Monday, October 18, 2004

Thoughts Upon Turning Thirty

Written in October 1993.
This piece originally appeared in Umlaut #9 (January 1994)

"My uniform is leather, and my power is my age."
from 'Flaming Youth' by KISS

On the Friday before my 30th birthday I wandered into a neighborhood thrift store. I have no idea why I decided to stop there. For some reason I just had to go there. Of course, I eventually ended up at the record bins. As I rifled through the bins nothing really caught my eye, but I was at peace with myself and with life. Then destiny hit me like a freight train.

Longtime readers know that 70's era KISS is a beloved icon of my childhood. After seemingly endless Herb Albert and Barbara Streisand albums, I stumbled across some old KISS albums. Not just some old KISS albums, but all of the old KISS albums. And not just all of the old KISS albums, but the original issues of the albums, with all of the inserts (decals, posters, booklets, etc.) intact, including the merchandise mail order forms! All in mint condition. The covers clean, the records shiny.

I was a kid again.

Eighteen years ago, I begged my parents to buy me a KISS album for my 12th birthday. The album they bought me was something called The Originals. This was a limited edition set of KISS' first three albums that came in a folder and included a historical booklet, trading cards, and a giant KISS Army decal. Needless to say I eventually destroyed my copy, playing the albums to death and wearing out the goodies. It wasn't until years later, long after my copy had disappeared, that I discovered how valuable the set was to collectors. As the big 3-0 neared, I did a lot of thinking about my childhood. I began searching record collecting magazines for a copy of The Originals in a desperate attempt to obtain a totemistic symbol of my lost youth.

Every copy advertised was selling for at least $50 (a recent price guide listed its value at $85). Now, 18 years after I first held it in my rock hungry hands, I kneeled in a thrift store in San Francisco and a copy of The Originals stared back at me. Not just a copy, but one in mint condition will all of the records and inserts intact and clean! The price tag on it read "$4.95". I almost fainted. I quickly snapped up the other KISS artifacts and made my way to the register. The entire haul cost me $20.

I had managed to reclaim part of my childhood.

That was three days before my 30th birthday. My birthday fell on a Monday, and as I prepared for the obligatory party I tuned into Monday Night Football: the Raiders vs. some other team. This season, different lamestream musical acts have appeared in the opening credits, like Whitney Houston, etc.. However, who should be appearing in the opening credits on this, my 30th birthday, but..... KISS!!! I KID YOU NOT! A chorus of angels descended from heaven, birds broke into song, and I almost wet my pants.

Needless to say, my 30th birthday, spent with beloved friends, was one of the best ones I've ever had.

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In 1996 KISS shocked the Rock World by reuniting the original lineup of Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter in full makeup for the first time in 17 years. Old School KISS geeks like myself were beyond ecstatic. It was such a major event that I jetted down to New Orleans to see one of the first reunion shows. This is an edited version of my reaction to that show (originally posted on the old Umlaut web site):

KISS - Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans - July 9th, 1996

Backstage Pass from the Superdome show
(From the Umlaut Archives)

Rock road trips are the best. My old lady and I hopped on a jet and flew out to The Big Easy for some good eatin' and some good rockin'. On the cab ride to the show, the middle aged white cab driver asked us what was going on at the Superdome. When we told him KISS, he got disgusted and said "Oh, one of those bands with a gimmick" and proceeded to tell us how he once took his daughter to see Ratt and how he walked out of the arena and waited for her in the car. He also made a point of telling us how his daughter is now a school teacher, listens to "the oldies station", and now hates rock music. The guy then lectured us further with "Ya know who has talent? Do you know? Boys II Men! Now they've got talent! They don't need no gimmicks!" Mercifully, our cab ride ends before he can elaborate upon the virtues of Boys II Men any further.

The Superdome is fuckin' huge (At one time it was considered one of the 7 Man-Made Wonders Of the World). Outside, thousands of people are milling around the entrances in the humid July heat waiting for the doors to open. I saw some good lookin' girls, and some of those girls wanted to get themselves KISS, into the ladies room! White trash rocker chicks rule!

