laden. Regardless, it’s a brave book, but by no means a joyless one. Getting the tone right, unsurprisingly, took a lot of effort. “I wanted to keep it light and funny, but just strike a balance where the book would be funny from beginning to end, but also have some real stuff. And then I would try to find ways to make that stuff funny in its own right.”

But even with the revelatory new context the book gives his life story, many of the tales that will be most recognisable to Best Show fans are the ones which intertwine music and comedy – a hilarious pitch for a sadly never-made Paul Simon music video, or his now-infamous encounter with Patti Smith in a lift.

Scharpling’s ability to wield his encyclopaedic knowledge, even of bands he outright loathes, informs some of the funniest Best Show moments, often performed in cahoots with Mountain Goats and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. Calling in each week as a variety of characters, from know-it-all critics, two-inch racists, or members of KISS and the Ramones, Wurster is as hilarious as he is rock-savvy, serving as a combative foil for Scharpling’s welcoming yet curmudgeonly on-air presence.

The running theme among the artists and comedians that Scharpling gravitates towards is something of an underdog, anti-establishment spirit – a “no more heroes” attitude that simultaneously works within, and in contempt of, whatever the trends of the day might be. It was an early exposure to Creem Magazine that opened his eyes: “They had a foot in both camps – they would write about The Clash and Led Zeppelin. But at the same time, you had to like one or the other. People in the letters pages would outright fight over it – you can’t be a fan of The Clash and Led Zeppelin.”

As his parallel interest in comedy grew, he soon noticed some similar rivalries taking place. “You have these traditional comedians and television shows, which I loved, and then I immediately gravitated towards the shows like David Letterman or SCTV that were aimed at mocking those things. So I was learning about the institutions and the people throwing rocks at the institution simultaneously for both comedy and music.”

Although he’s more often found throwing rocks, Scharpling gladly rejects any binary notion of taste. “I didn’t buy into that either/or stuff, but I understood both sides of it. I liked these musicians who seemed relatively normal – Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello. They dressed normal, they acted unassuming, and I related to them more than these rock gods. Of course, you realise later that everything is heightened to some degree.”

This ability to see through the bullshit may well have been what kept him interested in what was happening on the other side of the street too. “Led Zep is as high up on my list as anybody could be, but that’s an aspirational thing. There’s no way in any version of myself that I could put on a jumpsuit with dragon stitching and pull that off. But I can certainly be closer to Elvis Costello.”

Scharpling carries that sense of cultural omnivorousness with him to this day. It’s clear as he talks about his Nine Songs selections and in the breadth of references he can deploy during The Best Show. It’s probably also why last year, rather than starting a podcast about just Neil Young’s discography – more on which later – So Far also dissects Crosby’s, Stills’s and Nash’s far less rewarding careers, for good measure. Or completeness’ sake.

“I just cast the widest net with stuff,” he tells me. “I remember taking my Christmas money and I would literally bring a Frankie Goes to Hollywood record and an Emerson, Lake and Palmer record to the counter on the same day. I can only imagine what the cashier thought I was all about. But I liked all of it. And I still do.”

“Rubies” by Destroyer

“The first time I learned about Dan would be through that first New Pornographers record, Mass Romantic. It was mainly Carl Newman and Neko Case singing, but then there were these other songs of Dan’s that had a whole other vibe going.

“I love when a band has a second songwriter where they don’t have as many songs as the primary songwriter. It’s like on a Beatles album, you’re going to get two or three George Harrison songs that are going to be so killer and they’re going to be on their own wavelength that complement what Lennon and McCartney are doing. Dan kind of serves that role. By the second album – that one has ‘Testament to Youth in Verse’ and ‘Ballad of a Comeback Kid’ – he was matching Carl on these things but coming from a whole other side.

“Then when you take the leap into Destroyer, you realise this guy has got his own universe going here, and The New Pornographers are lucky to have him! I’m glad he’s there, but he’s got this whole other thing going on, and it’s just magic to me.

Streethawk would be the one that really blew up my brain, but “Rubies” is the culmination of the build up to that moment where it sounds big, and he’s embracing the bigness of it and the scope. And lyrically, he just goes for it where I don’t even know what the lyrics are about much of the time. But it’s an impressionistic thing – they’re not meant to be literal. The words sound good going next to other words, and sometimes you can call meaning from stretches, other times it just sounds great together. I might be completely wrong on that. Maybe I’m dumb and just not able to understand what he’s doing, but that’s how I process Destroyer. They’re like word paintings.

