Friday, June 06, 2008

Tales of small-town life: KISS edition

Listening to Paul Stanley's stage banter this week, I realized that many of my formative childhood and young adult memories are somehow related to Kiss. Which is funny, because I was never much of a Kiss fan. Gene Simmons was, and still is, a revolting pig who could give two shits about rock and roll, though I think the rest of the band honestly enjoyed playing music. He has stated that when he and Paul Stanley get too physically decrepit to play live, they will hold auditions for their own replacements and keep Kiss going like a professional sports team. He hit a new low for me with that comment. He's got so much contempt for his fans that he is deliberately planning to let them pay upwards of $225 to see a cover band. A Kiss website for fans of the original lineup features a message board where every single contributor refers to Simmons as Mean Gene the ATM Machine. They've done more "farewell" tours than Ozzy Osbourne. If Cliffs Notes existed for the dumbest song ever written, "Rock and Roll All Nite" would be those Cliffs Notes. However, I'll always have a special place in my heart for Kiss, particularly for how they keep showing up in my personal life. Here's the rundown:
1) I came out of the womb with a love of comic books, horror movies, and rock and roll permanently imprinted on my brain by Baby Jesus, so Kiss' image was right up my alley. Some of my earliest memories consist of a total fascination with how the band looked. I hadn't heard any Kiss songs yet, but I loved staring at pictures of them, their record covers, and their images on television. I remember being four or five and seeing the Kiss episode of "3-2-1 Contact." One of the hosts got to work backstage at a Kiss concert in Abilene, Texas and interviewed the backstage crew, the lighting guys, the sound guys, etc. The Kiss stage spectacle, in all its glory, presented for a children's science show. My mind was blown. I remember being almost beside myself with excitement, and I also remember actually praying to God each day before "3-2-1 Contact" aired and asking Him to re-run that particular episode. It finally worked one glorious summer day, and I couldn't believe my luck. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, here it is. (It's not quite as exciting as I remembered it.)

2) The Ogard brothers lived four blocks away when I was a wee little man. They were several years older than me and had most of the same interests. Three or four times a year, they sold a lot of their old stuff at their mother's yard sales, and I was always in heaven. I usually left their yard sales with a giant stack of horror comics, a couple of cool robot or monster toys, and the occasional Black Sabbath or AC/DC cassette. One year, they were selling a complete set of Kiss toys. I wanted them so badly, but they were a lot pricier than the usual yard sale stuff, and I had to go home empty-handed (except for the giant stack of horror comics, of course). I don't know where they are now, but I ran into them in the bar in my hometown at Christmas about ten years ago, and they said they were playing in a few punk bands in Seattle and Portland. They were too old for me to hang out with, but I always felt a little better knowing that someone else in town liked the same weird stuff as me. It made me feel less lonely and detached.

3) My babysitter Amber told me that her cousin was in the front row at a Kiss concert in Denver and got burns on his face from a pyrotechnic mishap. I remember feeling a little scared and a little excited by the story. "I want to go where rock and roll happens," I remember thinking. "However, there is a chance I could get physically injured, which simultaneously excites and terrifies me." I'm paraphrasing, obviously. I don't think I would have said it that way at age seven.

4) I remember being in a small house in the country as a very small child. My parents are still in their twenties and are drinking in the kitchen with a few of my uncles, their friends, and whoever lives in the house. I don't remember who it was. My parents hardly ever drank because they were upset by their fathers' drinking problems, so I think it was the afterparty following a friend's wedding. My memory is really fuzzy about this, though. Here's the part I remember clearly. I started to get antsy and irritable because the only other kids there who were my age fell asleep. I wanted to look through the record collection of the guy who lived in the house, but I was afraid to ask. My intentions must have been obvious, because a nice, pretty Hispanic woman who I think was a friend of my aunt and uncle asked me to pick out some music to play. I flipped through the records happily and came across a copy of Kiss' "Destroyer." "Play this! Play this!" I yelled. The woman told me that although Kiss looked cool, their music wasn't very good. I didn't believe her, though I hadn't heard much Kiss yet. She told me to pick something else. I believe I picked a John Mellencamp record, back when he was known as John Cougar (without the Mellencamp). I think it went over well. I wish I knew the details of this evening a little better. It was the only time I was ever in that house. I wonder who it was.