In classic arena rock fashion, my name wasn't on the guest list at the Will Call window. In fact, the guest list wasn't there at all! The woman told me to check back in a little while, but having been stiffed before at arena shows when I was supposed to be on guest lists, my gut tightened of having been "forgotten" again. I began stressing over the fact that I'd traveled halfway across the country for nothing.

The wife and I wandered around for a half hour and watched the rock fans drool over the merchandise tables. Yes, they had several fully stocked merchandise tables set up outside of the arena and there was even a van with an ATM machine built into the side that had a satellite dish on top to communicate with banks! Corporate Rock Rules!!

Gritting my teeth, I once again got in the Will Call line to see if the guest list had arrived. Ahead of us, some dj's from the local rock radio station found themselves in the same predicament as us. Off to the side of the line stood the biggest geek I've ever seen at a rock concert; he was loaded down with two armfuls of KISS memorabilia (including an autographed gold record for Alive!). He looked like someone who could easily have been at a Star Trek convention. The only things he was missing was KISS makeup and Spock ears. He was trying to scam a backstage pass from people on the guest list.

I finally got up to the window again, handed over my ID, and lo and behold there were two tickets AND two all-access passes for me. As we walked past the geek he asked how many passes I had and I said "Two" and kept right on walking into the arena.

Unlike the fascist Bill Graham Presents concerts back home in San Francisco, there was no security pat down / frisking at the door. I could have taken in a picnic table and Uzi and the Superdome's staff probably wouldn't have cared. Once inside the lobby I quickly lost count of the number of people wearing KISS makeup. The best ones were a guy wearing Gene makeup and full-on football shoulder pads with BMX shin guards and another person with Vinnie Vincent (1983 post-Ace replacement guitarist) Egyptian makeup - Whatta poser!

The Superdome is capable of holding 80,000+ people, but for the concert it was blocked off a 1/3 of the way, so there was probably around 30,000 rockers in the house. It was pretty damn impressive and, as outside, there were literally dozens of merchandise stands selling KISS shirts, programs, posters, and even a $650 leather jacket! Corporate Rock Rules!

We attempted to get backstage, but a couple of Superdome security types suspiciously denied us, eventhough we had passes and even asked one of them to escort us. All of the security personnel at the Superdome wore red blazers and resembled hotel desk clerks. At that moment, a guy wearing a radio headset and KISS laminate noticed our conversation and asked what the problem was - When we showed him the passes he offered to walk us back himself, but said the opening band was going onstage soon.. If we found him afterwards he'd be happy to escort us. What a nice guy - I shook his hand. Later, while looking thru a commemorative KISS Reunion Tour magazine I saw the guy's photo and found out he was a longtime friend of KISS and also a production manager for the tour.

We found our seats just in time to see two of those dj's who'd been stuck outside with us in the Will Call line doing some announcement from the stage - Obviously things worked out for them too. Once the opening band finished, the wife and I set out to get backstage to soak up some Rock Star action before KISS made their entrance.

Earlier in this piece I made fun of the Superdome's security by comparing it to the hardcore concert security I was used to in San Francisco. Well, after the experience I'm about to relate to you, I completely appreciate the professionalism and intelligence of the good people at Bill Graham Presents.

We returned to the area we'd tried to enter before, but the two security people now told us we couldn't get to the dressing rooms from there, and they vaguely pointed across the area and said something about a "black door". Denying us further details, we headed off in the general direction they pointed us in; there we encountered two more red-coated security people. They listened to our plea suspiciously, but pointed us to go around the corner to another door. There we encountered yet another red-coated pawn. She eyed us and our passes even more suspiciously and walked us over to two other red-coated "guards" who had a xeroxed guide of all of the backstage passes being issued by KISS. They looked at our passes and then consulted the guide. One of them read aloud "Unlimited access..." and then turned to the others and asked "Unlimited access... What does that mean?" America's public schools at work!

