Do you remember the first time you ever saw this album? I saw it the first time in 1975 while standing in a Wherehouse record store on Ventura Boulevard in Encino California (it's long gone of course). I had some vague idea that KISS was a band, courtesy of some older kids at school who scribbled the logo on almost every desk, but I'd never heard anything by them and they weren't part of my consciousness. Yet. I had just barely discovered Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.
The album cover took my breath away. In terms of visual stimulation, I'd say it was second only to seeing a naked girl for the first time, which happened just a few months earlier at summer camp. I had no idea what to do with her at the time, and a knock on the dressing room door from a camp counselor stopped me cold from trying to figure it out any further. But this, and all the excitement it promised, could be all mine for $3.66 and I could play with it all afternoon, or at least until my mom came home from work and told me to turn it down. I bought it and went home, feeling like I had just purchased some truly illicit pleasure. I ripped off the cellophane wrapper and unfolded the double album. Inside there were notes from each member of the band- as if they were writing directly to me. I pulled the vinyl record from the left sleeve and put it on the turntable. A huge swell of cheers and applause came out of the speakers and some dude screamed "YOU WANTED THE BEST AND YOU GOT THE BEST! THE HOTTEST BAND IN THE LAND, KISS!"
I had no idea who this guy was, but I believed him, and when the band launched into "Deuce," with its opening line "Get up! And get your grandma outta here," I was pretty much a goner. By the time I heard the machine gun riff of "Parasite" I was hooked. This was the most cathartic music I had ever heard in my life, even if I had no idea what most of the songs were about. The noise, the chunky metal/glam three chord progressions and the easily memorized refrains just melted into my ears.
It was an infatuation that only lasted a couple of years at the most but for me but it left a deep imprint and paved the way for me to become susceptible to the pleasures of opera some twenty years later via a very circuitous musical path. It didn't take me long to graduate from KISS to Black Sabbath and AC/DC and from there to Devo and the Clash, eventually taking a long detour through the P-Funk universe that led me to Run-DMC and early hip-hop, blues, jazz, afrobeat, Dead Can Dance and finally to classical and opera. Yet there was always something about those early KISS albums that held sway over me. It was a musical/ cultural talisman I was never able to entirely erase from my mind, no matter how many thousands of moments, images and songs have entered my head since that fateful afternoon spent alone in my bedroom with the first Alive! album.
Last year, during the end of American Idol, when Adam Lambert performed with KISS, I realized all these years later that incredibly enough they still had the ability to excite my imagination. Yes, like many others, I was completely dismayed when Lambert launched into "Beth," the lamest KISS song ever (and the beginning of the end of my interest in them), but when Lambert and KISS launched into "Detroit Rock City," or whatever it was, I was once again 14 years old. Suddenly the legacy of these guys became crystal-clear to me. Though many disparaged them at the time, those four guys in the make-up and ridiculous costumes forever changed rock and roll in a way few people have. Don't believe that? Sorry- listen to Motley Crue, Van Halen , Judas Priest, Guns 'n' Roses and dozens of other bands for the proof.
When the KISS "Alive! 35" tour was announced, I knew I had to go, even though I remember scoffing at the idea of attending the same kind of anniversary tour ten years ago. This time I wanted to go. Had it really been 35 years? God, I felt old. Ancient, actually, and I knew this whole enterprise reeked of disappointment and the crass cashing-in on a band's history that Gene Simmons is somewhat famous for. On the other hand (detour here), Simmons unmasked NPR's Terri Gross for the fake that she is. Her interview with him was one of the most interesting public undoings of a reporter/interviewer I've ever experienced. I've never been able to listen to Terri Gross since. Simmons exposed her as a joke, though she endeavored to do just that to him. Simmons is smart, but he's also a smarmy opportunist.
So here we are in 2009, and KISS releases Sonic Boom, an album available only at Walmarts that have an accompanying KISS corner set up to sell all kinds of KISS Krap (anyone remember the KISS Coffin?) and announce the accompanying KISS ALIVE 35 tour. I swallow my skepticism and buy the tickets to the Oakland show- hoping against my inner instincts that as these guys approach AARP membership and recover from hip-replacement surgery they can still pull off a decent show. A show that will remind me why I ever cared in the first place.
And those old dirty bastards pulled it off- and then some. They were fantastic. They rocked it better than anyone could have ever expected from a bunch of codgers in ridiculous make-up and stupid-dumb outfits had any legitimate reason to. Granted, this isn't like seeing Patti Smith, Radiohead or the Stones on a good night, or Achim Freyer's interpretation of Wagner, but they delivered the goods for two solid hours and it was a cathartic experience in the most Aristotelian sense of the word.
The set we saw featured the following; Deuce, Strutter, Let Me Go Rock and Roll, Hotter Than Hell, Shock Me, Calling Doctor Love, Modern Day Delilah, Cold Gin, Parasite, Say Yeah, 100,000 Years, I Love it Loud, Black Diamond, Rock and Roll All Night, Shout It Out Loud, Lick It Up, Love Gun and Detroit Rock City.
