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Kiss: The Pagan Beasties of Teenage Rock

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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."

Related
The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: KISS' 'Destroyer'
KISS Still Sore Over Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Exclusion
Exclusive Preview: Archie Meets KISS
Ace Frehley: Ready for Solo LP 'Anomaly,' But Not a KISS Reunion

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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