Wednesday, May 17, 2017
I've been a KISS fan my whole life.
There. I said it.
I'm originally from Roanoke, Virginia. Or more accurately, a suburb in a neighboring county outside of Roanoke. Which is to say I'm from basically Nowhere. It was the summer of '76. I was not yet five years old. I lived in a rural area that had limited television reception. We could only pick up one station - and even that could be somewhat dicey at times. My viewing habits were judiciously guarded by my uber religious mother. Sitting in front of the family television one afternoon a commercial flashed across the screen trumpeting an upcoming concert featuring four ghoulish characters equipped with electric guitars. My memory is that it was black and white stop-motion footage but we're talking forty years ago, so I could be wrong. All I knew is that it was the absolute coolest thing I'd ever experienced. In thirty seconds my life was irrevocably changed.
This was my introduction to KISS.
I mean, I hadn't yet heard a single note this band played but I sorta intrinsically knew it had to be... something. Of course I started asking questions. And the answers were even more bizarre; stories of these four monsters crushing baby animals with their spiked-heel boots, vomiting on their audience, and passing buckets to collect spit and puke to drink down. A babysitter intoned that a friend had witnessed them in person, returning from the experience covered in blood. All kinds of craziness that I should've known better than believe, but again, I was four. Seemed liked a reasonable proposition to me. And it scared the shit outta me.
Which of course only added to the allure.
Sometime shortly thereafter my brother and I were riding with our Pop in his truck. Pop always had the radio tuned to country and western. This was still the days of mono AM static. You would drive under a bridge and the signal would disappear completely. For some reason Pop had allowed my brother to commandeer the radio dial. He studiously turned the knob until finding the local Top 40 AM station. The song that came cackling thru the dashboard speaker was instantly memorable and I bobbed my head along to the beat. My brother looks at me and says "This is that band you like, the freak band." It was the song 'Rock & Roll All Nite' - and I've never forgotten the moment.
After I quickly outgrew the lurid rumors KISS became the singular obsession of my pre-teen years. Generally speaking, my entertainment was largely whatever my imagination could afford, but I collected every shred of KISS stuff I could - which unfortunately wasn't a lot. My religious nut mother was terrified of their influence. My Pop, on the other hand, got it. So there was a push/pull duality on what was and was not allowed. I sorta had to sneak stuff in thru whatever channels I could. KISS were perennially on the covers of 16 Magazine, Super Teen and Tiger Beat, which were somehow easily obtained. My room was papered with portraits and centerfolds from the magazines. I conned my grandparents ignorance on the subject resulting in several albums I'd otherwise never obtain. It was as rebellious as I knew how to be at eight years old. Their appearance as superhero rockstars in the infamous TV movie 'KISS Meets The Phantom of the Park" not only captured my imagination, it catapulted it. I pretended to be them, wailing away on an imaginary guitar and dancing about my bedroom. I scrawled their likeness on every corner of paper I had. School assignments typically carried an artistic rendering of Gene Simmons wagging a blood soaked tongue or Ace Frehley shooting laser beams from his eyes.
In the spring of 1979 we were visiting my Grandparents for Easter. Pop was sequestered off in the front room, studiously scanning the newspaper. My brother and I had long since learned to tip-toe around him while he read. When triggered, his anger was like that of a caged animal with a volume and intensity that terrified me far beyond anything else I could conceive. And his temper had a short fuse. In fact, I'd wager it had no fuse at all; he seem to possess only two emotions - anger and rage. He wasn't physically abusive, but he certainly was a scary man. I avoided him like the plague.
We sat quietly in the next room, probably watching TV when he bellowed for us. He had these weird foreign expressions he would use; something like "idio shipsio" and "balli balli". Usually he ran them in tandem, citing the urgency of whatever he wanted to see us for. All I knew was that it meant to stop whatever I was doing and report straight away. He was seated in his chair, his arms resting on his chest and the newspaper folded neatly on his knee. The old man had this ability to shift his voice into that of a butter-smooth radio DJ, a stark contrast to his otherwise generally sharp angry tone. His use of the DJ voice meant the subject was serious. "Boys", he spoke calmly and evenly, "it says here in the paper..." - here he paused for dramatic effect, patting the paper and holding the moment for maximum impact before continuing - "KISS is coming to Roanoke."
My heart leapt into my throat and my brother and I spun our heads towards each other to confirm we actually heard correctly. KISS was coming to our hometown. Meaning live and in person. Ace. Gene. Peter. Paul. The show of shows, the defining moment of our generation. KISS. Live. In Roanoke. We started to hoot and howl, excited at the mere thought. It was almost beyond our realm of comprehension. Pop had to settle us down before leaning forward in his chair. He was quite serious. Again, the velvet smooth butter voice delivering the knockout:
"Would you like to go?"
This was like Christmas.. no, better than Christmas! This was the apex moment towards which my young life had been on a steady trajectory towards since that fateful moment I first saw them on TV. This was the summation of all my juvenile hopes and dreams, the realization of a dream that once seemed like a hopeless aspiration. And yet, here now, my own father was giving me his blessing, ushering me into the Valhalla of my rock and roll fantasy...
Uh... just one thing.
