13 September 2014

KISS and I (a retrospective) ...

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KISS celebrates forty years as a band this year.

I have a confession to make. During the hormonal netherworld that the onset of puberty was for many of the boys of our generation, my brother Fred and I were big KISS fans. Yes, I admit it. We were two of those dorky kids. We had the stickers, the magazines, the comic books (printed in their own blood, no less!), all kinds of posters, and, of course, the records: Love Gun, Destroyer, Alive!. KISS were pioneers of a certain kind of intensive marketing strategy which is now so ubiquitous in the show business world that it’s almost taken for granted. But at that time it was almost unprecedented. My brother and I were just the right age at the right place at the right time for KISS’s heyday, you could say.

This is not to say that KISS was my introduction to music, though. Far from it. I had by then been plucking out Puerto Rican folk songs on my old nylon string guitar for a few years before I ever heard any rock music, so I already had a taste for melody and for rhythm. My first big concert was a double header featuring Celia Cruz and El Gran Combo. I think I tuned in relatively early to a rustic, folksy kind of music, which was the only music that was available to me during my childhood on the island, anyway. Once I was stateside, though, music took on a whole new dimension. It was all of a sudden a lot bigger than it had seemed before. It was everywhere and it was now in technicolor. Rock music introduced me to new sounds, a completely new aesthetic, and I rather liked it. I liked the stimulus. The window into this sensory Oz during those days was a little transistor radio that I kept under my pillow that I would quietly listen to late at night. I don’t know if the term “classic rock” had been coined yet, but AOR/F.M. radio was in full swing in those days in New York (WPLJ and WNEW and WLIR were my stations). Before KISS, some of the first pop songs that had already made strong impressions on me during this early immigrant period were songs like “Carry On My Wayward Son” [Kansas], “Short People” [Randy Newman], “Got To Give It Up” [Marvin Gaye], and “Solisbury Hill” [Peter Gabriel]. Of course I had no idea who sang any of those songs back then; I just knew that I really liked how they sounded and how they felt. I still do.

Come to think of it, KISS wasn’t even the first record that I purchased, either. That particular honor goes to the Beatles, whose classic “red” and “blue” double anthologies, on vinyl, were the first albums that my brother and I ever bought, as I recall.

So, though KISS was not my first ‘anything’ musically speaking, there was a period of a couple of years, when KISS got way too big a portion of my lunch money. It was all empty calories and soda pop but there I was ingesting the stuff. My fascination with the band, though short-lived, now serves as a reminder of my teenage enculturation. The relentless demographic harvesting of (mostly) boys, who gleefully forked over their weekly allowance at Crazy Eddie’s for a copy of Love Gun, or Hotter Than Hell (or whatever we didn’t yet have in our collection), was pure marketing genius, and my brother and I both were definitely part of the tail end of this late-seventies North American phenomenon. By the time that we got into KISS, the band was already the most hyped and famous rock group on the planet, and were in fact in the early stages of the process of decline. In other words, unbeknown to us, they were already old hat. They had by then already released all of the early classic recordings of the original lineup, and were actually starting to descend in popularity. But we didn’t know this; we were busy playing catch-up at that point. Ours was in fact the batch of fankids who saw KISS go from being sorta-kinda cool … to ‘sucking’ … all in the course of just two years! Kids were getting wise to the swindle. How could they not after seeing KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, a movie so bad that it is a viable candidate for worst film ever made by a rock band. This, along with the four solo records of 1978 was bad enough (Ace’s is the only one that actually sounded kind-of like a KISS record -- the other three were just lame), but by the time they released the Dynasty album, I was fully aware of the fact that KISS … well … they just weren’t making very good music. What was once a crude and fun kind of rock & roll was turning into vacuous disco/pop crap right before our eyes. Not that it was very good before, but at least it had not been premeditated saccharine before then. By this point, their music had turned essentially into a fluffy kind of thing, not at all the cocky, greasy, simple thing it had started out as. Sure, it was shinier and more expensively produced, but ultimately it was less than crude, less than graceless. It had become almost entirely unimaginative and heartless. (And that’s just the music; the lyrics were even more shallow and vapid than the music was.)

