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KISS and the guys behind the mask

Today is the publication day for KISS rocker Gene Simmons’ new book On Power: My Journey through the Corridors of Power and How You Can Get More Power, a title that seems purpose built for SEO key word optimization. In case you didn’t notice, the book is about power. I’ll have some thoughts on the book itself later this week. But for now, let’s consider a burning issue about the current composition of the band itself.

For folks who aren’t geeks about the group like me, I’ll take a moment to explain that drummer Eric Singer and guitar player Tommy Thayer wear makeup associated with original members who departed years ago. Amongst the hardcore KISS fanbase, this presents a significant philosophical dilemma.

Chuck Klosterman once wrote that “the use of keyboards and synthesizers is the Roe v. Wade of 80’s metal.” Well, Singer and Thayer appearing in previously established make up is the Roe v. Wade of KISS fans. It’s a big enough deal, and I’ve written enough about KISS, that I thought I’d actually jot down my thoughts on the subject.

For the majority of you, go about your lives. For the hardcore, and for what it’s worth, here is why I don’t care who is behind the mask.

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With my first KISS purchase, at about eight years of age, I realized I had been had. I loved the band and the pit of embarrassment didn’t diminish my adulation one bit. Nevertheless, there was a part of me that didn’t argue when my aunt said, “I think we got ripped off.”

I was born in 1972. My first KISS records and eight tracks were gifts. I didn’t know about them beforehand. The debut record and Hotter than Hell came out in ’74 when I was still in diapers. Clearly I wasn’t making any sonic investments at that age. Dressed to Kill (still one of my favorites) and Alive! followed in 1975 and in the bicentennial year when my brother had pneumonia and we spent a great deal of time in the hospital, Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over were released. I was five in 1977, still a bit young to be purchasing Paul Stanley’s exhortations to pull the trigger on his Love Gun.

But by May of 1980, I was not quite eight and worldly enough to somehow know that Unmasked was being released. It was the first time I knew a KISS product was coming out, the first time that I knew I had to have it on the exact day it went on sale, the first time that I and I alone would make the decision to get this brand new product.

Not that I could afford it. But my beloved aunt who thoroughly indulged my budding musical passions purchased Unmasked at the TG&Y store. We were going to a nearby lake for some time on the beach and fishing with my uncle. The record was called Unmasked and the marketing had, at least to a little kid from Bourbon County, Kentucky, suggested that the poster inside the record would actually, finally, at long last show my heroes in KISS sans makeup.

On the drive to the lake, I pulled off the cellophane and whipped out the poster, which turned out to be nothing more than a reproduction of the cartoon cover.
My aunt who had painted my face in KISS makeup, who had made artwork and paintings depicting my rocking idols looked over from the driver’s seat and said, “I think we’ve been ripped off.”

I was disappointed, but not really upset. On some level, I knew that it was all part of the game. The writer in me now examines my memories of that day and wonders if it’s overkill to ascribe some significance to the fact that I left Unmasked in my aunt’s Cordoba on that warm south Georgia day and the disc dramatically warped in the heat.

Over the years, I’ve become just about as educated about the band as anyone who didn’t actually play or work for the group. I’ve written about KISS extensively and interviewed many of the members. And with the expansive library of books and historical records about the group, we’ve all learned a great deal.
As educated adults, we know that Alive! isn’t quite so alive. I don’t mind overdubs, so learning that the group polished up the concert recordings in the studio doesn’t bother me. We now know that session players were appearing on KISS records as early as 1977. We know the band was basically broken in ’78 and that the solo records were a desperate attempt to salvage the group. We know that original drummer Peter Criss’ voice was not heard in the 1978 television movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, he only played on one track on ‘79’s Dynasty, and didn’t appear on Unmasked in any musical shape form or fashion.

So what you learn by being an educated KISS fan is that the “classic” lineup really only existed in an untainted form for three years. After five years, Criss wasn’t there at all. In our collective nostalgia, we feel like the classic lineup was together for ages. But in reality, it was a pretty short run.

Admittedly, it was one helluva short run. The songs recorded and played live during that classic era are what we hear in our heads when we think of KISS. There is no denying that.

But there is also no denying that there has always been a sort of shell game with the masked rockers. I do not believe that I am any less of a fan when I say that. All of which leads me to proclaim that guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer’s involvement today really doesn’t bother me.

In the interest of full disclosure, Thayer and Singer have both been pleasant and welcoming to me. I interviewed Thayer (along with Frehley and eighties KISS axe master Bruce Kulick) for my book Power Chord: One Man’s Ear-Splitting Quest to Find His Guitar Heroes. Possibly, I am biased by their treatment. But instead of criticizing two hard working dudes like so many Internet commenters, I’m more inclined to applaud their work ethic. In an era when so many “performers” are spoiled Instagram celebrities doing nothing more than posing with their free luxury goods, I am refreshed by the “do whatever it takes” attitude expressed by Thayer and Singer.

I do not find my attitudes about KISS make me any less of a fan. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are heroes of mine. I do believe they, more often than not, strive to give the fans value for their buck. I do believe they are grateful for their careers and that they honor their fanbase in a manner that is unique and admirable. But they’re not saints in terms of being aloof from making an easy buck or capitalizing on an easy marketing ploy. I’m no longer the eight-year-old kid who held out hope that Simmons literally could blow fire and fly. Even as a child, I realized that Simmons and Stanley were the bosses of the band and now that I’m an adult, moderately cognizant of the ways of the music business, my eyes are open to what I get when I chose to be a consumer of the band. And what I get is a good time, created by good musicians, building off of a good history.

All of which is to say that in this fan’s opinion, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the roles of Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer as they diligently strive to continue the original magic created in just three to five short years, over three decades ago. Our memories of the band are more extensive than the actual golden age of one-for-all-all-for-one glory days of the band.

1 Response
  • Heather Quinlan
    November 15, 2017

    I confused Eric Singer with Eric Carr, so then I was really confused. Great post!

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