Friday, December 4, 2020

Larger than Life

For a long time I found it impossible to divorce KISS songs from the era in which I fell in love with them. A fourth and fifth grader during the year Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over were released, I came of age as a fan the next couple of years with Love Gun, Alive II, and Ace Frehley's solo album. I can call up in memory numerous songs from the mid- and late-1970s, be surprised by them online, or revisit them via archived digital copies of Billboard, and through they may import me back in time in either a nostalgic or an unpleasant way, no songs feel quite as inextricably linked to the age I heard them as KISS songs did. I can listen now to, say, "Cat Scratch Fever," which was released a few weeks prior to Love Gun, and though very much of its era, the song never feels quite as time- and date-stamped for me as "Christine Sixteen" or "Calling Dr. Love." Ditto Heart, the Eagles, Hall and Oates, Peter Frampton, any number of artists whose songs were all over the radio in 1976 and '77. Granted, those bands weren't wearing make up, spitting fire onstage, and pouring their blood into vats of red ink to illustrate their own line of comic books, yet a song's a song, a transistor radio at the public pool's the great leveler. KISS lived in another realm for me when I was a kid, larger than life, as much fantasy as sound. As such, the band was both elevated from their context—after KISS surpassed Slade, Alice Cooper, and the New York Dolls in outrageous spectacle, nobody was doing what KISS was doing—and imported deep into my DNA, where no other band lived, not even the Beatles. In his terrific memoir No Regrets, Frehley acknowledges that following the massive success of Alive and Destroyer, the band noticed younger and younger face-painted fans showing up at their shows, and Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley (and their accountants, presumably) were eager to play to them and pry many dollars from their parents. Frehley, for one, felt that such pandering was a death knell to his rockin' band. I was one of those kids. 

I turned my back on the band shortly after Dynasty was released in the spring of 1979; a newly minted teenager, I began looking for other, less childish rock and roll, a journey that led me from FM hard rock to New Wave to Punk and Indie, where I live today. A confession: for many years afterward I neglected KISS, which is odd because for a stretch there they were my absolute favorite band, an obsession shared with my younger brother. Marveling at the noise and spectacle of the songs and album art on Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over, we quickly bought Alive!—I'd remembered the radio hit from the year before, "Rock and Roll All Night"—which was the gateway to the band's first three albums, which my brother and I grew to love as much as Love Gun. I never saw KISS live, and, as I've written recently, could never seem to scratch together the allowance money to enlist in the KISS Army, but I truly loved the band and their songs—they were rocking, fun, and funny. Yet by the early 1980s I was done with them. Their songs stayed in the bottom drawer along with with my junior high essays and report cards. Sure, I'd occasionally play them with buddies or on my college radio show for ironic kicks, and I dug the grinning ways bands like Redd Kross, Hoodoo Gurus, and others subtly and not so subtly mined KISS for sources, but KISS failed to move me much after the 1970s (with the exception of Alive! and Frehley's songs and solo album which I've continued to love and crank since '78). The makeup-free era, the pandering MTV songs, the diminished cultural importance, my growing love for garage and punk rock all conspired to slot KISS in The Past, the Adolescent Past at that, where the songs I'd loved so much failed to transcend my childish immersion in them. 


Then in the early aughts I was in New York working on my book about the Fleshtones and hanging with my brother in his apartment in the East Village, when he pulled out our beloved KISS albums that he'd salvaged from our childhood. Through our tearful laughter and shared, intense nostalgia, we rocked into the small hours, much to the chagrin of his neighbors below, and the songs came back to me, shorn finally of their trappings from my childhood, stripped free of the makeup and costumes, as it were. I began to hear them again with fresh ears. They sounded enormous. Enough time had passed from my childhood that the songs had been freed from my memories, and I could again hear a young, smart, ravenous band and marvel at the blend of hard rock and theatricality we were lucky at the time to be deliriously blinded by. Lyrics that I thought were lame beyond repair now sounded evocatively, struttingly of-the-era. The hooks, the humor, the bad ass riffing, the gang choruses, Frehley's solos—wow, it turned out that KISS was a damn good rock and roll band in the 70s, before crass commercialism and lesser instincts took over, derailing the band's early hunger and primal drives as the spectacle grew brighter and brighter. Hey, a riff's a riff. Over the years I've been gathering on vinyl the KISS albums that I'd turned my back on, grooving again to "Room Service" (Dressed To Kill), "King of the Night Time World" (Destroyer), "I Want You" and "Take Me" (Rock and Roll Over), "Got Love For Sale" and "Almost Human" (Love Gun), "Larger Than Life" (Alive II). 

And the loose, swaggering, loosely bluesy "Got To Choose," a song I'm hearing for the first time all over again. 

Photo via San Francisco Chronicle.

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