I’m still riding the Kiss-bliss wave from The Forum show about two weeks ago, now, but it is bittersweet as I formulate/reconcile my feelings about the state of my favorite band of all time in its purported final lap around the world on their End of the Road Tour. You don’t have to wait until later in this blog to know if I thought it was a great show or not. I’m telling you here, up front, KISS tore up the stage and brought down the house like I haven’t witnessed in a long time. I’d say their best KISS show I’ve seen since the first night of the Psycho Circus Tour at Dodger Stadium on Halloween night of 1998. This is definite a too long didn’t read job that only a real Kiss fan, if that, will appreciate, but bear with me and my geekdom!
Although I was born a year before their self-titled debut was released, my older brother was first an Alice Cooper fan and discovered Alive (Kiss’ live album breakthrough, which recreated the concert experience that was already the latest buzz in arena rock fandom by late ’75) and then the Bob Ezrin-produced Destroyer shortly after that in ’76, and I was present and accounted for (not just in an oblivious baby trance) for the band’s appearance on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special, both in ’76 when I was three! I remember sitting in the back of my parents’ cars when both the Alive version of “Rock and Roll All Night” and “Beth” would play on the AM radio, and they were already my superheroes on a Batman/Spiderman level by the time KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, their NBC TV movie debuted on Halloween of ’78. We had the Paul and Gene dolls by MEGO, ready to go, my KISS shoelaces and canvas Kiss belt, and I was certainly there to see our town in Queens obsessed with Kiss, and crowding our house, putting our make-up on, and transforming our living room/den into Madison Square Garden for my brother’s Kiss-themed birthday parties.
My brother practically jumped ship when Peter “Cat Man” Criss and lead guitarist Ace “Space Ace” Frehley were gone in the 80s and the band stripped off their makeup in order to compete with contemporary MTV bands, who were ironically starting to put more makeup on like Kiss in the ‘70s! But I hung with them throughout the 80s when they went from KISS Klassic to New KISS. In fact, me and my bro were featured in a New York Newsday article when KISS was returning to Nassau Coliseum for their Hot in the Shade Tour, the angle being that one brother was boycotting Kiss while younger brother was still hanging on. I understood that the thrill was gone for my bro, but I wasn’t ready to give them up nor begrudge Paul and Gene for moving on. So, I soldiered on as a loyal KISS Army member.
We were both over the moon, however, when (after the band faced slugging sales, despite issuing the badass/return to form/harder than ever Bob Ezrin redemption album, Revenge) in the early 90s and they started to tap into the nostalgia market of the then current 70s revival happening all around in pop culture, which lead to their convention tours, which lead to a mini re-union with Peter, which lead to their appearance on MTV Unplugged, which lead to a full on reunion of the original Awesome Foursome in 1996. They took New KISS off the shelves and started marketing KISS Klassic again, for a whirlwind ’96-97 Alive Worldwide Tour. They followed that up with the Psycho Circus Tour, and old problems among the band started to resurface again, but the kick off at Dodger Stadium on Halloween ’98 was epic and will go down as one of the greatest shows of our lives. Looking back, I remember their following/first Farewell Tour (which was more of a farewell to Ace and Peter tour -- though both of them popped in and out of the band for brief times afterward) as anticlimactic, and despite them getting creative here and there with the setlists and the “throwbacks” on following tours, there was something hollow, even annoying, in them dusting off all obscure vintage tracks without Ace and Peter there to share it with us.
For a fan of my generation and state of mind, it’s kinda like a kid going to his parents’ anniversary party where a new wife is dressed up as his mom and the couple slow dance to the old wife’s prom song. I know it’s more common than not for legacy bands to have mostly new members in them nowadays but there’s something so much worse about it when the replacements are actually playing the role of a previous member. It’s not Eric Singer or Tommy Thayer’s fault that they don’t have characters of their own, like Eric Carr and Vinnie Vincent did when they first replaced Peter and Ace. Paul especially thinks the idea of new characters is silly and unsustainable. No, once Paul and Gene realized that KISS Klassic was the brand to beat, there was no way they were going back to New Kiss, or even Neo KISS (giving the new guys new characters)…better to package it as KISS Klassic, even if half the ingredients are artificial ingredients. We always, when on our best behavior at least, preface this with “it’s nothing personal” (except our loyalty, as hypocritical, transitional, and transactional as it can sometimes be to the OG Catman and Space Ace is extremely personal), but some old school fans like me have a hard time watching other people dressed up like our heroes Peter Criss and Ace Frehley; so much so we liken their replacements to the “Imposters,” aka “The Bad Kiss,” or the cybernetic doubles of KISS made by Abner Devereaux, the diabolical villain from KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
Needless to say, despite being a lifelong fan, I wasn’t so excited about the state of the band for a while. But I knew full well that the KISS world was spinning whether I was coming along for the ride or not. Year after year, in what is now a timeless rite of passage, old Kiss fans still initiate their kids/new Kiss fans by taking them to the shows and buying the merch. Even 80s fans and 90s fans have grown up and have kids of their own now, and they’re so iconic a rock band they continued to draw newbies who have heard about and now want to finally experience the famous Kiss show. And then, of course, there is the average rock fan that just wants to see a great legacy act and have a great night out, none of these emotional hang-ups whatsoever. So, the joke could be on the likes of me, who often choose to stay home, sticking to our gripes, instead of just letting them go and enjoying the show.
