The Starchild at 70

Paul Stanley of KISS: “I believe in Superman; I look in the mirror and I see him”

Paul Stanley poster from his 1978 solo debut (Image: Casablanca Records)

It was 1992, and KISS was in the midst of a no-makeup, large club tour.

Their usual workplace in my part of the woods was the Boston Garden, but this gig was at the 1500-capacity Avalon Ballroom. Arena bands did this sometimes – David Bowie would do same four years later – but I can’t tell you if this was a special-up-close-treat-for-the-fans or an I-don’t-think-we-can-sell-out-an-arena-right-now situation. I have no doubt it was marketed as the former.

At any rate, KISS had roared through “Love Gun,” “Parasite,” “Strutter” and “100,000 Years” and now it was time for “Take It Off.”  It’s not a complex song. Sample verse: “Take it off, give it to me/Take it off, like you’d do me/I wanna see what’s inside/‘Cause, you got nothin’ to hide.” 

“This song is about titty bars,” is how singer-guitarist Paul Stanley introduced it, in case anyone might miss the thrust of what was about to come at them. “We like women, we like talkin’ to ‘em. We got nothin’ against em. But we like seeing ‘em naked.” 

In my review for the Boston Globe, I noted, of that song and intro, “Isn’t it nice that in this ever-changing world in which we live in, some basic values remain?”  (This was slightly tongue-in-cheek. And, yet, kinda not.)

Some bands, such as The Who and The Kinks, grew up with their audiences; KISS has maintained the exact same image (despite this no-makeup phase) and song-writing perspective: Life’s a party — partake. They’ve re-worked one decade’s pop/hard rock staples and resold them to the next generation. And they’ve had to have marketed and sold more merch than any band in history, save The Beatles – from coffee mugs to coffins.

KISS sheds maturing fans, and picks up young ones who haven’t yet seen the circus, and, for whom, KISS reigns as shock rock godfathers. KISS: the wicked, nasty-minded Peter Pans – or Dorian Grays – of rock of hard rock. Enjoying KISS, I wrote then – as a 36-year-old man – requires a certain leap of taste – an appreciation of Spinal Tap and an embrace of hoary old rock cliches.

Remember the big issue in KISSworld in 1979? Would the militant KISS Army accept KISS’s “disco” entry, “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”? The answer was; Yes! There were some grumbles – I mean, disco still sucked and all – but KISS doing it? OK!

 

VIDEO: KISS “I Was Made For Loving You”

Six years later, I was talking with Stanley – who turns 70 on Jan. 20 – and their song “I Pledge Allegiance to the State of Rock ‘n’ Roll” came up. Me, playing devil’s advocate, asked, “Isn’t rock ‘n’ roll sometimes in a very sorry state?” 

“I can only define rock ‘n’ roll in my terms,” Stanley said. “What other watered-down, contrived agenda others may have, has no bearing on what I consider rock ‘n’ roll. I think I walk the walk besides talking the talk. After 25 years and 70 million albums, in the dictionary I would expect to see my picture next to `rock ‘n’ roll.’ ” (The Recording Industry Association of America put that figure at 75 million in 2017.)

KISS laid it all on the table. “Obviously,” Stanley said, “subtlety is not in our vocabulary.”

Although they were eligible in 1994, KISS didn’t make it past the guard keepers and naysayers of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until a 2014 induction.

Arenas are where KISS lived and breathed (fire) for four-plus decades, which is not to say there weren’t some down years with smaller venues, different players in the band – look KISS is Paul and Gene + two others, plain and simple – and lesser albums to tour behind. (Certainly, the original lineup with guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss is the best-known and most fondly remembered.) Quite frankly, KISS never surpassed those first three LPS – KISS, Hotter Than Hell and Dressed to Kill – and, much like The Ramones, songs from that early batch were what the faithful really wanted to hear. And they were rewarded as such.

I first saw them at the Bangor (Maine) Auditorium in 1976, part of their Alive double album tour; I spent some pretty snappy Q/A time with Gene and Paul (sans makeup) after the gig. And at that pre-punk point in time, I was a pretty big KISS fan. I liked the glam/horror show costuming, the posturing and strutting and I liked those first three KISS studio albums a lot, with the best of those tracks comprising “Alive.” Hard rock with pop hooks, a bad attitude, massive pyro, blood vomiting … what more could a fella want? And I got the humor, too. At this point, I certainly wasn’t viewing KISS through the ironic dumb/fun/guilty pleasure lens I later did.

