Kiss Off

As the nation turns its lonely eyes to the Seventies for inspiration, they alight fondly on Kiss, who were stupider and crasser than anyone — and proud of it

THE SEVENTIES were pop music’s oddest decade, energized by overt sexuality, crass sing-alongs and visionary humbuggery, so it’s fitting that Seventies revisionism strays from the pattern established by Fifties and Sixties revisionism. The familiar first stage involves the proper reconsideration of unjustifiably neglected music: With disco hits collected on CDs, for example, it’s no longer scandalous to argue that Vicki Sue Robinson’s ‘Turn the Beat Around’ is equal to anything created by Motown.

Fueled by Rhino Records’s twenty-two volumes of Super Hits of the ’70s, which preserved senior-class memories like ‘My Sharona’ and ‘Chevy Van’, and rappers’ sampling such Seventies signposts as Aerosmith and Gary Wright, a second, unprecedented stage quickly followed: the dubious reconsideration of justifiably neglected music. The Knack reunion! The Queen revival! A Ted Nugent box set! The Best of Leo Sayer on CD! And just when it seemed Seventies revisionism couldn’t sink any lower, in stomped a band that for twenty years has been synonymous with low — Kiss.

It was no surprise to find poodle-headed poseurs like Poison or Bon Jovi covering Kiss songs or offering testimonials to the band’s influence. And it was apt that a member of the generic metal outfit Saigon Kick was a graduate of Cold Gin, one of many bands still duplicating Kiss’s old face-paint-and-blood-spitting stage show. Ten years ago, when the underground’s hippest rockers, the Replacements, covered Kiss’s ‘Black Diamond’, it could have been dismissed as ironic kitsch. But more covers ensued, not only from thrash maniacs like Anthrax and White Zombie but also from college-radio mini-stars like Redd Kross and the Lemonheads. Then the dam broke and accolades came flooding in, from such unlikely disciples as the Geto Boys’ Scarface and girl punk terrors Babes in Toyland. And as the leaden guitar returned to primacy in the Nineties, the four horsemen of megarock — Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Pearl Jam and Nirvana — all professed their admiration for Kiss. No longer can we safely assume that smirks lie behind the praise.

Three years ago, the small Seattle label C/Z put out Hard to Believe, a cheeky, low-fi collection of Kiss covers headlined by local sludge-rock champs the Melvins and Nirvana (whose members couldn’t have envisioned their future when they sneered their way through ‘Do You Love Me’, a petulant rocker’s depiction of “the fame and the masquerade” of stardom). Although Gene Simmons claims Kiss was “tickled pink” by the album, legal threats from the band’s representatives persuaded C/Z to take it out of print. Then Simmons — triumphantly immodest, if nothing else — decided to oversee his own Kiss-tribute album.

In selecting the lineup for Kiss My Ass, as the album will probably be titled when it’s released in March, Simmons bypassed the poodle-heads and instead recruited a diverse roster whose elements combine college-radio credibility (Gin Blossoms, Dinosaur Jr. and the Lemonheads), post-metal torrent (Nine Inch Nails and Anthrax), folkish delicacy (Toad the Wet Sprocket) and superstar allure (Garth Brooks and Lenny Kravitz). “It’s very much a cutting-edge record,” Simmons declares proudly. From Brooks’s earnest ‘Hard Luck Woman’, rendered as vintage Rod Stewart, to Toad the Wet Sprocket’s spiritless, almost emasculated ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, Kiss My Ass dares listeners to distinguish revisionism from stupidity.

Besides a love for Kiss, the contributing musicians share one thing: All are within a few years of 30. Just as these budding artists’ pubic hairs were sprouting in the mid-Seventies, Kiss offered them an outlandish fantasy of manhood. In its songs, Kiss was always the pursued, never the pursuer. Even the titles announced the benefits of fame: ‘Ladies in Waiting’, ‘Christine Sixteen’ and ‘Room Service’ (sample couplet: “She says ‘Oh, please,’/She’s on her knees”). Kiss pumped up transitional young male psyches with the sexual metaphors of ‘Love Gun’, the mythic power of ‘King of the Night Time World’ and the teen antagonism of ‘Flaming Youth’. And membership in the Kiss Army offered solace to outsiders who couldn’t fit into more discriminating high-school society.

Those adolescents have evolved into a cultural force — the group that hates to be called Generation X — and a remarkable number of them get misty-eyed when one of Kiss’s first seven albums is mentioned. Their nostalgia has driven the price of a set of original Kiss dolls, in mint condition, to $800. Revisionism inevitably unfolds in twenty-year cycles, the amount of time it takes for kids to mature into a demographic: The Fifties returned in the mid-Seventies, with Happy Days on TV, American Graffiti in movie theaters and Chuck Berry atop the charts with ‘My Ding-a-Ling’, while the Eighties provided an epilogue to the Sixties, from Motown covers to Woodstock heroes in recovery.