On the other hand, it wasn’t just the “imposters” that kept some of us old school fans away, it was the fact that we knew guys were getting older, the setlists were getting stale, and there was diminishing returns when it came to the “wow” factor of the show; especially if the band seemed to be resting on the laurels with the actual show. I saw the Alive 35 Tour in 2008 and wasn’t so impressed with the TV monitor thing. For a band that boasts “You wanted the best, you got the best,” many bands were doing more exciting shows already. And then, let’s just speak of the other elephant in the room, Paul’s voice. By the late 00’s it was really starting to show some wear and tear. He had been suffering through throat issues for years, and had surgery done, but sadly years of hard rock singing and father time took its toll on the Star Child, despite the rest of his otherwise age-defying physical body (What, he’s pushing 70? And he still looks like the buff illustration on the KISS pinball machine!). I don’t blame Paul’s deteriorating voice, but his attitude of throwing people under the bus for not cutting the mustard anymore, promising to call it quits should that ever happened to him, on top of ridiculing artists who use backing tracks while hyping KISS as all the way live? Not cool. And seeing my hero suffer his way through a set is more painful for me than it is for him, and I mean on a personal level, not a sarcastic one. This is a man that lives for the stage, that has given us so much, and seeing him struggle is not exactly the memory I want to go out on for my favorite band ever. Add to that rumors of lip-syncing and Gene talking smack/slandering Peter and Gene again? I felt like they don’t even deserve my patronage.
By the way, not that I doubt for two seconds that playing with Tommy and Eric instead of Ace and Peter might be a whole lot more enjoyable and rewarding for Gene and Paul. The guys are consummate musicians, they are entirely reliable, and their chops certainly makes the instrumental side of Kiss a force to be reckoned with. But they always seem to slander Ace and Peter when they feel a need to justify the current arrangement. And while I’m on the subject, it’s true, old school fans feel that if it’s a goodbye to touring for Kiss, then they should make accommodations to fit in Ace and Peter into the package somehow. But us stubborn fans forget that vintage Kiss isn’t an unalienable right. As much as they pay us lip service, the Kiss Army do not own Kiss, it is Gene and Paul’s to decide who is in this Kiss or not and trying to out slander Gene and blackmailing his way back into the band was not a good, and as we see, effective for Ace. Better, that he ignored Gene’s latest outburst, and get a gig as the opening band on the Kiss tour and get invited up for some last songs at the end. That’ the only way it would probably work. Because Gene and Paul have no patience or inclination at this point to deal with any “Don Felder” issues from entitled ex-members
And then I contemplated the thought that I may never see them again live? Or at least at The Forum, where they captured some of the iconic and influential Alive II. I don’t exactly have a kid to take to the show and indoctrinate, but my wife is pregnant, and I have to admit, the idea of my unborn baby getting to go to a KISS show from inside the womb, was kind of magical for me. Like, years later, I would tell that unfortunate child that “YOU WHERE THERE!” The baby would have no choice but to be a KISS fan and I would have done my job in life! And guess what was the only song the baby decided to kick during? With the lyrics, “I was born on Olympus, to my father a son. I was raised by the demons, trained to reign as the one, “ and you guessed it, it’s “God of Thunder.”
How awesome is that? And as far as resting on their laurels? Not a chance. By the Monster tour they were already adding a ton of pyro and more moving hydraulics, and on this tour, they are really going for it, when it comes to the show. I guess I should say SPOILER ALERT, but you’ve probably already seen the pictures of the hydraulic octagon pads that they ride/go up and down on? They’ve got screens underneath ‘em, and when Gene sings “God of Thunder” they all light up with The Demon’s face. No way 50,000,000 demons can be wrong!