Pop was virtually refereeing my brother and I amid our excitement. He corralled us once more, calmed us down and then provided the caveat: "Russ", he said, still in DJ mode, "It says you have to be at least ten years old to enter". Now, of course this was a lie. Looking back I realize that my parents had already conferred on the subject and it was decided that I was not going to be allowed to go. I'm sure this wasn't even open to discussion or debate. However the quandary lied in how to allow my brother to go and not me. So somehow they developed this age limit ruse. I mean, I was eight; I wasn't smart enough to believe my own parents would actually lie to me.
So, yeah, I missed out on seeing KISS in the waning moments of their prime.
The following six years was fairly tumultuous, personally. My parents divorced and my mother remarried a much older man. We moved twice in three years, smack dab in the middle of my awkward transitional teenage years. I had difficulty in making friends, and spent a lot of time alone with a pile of Circus and Hit Parader magazines and my trusty KISS records spinning on the turntable. But KISS had changed. The following six years were tumultuous for them as well. They lost two original members and dropped their trademark facepaint and stage costumes, forever altering their special formula. The records were nothing like the KISS of yore; the sly unapologetic sophomoric wit was worn into clumsy chest-thumping macho bravado. The musicianship transmogrified into soulless million-note-per-second flash trash. There was no style or heart, just the cold desperation of a band that had thoroughly lost the plot trying desperately to be liked. Steadily declining into a void driven by hack session musicians and mediocre records, KISS became 'Kiss', just another anonymous heavy-metal band. They weren't special any more. They weren't unique. They weren't exciting. They weren't fun. They weren't KISS.
Oh, sure I tried to keep up, feigning excitement whenever they released a new album. I saw them three times in this era. The first time was in 1985, also my first concert. I had no point of reference, and being it was my first concert, it was still pretty exciting, if a bit anti-climatic (A soundboard quality bootleg of this show is available online, but it's incomplete). The second time I saw them was better, but Ted Nugent opened and basically blew them off stage. The third time was in 1990. I had quit even buying their records at this point, but by then they wisely had begun weaving in a generous amount classic KISS material into the set, so I got suckered in. It was a disappointment. I remember walking thru the parking lot after the show and telling a friend that unless the original band reunited, I was never gonna waste my time with them again.
In 1996 the inevitable reunion occurred; and all wrongs seemed to be righted. No parental guidance needed, thank-you very much, I was well on my own and on my way. Finally given the opportunity I had been so cruelly denied seventeen years prior, I stood in line at the box office the morning the tickets went on sale. I got there early, but this was the era of a 'line lottery' - you would draw a number and that would be your position in line. I drew a '9' - ninth in line. However not every number was drawn, so I wound up actually being like, sixth in line. The doors finally opened to the ticket counter and there are multiple windows, which allows me to be third in line to my ticket window. I couldn't believe my luck - I was sure to score awesome seats... maybe even... front row.
We waited for the clock to countdown the seconds. At exactly 10:00am there was a virtual explosion of activity as the windows opened and the printers began spitting out ticket after ticket. Everything moved with rapid-fire precision as people scored their primo seats. Except my line. The printer had jammed. UGH! Just my luck. So typical. I don't remember how long it took to fix it, but it was a good five minutes. By the time I finally got my tickets the floor and most of the sides had already sold out. My seats were about 3/4 towards the back and half way up the side. Typical. But I was in, right? I was gonna finally see KISS. Not 'Kiss', KISS!!
The show was incredible. It was the validation of something I had clung to since before I was even old enough to go to school. They met and exceeded every expectation. I waned to preserve the moment in some way, and during the song 'Rock and Roll All Nite' I turned to look up at the back of the hall. Everyone in the building from the front row to the highest cheapest nosebleed seats were on their feet with their hands raised in the air. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever witnessed. It was as good as KISS could or would ever get for me. I grinned the whole time, so much so that my face literally hurt. I remember rubbing my cheeks on the way home.
I took my son to see them on their "farewell" tour. In a sense, it was a legitimate farewell, as the original line-up disbanded shortly thereafter. Obviously the band has sadly trudged on with the same dogged cynicism of their awful Eighties era. KISS are once again merely 'Kiss' - only now they are their own tribute act, with session musician hacks costumed and painted in the guise of the original members. It's so hackneyed and contrived it almost defies logic, yet darkly brilliant in its own contemptuous way. At least the Eighties 'Kiss' had some modicum of integrity, however compromised. No need for such now, 'Kiss' exists in it's own self-contained context. Die-hard fans still blindly buy anything shilled out stamped with a logo or likeness, including concert tickets and, more stupefying, new mediocre albums.
I suppose at this point in my life I'm forced to concede that in the end, KISS is in fact exactly the commercial enterprise their critics derided them as. Maybe I was suckered in as a naïve kid impressed by the flash and volume. I still reserve defense (or at least solace) in the fact that for about four years they recorded six albums full of scrappy blasts of ballsy teenage rock and roll. Drenched in the sweaty desperation of a million kids condemned to a life of monochromatic boredom, KISS in all their ghoulish comic book glory were, in point of fact, a reflection of our own imaginations, dreams, fantasies and aspirations.
If I'm condemned to be lost in the past, then judge me guilty. Because sometimes, just sometimes...
Ignorance is bliss.