We owe the last thirty years of rock ‘n’ roll to Kiss. I write this as someone who does not have a single Kiss record in his collection. I always considered them evildoers, those who “whet their tongues like swords,” shooting their love guns “suddenly and without fear” at the blameless. As much as possible, I ignored them. This was foolish. The joyless, primitive hard rock of the Star Child, the Cat, the Space Guy, and whatever Gene Simmons’s blood-spewing, fire-breathing ghoul was supposed to be, has been present at the inception of nearly every significant musical development of the last three decades. From headbangers to hair bands, punk to grunge, kiddie metal to mall rats, whatever rock music has put hearts in throats and fists in the air, it is the faces—or nonfaces—of Kiss that laugh from the inside.
Touring relentlessly behind their first three poorly produced albums, Kiss developed an audience that soon became as important as the music itself, and then Alive!, their powerful 1975 live album, went gold.
Responding to Alive!, Robert Christgau wrote:
There are those who regard this concert double as a de facto best-of that rescues such unacknowledged hard rock classics as “Deuce” and “Strutter” from the sludge. There are also those who regard it as the sludge. I fall into neither category—regret the drum solo, applaud “Rock and Roll All Nite,” and absorb the thunderousness of it all with bemused curiosity. The multimillion kids who are buying it don’t fall into either category either.
From those multimillion kids came the rock stars of the late 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. The Ramones, R.E.M., and Nirvana all started out playing—or attempting to play—Kiss songs. The Replacements, the most important band of the 1980s, actually recorded “Black Diamond.” And with “Beth,” Kiss’s string-laden hit single of 1976, the career-making power ballad genre was born.
Another one of those kids was Eddie Vedder.
Rereading Kim Neely’s Five Against One: The Pearl Jam Story (the story up to 1998, anyway), I am struck again by how fantasies with makeup and costumes contributed to the rock we’ve come to know. Lead guitarist Mike McCready began his career in a high school Kiss cover band. Rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard made Kiss-style platform shoes from two-by-fours.
My best friend Mark—tall, crimson-haired, talented—was another enlistee in the Kiss Army. He used to say he was actually on Alive!, screaming his lungs out. I heard the album countless times, drunk or sober, at parties, in bedrooms, on eight-track tape players while speeding down country roads. As a budding critic, I was bound to despise Kiss. I would lean in doorways, plastic cup in hand, and sneer at those of my generation who thought such inane antics constituted real rock ‘n’ roll. Even as Mark would put his hair in a Kabuki topknot, apply whiteface, and strike poses in his sister’s clothes, I could only sigh. Why couldn’t he turn his limited interest to actually learning songs so we could start a band?
My frustration was with the ahistorical stance of the average Kiss Army member. Theirs was not a movement born of reverence and a desire for continuity. It seized; it shoved its codpiece in your face and demanded submission. Blue Oyster Cult was attempting the same thing, but they lacked one essential element: the makeup.
What made Kiss loveable was the permission they gave teenagers to hide their selves behind a mask. They offered a readymade rock ‘n’ roll fantasy with all the trappings of glitter and glam. You no longer needed to do the work of actually remaking yourself, as Bob Dylan or Lou Reed or Patti Smith had done; now you need only remake your face. It was playful. It was phony. And it was the most real thing many of these kids had ever done. The future Joey Ramone joined his first band by responding to an ad in the Village Voice that read, “Let’s dress up and be stars tomorrow.”
Blue Oyster Cult was too arty, too literate. Kiss’s appeal was their dumbness. They impressed not with subtlety but with spectacle. They pulverized the sensitivity of the singer-songwriters, and sang of “love” with the barest cleverness. Never mind, Christgau would point out, that their idea of love equated sex with victimization “in a display of male supremacism that glint[ed] with humor only at its cruelest.” The four characters in Kiss were as understandable as Saturday morning cartoons, and their music as crunchy as the cereal that went with them.