Gene's Guitar Pic (From the Umlaut Archives)

Unable to decide what "unlimited access" meant, they directed us back to the two security guards we'd originally talked to! Their short term memories must not last longer than 5 minutes, because they didn't seem to recognize us or our story so we had to repeat what we'd just told them a minute before. This time, one of them pulled out another xeroxed sheet. "It says here you should go to Locker Room #4" she read. DUH!! Why, hadn't they told us that before?! She pointed to a door that was directly across from her! Oh brother. So we walked over to the door and knocked... but no one answered. We knocked again. Nothing. We walked back across and told the guard no one was answering. As she was considering this, another guard came up, overheard what was said, and commented "You can't get into Locker Room #4 thru that door. You gotta go around.." Think Spinal Tap. Think "Hello Cleveland". This was getting fuckin' ridiculous.

SO, we go around the corner AGAIN, ask the same guards with the xeroxed guide where Locker Room #4 is and they point to ANOTHER door down the walkway. Off we go and almost get run into by ANOTHER guard coming through the door from the other direction. We go through the door and find ourselves in a hallway. A few feet away a guy sits on a folding chair in front of a door with a "4" painted on it - Bingo! The guy looks like a roadie/rocker type and he must have recognized us as "belonging there" since I was wearing a Ted Nugent shirt AND we both had passes pasted on our torsos, so he opened the door for us without a word. On the other side was a huge room with a long table piled high with food and drink. Corporate Rock Rules!

So we hung out for awhile, eating free food and drinking free drinks. As we were about to depart to go back to our seats, some guy from Nine Inch Nails (not Mr. Reznor) was ushered into the room. He kept looking at me (perhaps jealous of my Ted Nugent shirt) so I introduced myself and the wife to him. Then we split to find our seats in time to see the return of KISS!

However, the Superdome "guards" once again added hijinx to our evening by telling us we couldn't go back up into the stands to our assigned seats! To clarify the situation, the more expensive seats were located on the floor closer to the stage while our seats were up in the stands behind the floor, further away from the stage. So basically what the guards were telling us was we "had" to stay down in the expensive seats! Duh, okay! We found an entire row of empty seats only around 20 rows back from the stage. Sitting behind us was a guy from Nine Inch Nails (not Mr. Reznor) and also the guitarists from White Zombie and Pantera - Rock Stars!

There were alot of drunks around us, primed and ticking to ROCK. The stage was hidden behind a huge black curtain that had "KISS" emblazoned on it in gray lettering. As the house lights went down, a Led Zeppelin song blared from the PA, the crowd roared, and I was 12-years old again! My excitement level had been building all week and now I was just about to explode.

Suddenly, a voice boomed out over the PA "New Orleans!! You wanted the best, and you got it! The hottest band in the world.. KISS!!!" The stage lit up, the curtain fell and the opening chords of 'Deuce' blasted from the stage... and there they were!! Ace, Peter, Gene, and Paul in all their make up glory! I was a bit stunned. They looked exactly how I remembered. Near the end of the song Ace, Gene, and Paul did their patented choreography at the front of the stage and the crowd went even more bonkers. As the song ended, the feedback intro to 'King Of The Night Time World' kicked things further into high gear, but as that song, and the evening, progressed it was obvious that while this looked like the KISS of old something was definitely amiss.

First of all, Paul had to point several times to spots on the stage to show Ace wear to stand! Also, some of Ace's solos were a beat behind the rest of the band; the Spaceman was definitely on another planet. Although the set list was all old songs, some of them were slower than they should have been. Ace's solo was the worst and reminded me of a 19-year old hamming it up on the sales floor at Guitar Center. He DID shoot rockets from one guitar though, but his smoking guitar didn't work and it looked rather pathetic as it levitated up to the rafters without smoke pouring from it (a very Spinal Tap moment).

As for the other members, Gene did around a million groin thrusts PLUS after spitting blood he FLEW up to the lighting rig, where a mic was, and sang the first part of 'God Of Thunder' from up there! That was THE best part of the show for me - AMAZING!