So, now, twenty years on, we discover the dirty little secret of Generation X. Like Elvis Presley in the Fifties and the Beatles in the Sixties, Kiss in the Seventies was the act that most inspired adolescents to defy their parents and play guitar. Until recently, Kiss’s efficacy has been kept under wraps. Those early Kiss albums are unimaginably crude. They sound as though they were played by rum-drunk novices and recorded on Edison’s original equipment, with lyrics scribbled in crayon by tumescent boys and sung by inbred brothers, one of whom has throat cancer.

It’s been easier to snicker about them than to consider a horrifying notion: What if the stupidest living rock band is also today’s most influential group?

ALTHOUGH THEY’RE both Jewish baby boomers from Queens, New York, and together have built an empire, with sales of 70 million records, out of codpieces, special effects and phallic metaphors, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley — Kiss’s co-sovereigns since Ace Frehley and Peter Criss left the band in the early Eighties — have distinct personalities. One illustrative example: While Simmons has cowritten songs with Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, Stanley has collaborated with Michael Bolton.

Stanley, 43, who recently married a soap-opera actress, is prickly and defensive about Kiss’s reputation and has said some supernally arrogant things. A few years ago, I asked him about the band’s legacy, and he proclaimed “Every other rock band.” When I couldn’t manage a reply, he snapped “Do I have you stuttering?” Around the same time, he chastised staffers at Mercury Records, the group’s label, for a magazine’s editorial choices: “Sting got the cover of GQ. Why can’t I? I’ve got more clothes than Sting!”

People who’ve dealt with Gene Simmons describe him as a careful, savvy businessman. Several times in the past, he’s taken the short step from rock to Hollywood, dating Cher, managing Liza Minnelli and acting in films. Simmons is 44, and adulthood mixes uneasily with his image as the God of Thunder. When asked about children, he says with a leer “I have two kids… that I know of.” Their mom is skin-mag recidivist Shannon Tweed, though Gene is vague about the length of their relationship: “Eight years, something like that.”

If there’s any kitsch inherent in Kiss My Ass, it’s lost on Simmons. “This is serious for me,” he insists. Although it would sully his image if he overindulged in analysis, he does understand the band’s appeal. For one thing, he explains, Kiss launched a backlash against the collectivism of the Sixties, when “individuality was lost. That’s why a lot of our lyrics have the word ‘I’ in them: ‘I wanna rock and roll all nite.’ It’s not us against them, it’s you against the world.”

This sense of embattled isolation describes male adolescence, the band’s second most common subject. “There’s a line in a new song I’m writing: ‘Old enough to kill but not to vote,'” Simmons says. He and Stanley still identify with the teenage psyche partly because of the parental role played by disapproving critics.

On albums and posters the band’s name is always spelled in capital letters to suggest magnitude. Ever since Gene and Paul — born Chaim Witz and Stanley Eisen, respectively — responded to a classified ad from a drummer (Criss) “willing to do anything to make it,” back in 1972, their single aim has been massiveness. “We wanted to take over the world,” Stanley says proudly.

Kiss tried to gain credibility exactly once, when the group collaborated with Lou Reed on 1981’s Music From the Elder. It’s the worst-selling album the band has ever made. Does Simmons ever envy Lou Reed? “Absolutely,” he says. “I envy anybody with more talent than I have. Would I trade places? Not on your fucking life.” Stanley is equally forthright about his taste for stardom: “Women and huge crowds — it’s the life. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either ungrateful or confused.”

Explaining his desire to create “the biggest band in the world,” Simmons cites his status as an Israeli immigrant. “When I came to America as a 9-year-old, the size of everything amazed me — the abundance of food, the idea of markets being super markets. In other places, they have Charlemagne or whoever, but in America, you have Superman. And he’s from another planet. How perfect! So why would I want to be just popular, playing in a small club, when everything I admired about America was bigger than anything else in the world?” They sustained their popularity, he says, by hiding behind makeup: “People wanted to hold on to these fantasy figures — they didn’t want to contend with the real people. We saw that, which is why we wouldn’t take photos of ourselves without makeup.” Again, he likens Kiss to a cartoon hero: “In a lot of ways, I was sorry to find out who Superman was. That’s the magic of Superman, for everyone in the stories — they don’t know he’s Clark Kent. We respected that fantasy.” And, in turn, the fantasy lured teenage boys into delusions about a life onstage.

ANTHRAX GUITARIST Scott Ian, 29, was an 11-year-old fan of comic books and horror movies, living in Queens, when he first heard Kiss. Short on money, having to choose between the concert album Kiss Alive and a birthday present for his dad, he bought the record and offered it as an unwelcome gift. A leather-jacketed, pot-smoking kid, he identified with the band’s underdog status. Even Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith fans looked down on Kiss, he recalls.

