My first KISS sighting was in 1976 in the Chicago Tribune. It was a feature story about the band and their upcoming area concert. I don’t remember much about it, but I remember the photos and the uproar they caused in our neighborhood. The rumors spread quickly: the Satanism; the blood, gore, and violence; the Kids in Satan Service brainwashing; the sheer depravity. Parents asked: “Why can’t music be like when we were kids? Why can’t these musicians be wholesome like in our day?” Meanwhile down in Memphis a doped up Elvis was watching hookers through his two-way mirror. But I’m veering off course. Damn you, irony! The point is that KISS came to town and the parents were scared.
A few months later down in Texas KISS popped up again, first in my fourth grade music class (see https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/schools-out-forever/) and then in a story relayed by my neighbor Joey. Joey was an interesting guy. His father owned a hardware store, so I was convinced they must be rich. Why a wealthy family was living across the street from our middle class house never crossed my mind. He was a good-looking kid, too, and athletic. Joey was the first skateboarder I met. When I finally got a board his mother took us to the Fort Worth Water Gardens where part of Logan’s Run was filmed. I can only assume that skateboards are no longer allowed there, and neither is Michael York.
Joey’s most compelling features though were his intelligence and maturity. We were nine years old but he seemed so much older. Maybe it was from counting those huge Scrooge McDuck piles of hardware store money. I envied how he seemed to have it so together. Nothing bothered the kid. He was like a little adult, and I wanted to be a little adult, too. One afternoon while riding lazy circles on our Stingrays I said, “I’m almost ten,” followed with a troubled sigh.
“So it’s time I got serious. That’s double digits.”
Joey laughed. He laughed so hard he stopped pedaling. “You’re such an old man! You’re ten! You’re still a kid!” He was right and I pretended to know that my bubble was popped, but ten still seemed to carry an awful lot of weight.
We’d lie down on the pavement at night, watch the fireflies and talk about deep things. I don’t remember what but I’m sure they were awfully profound, and whatever Joey told me was gospel truth.
“Hey, did you hear about KISS?” he asked me.
“Yeah, I know all about them.”
“So you know about the Spaceman getting electrocuted?”
I fumbled and guffawed, but it was obvious that I had no idea what he was talking about. Rather than calling me out he just continued with his story.
“They were playing a concert and the Spaceman with the silver make-up was doing a guitar solo and he started shaking and fell over. Everybody thought it was part of the show so they let him go, but then smoke started coming out of his head and his clothes caught on fire. When they finally figured it out he was already dead, but they didn’t want the crowd to freak out so they dragged him away and had another guy in the Spaceman suit finish the concert. They still do concerts and everything but it isn’t the original Spaceman because he’s dead.”
Oh, Spaceman. I hardly knew ye.
I’ve mentioned previously that when we moved to South Carolina I was ready for a makeover and KISS was going to be part of it. A band that looked like demon clowns, scared parents, wrote songs about dead fans, and killed one of their guitarists but finished the show was about five standard deviations from the Manilow mean, and that sentence bears witness to how badly (even in my forties) my inner geek needed a new façade. My sister’s boyfriend Mike lent credibility to my plan via the presence of a KISS t-shirt, and he provided the Redneck Eye For The Nerd Guy template for the rest of my transformation. T-shirts were still cool, but “I’m With Stupid” needed to be phased out to make way for band logos, Levi’s, and an Army jacket. When I got my first field jacket Mike said, “That’s going to get you in trouble. You’re too smart to be looking like that.” I didn’t know what he meant but I was officially a cool kid, or at least looked like one. My look was set for the next five years. Come to think of it, it’s not that much different today.
I saved up my allowance, lawn mowing money, whatever I could get to buy my first KISS record. When I’d saved eight bucks my mother drove me to K-Mart. I stared at the KISS records like they were the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Oh, the album covers were brilliant. KISS in suits; KISS with a naked lady with carefully placed star; KISS as superheroes, dark lords of the underworld; playing live in the middle of a smoky stage. I was sure that photo must’ve been snapped just before the Spaceman met his maker.
I didn’t know anything about their music other than the one song I’d heard in music class. It was something about a car, so I checked the track listings on each record for car-themed songs. Rock and Roll Over which, sadly, I didn’t get the title’s double entendre until this very moment, featured “Baby Driver” and “Mr. Speed.” Both sounded like good candidates for a car crash song, so I bought it.
Opening a KISS record was like opening a Christmas present that contained Christmas presents. Every album contained goodies – posters, stickers, a paper platinum record for your wall, and always a subscription form to join the KISS Army. Even the inner sleeves were covered with art rather than the plain paper sleeves that protected most albums. Rock and Roll Over’s goodie was a set of stickers. This was officially my favorite record and I hadn’t even put it on the turntable.
The art of packaging was lost when CDs came along. The covers were too small, and the jewel box too thin for much in the way of goodies. Fortunately the boxed set finally came along – Bruce Springsteen Live 1975-85 may have been the first, but don’t quote me on that – and revived the art. When they are done well these special packages draw me in every bit as much as Kiss’s records did when I was a kid. Jane’s Addiction’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a recent outstanding example. A good package elevates an album from a music collection to an event. KISS were masters of packaging.