“But that’s one of the things of putting this list together – I realised that so much of the music I like has a sense of humour to it, even if they don’t know it’s funny. Dan slips all these movie references into the songs as well – “An Actor’s Revenge”, “Crimson Tide” – and it’s like he’s making experimental movies with music. You feel like he’s giving everything, and I respond to that, always – somebody who just powers through the scary aspects of that, and it’s like, ‘No, you’re gonna get all of it.’

“I’ve always been a sucker for people taking big swings. Because these Destroyer records are big swings – they’re weird! And maybe they all only make sense to Dan. And maybe they don’t even make sense to him, I don’t know.

Funnily enough, when Dan Bejar talked us through his Nine Songs, he mentioned how “The de facto Destroyer mode is to always take on a fight you’re not going to win and go down swinging.”

“Oh, that’s exactly how I feel. I mean, I’m friends with Dan, and he’s one of my favourite artists. There’s a reason why, even though I met him relatively late in life and don’t know him that well really, it’s like there’s some sort of frequency that I think we share. We can talk about things like that and know where the other one’s coming from. And that quote of his might as well be etched into my tombstone.”

“Night of the Living Baseheads” by Public Enemy

“Hearing Public Enemy for the first time was so exciting to me. I bought It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back the week it came out, and I remember driving around and listening to the cassette, and it was so intense, and so scary, and so alive and witty. The Bomb Squad’s production on all of the Public Enemy records is still the apex of hip hop. It’s just so dense. And they were able to take things and make these James Brown samples so abrasive – like they would weaponise samples. And I would get giddy listening to that record.

“It was a time in the late ‘80s when I was understanding political stuff and realising that there’s a real fight going on. New York was so charged with racial tension, and these guys were saying their piece. So when Public Enemy would talk about how hip hop was “the black CNN”, it makes sense, because they were fitting everything into these records that they needed to say.

“Night of the Living Baseheads” has everything in it – there’s a sample of “Fame”, ESG gets sampled – but they know that on some level, it’s funny to mash all these things together. Maybe funny is the wrong word, but there’s a playfulness to it that’s right next to the seriousness. It’s this magical combination that really showed what was possible. And then when you get to know more about music, you could put those instrumental tracks up against any kind of experimental stuff. It’s tape manipulation, and they’re at the highest level of that.

“They have the greatest frontman and hype man in the group, and then you find out Chuck D’s influenced by Marv Albert, the Knicks announcer, you know, for basketball. Marv Albert is a guy who would call the New York Knicks games and be like “Yes! It counts!” He just had a big voice, and Chuck D said in interviews that Marv Albert was a huge influence on his vocal stylings. So then I realised that this band was pulling all of the things together – things I knew about, things I didn’t know about – on one record, and it really was just magical to me. It changed everything. It Takes a Nation of Millions was one of the true life-changing records.

“Like, I liked hardcore, but I didn’t go to shows, so I didn’t get the whole communal experience with it. And when you don’t go to the shows, you’re missing out on the best part of it. In a weird way, Public Enemy felt to me like the way people talk about how hardcore moved them. But I’ve never seen them live either. I’m such a coward! [laughs] I was a very fearful person and I paid a real price. You have to realise I was scared of anything that didn’t take place at Maxwell’s!”

“Slipping (Into Something)” by The Feelies

“Look at that, I could not have created a better segue if I’d sat here all afternoon and designed it!

“The Feelies are a very important band, and they were the bridge to so much stuff. They started as a more of an art piece thing with Crazy Rhythms, and then they were off the map for a bunch of years. Then they put a second album out, and that was The Feelies as they have been ever since.

“They’re one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. They would be my Grateful Dead – the way you can listen to it and it’s a transcendent experience in the way the songs build. They’re so focused, and they’re so precise – there’s two drummers, locked in – but it’s alive in front of you. It’s not like they’re just doing the same thing every time. It’s the next extension of one aspect of the Velvet Underground, and they’ve continued that lineage.

“That second Feelies album, (The Good Earth), which Peter Buck co-produced, represents so much to me. It’s New Jersey music. And me being in Los Angeles now, one of the things I miss about not being in New Jersey is that you could always see the Feelies. They don’t do extended tours because they’re just not that band anymore. And The Feelies live is as transcendent as anything – they do two sets and just take you somewhere.

“Slipping (Into Something)” is also one of those songs that changed meaning to me a little bit after the hurricanes really beat the crap out of New Jersey. It just sounded right then and that’s what it’s represented to me from that point on. The melancholy part became more pronounced. Yo La Tengo mean the world to me also, but The Feelies begat Yo La Tengo in a way, so you gotta give the nod. I’ll always respect Yo La Tengo, but for what they accomplished, I gotta put The Feelies one hair above Yo La Tengo. I don’t think Ira would mind. I hope he’d at least understand where I was coming from.