But I really don’t want to spend too much time listing all the reasons why I thought KISS sucked after Alive! II. Suffice it to say that by the time high school had started for me, that particular sugar high had run its course. I was done with KISS forever. I’d moved on.

In the ensuing years, KISS completely fell off my radar screen. Every now and then, I would hear about Gene Simmons doing or saying something rude or stupid or inappropriate, such as his shameless, disrespectful, and indefensibly misogynistic interview with NPR’s Terri Gross in the nineties, or such as the time when, during another interview, he suggested that striving to improve musically as an instrumentalist is a waste of time. (Did you hear that, Mr. Metheny? You can stop practicing now.) Later on I heard that he had a cable reality show, which I have caught small glimpses of while YouTube surfing, but that’s pretty much it for me, as far as KISS goes, except that they just celebrated their fortieth anniversary and they’ve also finally been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which means that they've found their way back into headline news again, and thus into my news feed, inadvertently bringing my mind back to those clueless days of early puberty in the Bronx for a moment.

The Hall of Fame. There’s some logic to that. It makes sense. Congratulations to them. Though I haven’t cared about their stuff since way back when, they certainly paid their dues, they did their time in the trenches, and so I reckon that they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame as much as everyone else who’s been inducted into that prestigious [hiccup!] club. Turns out they were actually eligible for inclusion fifteen years ago, and it’s only now that it’s finally happening. “What took so long?” It's a valid question. The delay raises some further questions regarding the realpolitik underlying the Hall of Fame’s agenda and administrative method and style (and bias). Given KISS’s unprecedented popularity and sales during their seventies heyday, one would think they were a shoe-in for the Hall. On the contrary, they weren’t even considered, and as the years progressed the band saw this as a ‘dis from the “academy,” one more reflection of the lack of respect they have been enduring from the industry for ages. They were being treated like ciphers in a cultural landscape that they had some hand (however minor or superficial) in helping to forge. What does the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame represent? Rock & Roll? Like them or not, KISS helped build that house. And yet KISS has always been a proverbial red-headed stepchild when it comes to critical acclaim. The “cool kids” have just never been on board, and KISS have always responded with a reciprocal disdain. Fittingly, there was no love lost when Paul Stanley opened the KISS show the night after the big ceremony by glibly uttering a defiant: “About time; … and big fucking deal.” I can’t say I blame him much.

To add insult to insult, although, ordinarily, Hall of Fame inductees get to play a few tunes as part of the evening’s ritual ceremony, in KISS’s case a problem arose when they were told that only the original members would be allowed to perform. Although Ace and Peter were okay with this exclusivity, Paul and Gene wanted to include the current members on the same stage (along with former member Bruce Kulik, who had contributed much to their work in the 80s and 90s). This was only fair, Paul said, citing as a precedent last year’s induction performance by Heart, which included their own classic original lineup alongside its current one. No hard feelings, no egos, no grudges; it’s about celebration, right? But the Hall for some reason stood firm in its request in this case; only the founding members would perform. Period. Ace and Peter, who in my opinion should have been more magnanimous and gracious (read: grown-up) by just letting the current lineup also play on stage with them, were instead uncooperative and stubbornly selfish about it all, talking smack of their own in the press, so in the end it was decided (I suspect mostly by Paul) that, if that’s how it’s going to be, then fuck it, no one would play.

