Man…or Astro-Man?

Metro, April 25

By Sarah Vowell

I once saw a comedian named Frank Sidebottom open for Jonathan Richman in London. His gigantic papier-mache head made him hard to miss. After making the audience join him in a chorus of a song that went “All we are saying is give Linda McCartney a chance,” he nodded at his pink satin tie, calling it his gimmick. Every performer, he said while fingering the material, needs one of these.

It’s that kind of thinking that must have led the band of space-guys-marooned-on-earth called Man…or Astro-Man? to hit on their snazzy surf-rock MO. “How can we distinguish ourselves from all the other 21st-century guitar boys from Planet Q hanging around Auburn, Alabama?” guitarist Star Crunch must have asked bassist Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard. And maybe drummer Birdstuff, listening to terrestrial radio, cranked up “Wipeout” and voila, gimmick problem solved.

Still, such angles tend to make me nervous. And so do large quantities of video monitors stacked around rock clubs (implying the dreaded multimedia event). This was just the setup at Metro last week, where the astro ones took the stage. The televisions, displaying data-rich oscilloscope patterns, were just one visual component of the show. Films of moonscapes, Geiger counters, and cartoon protons and electrons were also projected behind the band. But none of these gizmos seem to matter one bit considering that the Astromen’s walloping furor blows the sci-fi sky high.

They sustained a breakneck intensity throughout the evening. A palpable energy filled up the room, crowding out the B-movie references and opening up into the real. Star Crunch, who shakes his left leg like some kind of extraterrestrial Elvis, played his guitar with the feverish abandon of a red-blooded human. It’s dangerous stuff, splashing all that salt water surf onto wires and currents and cords. He risked musical electrocution and his herky-jerky death throe contortions only supported that claim. Birdstuff and rhythm guitarist Dexter X added their own devouring monsoon to the noise, but Coco’s antics ultimately proved the most distracting. He threw himself around, played effecty gadgets (like a little handheld theremin that looked like an old answering machine), and walked through the crowd with his head inside a TV, calling out, “Come on! Play some real rock ‘n’ roll you space pansies!”

A few of the songs even boast lyrics, dedicated to such typical far-out subject matter as “our favorite planet in earth’s solar system.” Star Crunch sings, “Uranus is a planet / It’s very, very cold.” Moving toward the sun, they also gave up a punky version of “Destination Venus.” Mostly, though, mum’s the word. Like the Ventures before them (not to mention Mozart and Chuck Berry) every song tended to sound like the one before it. But the band dove into each number with such violence and speed you didn’t have time to care.

As genres go, instrumental surf is marked by landlocked limitations. In its wordlessness, its reverb fixation, its riff-heavy cool, surf is about sound–more than any other rock form. That slippery guitar gliding over spasmodic drum bobs is as homegrown as Delta blues–and just as elemental to the national melodic psyche.

Of course, the Astromen’s space-surf split holds a natural appeal in these United States. What is NASA if not a Beach Boys-era extension of manifest destiny? And isn’t the protagonist in all those surf movies the most cosmologically centered archetype in postwar cinema? He surfs on the lunar pull of waves by day, and courts his bikini-clad Venus under the stars at night. But Star Crunch, a sort of Troy Donahue meets Stephen Hawking, is more likely to talk astrophysics than clambake. Venus asks him, “What’s a nice alien like you doing on a planet like this?”

It’s a long story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.