“Yo La Tengo has been as important as any band in my life also. I’ve seen them so many times, and they’re a testament to constant artistic integrity and evolution and pushing. Talk about a band that could have rested on their laurels at any point in its timeline; they’ve always strived to achieve something new. They’re like a spiritual influence on me in a way. Their mission means so much to me, because I feel like I am on a similar one.”

“Precision Auto” by Superchunk

“Superchunk were such a huge influence because they felt like true peers, not unlike what we were talking about earlier with Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. Guys like that felt like they could be peers, but these were actual friends that were doing something and also being great – Mac [McCaughan, Superchunk frontman] was writing these huge anthems.

“I picked ‘Precision Auto’ over any other Superchunk song because that’s when Jon Wurster started in Superchunk, and that would have been one of the first things he played on. I’d seen them a bunch of times before Jon was in the group, and I interviewed Mac for my fanzine 18 Wheeler. I was friends with them, and then they told me they were gonna have a new drummer. ‘You’re gonna like him.’ What Mac said was the understatement of a lifetime.

“Jon’s been my partner for a million years now, and it’s still really fun. We laugh so much. There are so many people that are funny for, like, a news anchor, or funny for an athlete. Then there’s a long, long list of people that are funny for musicians. But Jon is as funny as any comedian, and as great a musician as any drummer doing it. It’s a very special thing, to admire somebody doing a thing and be a fan of their music, and then to find this whole other aspect of them and get to share that with them. Jon has meant so much in so many ways, and this song was the beginning of it.

“I got to sing this song live with Fucked Up – they were doing a battle of the bands with Ted Leo And The Pharmacists at the Matador 21 thing in Las Vegas. Damian effortlessly picked me up in the fireman’s carry and threw me over his shoulder – and I’m a big guy, 6’2”, 6’3” – but he did it as if I was like a baby. And then I picked him up in return and immediately got him three inches off the ground before falling backwards into a drum set. I didn’t break anything, but it was very funny and very stupid.”

“Love” by Lana Del Rey

“When I tell people how much I love Lana Del Rey, they always think it’s a bit… Like, people have always thought, ‘You don’t really like Lana Del Rey, right?’ And then I get the flipside, which is ‘You really think Tom Waits is good, though, right?’ And I’m being honest about both! I think he’s awful, I think she’s amazing.

“What appeals to me about her music is the way it taps into the lineage of the girl group style – the high drama of The Shangri-La’s, and all of the life-and-death of that. But it’s not just that – she really is documenting this version of LA life. To me, it really is no different than what Lou Reed did for New York in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. They’re both telling the respective stories of a city and creating characters. But she has such a beautiful presence, and there’s something so cold about it that I also really like. There’s a warmth beneath the cold, but on the surface, it’s like ice water to me.

“Love” is the song from her fourth album, I think, Lust for Life. And that album was such a big step forward for her, I thought. It’s such a beautiful song, it’s got one of the best music videos I’ve ever seen. It’s the perfect encapsulation of her aesthetic.

“And it was also the point when people finally started to take her a little more seriously. I feel like people started to finally get it – that first of all, she’s not going away. I mean, the way she got drilled entering the music business was just straight-up woman-hating, because it’s like, ‘Oh, she changed her name.’ Who the fuck didn’t change their name?! That’s the staple of pop music! To try to use that against her, like ‘Well, this is what makes you inauthentic’ – everybody’s favourite music is inauthentic. Led Zeppelin are not Southern bluesmen. They were British guys, just taking what they liked and putting their spin on it.

“The best pop music, rock music, any music, any art – there’s an artifice running through all of it. To try to use that as a thing to flag one person with is so disingenuous, because everybody’s favourite person has an inauthentic element to them.

“But at that point in time, the culture, social media, whatever you call it, was ready to run her out of town. And to say she sucks and have that be the thing – like ‘She can’t sing, she sucks.’ The SNL thing was undeniably an off performance, but she countered it two days later when she went on David Letterman and did “Video Games” perfectly. Like they scrambled, they got her on the show, and she showed what she could do. She delivered in the moment.

“And it’s the classic thing that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. It’s like the attack is on page one and the apology is on page 25. Not that anybody has to apologise, but the fact that it’s, ‘Oh, hey, it turns out she turned in an outstanding performance two days later on this other show.’ Maybe that was just a bad night, or who knows what. And anyway, SNL is not the best place to play music either. A lot of people just don’t sound good on there.”

