PUBLISHED IN THE GLOBE & MAIL IN 1995

WHITE LACE AND KISS FOR LUCK

FANS / Some want to being a lifetime commitment at a rock convention

 

BY NICK KREWEN

 

Toronto

 

Like most impressionable music-starved teenagers growing up in the mid-seventies, HAROLD GAGNON spent his evenings after school in his suburban Montreal home huddled in his room. Cranking up his stereo as loud as his parents would permit, he'd spend countless hours daydreaming about the future as his speakers blasted out his favorite rock 'n roll.

And like most impressionable music-starved teenagers growing up in the '70s, one particular album by four leather-decked, elaborately painted, outrageously costumed characters changed his world forever.

"After I heard KISS Alive, I bought nothing but KISS albums," recalls Gagnon, now 32 and working for the Canadian military in Trenton. "I had KISS posters all over my bedroom. I wore the makeup on Hallowe'en. I even began playing drums. PETER CRISS was the best."

Gagnon was just one of millions of KISS-crazy adolescents who became indoctrinated into the KISS Army, the Big Apple glam rock quartet's faithful fan club. Soldiers of the KISS Army were extremist; members who ate, breathed, and hungrily devoured every piece of KISS music and merchandise coughed up by the original four -- lead singer and guitarist PAUL STANLEY, bassist GENE SIMMONS, lead guitarist ACE FREHLEY and drummer Peter Criss.

Over the past 22 years, the march has steadily continued. Unconditional and unrelenting fan devotion has stabilized and nurtured the rollercoaster that has carried KISS's career since its New York City inception back in 1973.

The powder keg that eventually ignited KISS Alive and three million in sales had been smoldering for two years. The band split its time between studios and road work, spitting out 1973's KISS, 1974's Hotter Than Hell  and Dressed To Kill before releasing KISS Alive around Christmas. Although press and radio generally ignored KISS, their theatrical live shows and generous use of flashpots formed a core of loyal, young listeners.

Blessed with an unflinching fan base, KISS has survived some earth-shattering decisions and weathered changes in musical climates that have capsized lesser acts. There was the shocking move to remove the kabuki-styled makeup (1983's Lick It Up ); a short detour into disco (1979's Dynasty); personal tragedy (the loss of 41-year-old drummer ERIC CARR to cancer); and a handful of personnel changes that has evolved to the present post-1991 lineup of Stanley, Simmons, former MEAT LOAF guitarist BRUCE KULICK and ex-BLACK SABBATH drummer ERIC SINGER.

In the process, they've accumulated album sales of over 70 million, including an incredible streak of 26 gold albums, one short of the record held by THE BEATLES. They've finally won respect from formerly loathsome critics who saw and dismissed them as a novelty. Even their peers are flocking to their defense. KISS My Ass, last year's all-star tribute album, featured none other than best-selling country sensation GARTH BROOKS crooning his own rendition of "Hard Luck Woman", praising the band as an important contributor to his own formative years.

While it may be finally hip to like KISS, the fans have been there all along. They've grown up, gotten married, and brought their kids into the fold. The KISS nation is not only alive and well, it's booming.

KISS themselves are very wary of this. Last year -- while taking the time to stop and smell the roses and ponder their good fortune -- Simmons, Stanley, Kulick and Singer decided it was high time to reward the devoted.

"This phenomenon is way beyond `When You Wish Upon A Star,'" says Simmons, the snake-tongued bassist whose blood-spewing, fire-breathing stage antics helped perpetuate the KISS myth throughout the mid-70s.

"Jiminy Cricket notwithstanding, we've got to give thanks. The bottom line is that the fans put us here. So we started a year ago looking seriously at doing something special for the fans."

Disenchanted with the brevity of backstage meet-and-greets, where Simmons says fans "get treated more like cattle," the band sought a more practical solution. Where could a true KISS aficionado spend some quality time in an informal setting with their heroes?

Thus, the stage was set for the 1995-1996 KISS World Convention tour: twenty-three cities across North America; limited seating with an average availability of 500-1000 participants per night. Informal conversations. Intimate, private concerts. Autograph sessions. All arranged by the band itself.

"It's really payback time for the fans," says Simmons.

This past Tuesday, it was Toronto's turn. Harold Gagnon and his 23-year-old girlfriend CHRISTINE DAVIS were two of approximately 1000 people, ranging in age from 5 to 65, who paid $100 U.S. each for the privilege to experience a giant love-in with KISS at the Toronto Hilton Hotel, beginning sharply at noon.

