Smyrna, Tennessee, is not a likely place to find a guitar god, or anyone in particular, which meant it was just about perfect for Vinnie Vincent. For a while anyway. The town of 42,000 people is roughly 25 miles southeast of Nashville, and full of non-descript McMansions and farmhouses kept watch over by lazily grazing goats and cows. There are cozy residential subdivisions, too, where children's bikes are strewn across the well-manicured front lawns of one-story brick ranch houses.
One property near the outskirts of town, though, sticks out amongst all the idyllic sameness. Behind a forbidding eight-foot-tall picket fence and a padlocked gate stand two houses. Paint cans, a television set and stuffed black garbage bags litter the driveways. This is where guitarist Vinnie Vincent — who gave life back into Kiss in the early Eighties, when the bandmembers had removed their makeup but seemed musically ready for embalming, and then became a hair-metal solo star in his own right — has lived in seclusion for the last 15 years. Or, more accurately, had lived. It's hard to know where Vincent is these days.
From the looks of it, the houses have been abandoned for some time. Knocks on the front door go unanswered, and multiple calls in to Vincent's lawyer inquiring about his client's whereabouts yielded nothing. It's not as if Vincent, 61, was ever a man about Smyrna. Up the road, a clerk at the gas station can't recall ever seeing the musician who once played for 137,000 fans in Brazil — Kiss' biggest concert. A next-door neighbor, Paul Sachtjen, says he'd never met Vincent face-to-face. He had, though, endured a battle over some pruned pear trees hanging across property lines, receiving angry letters and police visits, but never at the expense of Vincent's closely-guarded privacy. Years later, Sachtjen's son vandalized a convertible belonging to Vincent's wife, Diane. Soon after, surveillance cameras and mounted outdoor spotlights were installed on Vincent's property.
"I feel bad for him," Sachtjen says now. "He wants to be a recluse and left the hell alone."
But Kiss fans being Kiss fans, that is, somewhere between Deadheads and Trekkies on the obsessiveness scale, means that interest in Vincent is still strong. As the original replacement for founding member guitarist Ace Frehley, Vincent garnered a reputation as one of the band's most talented, influential, and divisive members in its 40-year history. From 1982 to 1984, Vincent's knack for cocky melodies and virtuosic guitar shredding revived an outfit that had limped into the Eighties with the release of the high concept, low quality Music From "The Elder." 1983's Lick It Up was the Kiss first album on which Vincent was credited as a member (uncredited, he'd subbed for Frehley on the previous year's Creatures of the Night). It was also the first time the band appeared without makeup, and as the writer of the title track and the musician responsible for the re-born Kiss' most jaw-dropping moments, Vincent helped frontmen Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons establish a post-grease paint identity, pushing the music in the chart-topping direction of Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard.
Despite his contributions, on April 10th, when Kiss receives their long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Vincent is about as likely to attend the ceremony as Syd Barrett would've been to fly on an inflatable pig over a Pink Floyd show.
"He's such a mysterious figure," says Bruce Kulick, who held down the lead guitar spot in Kiss for 12 years following Vincent's departure and who will attend the Rock Hall event. "In some ways, he's the Howard Hughes of Kiss. Vinnie has laid low for so long that it adds to his legend."
From his home in Smyrna, Vincent did send out occasional ripples into the world. He filed multiple lawsuits against his former bandmates, alleging unpaid songwriting royalties. There have been run-ins with the cops. And scorned soldiers in the Kiss Army have charged Vincent with intentionally ripping them off by offering products for sale that he then never delivered. It's because of those head-scratching moves, and the lingering echo of his jaw-dropping musical talent, that Vinnie Vincent still inspires others' curiosity. He just isn't interested in satisfying any of it.
Vincent John Cusano was born in 1952 to Alfonso and Terri, who worked as country musicians throughout his youth. Growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Vinnie's parents exposed him to the guitar, and by the time he was 10 years old, the boy, already fascinated with the Beatles, became enraptured with the instrument.
"I slept with my guitar as a kid and I didn't even know how to play it." Vincent said in a 1987 Guitar Player interview. "I loved the guitar more than anything and it's all I ever wanted to play."
Harboring dreams of a career in music, Vinnie paid the rent with a series of odd jobs, doing everything from selling vintage guitars to working in the incinerator room of a department store burning boxes. After scuffling through the early Seventies playing tiny solo gigs, Vinnie's his first professional break came when he met Connecticut-based former Rascals' singer Felix Cavaliere at a local session for an album by Blood, Sweat and Tears horn player Fred Lipsius.
"He was an incredible talent," says Cavaliere. "He used to do a lot of solo dates in Connecticut. He'd go up to these bars and little restaurants. He could play as subtle as you wanted. He could play acoustically where he doesn't drive a crowd out because they need to hear to eat. He could play anything."
Cavaliere subsequently befriended the guitarist, who he remembers as strangely guarded, and asked him to join his new rock band, Treasure, which in 1977 released a self-titled smooth-rock album on Epic that, except for a handful of majestic Vincent guitar solos, deservedly came and went. In 1980, Vincent, by this time married to his first wife AnnMarie Peters and the father of twin girls, headed to Los Angeles hoping to further his career. He landed at Paramount, where he worked on music for Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi, among other TV shows. Not satisfied scoring the exploits of Fonzie and Ralph Malph, Vincent collaborated on rock material with eventual Paul Stanley co-songwriter Adam Mitchell and Robert Fleischman, lead singer for Journey before Steve Perry.
During these early L.A. days, Vincent exhibited little of his future eccentricity. "The first time I opened up the door [to meet him]," says Fleischman with a laugh, "he was standing there with a t-shirt, tennis shoes, and jeans and no makeup. He was very nice, very charming. Obviously, his ego got quite inflated [with Kiss], but he was never that way with me."
By 1982, Ace Frehley was well on his way out of Kiss, and Vincent was called in for a try-out. "The first time Vinnie came to the studio," recounted Paul Stanley in his recently released memoir, Face The Music, "he started doing a solo and got down on his knees. I thought it was one of the goofiest things I'd ever seen." Evidently, goofy was good. Vincent played all over 1982's Creatures of the Night and joined the band for its subsequent tour, where he appeared with his face painted in an "Ankh Warrior" ancient Egyptian motif — the design courtesy of Stanley.
The follow-up, to Creatures, the confidently swaggering Lick It Up, was the first Kiss album to go gold since 1980's Unmasked. Vincent was rightly proud of his role in rejuvenating the iconic band. "My chemistry with the band helped put them back on top and gave them a musical credibility that they'd never had before," he told Kerrang! magazine. But resentment, largely over songwriting royalties, was already festering. In the same interview, Vincent said, "I couldn't get the recognition I needed."
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