“Yü Gung” by Pussy Galore

“Pussy Galore, to me, is the epitome of a band that’s not funny being hilarious. It’s almost a companion piece to the Public Enemy song, same era. Both have insane samples in them – “Don’t Believe the Hype” is sampled on “Yu Gang”, and “It Takes Two” is on there. It’s them doing something that’s pretty stupid – to cover Einstürzende Neubauten and put their spin on it and turn it into a Pussy Galore song, but then take it so much past that, to where it’s loaded with samples and crazy stuff. They have samples of the original song in there.

“The thing that gets me with it is that I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a track that has better guitar sounds on it. The song is like a tour de force of every great guitar sound you could imagine on one song. And it’s so rockin’ – it’s believing in rock while dismantling it at the same time, which maybe is a thing I like also. I’m starting to pick up on patterns as I talk about some of the things that I like.

“And that Sugarshit Sharp EP is my favourite Pussy Galore record, and is one of my favourite records, period. It’s a punch in the face over and over. And for them to then also take the Neubauten logo and then work the Rolling Stones lips into it and say ‘That’s our new logo’ is the funniest thing imaginable. That’s so funny! Like, am I wrong? How funny is that?”

“Why” by Yoko Ono

“I grew up a Beatles fan and what gets shovelled in your ears about Yoko is these things that are covertly – or not even covertly – racist and misogynistic. John was one of the Beatles and he’s the one saying, ‘My wife is coming to the studio every day.’ If you have a problem with anything, you have a problem with John, not with Yoko! Yoko is trying to help this person she loves, who clearly needs to hang on to the hem of her skirt, or whatever you want to say. Whatever issues he was working through, they were so severe that he needed her next to him all the time. That’s a pretty extreme state to find yourself in, but that’s where he was.

“So people took that and they spin it, because God forbid John Lennon didn’t want to be in the Beatles anymore! He did it for 10 or 11 years, but you imagine the idea that he just did it enough and wanted to go try different things in life. Like, ‘No, there has to be a villain involved in this, so let’s make it the Japanese lady.’ Even though her artistic achievements predated his by years. Her experimental cred is off the chart, while he was still playing “Ain’t She Sweet”, she’s doing these shows in New York in ‘62. She’s got all the bona fides – she never needed to meet John Lennon for her to have achieved legend status.

“What John did was basically create these opportunities because of the sheer amount of resources that a Beatle would have, where she could put records out every year and he would help on them. And I will say this – John Lennon’s playing on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band are by far the best things he ever did as a solo artist. And the best guitar playing he ever did was on those two albums.

“On Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, it’s like he’s basically in CAN all of a sudden! Suddenly you have three dudes – one of them is Ringo Starr – and John Lennon and Klaus Voormann backing up Yoko, and it’s heavy and freaky. It’s amazing that they matched what she was trying to do and gave her the backing to do it. It’s an assault. It’s like she gave John this permission to be fearless in a way that he never would have gotten if he’d never met her. She was already fearless. If anything, people should be thanking her for what she did for John Lennon, not condemning her.”

“Powderfinger” by Neil Young

“We’re closing it out with some good old-fashioned Canadian content. Wait, a third of this list is Canadian? Oh my God…

Rust Never Sleeps was one of the first records I ever bought, so this is the first thing on this list that would have impacted me as a kid. There was a record store in a flea market on Route 18 in New Jersey – it was in the same building that housed the label that put out the first Metallica records, Megaforce Records or something like that. I’d go in there as a kid, and see the 3D glasses for Rust Never Sleeps, which is the movie that the album is the soundtrack for, which had a 3D segment in it. So I see the 3D glasses there, and then I see the album and buy it, and then the guy behind the counter gave me the 3D glasses.

“I knew Neil Young from the radio. He’s another one of those guys – the way I talked about liking Led Zeppelin and liking Elvis Costello? It’s like he was both in one person. He was a walking ‘set-’em-up knock-’em-down’ in terms of rock mythology. He was this Woodstock hippie who, by the time of Rust Never Sleeps, was dead set on destroying the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young stuff. There’s a song “Thrasher” that’s aimed right at those guys for being stuck in the past.

“He’s now got shorter hair, he’s friends with Devo, he’s making this movie – he’s doing what he wants, and he’s going forward with it. And now he’s singing about Johnny Rotten, who’s the guy that everybody’s fighting in Creem magazine about, whether he sucks or not. And now this old dude is invoking Johnny Rotten in his thing, but he’s the only one of these guys who’s on classic rock radio – they’re not playing the other stuff I was reading about.