No wonder my unborn baby threw up those devil horns and kicked that belly! The thunder and lightning on the screens evoked the “God of Thunder Machine,” (the actual Tesla Coil designed by Kenneth Stickfaden for Frankenstein, used on 1974’s Young Frankenstein, and rented to Kiss for their Destroyer Tour of 1976), and while there were no candelabras from the early days, Gene’s side did have mascot “Sam the Serpent.” The bat-lizard wrapped around a staff on the side of the stage on the Love Gun Tour and is picked up and held up by The Demon is Kiss/Phantom right before he breathes fire. Sam comes back via animation on the screen, as a flying battle lizard wreaking havoc in “War Machine,” one of the bands most metal songs, from one of their most beloved albums (which was not the case when it was released in ’82) Creatures of the Night. On the other hand, while those were great touches, you still get the feeling that Paul and Gene haven’t really had the time or desire to be too sentimental for this final tour, which leads me to believe they have no intention on stopping the KISS Kruises, or various shows. That would the only way I could understand not gracing us with the absolute classics for a final time and showing deference to milestone albums and songs. Paul would throw out the fire helmets and they’d be doing songs like “Firehouse,” “Strutter,” and “Nothin’ to Lose.” You already have the Demon showcase of “God of Thunder” and you already have another Gene rocker “I Love it Loud” from Creatures in the set, so if you dropped “War Machine” you could easily have room for more classics. You’d at least find the room for something off Rock and Roll Over, which, disappointingly, is completely ignored in their current set. No “Calling Dr. Love,” no “I Want You,” and forget about something like a “Ladies Room” or “Makin’ Love.”
Instead of blaspheming the Catman by having Eric sing “Beth” (it was blaspheming enough the first time they did that faux pas, with the Eric Carr version of the song on Smashes, Thrashes, & Hits. This time they gather around the piano, just as they did on the Paul Lynde Special, but there’s no pic of Peter on screen, and not one nod of respect to him), they should do “Hard Luck Woman.” 1, it would be at least one song from that vital album. 2, it’s at least a Paul song that Peter sang, in the style of Rod Stewart, which would suit Eric’s voice, and not be as blasphemous to the Catman. 3, the song was a hit for them in the 70s, and again in the 90s when Garth Brooks covered the song for the self-produced Kiss My Ass tribute album, and the band also reissued the original in the 90s, when nostalgia for the original band started to build, which led to the return of Peter and the subsequent reunion and subsequent reclaiming/remarketing of their original make-up era all over again. Like, that’s how pivotal that song is, it should not be ignored. And 4, it would add some acoustic element to the show, that could use a bit more dynamics in mood. In fact, having a few acoustic songs would have added some gravitas and elevated the show as a whole, instead of just mostly one speed from beginning to end. “Hard Luck Woman” into “Shandi” (their big Australian hit, which would be one song from the Unmasked album they could do), into “Forever,” (which makes much more sense than doing “Hide Your Heart” from Hot In The Shade,” because it was technically their biggest MTV-era hit, and is a total hair-metal, cell phones up, chick pleaser) would be better for the show and allow them to cover more ground while paying proper respect to their catalog.
By the way, at the end of the day I understand the business decision of keeping the brand consistent, and just selling the faces of the original four faces even though Ace and Peter’s visage is modified to resemble Eric and Tommy. But their act is hardly modified to reflect their individual personalities – seems like Tommy’s not allowed to play his own guitar solo during the actual guitar solo section of the show, I don’t mean while playing classic songs, where he should stay faithful to Ace’s work…and where if you close your eyes, you think you’re hearing Ace at the top at his game! Which is very much appreciated! But in the part of the set where he gets to showcase his guitar work, instead of coming up with his own themes he plays Ace’s signature guitar solo almost note for note. OK, he’s playing the role of the “Spaceman,” but why can’t it at least be Tommy as the “Spaceman,” why does every single thing about it need to be a copy of Ace? The only time he gets to not be Ace is when he’s playing leads from post-Ace albums, and it’s refreshing to see a little more personality then.
Aside from missing a song from fan-favorite album, Revenge, I don’t really have any more complaints about the setlist. I’m not into “Say Yeah,” but fans seemed to have taken to the Sonic Boom album from which it came, and my wife who probably heard it maybe once was even singing along. I heard a few complaints about the long “100,000” years but I feel that this song brings you right back to when Kiss were competing with real old school rock and roll bands that jammed, and it shows a side of them that goes much deeper musically than people give them credit for. I love that “Psycho Circus” from ’98 has secured its spot as a concert staple, and sometime concert opener! And Gene gets really funky on the bass on one of their most classic rock and roll songs, literally, “Let Me Go Rock and Roll.”