Perfectly timed to coincide with both the 40th anniversary and the Hall of Fame milestones, Paul Stanley released Face the Music, making him the last founding member of KISS to publish a book of memoirs. All of the hoopla surrounding their Hall of Fame induction and anniversary made me decide to read it. It’s a fairly honest and open recollection of the early days: from riding from town to town in a loaded station wagon, to becoming bona fide rock stars. Some things were not all that surprising to me: 1) Peter is a tone-deaf idiot. 2) Ace is not stupid, but he makes up for it in laziness and avarice. 3) Gene is a self-centered opportunist. 4) Were it not for the grace and prescience of Paul Stanley (our hero—surprise!), KISS would be financially and artistically bankrupt. Since I don’t intend to read any of the others’ respective books, and since this all seems plausible enough based on what little I know (and what little I care to know), I guess I’ll just take his word for it. But lest I seem too facetious here, let me say that although the last third (or so) of the book admittedly put me to sleep, I did genuinely enjoy reading the first part of the book, even past the point in their chronology where I was no longer personally paying attention to them. I commend Paul for his willingness to talk so candidly about those wild early days. He’s come a long way from being the insecure narcissist he admittedly once was, allowing himself to open up about his physical deformity (he was born without a right ear, a condition he had surgically remedied in ‘79, which until then he simply covered up with his long wavy hair), about the deep depression that set in when KISS was no longer on top of the world (the exodus of kids was so big and unexpected that it made him despondent for a while), about the tragic illness and death of drummer Eric Carr (the most poignant moment in the entire book is when he closes a chapter by lamenting the fact that he should have been more supportive of Eric’s feelings, that he should have been more accessible to him), and about his feelings regarding how the band was perceived by their critics.

This last thread of insight turned out to be one of the most revealing for me. He seems to be under the impression that the reason KISS developed the stigma they did was because they didn’t partake in the drug lifestyle that was such a prevalent aspect of the pop star culture of the time. This struck me as a strange thing to say, considering the well-known public excesses of Peter and of Ace (who was undeniably drunk as a skunk during Tom Snyder’s 1978 television interview of the band, and who was notorious for destroying hotel rooms wherever the band toured). If Paul is under the impression that KISS were ostracized by critics because of their drug-abstinence, not only does it belie the basic facts concerning half of the group, but he is also completely way off-mark as far as what was on the minds of those critics who reviled their work. No. The truth is that, if the creed of the day was “Sex, Drugs, & Rock n Roll,” KISS was sitting on a one-and-a-half-legged tripod. They (Gene and Paul, that is) were depending on sex alone as the driving force behind their work. Now, if not outright silly, this was at least overly ambitious on their part, given that they are not, let’s face it, good looking men.  It was all literally smoke and mirrors and makeup. After the show, Gene was just another marginally talented, unduly conceited, mouthy asshole in a landscape full of those ... and Paul, by his own admission, was so insecure and introverted that he once drove to some big event only to become so riddled with anxiety at the prospect of having to be around people in a social setting, that he sat in his parked car for an hour before finally resolving to just go home. This is no self-confident sexual icon. It’s no wonder then that things had to crash. The sex, the only rock-star vice he allowed himself to indulge in, was just an escapist distraction from his deep insecurities; the drugs were a cause for denial in relation to the reality of his surroundings (i.e. his band mates), and finally, the "rock ‘n roll" being churned out was just pure shit, though Paul, who seems to be aware of his limitations as an instrumentalist, seems to have no idea of his limitations regarding everything else about music-making. Reading, writing, rhythmetic.

One scene in the book brought this to light for me. In one of the few places where he elaborates on the process of songwriting, he says:
“To be able to write something like that without laboring over it is a place you just can’t get back to. It’s writing without rules, without any thoughts of justifying or answering to anybody. I think that over time you can become a more technically proficient songwriter, but that doesn’t mean you write better songs. This was our third album, yes, but all three within barely a year, so we still had the freedom of not really knowing the rules, of not analyzing the lyrics under a microscope. The lyrics […] created such a fluid rhythmic effect. Later in life, I couldn’t write lyrics like that even if you put a gun to my head.”