No tickets were issued for this 12-hour KISS-a-thon, in order to curb scalpers. The majority of attendees had previously phoned 1-800-905-KISS, rendered credit card information and instructed simply to show up at the door. Canadian gatecrashers were able to waive the U.S. exchange rate, and allowed entry for $100 Canadian.

After receiving a numbered laminate tag and an exclusive convention booklet at the gate, the hordes descended by escalator to the lower mezzanine, where they roamed six rooms and hallways filled with two decades' worth of personal and private KISS memorabilia.

As twenty fully costumed mannequins stood silently at attention behind Plexiglas enclosures, modeling 8-inch platform heels and spike-encrusted shoulder pads, eager fans took pictures of leather tights formerly worn by KISS members. Cameras flashed and camcorders rolled. Several mini-skirted blondes leaned dutifully against a wall, waiting for their male companions to finish focusing on Paul Stanley's original Iceman guitar and Gene Simmons' Punisher bass, personally preserving their part of rock 'n roll history. Other KISSheads simply compared notes and exchanged Destroyer  and Love Gun folklore.

Twenty-year old SCOTT MASHAW stands in front of a mannequin sporting the late Eric Carr's fox costume, staring at it with wide-eyed reverence as a tale dangles from the rear of Carr's leather pants.

Although scheduled to make a stop in his native New York City, Mashaw has chosen instead to spend 12 hours driving down to Toronto with his best friend to attend and celebrate a special landmark.

"Today's the 15th anniversary of when Eric Carr first played with the band," announces Mashaw, first hooked on KISS when he heard Gene Simmons' solo album, released in 1978. "That makes this the best KISS convention."

For Mashaw, the Toronto visit also gives him an opportunity to catch up on some lost history.

"You see a lot of stuff you're never really gonna see anywhere else," he says. "I never got to see them when they wore the makeup, so it's pretty awesome seeing all the costumes."

In another room, as Peter Criss's empty drum kit sits under another Plexiglas case, nostalgic photos of Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons in such pre-KISS musical incarnations THE POST WAR BABY BOOM and WICKED LESTER are mounted on dividers. The chamber is filled with concert posters, set lists and lyric sheets for "Calling Dr. Love" and "Strutter" scribbled out on their original hotel stationery. Toys, trinkets, comic books, cover art...it's all here.

Out in the lower lobby, a gigantic KISS flea market is underway, offering everything from rare autographed vinyl records and 8x10 concert stills to copies of KISSTORY, the band's official hardbound, coffee table biography. Weighing in at 9 lbs and 440 pages, copies of KISSTORY are being offered for $200 each. A leather jacket, decorated with a defiant fist sporting a raised middle index finger, also seems defiantly priced at $850.

If you're hungry, sandwiches are available at $4.50 a pop, as well as a selection of muffins, fruit, chips and granola bars. Beer is also $4.50, although an extra $1.25 will get you some of the harder stuff.

The first six hours are spent flipping through KISS relics. After clinics hosted by drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Bruce Kulick are completed, and KISS cover band ALIVE has finished its live tribute, the real show begins.

At the stroke of six, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley make their initial stage appearances, but they're not alone. Mississauga manager DAVID WOLOTKO and KAREN BROWN are standing between them, fronted by their children AMANDA, 7 and BRANDON, 5. The children's faces have been carefully painted in the design sported by Stanley and Simmons for the first decade of KISS, and Brown is clutching a bridal bouquet.

It's a KISS Convention wedding, the fifth one so far, and one thousand people are honorary witnesses as Paul Stanley serves as best man, while Gene Simmons gives away the bride.

"We thought of this as a lark," said the 32-year-old groom from Mississauga, shortly before the ceremony. "Since Paul and Gene are so personable, we decided to ask them. We never expected them to say yes. We got a phonecall a week ago saying they'd be willing to do it.

"We've been together six years, and we figured it would be a wild way to start a lifetime commitment."

"It means a whole lot to us that somebody wants to get married at a KISS convention," says Stanley, who meets the groom for the first time only minutes before the event.

"What's important to them is that they're getting married in front of people who matter to them. KISS fans are basically a tribe. We're the tribe that nobody wants to accept, and this is a very happy pack of dogs."

How did the 28-year-old bride's parents react to the news?

"My mother thinks it's hilarious, " said Brown. "My father isn't saying much, but my mother's laughing her head off."

Following the nuptials, the band members settle in for questions. Before they can begin, 19-year-old BILL TUFTS of Grand Bend, Ontario yells a chant he'll repeat several times throughout the evening.

