I hadn’t thought about Kiss for years, until I saw the 1979 Tomorrow Show Interview with Tom Snyder.
Like most of the kids of my generation, I came to Kiss young, at eleven or twelve, in my case through the Destroyer album. A year or two before, I’d had friends who’d joined the Kiss army but even at that age, the Army seemed a little lame with the badges, the memorabilia. In our little mining town, Kiss was still a hard rock band, and songs like ‘Detroit Rock City’ and ‘King of the Night Time World’ had the allure of the city: cars, girls, drugs, girls, sex.
Even if I never got into Kiss in a big way, they were a thread through the first half of my teens. One memorable afternoon, a half-dozen of us skipped school to go to a girl’s house where she opened up her parent’s liquor cabinet, and we got trashed listening to Kiss Alive II, wondering if the blood running down Gene Simmons’ face on the album cover was real. Down in my best friend’s basement room was the iconic sticker from the ‘Rock and Roll Over’ album and as we sat in the black light, getting high on not very good weed, all four faces glowed out of the space between his velvet psychedelia poster and the even more iconic poster of Farah Fawcett. Even if Kiss, with all their merchandising, their comic books, their laughably atrocious film, had stopped being cool, we agreed their pre-Dynasty albums still rocked.
I moved south, my life changed radically – as did Kiss. They released a concept album, Peter Criss, then Ace Frehely, left, they took off the make-up and became just another metal band. In the early 90′s, I had friends in what was left of the hardcore/ underground scene who became Kiss fans, wearing pins, t-shirts, even listening to the music – a forerunner to the consumer-based hipster irony that runs so rampant now – but I didn’t get it. By that point, Kiss seemed the epitome of a corporate rock band, about as interesting as, say, the Scorpions. I hardly noticed their reunion tours in the latter part of the decade.
Then a couple of years ago, I found the Tom Snyder, Tomorrow show interview. Kiss was on to promote their ‘Dynasty’ album, so it would have been around the same time I was getting high below their glow in the dark decal in my friend’s room. They were well on their way to becoming a clown act, with the overblown costumes, an act so safe that parents took their kids to see them and the tension between the two halves of the band are obvious. But what comes across is the unself-consciousness: the unfiltered stories about underage groupies, trashed hotel rooms, the lack of equipment at their early shows. And growing up in New York – Paul and Gene from Queens, Peter from Brooklyn and Ace from the Bronx (his accent so much of a time that when a friend of mine heard him, he thought Ace was a foreigner) – both Peter and Ace were in street gangs when they were kids. Ace is the star of the show – drunk, very drunk, by turns funny, uproarious, engaging; troubled and troubling. You don’t see interviews like this anymore – and certainly not on prime time TV.
Afterward, I remembered an interview I transcribed of Buddy Bowzer, for a doc on Johnny Thunders. Buddy had played with the New York Dolls, and talked about hanging out with Ace in pre-Kiss days, going to gigs, jamming and so on until Ace joined the newly formed Kiss and, as Buddy put it, “rocked, rolled – right up to the top.” I remembered that the Dolls were Kiss’ early rivals (their original, pre-Kabuki make-up stage Dolls influenced get-up involved dresses, high heels and lipstick) and but for luck, incredible persistence and a great gimmick, they could easily have followed the Dolls into cult recognition and commercial obscurity. Looking at concert footage of the era, what comes across is not the gimmicks, but the raw energy, the incredible enthusiasm, the power of their performance.
Kiss Lives. Gene and Paul keep the brand alive. Ace Frehley, essentially drunk for thirty years, has been sober for nearly five, recently released a solo album and still shreds on guitar. Peter Criss makes albums and apparently plays jazz on the side.
And, when I went back to my little town a few years ago, 98% empty now, I visited the street of abandoned houses where my friend used to live. There, in his basement room, an underground stream had spread silt and sand over the bare concrete floor. And the ‘Rock and Roll Over’ sticker was still there on the wall where it will likely remain until the house collapses.
The boys kick ass back home: KISS playing ‘Deuce’ on Midnight Special, 1975:
You can see more at City of Strangers Blog