When you flip over Nash Kato's solo album, 2000's Debutante, the photo on the back presents a portrait of an immaculate rock 'n' roll idol. It's partially the angle -- what would be called a "hero shot" in advertising. The camera is placed at Kato's knees and his body stretches up to the top of the frame in a perfect pyramid. If he were onstage, this would be the neck-aching vista from the front row. If he were in front of you, you'd be groveling at his feet.
In that photo, Kato is dressed entirely in white. White pants, white belt, white T-shirt. His expressionless face is shielded by white-framed Elvis-style shades and framed by chestnut hair that cascades down to his shoulders. Above him, the white sun makes an ethereal halo against the too-blue sky. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but this one only needs seven, and they're broadcast in huge neon letters that can be read for miles across the desert: Nash Kato is a motherfucking rock god.
But he isn't. He never was. He never will be. Practically no one heard Debutante, and many who did hated it. It was lambasted by critics (who found it too virile in the sensitive dawn of Kid A) and ignored by the public. To this day you can't even download the damn thing. When it came out four years ago the reaction was clear: Nash Kato -- drug-addled godhead at the helm of '90s near-stars Urge Overkill -- didn't get the memo. Grunge had long since dethroned champions of rock excess. It was 10 years too late for the ferocious heroics of G'n'f'n'R and -- judging by the cock-rock rekindling of current "It" bands like the Darkness -- five years too early. In Y2K, Kato's stylistic blend of rock messiah and Michelangelo's David didn't fly.
The back story, which led Kato from his smartass Minnesota childhood to that photo session, is marked with astonishing bad luck and constant flirtation (heavy petting?) with superstardom. This is that story -- Nash Kato: The Making of an Almost-Legend.
Ahem. We open at Chicago's Northwestern University, where Kato and two pals start a band, Urge Overkill, with tongue-in-cheek rock-star 'tudes. As if the guys' chosen band name isn't enough, their matching velvet jumpsuits and big gold medallions place them in a league of their own. Musically, however, there are no gags. In short order, Urge makes some of the most singular, exhilarating guitar-rock of its decade. After a couple of records on Chicago indie Touch and Go, the band starts getting popular. Nineties sweet dude-cum-film boss Quentin Tarantino picks up Urge's Stull EP in a London used bin and before you can say "Royale With Cheese" the band's dusty cover of a Neil Diamond classic ("Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon") becomes the runaway single from Pulp Fiction.
Boom. MTV, piles of cash, major labels, the whole nine. Toting trophy girlfriends and pricey dope habits, Kato and cohorts embody the lifestyle that they initially lampooned.
And then, just when it's about to go through the roof, the house of cards starts tumbling. Drummer Blackie Onassis gets pinched for drugs. Urge gets blue-balled by its major label (after selling a "disappointing" 275,000 units of '95's Exit the Dragon) and blackballed by the indies for "selling out." After an irresolvable power struggle, the band breaks up. Kato releases an unheard solo record, then takes a junkie's junket to Costa Rica, never to be heard from again. Almost. Here we are, four years later, and Urge Overkill is smack dab in the middle of a reunion tour.
Who cares, right? It's just another paper sailboat gone adrift on the tides of disposable culture. Wrong. If you revisit the music -- whole albums of cocksure riffs ('93's Saturation and '95's Dragon) -- Urge is more relevant than ever. Its imitation of rock's icons is better than the source material. You have two choices: Either continue to wrongfully regard the band as mock-ups with a masochistic (anti-careerist) sense of irony, or turn the records up real loud and buy it, hook, line, and sinker. Before you go with the former, study Nash Kato on the back of Debutante. It's not a pose at all. It's the real goddamn thing. He'll eat your rock stars for breakfast.
"Hang on, hang on, hang on." It's Kato's voice on the phone. Right now he's set to eat some burgers. He's at a drive-through and can't be distracted by another pithy interview. Nash hates doing interviews on the phone, his manager cautioned earlier in the week. I'll ask him, manager assured skeptically, but I don't think it's going to happen, buddy. But it is happening. And, if Kato was acting like a self-involved rock Jesus during UO's peak, his manners on the phone demonstrate that he's matured to the next role, as the slightly out-of-shape comeback kid, ready to step back into the ring, invited or not.
"I'll tell you one thing about that record," Kato says of Debutante. "I'm not sure anyone knew it was released. Shit, I forget it was released." His candor brings to mind B-rate "Diamond" David Lee Roth. He speaks in a stream of clichés about "what a rush it is" to be "getting back in the saddle" for the reunion, which is -- you guessed it -- "for the fans." Understand now, dear reader, that Nash Kato isn't about to dole out a post-structuralist screed about his misunderstood star complex; he's going to talk about "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," a phrase that he uses once every two minutes for the duration of the conversation. It's not that Nash isn't a sharp dude -- his records brim with brainy musical references that are probably over the heads of those who discredit him -- but his smarts ain't about being a good interview. They're about living la vida loca, that of a cult personality, a classic showman, a genuine star.
Ask him about his well-documented enthusiasm for narcotics: "Pish posh," Kato quips. "That's the kind of legacy that follows every band. Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. That's the job description. That's the good part of being in a rock band. It's the kind of stuff I dropped out of college for."
Ask him about the strange popularity of the band's Neil Diamond cover, which dwarfs that of any of his own compositions: "We can't complain about that runaway load of shit," he says. "I just wish I had written it. I'd be speaking to you poolside at a place in the Hollywood hills." (Diamond Dave, anyone?) "That fucking song did more for us in two minutes of a movie than 10 years touring. The real punch line is that we only recorded it to get out of contractual obligations, and we did it for a six-pack and a bag of weed."
Ask about his dodgy reputation as a vain egoist, about how indie kingpin Steve Albini called his band "freakish, attention-starved megalomaniacs," and he doesn't bat an eyelash. "There was a while where we were burning pretty hot, things would snowball out of control. Vain? You could call it vain if you wanted to. But I always enjoyed looking good, even though it wasn't cool to look good for a while. But style is part of a show. That's an old-school idea, from one old-schooler to another. When you get onstage you have to look good, and we did. We still do."
Imagine Nash Kato. Imagine him looking good, in impeccable, spotless white, just like the back of Debutante. Imagine him blowing by in the passing lane of some Chicago highway, the top down in some nearly out-of-style muscle car. One hand holds the gold cell phone to his ear, the other is draped over the wheel as he weaves through traffic with the casual dignity of a slow dance.
Now, try to get him to say something that means anything. Try to get him to talk about something that is actually happening behind those mirrored sunglasses. Ask him if he has any regrets.
"I spent a lot of time chasing the sun," he says. It's impossible not to imagine the white orb of that picture, the one that envelops his head in a divine halo. "Sometimes I got too close to see anything else."