“There’s a reason why the Feelies covered “Sedan Delivery”, which is on this album. More connections, it’s all coming together now. I feel like it’s like A Beautiful Mind, I’m tracing all the things. Because then there was a Feelies offshoot called Yung Wu that did a cover of “Powderfinger” on their one album! Oh my God, look at this!

“But ‘Powderfinger’ is my favourite Neil Young song, and buying that album and realising that this guy had some weird movie that I wouldn’t see for a few years after I got those 3D glasses… It whispered to me that there’s a lot here – ‘Come buy this and it’ll start the journey.’ And that’s actually where so much of it started for me. I bought Armed Forces, Labour Of Lust and Rust Never Sleeps all around the same time, that’s all ‘79.

Old Ways is the one album of his that I think truly blows, that I have no connection to on a cellular level. It feels off. It feels stagey and false, and the whole point of him is that he didn’t feel false. For better or worse, Neil Young is Neil Young, and on that record, it felt like he was trying to be somebody other than Neil Young. And there’s definitely stuff that I powered past or wrote off at the time – the weird stretch when it’s Landing On Water and Life, that ’87/’88 period, where he’s trying to have a hit and he’s making the records sound big and commercial, but he’s doing it completely backwards. Him trying to be commercial ends up being some of the least commercial stuff he’s ever done.

“But there’s a point where you have to look at it and say, ‘Except for this drum sound, there’s something here.’ You have to start overlooking stuff, but at least I can see some of the gold in there now for the first time, which I never did before. And then you hear those songs like “Prisoners of Rock and Roll” or “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” on live tapes, and they stand up. It reinforces the value of an artist who just keeps going, that you can go back and find some gems in the catalogue. They might not be perfect, but it’s not like he was doing nothing during those periods. It might have been flawed in however many ways, but there’s good stuff in there. You just have to give it a little bit of effort.”

You have to overlook the timely production…

“’Timely’? That’s a very charitable way of saying it. You mean like a lousy keyboard or drum sound? It’s the beauty of somebody who’s ‘Here’s this year’s record – if you don’t like it, there’s one coming next year, maybe you’ll like that.’ I think people disrespect consistency, and they prefer the story of the band that did three albums and then vanished, or the mysterious person, or the recluse.

“Everybody loves all of that stuff, and I love it too, but you can’t love it at the expense of the people who are just chasing a thing, don’t lose sight of the mission, and they stay on point. And Neil Young is chasing a thing, and he’ll stop when he’s dead. I don’t think people should be discounted because they didn’t go away… says the person who has been doing a three-hour show for 900 years.”

“In a Dream It Seemed Real” by Islands

“Everybody knew The Unicorns, but it ultimately eluded me, and I didn’t get into them the way people did when that record came out. But I got to know Nick [Thorburn, Islands frontman] more on a personal front. I had friends who were friends with Nick, he was actually seeing a mutual friend. And my friend [Borat 2 director] Jason Woliner approached me and was ‘Hey, can you do me a favour?’ I’m like ‘What’s that?’ And he’s like, ‘Can you unblock Nick on Twitter?’

“It turns out he’d made a joke to me that I interpreted as some sort of threat, but he meant it as a joke that landed sideways, and I’ve made enough of those to know what that’s like. Looking back, I think we’re both right and both wrong on it. But at that point I was just, ‘What the fuck, I’m blocking you, I don’t know who you are.’ So I unblocked him, and then eventually got to know him and then started listening to the music. Nick is one of the purest souls and one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and then it was one of those great things where you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, this guy is great, and I’m friends with him!’

“I just did a big thing with him – we talked for four or so hours, going through album by album. And it reminded me of spots in the catalogue that are so powerful. I think A Sleep And A Forgetting, which would be the fourth Islands album, was such a huge step forward for him. It’s like he was able to set down the trappings that you pick up when you’re young – records like Arm’s Way with the kitchen sink aesthetic, which has its own power and merits. I love the maximalist approach to things too, but there’s something about somebody being, ‘No, I can say what I’m gonna say in the simplest way possible, and it’s going to be clean, it’s going to be stripped down, I’m comfortable in my own skin doing this.’

“The singing is more direct and upfront, and there’s such courage and vulnerability with that. And “In a Dream It Seemed Real” captures that perfectly to me, how breathtaking it is in its simplicity and its purity.”

It Never Ends is published 5 August via Abrams Press

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