But I'm a bit ahead of myself. I took three people with me, none of whom had ever seen KISS before and only one of whom (GG- a Detroit girl, bred in the bone), had what you might call a real interest in seeing the band. The other two, Fet Kuk, a middle-aged Swede who grew up on ABBA, and MG, who was born in the 8o's and whose favorite band is the Velvet Underground, were pretty much along for the ride based on my enthusiasm and pretty good (16th row floor) seats for what promised to be at least an entertaining novelty act. It pleased me to no end to look over at all three of them at multiple points during the show and see them eating it up with smiles on their faces and enjoying what can only be called a base rock and roll experience that rattles through the bones, no matter what you brought to it beforehand.
Before KISS took the stage, I roamed around the floor taking pictures of various people in KISS make-up. There were four generations of fans present, which was really different than 1976. What was considered dangerous and louche back then was now a family outing. That in itself was weird, but make of that what you will. I was particularly interested in the KISS make-up booth on the perimeter of the arena making little kids into their favorite KISS personages. There was one woman, probably younger than I, who had on a gold lame' jacket in full makeup toting her son around, also in full make-up, who looked to be about 9 or 10 years old. There was a couple whose picture I snapped who then instructed me to go forward a couple of rows so I could also snap their kids. It was an incredible vibe- much different than when I and my junior high school friends attended the show in 1976 with our two ounces of pot that cost us $20 which we smoked through the entire show.
And yet in a way it wasn't. Yes, there were some serious disconnects from the 70's, such as when Paul Stanley told the audience we should go to Walmart the next day to buy Sonic Boom, and the intro to "Cold Gin" was an admonishment not to drink and drive (where was this in the 70's???), but apart from those weird disconnects the band was able to resurrect the feeling that you were partaking of something communal.
Still, I haven't written about the show itself. So I'll get on with it. We completely skipped opening act Buckcherry, opting instead for over-priced beers at one of the bars. However, their version of Deep Purple's "Highway Star" sounded pretty interesting from the outside perimeter.
The lights went down at 9:00 pm sharp and a voice roared "OAKLAND, YOU WANTED THE BEST AND YOU GOT IT- THE HOTTEST BAND IN THE WORLD...KISS!" and of course the crowd went nuts. The band walks out onstage and tears into "Deuce." It's loud, it's like 1976, and when the flames erupt in columns from the rear of the stage we can feel the heat in the 16th row. Everyone is on their feet and they stay that way for the next two hours. The back of the stage is a huge video screen projecting close-ups of the band. This worked well for everyone but Simmons, whose aging, sweaty face is soon grotesque enough with out being blown up to twenty feet high.
The next tune is "Strutter" and I can tell this show is not going to disappoint- the energy level is extremely high and the band seems really into it, regardless of the fact that the entire top section of the arena is draped-off. They're playing it like they mean it- incredible when you think about how long they've been playing these songs. Next up is "Let Me Go Rock and Roll," a song I wouldn't have expected, at least that early in the set. "Hotter than Hell" follows. That's four tunes from the Alive! album off the bat and the audience is eating it up. The show itself is decidedly retro- it's very much like the seventies shows but with better electronics and lighting. The moves are the same, Simmons flicks his tongue constatnly (and he literally drools just as much, all caught on the jumbo tron behind the stage).
Thayer sings "Shock Me," a Frehley song from Love Gun, which gave him some room to shine on the guitar, but it was definitely the weakest song of the set. Thayer resurrected Frehley's firework-spewing-guitar bit, complete with shooting down some lights, and it looked real enough to those who never saw it before. From a fan's perspective, it would have been great to have Ace Frehley and Criss there, but their replacements played the roles and the parts to the extent that that really weren't missed (except for the drum solo in "100,00 Years"). "Shock Me" concluded with the slow riff that was originally attached to the end of "Black Diamond"- a weird change that actually worked in the context and spoke to the power of the riffs themselves.
"Cold Gin" featured the previously commented-on admonishment not to drink and drive, and Stanley again charms the crowd with a little pre-song banter about its origins. Still, going back to the 70's, this song was an invitation to get plastered. My, how things change. Next up comes "Parasite," which makes me crazy that they are actually playing this song. Always too cool and dirty to be a major hit, the riff and rhythm pack an enormous wallop. My second favorite moment of the show, and the point where I feel transported back to 1976 for the first time. I simply cannot stop grinning. This is exactly what I wanted.
"Say Yeah" off the new albums follows, generating little heat but they play it like it's off off Dresssed to Kill, and then it's into "100,00 Years," complete with drum solo which is the only moment I wish Criss was behind that kit. Next up is "I Like it Loud" which is really a mediocre song, but they launch into segue of The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" halfway through it and I'm blown away not only the balls these guys have, but at their ability to rock this to death. Kiss covering The Who- it was my favorite moment of the show.
The encore was four songs: Rock and Roll All Night, Shout It Out Loud, Lick It Up, Love Gun and Detroit Rock City. Look at those titles. Do I need to tell you the encore kicked ass? The confetti rained down on the audience, the jumbotron flashed pictures of album covers and fans in make-up. By the time it was all over we got the fire-breathing, we got the blood-spitting, Stanley flew over the audience to a mini-stage at the other end, the band rose thirty feet above the audience on risers, and to put it simply, KISS rocked.
***Please read the comments attached to this link- the 2nd one is from a longime KISS fan is a really great response to this post (the first one is from my sister).
All photos (except the album cover) by GG and John Marcher.