On its own, a remark like that seems like an innocuous enough bit of insight from someone in the arts. As such it is not unlike other expressions of the importance of allowing for some intuitiveness in one's writing process, the importance of “kissing the joy as it flies” (as Blake would say).  In fact, right before reading this paragraph, I had watched an interview that the 20/20 news program had done with Bob Dylan in which, when asked about the process involved in writing something like "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Like a Rolling Stone," his response was essentially the same as Paul's, saying that it was an almost automatic phenomenon, that such songs come from some indefinable place, and also adding that he could not write like that later on. The difference between these two variants, however, is that Dylan is referring to songs that in their novelty and ingenuity of style and content would eventually be seen as foundational works of an era, expressing the hope of the (then) up and coming generation of socially conscious individuals looking for a cultural voice of their own, while Stanley, on the other hand, was referring to the lyrics of "Come On and Love Me," a song from KISS‘s 1974 album Dressed to Kill:

“She’s a dancer
A romancer
I’m a capricorn and she’s a cancer
She saw my picture in a music magazine.”

Granted, it’s probably a bit unfair for me to compare Paul Stanley with Dylan like this. In fact, had it not been for the synchronicity that coincidentally brought a YouTube video of the Dylan interview into my view at the same time that I was reading Paul’s book, I might have not even noticed the extreme hubris in his statement, but I could not help but find some irony there once the comparison did present itself to me. Still, I don’t think Stanley would be delusional enough to think that the process that brought forth his ‘Fuck me; I’m a rock star’ songs is for all intents the same as Dylan’s. God, I hope not. Paul, the reason the critics hated you was because your music essentially had nothing to say about anything of relevance to anyone but your libido. That you were sober was the least of your problems.

At any rate, in addition to reading Paul’s book (because of reading it, really), it was in this same sense of thinking about their the 40th anniversary that I decided to finally listen to KISS’s Music from the Elder for the first time ever. In fact, this essay was initially intended to be nothing but a hyper-belated album review of The Elder, an album that the band made a couple of years after I had already given up on them. It was fascinating to read about the exodus of fans from Paul’s first-hand perspective. Spitting blood, fire-breathing and sexual bravado are all pretty cool, especially when you’re twelve, but as time progressed the band strayed further and further from the formula that had put them on the map in the first place, and it just wasn't interesting anymore. They had started out as purveyors of an anti-intellectual hedonistic barre-chord rock that touched a certain pre-adolescent nerve precisely because it was primitive and visceral and brainless. It was brash for brashness‘ sake. That was its appeal. Theirs were simple songs full of frantic power riffs that any kid could air-guitar along with in their bedrooms without having to think too hard. Start with one of those simple three-chord riffs … throw in lots of innuendo, and … violá … you have a KISS song. At heart KISS wasn’t really about music, though. Not really. The music in fact was almost incidental. It didn’t have to be great music. It was just another product to sell, like the tee shirts and the lunchboxes. KISS was a spectacle set up to sell product, not art. KISS was a circus. A show. This is not necessarily an indictment of circuses, mind you. I don’t want to sound here like I look down on entertainment value in and of itself. Far from it. Heaven knows that circuses serve a noble function. We need them. But this particular circus started to take itself way too seriously by the end of the seventies. It’s hard to continue to believe in the magic of the circus anymore when all one can see is the carnival barker counting receipts after the show.