"Gene Simmons rules!"

It gets a laugh and some cheers from the friendly crowd, and then it's down to business. After Stanley announces a "no-holds-barred" format for questions, some surprisingly poignant moments occur.

A young woman stands up, and announces that her father, who just passed away at the age of 70 a few weeks back, loved KISS.

"This is the best moment of my life," she declares, overtaken by sobs as the members of KISS applaud her on stage.

Other testimonials echo similar sentiments, as proclamations of love and gratitude pour forth. A man whose pregnant wife is sitting beside him, hours away from labor, stands up and asks KISS to bless his unborn child.

"We'll do you one better," Stanley replies. "Why don't you move over to the side of the stage close to me , so if you need to get to the hospital you can make a quick exit."

Another man presents the band personalized thank-you cards for the many years of pleasure KISS music has given him.

"You guys are the real thing," he tells them as he shakes their hands.

A short, stocky man revels in the rebellious nature he feels that KISS has endowed him.

"Thanks to you guys, I've been telling a lot more people off, and I feel better about it," he says.

There are some lighthearted moments, as one woman asks Simmons if she can indulge in an obscure Australian custom of rubbing her lottery ticket on his behind for good luck.

"Sure. C'mon up," says an affable Simmons, offering an upturned cheek in support.

A man standing at the back of the crowd holding a camcorder shouts a similar request.

"Gene, it's my wife's fantasy to grab your ass, and it's my fantasy to tape it on a camcorder!"

"If she can handle it, she can hold it," Simmons shoots back.

True to their word, no subject is taboo. Topics such as Simmons' common-law relationship with Playmate actress SHANNON TWEED ("That's my Canadian content," he jokes), or the disappointment Stanley felt when he realized the four friends who started KISS could not continue to function as a unit ("Peter Criss was either going to kill the band or kill himself," said Stanley) are candidly discussed. Details about upcoming tour and recording plans (an MTV Unplugged appearance and album will be recorded in two weeks) are casually mixed with inspiring messages ("You have to believe in yourself," says Stanley.

There are hoots of laughter and loud cheers. Clearly, the fans are enjoying the access.

"We're so close to it, that usually, thankfully, we're not aware of the kind of impact it's gonna have on people," says Stanley shortly before facing the crowd. "That might be too much for us to deal with. But when people in the audience are getting up and saying, `I got off drugs because of you, or I became a lawyer or a doctor because of you, those are the simple things that really mean the most."

Two hours of rock follows two hours of talk. There's no set list: song suggestions come spontaneously through the conventioneers, who scream loudly and hold up cardboard signs brandishing their favorite song titles.

It's more "Unhinged" than "Unplugged." Everything is plugged in, although KISS remains seated. "Rock Bottom" launches the 35 song set list: a few tunes along the way are attempted, and aborted.

"We don't know it," shrugs Simmons, turning to Stanley for his next cue.

However, when a song is completed, the fans hoot and holler, singing loudly and clapping boisterously. "Plaster Caster" and "Goin' Blind" are early favorites. By the time "Sweet Thing" rolls around, the audience is singing the chorus back to the band.

"Hide Your Heart" and "World Without Heroes" also parade by, even though the latter song is shaky at best.

Later in the hour, another dream is realized. Despite sore vocal cords hindered by yelling Simmons' praises all night, Bill Tufts is handed a microphone and guided onstage. Eyes closed and lips pursed, he flawlessly performs "Heaven's On Fire", as the four members of KISS look on approvingly, serving as his temporary back-up band.

"I've dreamed of this moment all my life," said a glowing Tufts afterwards, waiting in line during the convention-concluding autograph session.

"I can't ever remember life without KISS."

As smiles of satisfaction filli the faces of happy conventioneers filing out of the room, Paul Stanley is convinced that rock music's future must be re-examined.

"Anything that provides a way in which we can get close to the fans is worth doing," says Stanley. "We're interested in breaking down the barriers. Too many bands use fame as a way to get away from their fans, the ultimate divorce to those who made them successful in the first place. I think we've made history of trying to stay close to those people."

"I think it's something we must do," adds Gene Simmons. "I think bands need to take another look at who they are. The deal with some bands is a "don't do windows" attitude that sounds good, makes you into a star, but backfires sooner or later.

"If you're not nice to people, they remember. "

Trust KISS, a band that has spent its entire life defying the conventions of rock 'n roll, to redefine the art of the rock 'n roll convention.

-30-

THANKS: JAMES ADAMS

1995, 1999 Nick Krewen, Octopus Media Ink

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