Kiss: The Pagan Beasties Of Teenage Rock

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All the members of Kiss were fuckups in high school: Frehley was thrown out of two schools and dropped out of a third in the Bronx; Criss got his knuckles rapped by nuns in Brooklyn and was humiliated for wearing his hair too long; Stanley was chronically "at the bottom of the smartest class" in school in Manhattan; and Simmons was the inveterate class clown and a fan of monster comic books in Queens. All were driven by an unquenchable craving for fame and a love for simple rock & roll. Stanley and Simmons found each other six years ago and formed a band that played everything from country & western to rock. That flopped, but the two took their money from a shelved album and invested in a loft and the most imposing-looking equipment they could find. In early 1973, Simmons called up a drummer who had placed an ad in Rolling Stone saying he would do anything to make it. That was Peter Criss, and they played together for several months as a trio. After about 60 guitarists had answered an ad they placed in the Village Voice, they were impressed enough by the surliness and musicianship of Ace Frehley to hire him on.

The focus of the band existed from the beginning: heavy theatrics, heavy metal and heavy makeup, though they looked more like vermin than monsters at the time. The emphasis on the projection of power was also immediate: they played in front of a huge wall of amplifiers that, if the lights were misplaced, would be revealed as having no speakers inside. They stenciled the Kiss logo of double "s" lightning bolts on all the equipment so it would appear as if they were a big touring band.

Copying addresses out of Record World, they sent out press releases and invitations – to anyone even vaguely connected with the music business – to their gigs, for which they rented their own halls when they couldn't get bookings. Bill Aucoin, then president of an independent TV production company that did a syndicated rock show called Flipside, showed up at one show and offered to get them a record contract in two weeks if they would let him manage them. This he did, with Casablanca, a label just starting under the aegis of Neil Bogart, former copresident of Buddah.

After three albums, several exhaustive tours and an almost unmitigated drubbing by the critics, they and their record company were in debt several hundred thousand dollars and had no more resources. An entire 1975 tour was financed by Aucoin's American Express card. Then Kiss Alive! was released, went gold, went platinum, went double platinum.

It was the first and only time their sound had been truly captured on record. Alive! in my opinion should be ranked among the classic live rock albums.

Nearly sunk by a catastrophic double album of Tonight Show bits, Casablanca Records refloated and Kiss became rich. Destroyer, their first attempt to write something beyond "suck me, fuck me songs," as Stanley phrased it, also went platinum. So did Rock and Roll Over, which was a return to almost pure heavy metal because the hard core of the Kiss Army (the band's official fan club) reacted so vehemently against the violins on Destroyer (including "Beth"). All three albums remain in the Top 40 of Record World's LP chart.

This June, a Marvel Comic – with Kiss as superheroes – written by Steve Gerber, who also does Howard the Duck for Marvel, will be published on slick paper. And the band members, these days, are almost universally liked among the press for their openness. Aucoin Management, which has maintained firm control over the image-making process by making all photographers sign clearance contracts and other such devices, is less universally liked. Aucoin himself draws a parallel between his control over artists and that of the old Hollywood studios, which he looks on as "places where things got done, whatever their faults."

"The key to building a superstar is keeping their mouths shut," says Bob Ezrin, producer of Destroyer. "They have to be kept isolated to avoid being manipulated by all these outside forces. There was a time when Kiss wasn't allowed to talk to anyone. To reveal an artist to the people can be to destroy him. It isn't to anyone's advantage to see the truth. In the long run, the audience matters more. That's the story."

Did I ever show you my collection?" asks Gene Simmons in the bedroom of his duplex in New York three weeks after the Detroit concerts. He hands me two huge leather scrap-books which I page through, spying an occasional familiar face. After about five minutes, a woman walks out of the closet. I don't catch her name, but she says she played Daisy Mae in a production of Li'l Abner four years ago. The room is decorated with paintings and other paraphernalia from fans. One shows Simmons, with a headman's ax, gloating over a burning city. Another portrays him as a gargoyle. Jewelry with tarantulas and black widows embedded in clear plastic is scattered about. He gives me a few letters from a plastic bag full of fan mail. All of them have drawings of the band. The American ones seem nearly incoherent with bad grammar and misspellings.

"I wonder if these guys are morons," I say.

"Doesn't bother me," Simmons replies. "At least they're doing something."

The Japanese fans, on the whole, seem to have a better command of English. "My dear Gene. Please eat up all my love. I want a lot more experience while I am young. With love, Shinobu I."

"The Beatles sold out the main hall in Tokyo four nights. We've got it booked for five," he says, putting a tape on his cassette deck. As Kiss music plays in the background, a Japanese girl weeps. "Please Gene Simmons, I want to hear your voice. I pray to God every day. I'm expecting you every moment. When you come to Japan, please answer me at once. Please never forget me . . . please . . . "

Both stunned, we sort of stare at each other over the 15-odd scrapbooks of press clippings. The heavy Hungarian accent of Gene's mother calls us downstairs to eat. "Make at home yourself," she says. "Sit and have some yummy-yummy."

Over yummy-yummy, she tells how Simmons used to print his own monster fanzines in the basement and how he got his first guitar. "I don't want any of the credit," she says. "I bought him first guitar for $65 from Italian boy. I made $49 a week then. He wanted $75 but I drove him down to $65. Later we sold it for $135. I went along everything every way. I know behind makeup who he was. Al Jolson put on makeup. It's all right so long as he doesn't smoke or drink alcohol. I know all about his girlfriends."

Well, even if Jolson wore makeup, he didn't have a complete alter ego – a distinction Kiss shares only with Alice Cooper, who destroyed his claim to evil and insanity by playing golf with George Burns and Mike Douglas, while Kiss vomited blood and fire. But, given their overwhelming need for adulation, is there any real difference between them?

"I don't know," says Simmons. "I never wanted to appear on Hollywood Squares."

As I rise to leave, Simmons takes me aside and says, "Don't print anything that's gonna blow it for me. It's very fragile and I like it too much." I try to assure him that most of his fans can't read anyway, but he still seems worried.

"I won't have you ridicule them; I won't let you do it." At the door he relaxes. "We make our first comic book appearance in this month's issue of Howard the Duck," he says. "It's crazy. I'm a superhero down the block at the newsstand, and I'm standing here in my bathrobe. I can't think of anyone outside Kiss who can say that."

This story is from the April 7th, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone.

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