“Baby Driver” was not the car crash song, not even close. It was virtually unlistenable. Nor was “Mr. Speed” the song about that poor KISS fan getting flattened by a truck, but it was a good song. It opens with a good guitar hook that carries the poppy vocal about the confident narrator who has “the kind of loving that you need.” He’s so confident, in fact, that he’s “so glad that’s why the ladies call me Mr. Speed.” That couplet is even more confusing to me now than it was thirty-five years ago. “I Want You” and “Makin’ Love” rocked hard, but “Hard Luck Woman” reminded me of my sister’s Rod Stewart album. (It would be another 25 years before I learned that the song had been written for or in imitation of Rod Stewart depending upon the account.) This caused a bit of cognitive dissonance. How could these awesome demons have such a mellow track on their album? But no worries, I would deal with that another day.
And so the quest for the cool car crash song would have to continue when I saved up some more money. My next purchase was Love Gun, another subtle title. In retrospect it strikes me as odd that there was so much parental concern about violence and Satanism in KISS’s music when the real need for parental guidance was their adolescent horny lyrics. “You pulled the trigger of my love gun,” “My love is larger than life,” “Put your hand in my pocket / grab onto my rocket,” “She looked good she looked hotter than Hell, all dressed in satins and lace,” “lick it up.” They wrote songs about underage girls and the infamous Plaster Casters. Parents: Teach your kids about sex or they’ll learn it from a KISS record, and then they’ll think that fire-breathing and dragon boots are required to make sweet love.
Love Gun didn’t turn out to be the record I was looking for, either, but it also had some choice cuts. “I Stole Your Love” drives hard, for example, the guitar more than making up for Paul’s thin voice and silly histrionics. But the standout was “Shock Me.” An outstanding riff, and the vocals weren’t like any other song on the record. I checked the liner notes. Ace Frehley was on vocals, and he played guitar. Guitar? Electrocution? Ace rhymes with space? This had to be the guy who Joey was telling me about.
The next time Mike was over I showed him my prize. “Look and it even has a song by the dead guy.”
“What dead guy?”
“Ace, the Spaceman.”
“He isn’t dead.”
“Yeah he is. He got electrocuted.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t die. If he died how could he write a song about it?”
I had to admit that Mike’s argument made sense. Also, he knew everything about music so he must be right.
I spun into full-blown KISS mania at this point. They were all I could talk about, all I would listen to. I was obsessed with finding the car crash song. I finally did, on Destroyer, but it didn’t matter anymore. Everything they touched was magic as far as I was concerned.
Without question I came along at the crest of the KISS wave. Merchandising was at the saturation point: KISS puzzles, trash cans, radios, makeup kits, model cars, dolls, lunchboxes, comic books. I didn’t care about much of it. I wanted music and pictures – all that other junk just wasn’t cool. Kid stuff for the most dangerous band in the world? It didn’t make sense to me. My walls filled quickly with posters and photos clipped from magazines, and when they were covered I started on the ceiling. I spent hours in the basement listening to my records, and while listening I’d set my album covers up on the piano like a store display. My mother would take them down when I wasn’t around, but she never said a word about it. My neighbor Rick would come over and we’d get out the baseball bats and air guitar around the basement. Rick was always Gene and I was always Ace.
When I wasn’t listening to KISS, reading about KISS, talking about KISS, or acting like KISS I was planning for the day that I would be KISS. I’d doodle my own make up designs and work on my song craft. Unfortunately none of these valuable treasures have survived, but I remember the basic structure of each of these masterpieces:
- Verse 1
- Verse 2
- Verse 3
- Verse 4
- 5 minute guitar solo
- 3 minute drum solo
- Verse 5
- Verse 6
- 4 minute bass solo
- Fade out, with another guitar solo
So obviously I would’ve been a wildly successful songwriter. Sorry World, you missed out.
In 1979 KISS released Dynasty. I owned every album by then and couldn’t wait to pick up the new one. The cover was amazing – a simple close up of their four faces, minimalist cool. That record still gets grief for containing “I Was Made For Loving You,” KISS’s first disco song, but I liked it. Yes, it had a disco beat but it still featured Ace’s guitar in the middle and that’s all that mattered. The real offender on that record is “Sure Know Something,” a pure attempt at top 40 blandness. “Dirty Livin’” and “Charisma” weren’t much better, but Ace’s cover of the Stones’ “2,000 Man” added cool points to the record.
Over time it became evident that I was a music fan, and not of the Neil Diamond/John Denver/Monkees variety. Harold, the only kid in class who actually played an instrument actually talked to me now.
“You like KISS?”
“Yeah, they’re cool.”
“They opened for Blue Oyster Cult when they were starting out. Did you know that?”
“Yeah,” I said, but I didn’t. I didn’t even know who Blue Oyster Cult was. I didn’t even know what “opened for” meant, but it sounded important.
“You like B.O.C.?”
“Yeah, they’re all right.” Within a few years I would learn to append “I liked their old stuff” to this sort of statement.
“Last summer I jammed with them. My sister took me to see them and their drummer didn’t show up so they asked if anybody could sit in so I did.”
Harold was cool, and as we grew up he kept getting cooler. He may have been telling a bit of an elementary school fib about Blue Oyster Cult, but he developed into a fantastic drummer and one of my main sources for music information. I could scribble 30,000 words on our soundtracked friendship and probably will before I grow senile and start writing superhero kitten fan fiction.
For the first time I began to feel like maybe I could fit in a little bit. Maybe I actually was one of the cool kids.