Friday, January 12, 2018

My silver-painted face

KISS signs first recording contract with Neil Bogart's Casablanca Records, on November 1, 1973
In his 2011 autobiography No Regrets (co-written with Joe Layden and John Ostrosky), Ace Frehley sifts through decades of drunken, drug-ridden shenanigans, blackouts, Guardian Angel-vouchsafed impaired driving; groupies, brushes with the law, stays in therapy and rehab, professional lows and highs, excesses of all kinds, to tell the story of a left-of-center, lazy kid from The Bronx who had only one ambition in life: to be a rock guitarist in a wildly popular band. Against unlikely odds, Frehley satisfied that ambition a thousand-fold.

As always, I find myself most interested in the early chapters of a rock star's memoirs. Frehley's stories of seeing the Who, Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Mitch Ryder, and other giants in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his hilariously lucky propensity to find himself backstage often, are loaded with the kind of wide-eyed, fanboy, rockist, beer-soaked details that are still clearly dear to him. Similarly to Keith Richards's Life, Frehley regularly brings his musings (you can hear the borough accent) back to his great love: rock and roll. He admits that his favorite memories of playing in the dysfunctional KISS are the early days, when the band hustled for gigs, made their own fliers, sewed their own costumes, learned how to put on makeup by trial and error, played for an audience of a dozen as if there were tens of thousands there, and stuck together as a band of brothers.

I especially like Frehley's description of personally buying the first KISS album. "We were doing things differently in KISS, putting the cart in front of the horse, creating a brand, with a unique marketing concept before we'd even developed a following," he writes.
So I guess it shouldn't have been a huge surprise that the first record didn't exactly take the world by storm. Hardly anyone knew who the hell we were, or why we were wearing this ridiculous makeup. Was the band a joke? A gimmick?

No, man. We were dead fucking serious. But it took some time to convince everyone else.

On that February day I walked into (the now-defunct) Alexander's department store on Fordham Road in the Bronx, right across the street from Fordham University. Alexander's stood near one of the busiest intersections in the borough. There was always a crowd hanging out nearby, and the traffic in and out of the place seemed never to slow. I'd been shopping at Alexander's since I was a little kid—bought a big chunk of my album collection there. So you can imagine how I felt walking through the store, my heart racing as I headed to the music section. You can imagine what it must have been like for a guy who had bought his first Hendrix record—and his first Led Zeppelin record, his first Who record—in this very spot to suddenly be thumbing through the stacks of vinyl, looking for a record of his very own.

And there it was, staring out at me from a wall of new releases:


I picked it up, held it for a moment, flipped it from back to front. I smiled and laughed a little as I looked at my silver-painted face, gazing stoically from the upper right-hand corner.

Then I walked to the cash register, pulled out a ten-dollar bill, and paid for the record without saying a word.

Alexander's department store, Fordham Road, The Bronx, New York


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