By the decade’s end they had allowed themselves to be tempted away from the visceral primitiveness that had been the fountain of their success. They went from making strident rock records that flaunted their disinterest in critical acclaim … to making polished and uninspired pop records that practically begged for this acclaim. It was a cry to be loved by the very elite they reviled. Kids could tell the difference between real shit and bullshit, though, and we had started to leave the party in droves. We who had been sustaining their business model were soon to enter high school age, and we weren’t buying the crap that KISS were trying to push off on us, not when there were plenty of cool bands around (Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest … etc) to take up the hard rock slack. There was plenty of music out there to fill the need for shock and glam that so many kids seem to have needed at that pubescent age. Form and bluster can only dance you from here to there, though, and that’s not very far. At some point, a lack of substance will sure enough betray itself, and the KISS army of accountants during this time of diminishing returns must have sounded the alarm loud and clear, because KISS suddenly changed lanes without warning. They must have seen the writing on the wall that things were about to change drastically, but they made what was possibly the dumbest career decision they could make under the circumstances. Instead of going back to cranking out their basic visceral three-chord rock ’n roll music full of double entendres, which might have stemmed the exodus of kids a little, at least until they could figure out what to do next, KISS decided to go “legit,” to make “serious” music. Success with the kids is one thing, but it turns out that the band had been harboring secret ambitions. They started to imagine that they could finally win the respect of their peers by making a masterpiece album. It was the heyday of the concept album. Fresh on the heels of having helped to record Pink Floyd’s colossal The Wall album, producer Bob Ezrin somehow convinced Gene and Paul to try their hand at making a concept album of their own. Somehow overlooking the fact that such a thing would have been asking way too much of KISS even in the best of circumstances (by that time drugs and alcohol had rendered Peter and Ace barely functional), Paul and Gene persisted in this vision. They went ahead and did it. They made Music from the Elder. Like any concept album worth its salt, it had to be grandiose, cryptic, … maybe a tad apocalyptic … epic. It had to be deep.

Was it?

Well … sort of … if by “deep” you mean “ambiguous.”

My first reaction to this record, which was probably not unlike that of everyone who first listened to it in 1981, was simple confusion. I pricked up my ears and audibly said, “What the fuck ... ?” It is such a radical departure from what KISS had done up until then that some cognitive dissonance is inevitable before one can rightly process it upon first hearing it. It’s a bizarre experience. I sort of expected that I would be totally panning this album, that I would mock it from the git go, and the truth is that that’s almost exactly what I did. But I waited it out a bit. A second listening didn’t help much. But something happened on the third listening, when I played it as my midnight swim music last night. I was able this time to listen to it without the prejudice I had first come to it with,  to bracket the fact that the artist was KISS, to just listen to nothing but the songs themselves. Out of context like this, there are a couple of things I can critically say about Music from the Elder:

I won’t go as far as calling The Elder a great record, or even a particularly good record, but, all things considered, in almost every respect, be it melodic, harmonic, lyrical, rhythmic, textural, or in terms of arrangement and orchestration, this is the single best record that the band KISS has ever made, but this fact would only be obvious once one’s “KISS sucks” prejudice is suspended. It's not saying much, but the record, while retaining the basic hard rock forms of the day, simply has more breadth than anything they had ever done previously. That it was doomed to bomb commercially was never in doubt by anyone but Gene and Paul, of course—they should have known better than to bet all their chips on green—but for the first time, they allowed themselves to pretend to be actual artists rather than entrepreneurs. Regrettably, artistic success being synonymous with commercial success to Paul Stanley, when sales of the album proved to be dismal (what did they expect after Phantom of the Park and Dynasty and Unmasked?), instead of standing by their work, he distanced himself from it. KISS dropped it like a hot potato. In fact, it was to be the only studio album that they ever made that they did not tour to support. A few years later, Paul would say about The Elder, “It was pompous, contrived, self-important and fat.” In my opinion, though, I think he succumbed to his insecurities too easily, and that‘s a shame, because The Elder actually presented them as something more than comic book figures. I think that Ace Frehley was closer to the truth in his estimation of the record when he said, "Music From The Elder wasn’t a bad album .... it was just a bad KISS album." I suspect that if it had sold better, Paul would concur and would not be as ashamed of it as he seems to be.

It’s funny, but it’s as though KISS's discovery of metaphor, allegory, polyrhythm, alliteration, motivic development— the arsenal of tools that is available to poets and songwriters—was seen as a liability by their fans, who only wanted to rock out. That’s what happens when you build a fan base out of pre-pubescent boys, with no regard for artistic integrity. It’s a cautionary tale. If you sell your soul to the circus early on in your career, enjoy the ride and enjoy the benefits of having your brass ring, but don’t be surprised when no one takes you seriously later on when you try to do something of substance. People generally don’t look to people they’ve known for years as clowns for their high art.


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