There is another elephant in the room that we must discuss, however, one that connects directly to the other elephant in Paul’s voice. As I write this there is a controversy brewing on a CSI forensics level, on whether or not there is lip syncing going-on on this tour. People are doing a full on Zapruder job in analyzing whether he’s using a backing track or not, to the point where they have lined up the audio tracks coming from several nights of the opener, “Detroit Rock City,” and have shown the soundwaves to be exact on all nights. They line them up and play them at the same time, and you can’t hear any difference in the three different nights’ performance.
And another video popped up where it seems like Eric misses a cue which causes Paul to miss his opening “Yeah!” in Psycho Circus, only the pre-recorded backing track didn’t miss it! Which is weird, because Paul is a few feet away and looking at Eric when we hear the huge “yeah!”
Of course, it’s disappointing that they’re not all the way live, but it’s even more tragic for Paul. I have lots of empathy for him as he faces mortality (again, we should all hope to be in Paul’s shape, at any age, and like Jagger, he’s got his own moves), at least the prospect of losing the ability to do what he loves. He’s facing the fact that even Dorian Gray ages. The Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey moment when we realize even the Star Child grows old. Our Star Child is my dad’s age, and my dad is dead, while he’s still jumping in high-heeled boots, slamming his knees to the stage, and beating up his hips like a veteran athlete. So yeah, he’s given into the crutch of a little, uh, vocal enhancement. But consider the very real alternative to what we have now, and it’s something Paul and Gene talked about having no problem doing in the past; and that is the prospect that one day, maybe soon, all members of KISS will be replacement members and/or lip synching. Not so different than Lynda Carter’ “I Was Made for Loving You” segment in her 1980 variety show.
The next version of Kiss may be a traveling troupe that auditioned American Idol-style for their role in the band. The next version of Kiss could be a Broadway/Cirque du Soleil-type of performance, performing to a backing track, and performed by people who might have never grown up with, or cared about their back catalog, deep cuts, bastard albums, concert staples, or rare radio hits, and performing for people who one might be just like them in that all they are about is the show they are going to see that night. It’s all about the show!
It’s always been all about the show, actually, even their legendary live album that first broke them could have been called Studio! Instead of Alive! They felt they needed to re-record or enhance certain songs to get a better representation of the show. They basically pulled a Nanook of the North and fudged the truth to get to a bigger truth…the show! And it worked, because their first three studio albums fail to capture the energy of their shows, but the fabricated live show caught it, and subsequently made those songs and that show legendary.
And what a show it was! I could still feel the flames that went every which way but church on Sunday. And Paul’s solo spot, when he zip-lines out to a second state on the other side of the arena? Those cranes that bring the band out to YOU, and the oversized screens everywhere made for much more intimacy for a larger arena. Now, about those cranes -- Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue needs to stop bitching about Kiss stealing the Crue’s finally, when they were already doing the “crane” effect on their Monster Tour in 2012, two years prior to the Motley Crue Farewell Tour in 2014. And besides, both bands probably borrowed the effect from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (and the octagon platforms, too. Only TSO’s are circles), who have been upping the ante on concert pyro and other show stoppers for years now. But then again, they got it from Kiss in the first place (who probably got it from Bowie).
Let me recap: I’m a longtime Kiss-fan that went through periods of mixed shame and support of them. My pregnant wife thought it would be cool for us to go, and I begrudgingly said, “I’ll do it for you and our unborn baby, just so I can fuck with him/her later).” And she’d reply, “no, I want you to go for YOU.” So I did. I went for that kid Kiss fan that used to run around the house singing these songs dreaming about being at those one-in-a-lifetime shows at the forum, as depicted in/on Alive II. I did it, because no matter what beefs I have with Paul and Gene, they are still my heroes, and I still love them like family and thank them for everything they gave to our lives. They were and are still a huge part of our lives, and as Gene tells my brother in that Newsday article back in the day, we’ll never get that part of our lives back. Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter, and even Eric and Eric and Vinnie, Bruce, (not really Mark St. John), and yes…Tommy, will always have a piece of us, just as we’ll always have a piece of them. Paul might not have been too sentimental, but he did say some words about how special it was to be at The Forum, and I couldn’t help but get a little teary. I don’t know what I’d do without that KISS ARMY radio on Sirius/XM. What? What do you mean it’s gone already! Damn! Where else can you hear song from The Elder on the radio?