Anthrax, one of the smarter thrash bands, had already recorded two Kiss songs, so the group welcomed a chance to cover ‘She’, Simmons’s ode to a stripper. And while he still enjoys old Kiss records, Ian recognizes that the band’s appeal wasn’t purely musical. “You’d get photos in the magazines of them with topless girls. When you’re 13 years old, you can’t help but like a picture like that. Some guy who looks like the Devil, fondling a topless girl — what could be better than that?” It’s hard to recognize ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’ after what Toad the Wet Sprocket did to it. Dean Dinning, 26, bassist for the Santa Barbara, California, band, describes the wan version of the ode to decadence as “kind of a self-parody” of the group’s cautiously melodious folk sound.

Though he says he was too young to be a Kiss fan in the Seventies, Dinning connected with the group three years ago, seeing the band as “a symbol of how humongous rock and roll can be,” and went to a Halloween party as Gene Simmons. “I spat blood,” he says proudly, “and did the full makeup. I really empathize with them. I couldn’t go through that every day.”

Evan Dando, 26, leader of the Lemonheads, put away his Kiss records when he discovered punk rock. Then a few years ago, he “rediscovered really, really stupid heavy metal” and became a bigger fan of the band than ever. “Nothing against [Kiss], but it was an ironic enjoyment. Some of the songs are so stubborn in their simplicity,” he says. By covering ‘Plaster Caster’, a tribute to the groupies who memorialize rock-star phalluses with life-size statuettes, Dando got to sing one of Simmons’s least subtle lines: “She calls me by the name of master.”

“I was in the Kiss Army,” declares Robin Wilson, 28, Gin Blossoms’ lead singer. Though this tuneful Arizona band’s hit single, ‘Hey Jealousy’, doesn’t hint at any Kissinfluence, Wilson spent hours in his basement lip-synching to the group — the first he ever saw live, on the same day he began junior high. The show left a lasting impression: “Tits and leather and explosions and smashing guitars and spacemen and demons. That’s where I formulated all my visions and illusions of rock and roll.”

Wilson, who led Gin Blossoms’ version of ‘Christine Sixteen’, a leering statutory-rape goof, found Simmons and Stanley “charming,” especially when the latter confided that they’d returned the original prototype of the Kiss pinball machine with instructions to add “more muscles” to the disappointingly realistic renderings. The duo graciously signed Wilson’s Kiss lunchbox, which he now considers “my prize fucking possession.”

SIMMONS CLAIMS other bands wanted to participate in the tribute album — Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and Cypress Hill, plus members of Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana and Sonic Youth — but “politics got in the way.” Stanley claims that Stone Temple Pilots and Soul Asylum were kept off the record by their labels, Atlantic and Columbia, respectively.

Kiss’s reputation got a further boost last summer when Richard Linklater used ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’ in Dazed and Confused, his chronicle of Seventies high-school stoners. But Simmons — who initially refers to the director as Art Linkletter — disapproved of the prevalence of drugs in the film. “I can’t think of any excuse for a white middle-class kid to get high,” he says, adding that drugs are “almost excusable for a Third World person who doesn’t have the same advantages.” Although Kiss had agreed to interview Linklater for a promotional CD, according to a Dazed and Confused source, the group expressed its disapproval of the film by not showing up at the studio at the appointed time.

Although attention from youngsters is flattering, Stanley says, “I’ve known for a long time that Kiss’s influence is not limited to the music we make. Our legacy is what comes after Kiss — not only bands but doctors and lawyers who cite Kiss as an influence.” It’s a scary thought that a licensed professional you trust once stood on a hockey-arena chair, screaming along to ‘Detroit Rock City’. Stanley insists it’s true. “I can’t tell you how many people have come over to me, looking like the last person you’d expect, and said ‘I’m a corporate lawyer. I was totally influenced by you guys.’ “

Meanwhile, a generation that has an ambivalent relationship with Big Dumb Rock continues to wrestle with Kiss’s legacy. As bands like Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses explore what it means to be someone’s idol and confront their limitless access to personal pleasure, they naturally come back to Kiss. Scott Weiland, the 25-year-old orange-crew-cut leader of Stone Temple Pilots, recently traced his artistic roots to Kiss, which he said “was meant to be a joke, meant to be a lie.”

If Gene Simmons knows that, he’s not telling. But he does offer a clue to Kiss’s longevity: “We tried never to stand on a soapbox and pontificate on any point. Because, my God, we can barely tune our guitars.” They’ve sold 70 million records, succeeded Elvis and the Beatles, shared hotel rooms around the world with accommodating admirers, inoculated a generation of adolescents with a philosophy that married Ayn Rand to Jerry Lee Lewis — and they can’t even tune their guitars? “Only in America,” Simmons answers with a victor’s laugh.

© Rob TannenbaumGQ, January 1994

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