I have a confession to make:
Despite appearances, I was never really in the Army. Yes, I wore the uniform, knew all the terminology and infiltrated its ranks, but after all these years—on the eve of KISS’ residency at the Hard Rock Hotel—I finally have to come clean: I was never an official member of the KISS Army in the ’70s. I had friends in elementary school who paid the $5 annual fee to become card-carrying members, but for reasons unknown to me even now, I never formally enlisted.
Having such a strong devotion to the band, maybe the official membership just seemed extraneous to me. After all, I bought all the affiliated merchandise, or rather my family did: posters, T-shirts, magazines, action figures, trading cards, puzzles, lunch box, a windbreaker jacket, you name it. Even the KISS Your Face Makeup Kit, which my mom used when I was Paul Stanley for Halloween in fifth grade (his makeup was the easiest to do). I had all the albums, some on vinyl and 8-track, even the four lame 1978 solo projects. OK, three were lame; Ace Frehley’s easily outrocked the others.
It wasn’t just my parents who were aware of and supported my habit. My stoic maternal grandfather purchased a copy of Alive II not only so I could listen to it when I visited, but also so he could learn more about this band I was infatuated with, a subtle gesture of love that wasn’t lost on me even then. And I remember distinctly the day in 1978 my paternal grandmother brought home the slick promotional magazine for KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park from the grocery store.
My dad promised he would take me to a KISS concert if they ever came to Las Vegas. But they only performed here once during the ’70s—in May 1975 at the Sahara (with Rush opening!)—not long before I became obsessed with the band.
Like many fans from that era, it was KISS’ 1975 live (with much studio overdubbing) album Alive! that first grabbed me, the introduction proclaiming, “You wanted the best, and you got it! The hottest band in the land: KISS!,” followed by Ace’s guitar cutting into the opening riff of “Deuce,” Gene Simmons’ hand sliding down the neck of his bass and an explosion ushering in a surge of rowdy rock anchored by Peter Criss’ frenetic drumming. For a 6-year-old who had been raised on the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Motown, KISS opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed, leading to the discovery of other hard-rocking bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and forever shaping my musical tastes.
As good as KISS’ songs were, though, it was the look that initially attracted many of us. For a grade-school kid who was into both music and comic books, the guys in KISS were like real-life superheroes armed with guitars and drumsticks, complete with secret identities that allowed them to walk around unnoticed. Without TMZ and the Internet to ruin the illusion, we were allowed to wonder what the dudes actually looked like. Even when the National Enquirer ran cover photos of Simmons out with Cher, a bandanna hid his face.
The band members really did become superheroes in 1977 when Marvel published a KISS comic book in which talismans transform them into their Starchild, Demon, Spaceman and Catman personae. As if that wasn’t cool enough, an inside spread showed photos of blood being drawn from each band member by a registered nurse that was then mixed with the red ink used in the comic. I bought two copies: one to read repeatedly, one to sit untouched. Foolishly, they were both part of the tragic Comic Book Purge of 1982, a grave error in judgment that still haunts me today.
As substantial as getting their own comic book was, though, nothing was bigger than the band getting their own TV movie. KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park premiered on NBC on October 28, 1978. To celebrate the occasion, three of my best friends spent the night at my house so we could share the moment. As giddy 9-year-olds, we cheered wildly, but deep in our hearts we knew the movie was terrible. We didn’t care, though. It was KISS. That was all that mattered.
That bomb of a film seemed to signal the beginning of the end of KISS’ peak popularity—not just for me, but for many fans. I bought 1979’s Dynasty, with its disco-flavored single “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” But the release of 1980’s Unmasked and 1981’s Music from “The Elder” elicited no response from me. With KISS moving further away from its hard-rock roots, compounded by the departures of Ace and Peter, and with me nearing puberty and discovering new bands, we quietly parted ways. KISS didn’t return to Las Vegas until playing the Aladdin in April 1983, but I was 14 and had moved on to Van Halen by that point. And once the band members removed their makeup later that year, there was no chance of me returning to the fold.
I all but ignored KISS for more than 15 years until the original foursome reunited—complete with 1978 makeup, costumes, set list and stage show. With the band I once worshipped back intact, I finally attended my first and only KISS concert at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in November 1996 at the age of 27. It was everything I hoped it would be: Gene growling his lyrics, playing chunky bass lines and spitting blood and fire; Paul prancing around and delivering his campy stage banter; Ace firing off riffs as smoke billowed from his guitar; Peter’s drum kit rising toward the rafters as he pounded away. Having checked that off my childhood bucket list, though, I felt no need to further re-establish my relationship with the band.
That was 18 years ago, and with KISS now coming to the Hard Rock for a nine-date residency at The Joint from November 5-23, the tug of nostalgia is once again pulling me back. Perhaps it was KISS finally getting inducted this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 40 years after the release of its first album, but the time seems right for me to revisit the heroes of my flaming youth. Sure, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer have supplanted Ace and Peter, respectively, in the lineup for more than a decade now, but this is as close to the old days as I’m ever going to get. Even Paul and Gene are planning for a future in which the band will continue without any of its original members, ensuring KISS will live on for as long as people want to rock and roll all night and party every day.
KISS Rocks Vegas
The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, 8 p.m., Nov. 5, 7-8, 12, 14-15, 19, 22-23, $49.50 and up, 702-693-5555, HardRockHotel.com