Paul was rather goofy playing up the 'ol Sex God role - strutting, shaking his butt, and doing the legendary jingle boot dance. His best quote came while he tried to get a girl in the front row to show her tits to the video camera when he said "Show me where the milk comes from.." That's an actual quote! It worked though, and the girl lifted her shirt for the camera, but she was wearing a bra! Boo!! NOT very rock of her. Another goofy Paul quote was the intro to 'Love Gun': "This one's about my gun... I ain't talkin' 'bout no .38... And I ain't talkin' 'bout no .45..." Peter seemed to be the one who was truly having the time of his life onstage, which was cool.

However, the ultimate cheese came when Peter sang 'Beth' to a prerecorded backing track (just like in the old days) proceeded by him hurriedly tossing roses to the crowd. Of course, the arena rock crowd lit the place up with their lighters which caused Peter to comment "That's really beautiful! It looks like Heaven!"

While the band was definitely older, it was still cool to see them back in the saddle, and it was classic KISS, with TONS of pyro going off after every other song, flame throwers, confetti storms, Gene doing the fire breathing thing at the end of 'Firehouse', Paul smashing a guitar, and the whole band going out over the crowd on cherry pickers as Peter's drum riser rose to the rafters at the end of 'Black Diamond'. Pretty fuckin' cool. Low points: Ace's solo and him singing 'New York Groove'. High points: 'Black Diamond' and '100,000 Years'.

Also, during 'Rock & Roll All Nite' it was like KISS karaoke as the chorus was flashed onto the video screens, superimposed over images of the crowd. I thought this was way cheesy until I turned around and saw thousands of people behind me clapping and rocking out! It was one of the coolest sights I've ever seen at a concert. In fact, they were rocking out a bit too much, since a guy behind my wife reached over and shook her once or twice and yelled "Clap your hands!!! Rock!!!" Unfortunately, I didn't see this or I might have had to belt him for touching my woman.

After KISS left the stage we were escorted backstage, had another drink, and then the wife and I headed out into the muggy and hot New Orleans night to get a cab to take us back to where we were staying. Outside, the rock brigades were still milling around, abuzz from the rock show they'd just witnessed. We walked past two guys arguing over a KISS guitar pic. On the way back to the car, some pimply faced teenagers called us fags. Ironically, our cab ride that night was as entertaining as the one we had on the way to the show.... 11:30pm... A Nigerian cab driver who didn't know where the fuck he was going (we had to read a map and give him directions) and who was not happy that he was driving us to the other side of town. He also lectured us about how cabbies in New Orleans usually don't pick people up after concerts or sporting events... I didn't particularly care about his gripes though, because my head was still ringing from The Hottest Band In The World...

The End.

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Fast forward to 2004 and KISS are STILL on the road.. However, the childhood glee I had for the band in 1993 is long dead and gone. Why? KISS destroyed any and all nostalgia I had for them. How? By not going away!! By not slipping quietly into the night!! By not bowing out with dignity!! They announced, hyped, hyped, hyped, and performed a "Farewell Tour" in 2000-2002... Only to return a year later for ANOTHER tour! Uh, Webster's defines "farewell" as "a formal occasion honoring a person about to leave or retire". Me thinks KISS don't read Webster's... They've turned into a zombie that refuses to die.

KISS is now back down to 1/2 of its original lineup (Gene and Paul), but they continue to perform with replacement musicians wearing the old Ace and Peter makeup!! C'MON!! A fake Ace and Peter?!?!! Have you no shame?!! Of course, KISS has always been about making money (they were the Star Wars of rock bands in the 70's), but they've gotten so crass with their commercialism that they now have more in common with Celine Dion than with Rock & Roll. Thankfully, their 2004 Tour was one of the biggest flops of this year's concert season. Stick a fork in them. PLEASE.

A lot has changed since I knelt in that thrift store 11 years ago. I'm celebrating another birthday, but you'll no longer find any KISS CDs in my collection. I carted them down to the used record store a long time ago. I suppose you can "Rock & Roll All Night", but sometimes that isn't a good thing. I still have that copy of The Originals I rescued back in 1993, but it's no longer a totemistic reminder of my childhood. It's now a reminder that nostalgia can be mortal. Sometimes it just dies.

Maybe someday I'll tell you how my Star Wars nostalgia died. However, that death was painful... Tis a classic tale of "Be careful what you wish for".....