This is Day 2 of Kiss Kountdown. Click here for Day 3
Loving a Band That's Easy to Hate: My Life with KISS - David Martin
I was eight years old when Kiss' popularity peaked. I owned a copy of Alive! and a Destroyer jigsaw puzzle. I was not a dues-paying member of the Kiss Army. But I was at least in the Kiss Reserves.
Then, Kiss became like a toy that no longer interested me.
I don’t remember being upset when Peter Criss and Ace Frehley left. My friend Steve, who lived across the street and had cable TV at his house, called me when the video for “Thriller” aired on MTV. There had been no phone call when, a few months earlier, the members of Kiss appeared on the network without makeup.
I became a Kiss fan again in high school. Colin and other friends argued on behalf of the band’s legitimacy in the lunchroom. Also, we were driving by this point. Waiting out the tense period after puberty but before girls found us appealing, we did not have many places to go besides record stores and concerts.
My first Kiss show was in the spring of 1986. Kiss visited Columbus at the tail end of the Asylum tour. Hair metal was going through its neon colors-and-rouge phase. Gene Simmons — the demon! — was not a man for these sequined times. He looks ridiculous on stage in pictures from that era. But I don't recall thinking the show was ridiculous. I remember having a great time.
I continued to attend Kiss shows past the point where I could blame a not fully developed brain. Sometimes I have paid for shows, and sometimes I have had press credentials. I have seen the band with and without makeup and the original four members. Shows have ended with me feeling cheated and shows have ended with me feeling elated.
The last time I saw the band, in 2009, I accompanied the music critic at the newspaper where I worked. Our seats were in the second row, right in front of Gene’s microphone stand. It was the first and only time I have had great seats at an arena show. During one break between songs, I spied Gene using a water bottle to wash the blood off the ends of his hair.
I am not a stupid man, and I like to think I have pretty good taste. Bands I really dislike — Poison, Def Leppard — are not too dissimilar from Kiss. On paper, at least, I should have grown out of Kiss a second time. But I did not. In fact, not too long ago, I took the time to burn a CD of my favorite Gene songs.
Therein, I think, lies the simple answer to the riddle of why I still like Kiss: The band has a lot of good songs.
This, for instance is Gene's B-material:
Kiss performed "Almost Human" in concert for the first time on a recent, nerds-only Kiss cruise. Yep, even on the night when Paul Stanley went to the hospital and the band performed without him, this gem stayed in the bag. That's how many good songs Kiss has.
Think Kiss is all mediocre head-banging bullshit? Cuddle up to this fire. It will keep you warm:
Gene, of course, is not the only songwriter in the band. In his review of Rock and Roll Over, the respected critic Robert Christgau praised the band for its "tough, catchy songs." I like think that Christgau was thinking of Paul Stanley's contributions when he wrote that passage. Take a look at what Paul brought to RARO:
"I Want You"
"Take Me" (co-written with Sean Delaney)
"Mr. Speed" (co-written with Delaney)
"Hard Luck Woman"
"Makin' Love" (Delaney again)
Eight moths later, the band released Love Gun. "I Stole Your Love" and "Love Gun" (Paul songs) opened each side. The solo albums came next, and Colin's right that Paul's is the best of the bunch. Starchild was on fire.
The band's Lennon/McCartney dynamic is a big reason why the band has endured. No, I am not arguing Kiss was as good as and important as the Beatles. But bands with two principals have a lot of advantages: more songs, a less fertile environment for self-indulgence. When one crew chief hits in a dry spell or becomes disinterested (see: Gene, 1982–1991), the other one can put the band on his back. (Paul wore bike reflectors on his.)
Having two male leads has obviously meant a lot to Kiss' live shows. When you begin to tire of Paul's ass-shaking, finger-linking and chest-hair caressing, you can watch a seven-foot bat clomp around, breathe fire and leer at your date.
Sure, sure, there's a lot not to like about Kiss. The relentless and crass merchandising. How obnoxious Gene is. The lyrics. (Not content to write a song called "Love Gun," Paul would later reference said gun in song called "Bang, Bang You.") Hipsters collect and swap Paul's ridiculous stage banter in the same way that hipsters of yore used to swap videotapes of Jerry Lewis being maudlin on his telethon.
I cannot defend Kiss Kaskets or Gene's interview with Terry Gross. But if I knew something about your tastes, I could probably burn a CD of Kiss songs that you would like (or at least not hate). If I took you to a show, you would think it is dumb in a pro wrestling kind of way. But your head would bob when the band played "Love Gun" and you might think Gene's boots are also kind of cool, too.
"A million so-and-so's can't be wrong" is usually a bad argument. But if the Grateful Dead gets to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so does Kiss. The fist pumps and hippie dances have spoken.
So here's a toast (or as Paul might say, a little al-ka-HOL!!!) to the band famous enough to appear on jigsaw puzzles, greedy enough to remain a going concern several years after a "farewell" tour, and tough and catchy enough to keep us interested.