Whether or not Mark had contributed to Alive!’s pumped-up audience tracks, we did see Kiss together. Soon after the album took off, they played Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa, as most touring acts did. I remember the bedazzled look in Mark’s eyes as this minstrel show of a rock concert exploded before us. Pocket notebook in hand, I scribbled suitably sarcastic observations and waited it out.
Kiss fans dismissed rock critics. They did not sit home nights reading Mystery Train. They didn’t do their homework. They didn’t care about Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, or Elvis, only about what their legacy could do for them now. Kiss’s message had been, Anyone can do this; it’s easy, as long as you conceal your real identity. The rockers who emerged in the light of Alive! were pleasure-seekers of an endless moment. They learned to play their instruments as quickly as possible (often gigging before that process was completed), daring anyone to say they were not stars. They commandeered rock’s Cadillac before they knew how to drive. No wonder the whole thing ended up a mangled, bloody mess.
The most poignant attestation of Kiss’s influence on 1990s rock comes from Pearl Jam’s former drummer Dave Abbruzzese. There had long been a tension between the success-enjoying Dave and brooding, complaining Vedder. Neely writes that, more than anything else, “what drove a wedge between [Abbruzzese] and Eddie was the singer’s fear of anything that might cause him to be outfitted with the dreaded ‘rock star’ tag.” “Eddie dressed up like Kiss just like everybody else,” Dave laments.
And he didn’t do that imagining himself standing in his hallway. He did it so he could close his eyes and picture the world in front of him. I dreamed of that, we all dreamed of it. But all of a sudden it wasn’t politically correct to admit it. It just wasn’t part of the marketing plan.
Something had changed since the cereal days of Alive! Those kids who had gone on to form bands had to lead them through gay pride, the ERA, Greenpeace, and the DIY integrity-based movements of latter-day punk, hardcore, straight edge, alt, indie, and more. Kiss had become an embarrassment, and ambition was now a stigma sure to cost you street cred. To be taken seriously, you needed to distance yourself from the very remaking of your face that got you into rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. It was back to remaking yourself. Dues paying—or the appearance thereof—was again in vogue. No one loves an instant star.
Moreover, such post-Kiss rockers as Vedder and Bono and John Mellencamp had made the crucial mistake of connecting with their audience. Kiss hadn’t bothered. In fact, not doing so has been vital to their longevity. Better to hook your audience, selling them a lifetime of product, than to communicate with them. Communication can break down; commerce is forever. Those who followed did not hide their faces. Knowing instinctively what comes of inauthenticity, Eddie and his contemporaries risked relationship. They have been left holding that messy bag of complexity and compromise ever since.
My friend Mark also moved on from the easy answers of makeup and smoke bombs, though he never did harness his guitar playing enough to make it through even one song without wandering to a next. Even Kiss lightened up. In the second edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, David McGee praises their 1981 concept album Music from “The Elder” “...for the way it seeks to reach the heart rather than the crotch.”
Regardless of such maturing, Kiss still inhabits that diabolical realm they cut for themselves long ago, tempting fledgling artists away from the ugly realities of life to a party-every-day superiority. “Those of low estate are but a breath,” wrote David (Psalm 62). So often we feel our lowliness and long for more, forgetting his next line, “those of high estate are a delusion.”
I’ve had sixth grade Kiss fans who have never heard of the Velvet Underground tell me how their lives were saved by rock ‘n’ roll. The band’s material remains a rite of passage for young guitarists, while the four once-menacing characters are as beloved as Mickey Mouse. Halloween favorites, Kiss items sell to kids the same age as their original fans and younger. Less a successful brand—which Simmons strove for—Kiss is more like an enjoyable, nonthreatening children’s television show in syndication. They survive on reruns—just look at how many collections, live albums, and repackagings accompany their constant touring. Have they even released an album of new material since reapplying the makeup in 1996? Does it matter?
Mark overdosed years ago, but I’m sure he would be pleased to know that Kiss’s thunderous call for submission has been granted. You win, my brother. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Alive! into my home.
Pearl Jam is currently on tour in support of their new album, Backspacer. Kiss is currently on tour in support of their back catalogue. J. D. Buhl is currently living in Philadelphia.