 

 

After that 1976 show, I remember going a bit existential, asking them about their signature song, “Rock and Roll All Nite”: “If you’re rock and rolling all night and partying every day, really, what’s the difference there? Where does one stop and the other begin?” They both looked at each other and me, a bit perplexed. Don’t think it had ever crossed their minds. I’m not sure they had an answer, nor, really did the question require one.

Partying for Paul and Gene was not the usual trifecta of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Obviously, the first part remained in the mix, very high up in the mx, and the third part they sang about relentlessly. (They even covered Argent’s “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” at that club show I saw.)

As to drugs, Simmons told me, “I never got the public’s fascination with cigarettes, booze, and drugs. The idea that you’d want to get drunk, have a headache and not be able to get it up – I don’t get it and it costs money. Getting high numbs your feelings and, as far as I’m concerned, I’m so happy I have a taste of smell and touch.” 

Stanley upped the ante to talk about rock star OD’s and the public’s fascination with them: “The idea of somebody getting a vicarious thrill watching me walk on the edge of a building and secretly hoping I jump is of no appeal to me. Being a dead legend sucks. I’m real clear on who I am and I do the dancing. Nobody else pulls the strings… If drugs don’t kill your body, they kill your spirit and your soul. Look around: The message is clear.”

And then there was the night in February, 1989 when Stanley tried to pick up my girlfriend …

We were backstage following a solo gig at another Boston club, the Channel, a 1500-capacity venue where KISS’s co-leader was taking a break from his No. 1 cash cow and slumming it. Or not. But when Stanley made his overture, my girlfriend smiled, flattered no doubt, but politely said no thanks and I probably smiled too, thinking ‘Well, it is Paul Stanley after all – what do you expect?”

 

VIDEO: Paul Stanley and Eric Carr on MTV 1989

I’m pretty sure a non-plussed Stanley chalked it up to the “Nothing ventured, nothing gained philosophy” that was no doubt shared by his longtime partner in crime, Simmons, whom Stanley referred to as his “brotherly companion.”

Stanley and his backing band were on a sweep of the clubs, which, for Stanley, was just his second time through these sized venues. KISS had hit it big after only one such jaunt. It’s fair to say that the bulk of KISS’s audience was/is/always will be teenage boys. So, there might have been something strange about Stanley bringing the show to the clubs, as part of non-KISS, but KISS-related, tour, for a gig that can only be caught by the 21-plus crowd? But then again, no matter what the age, don’t we all become teenage boys again when KISS is singing about the pleasures of “Cold Gin” time again? (I don’t mean to exclude women/girls here, though I’ve always seen the KISS Army, those active or retired, as mostly of the male gender.)

“It’s important you keep as much in common with your audience as possible,” Stanley told me. I asked if self-imposed rock star distancing was one of the negative effects of superstardom. He didn’t quite answer that but said, “You have a different sort of edge, one where, when you achieve success, your edge is to maintain success. The challenge is to sustain what you have.”

And the show was fun down-time, KISS songs and solo songs done sans makeup. Stanley unearthed three ravers from his 1978, self-titled solo album, and played a batch of ’80s-era KISS standards: “Crazy Nights,” “Lick It Up,” “Let’s Put the X Back in Sex” and more. Also: A couple of fun, dumb, late-’70s songs: “Love Gun” and “Detroit (Rock City).”

Paul Stanley KISS: Paul Stanley, Casablanca Records 1978

“I’m safe within the confines of the band,” Stanley said, “but I think everybody should work as a solo artist and this is much more intimate than an arena.”

Without doing any algorithmic search, Stanley had an acute sense of the KISS crowd and why they continued to tour. “The majority of our audience is a real mainstream rock ‘n’ roll audience, basically in their 20s that has no connection to the ’70s and that experience. They come purely to see if this holds up to what people consider contemporary or current. If we were purely about nostalgia, I’d still be home. Everybody knows I’m too rich to go out if I don’t like doing this. Not only am I in the band, I’m one of the biggest fans. I believe in Superman. I look in the mirror and I see him.” 

KISS is, or has been, allegedly, on tour for the final time – it’s called The End of the Road World Tour – but word came January 19 that COVID-19 has struck the band again, with Stanley and Simmons testing positive.  Five upcoming dates – Milwaukee, Dayton, Hartford, Raleigh and Daytona Beach have been pushed to May.

 

VIDEO: KISS “Lick It Up”

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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