5) A tale of college-town life: While at school at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, I worked at a record store. (It's sad that that sentence will soon read as "I once worked for a blacksmith.") One night, a co-worker and I joined forces at my place for a Kiss double feature. His bootleg of "Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park" was followed by my rented copy of "Runaway," starring Gene Simmons, Tom Selleck, Kirstie Alley, and robot spiders. This is not a very interesting story, but it was a good night, and it gives me an excuse to present a scene from "Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park," a masterpiece of ineptitude.

6)One of my gifts on my eighth birthday was a compilation called "MTV's Rock 'N Roll To Go." The tracklisting is as follows:
Pat Benatar - Hell Is For Children
The Cars - Drive
The Fixx - Are We Ourselves?
Hall & Oates - Say It Isn't So
Billy Idol - Rebel Yell
Kiss - Lick It Up
Cyndi Lauper - She Bop
Madonna - Lucky Star
Steve Perry - Oh Sherrie
Ratt - Round and Round
The Police - King of Pain
Thompson Twins - Hold Me Now
Tina Turner - What's Love Got To Do With It
Wang Chung - Dance Hall Days

I think "Lick It Up" might be the worst song on the album, but you know what Paul Stanley has to say about that: "If (the people who think Kiss sucks) didn't really believe that the best band in the world was the Thompson Twins, they might be here tonight and you crazy motherfuckers would show them what rock and roll is really all about, uh huh."

7) My three favorite Kiss songs.
#1: "Black Diamond." The Replacements covered this on "Let It Be." I bought the Replacements album during my senior year in high school, the day after my first experience with LSD and the day before my first and only time snowboarding. I was in Laramie, Wyoming with a friend of mine visiting his older brother. I always thought "Black Diamond" was yet another great Replacements song, and I was shocked to find out it was a Kiss cover. "But Kiss sucks," I thought at the time. Not always. This performance of "Black Diamond" during Kiss' Madison Square Garden show from 1977 rocked my balls off, then rocked my right ball onto my left side and my left ball onto my right side, then rocked my balls back off, then rearranged my balls in the correct order, then rocked my balls back on. It's pretty kick-ass is what I'm trying to say. Gene Simmons, even back then, looks like he's thinking of marketing schemes instead of rock, but Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss keep the faith.

#2: "Hard Luck Woman." Paul Stanley originally wrote this one for Rod Stewart, who failed to record it. Peter Criss steps up to the plate again, proving that you can't go wrong with a singing drummer who's dressed up like a cat. I first heard this song when it was on a K-Tel compilation of random pop music from the 1970s that I bought from the Case brothers when I was in grade school. The Case brothers were a couple of long-haired ne'er-do-wells that hung out with my mom's youngest brother, who was still in high school at the time. They used to come over to my grandmother's house and play metal guitars with my uncle. They loved Randy Rhoads. The odd thing about the Case brothers was that they were still in high school, but they owned and lived in a little house by themselves. I don't know if they were emancipated minors or if their parents were dead or in jail, but I'm sure it was very easy for them to drink beer and smoke weed without parental consent or disapproval. My grandmother drove me over there once when my uncle was hanging out with them so I could ask him if I could buy his ZZ Top - "Tres Hombres" cassette. (She was a great lady.) When the Case brothers saw me and my grandmother at the door, they turned off their lights and ran toward the back door. I'm sure they were either drinking beer or smoking weed with my uncle. I was too dumb and young to expect that unsupervised teenagers were going to be doing something untoward and wouldn't take kindly to their friend's mother and cousin unexpectedly knocking on the door, so I was baffled by their behavior. I want to belatedly apologize now, but nobody knows what the hell happened to the Case brothers. I also want to point out that I was extremely surprised this was Kiss, because I expected insane, demonic heavy metal based on their appearance. It is also worth mentioning that the song preceding "Hard Luck Woman" on the K-Tel record was "Boogie Fever."

#3: "I Was Made For Loving You." No story about this one, I just love every single classic-rock-goes-disco song. (Dig that crazy falsetto at 2:30, Starchild!)

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