In his stand-up comedy act, Brian Posehn describes interviewing the guitarist for the 1980s heavy-metal band W.A.S.P. for his high school newspaper. The musician told Posehn he didn't get into rock music to meet 15-year-old boys. He said he did it to meet chicks, and the interview was over.
Posehn's encounter flashed through my head when, after a VAST concert, I stopped the lead singer, Jon Crosby, to tell him I liked his band. With a vacant look on his face, he said "Thanks." I started in on, "Where are you guys off to next?" But I doubt he heard more than "Where are …" before he left me standing alone like an overweight prom date so he could check on merchandise sales.
Chances are good you've never heard of VAST. That's a shame, because in the late '90s and early 2000s, they released three albums of excellent electro-rock music that sounds like the weird, legitimate child of the unholy threesome consisting of Nine Inch Nails, Jimmy Eat World and Placebo. Their brushes with fame came with the songs "Touched," which was semi-famously used in "The Beach," and with "Free," which found moderate radio airplay. (And which -- because it features the line "You can't tell me what to do anymore" -- should be the battle cry for any guy who's been broken up with any time in the month that precedes him hearing the song.)
I've always thought VAST (an acronym for Visual Audio Sensory Theater) deserved more acclaim than they received. Their songs are catchy, interesting, and accessible and to me, the band always seemed a Rob Sheffield sentence away from mainstream success. Evidently, Sheffield missed work each week advance copies of VAST albums appeared in his mailbox, because runaway fame never found the band.
Mainstream success is hardly the only goal for a rock band. I would think one of the goals of most groups of musicians would be the opportunity to play music in front of people who enjoy listening to that music. While watching VAST at the Crosstown Station in Kansas City, I thought that goal was being achieved. For my home city's sake, I was pleased there were more people in the crowd than I had expected. Attendance: around 100. Sure, 100 people isn't 10,000 people, but for a Wednesday night, competing against the B-52s at the nearby Sprint Center … well, Kansas City can support only so much live music.
When we arrived, my compatriots and I were struck with what Crosby looked like. He looked … soft. Or at least soft in comparison to my expectations. Those same expectations have led me astray before, though. I was thoroughly surprised when I found out that a darling of the mostly white alternative crowd, TV On the Radio, was mostly not-white. So I don't put much credence in my ability to predict what a musician will look like based on his or her music.
Nonetheless, VAST's music has its moments of aggression. It's the sort of music usually purveyed by short, lean dudes with tattoos. I did not expect bleached-blond hair and a striking resemblance to Philip Seymour Hoffman.
VAST wasn't as good live as they are recorded. They spent a little too much time trying to foist newer material on a crowd that wasn't particularly interested in that material. Fortunately for the paying audience, they weren't militant about their latest work, Dandy Warhols-style, but it was easy to see they were tired of playing their standbys.
They did manage to mix in enough familiarity to keep this audience member satisfied and so, when they finished, I was ready to deem the night a success. Then Crosby walked by, we had our encounter, and I was left feeling unsettled. During our brief moment together, his demeanor screamed "It wasn't supposed to be like this!" I get that, I guess. I'm sure he'd rather have been playing to an arena full of screaming fans. And sure, the groupies available to him weren't Playmates, and the barman probably wasn't going to serve him top-shelf tequila; he might have had to settle for Cuervo. But it had been a respectable night, and his band had played a respectable set of rock 'n' roll music.
All night, my friend Mick had made snide remarks in my direction when Crosby finished a song:
"Loved you in 'Capote.'"
"Excellent work with Laura Linney in 'The Savages.'"
… And the like. It wasn't high comedy, but I chuckled.
After Crosby walked by at the end of the night, I decided the best comparison was Hoffman's character in "Along Came Polly." In that movie, he plays a washed-up child star who lives in a perpetual state of frustration. VAST -- or at least Crosby -- seemed nothing if not frustrated. His career hasn't gone the way he expected, and he wants people to know it.
It's possible I'm extrapolating on faulty data. Maybe Crosby had just learned of a death in the family. Maybe he'd it on the Red Bull. Maybe he needed to pee when I spoke to him. Maybe he'd had a bad burrito at Rudy's.
Or maybe his standoffish demeanor is exactly what has cost him the success he seems to so desperately want.
There's a lesson in there, I suppose. When any of us meets someone, we don't know if that person is going to hold the key to our futures or if we'll forget his name in the next four minutes.
I'm certainly not going to make or break VAST's career. And Brian Posehn isn't going to derail whatever career W.A.S.P. had by telling his audiences that band's guitarist told him to come back when he'd grown some breasts. But public opinion on music -- just like public opinion on literature, art and a girl's reputation -- is often based on word of mouth. It's probably not a great idea to be unappreciative.
Unless you had a bad burrito. Then it's totally excusable.
Today's recommendation: VAST
Don't let my disappointment with the lead singer discourage you from listening to their music. I'm sure most of my favorite bands are filled with asshats, which is why it's probably better that I don't ever meet any of them.
The three essential VAST albums:
"Visual Audio Sensory Theater"
"Music For People"
If you happen to be a woman, start with "Nude." In my unlearned opinion, VAST has always injected a surprising degree of sensitivity into their music. Most of the women I've exposed to "Nude" have been pleased with it. Because that exposure often came at the beginning of a night that ended with a state befitting the title of the album, that pleasure was sometimes the highlight of their respective evenings. Which is not meant to drag down "Nude," but is meant to drag down my ability with women.
If you aren't a woman, you can start with any of the band's albums. (You can start anywhere if you are a woman too; I'm only making suggestions.)
VAST's first two albums are similar. They're faster, harder and more raw. Predictably, the second is slightly more polished than the first. But with VAST, polish isn't a bad thing. Some might argue that, by "Nude," the band's sound was too polished. But I wouldn't be one of those people.
I think the three records make for an interesting study in maturation. Crosby seemed to figure out what worked -- or at least, what his audience liked -- over the course of the six years that spanned the release of the three albums. The result is a body of work that is among the least-appreciated electo/alterna-rock sung by an obvious introvert that has been released in the past 15 years.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and by e-mailing him here. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. With his brother, he co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."