KISS and tell8/13/2014
My first memory of KISS is from second grade in Dubuque. My best friend at the time was a kid named Toby Benson, and Toby’s parents were much cooler than mine. While my dad was listening to Neil Diamond and Billy Joel, Toby’s parents were taking him to Ratt concerts and letting him bleach his mullet.
One day, Toby came into our classroom clutching something close to his chest.
“Hey man,” he said. Toby was always calling everyone “man,” which, in retrospect, seems like a hilarious thing for a 7-year-old to be calling another 7-year-old. But at the time, it was seen as further evidence of how cool he was.
“Hey man,” he said, “check THIS out!”
Toby opened his arms and revealed a lunch box. But where the rest of us early ‘80s second graders had Pac Man, Smurf or H.R. Pufnstuf lunch boxes, Toby’s parents sent him out the door with a brand new KISS lunch box, and it blew my tiny pre-pubescent mind away.
KISS was like a cartoon come to life. The band members were shinier and bigger and weirder than anything that we had been led to believe could actually exist. They looked like big, shiny monsters, but there they were, in a real, color picture, on embossed aluminum. That was the day when I first realized that there were things in this big, crazy world that I wasn’t ready to handle.
I was kind of the child version of a British accountant, and there was nothing about this KISS business that seemed right to me. I went home that day to my Legos and the dulcet tones of The Osmonds. But from that day onward, I knew that KISS was out there, probably just around the corner, waiting.
On Wednesday, Aug. 20, KISS returns to Des Moines to play Wells Fargo Arena, along with Def Leppard. In the four decades between the KISS’ inception and that date, there have been 10 members, 55 albums, thousands of live shows, and merchandising opportunities that have surely passed beyond numbers that we have names for.
Through it all, KISS has been a highly polarizing and entertaining act. It is a band that not too many people sit on the fence over. But whether you love them — or simply love to hate them — it seems just about everybody has got a story about KISS.
So I set out to collect a few. Not everybody wanted to participate — if Gov. Branstad ever returns my call, I’ll throw his story online — but it turns out that, occasional defectors aside, the KISS Army is alive and well in the capitol city.
James Biehn, local guitar god
“My only anecdote about KISS is that my mom was pregnant with me when she took my cousins (ages 4 and 5) to see KISS at Vet’s Auditorium in 1976. My dad was the maintenance guy, so they got in for free. Gene Simmons would have a fit about that today.”
Lou Sipolt Jr., host of KCCI’s “Great Day” and former morning host at 94.9 KGGO
“The first time my brother Mike and I heard KISS was probably high school,” Sipolt recalled. “We got the Kiss ‘Alive!’ album, and, man, we thought that was the coolest album we’d ever seen in our lives with the fold-out cover and the flames.”
Though he originally entered college to pursue a career as a veterinarian, Sipolt would find himself quickly drawn into the world of radio. Music wasn’t his first passion (or even his second, being somewhere further down the list, well behind motorsports and animals), but radio had a grip on him.
“My first radio show on KNRO at Cornell, I called REO Speedwagon ‘Rio-Speedwagon,’ ” he recalled. “On that same show, I messed up introducing (KISS’ 1976 single) ‘Beth.’ I think someone told me at some point that it was a ballad. I didn’t really know anything about music at the time but was pretending that I knew everything about everything, so I said, ‘Next up is KISS in ballet form.’ ”
Clutch, 94.9 KGGO DJ
“I saw KISS as a youngster with a neighbor kid and his dad at the old Met in Bloomington, Minnesota,” Clutch said. “Alive!” had just dropped in record stores, and I remember how fascinated I was with the costumes and all that was happening on that album cover. I remember thinking, ‘I have to go and check this out when they come to town.’
“I was excited as well as a little nervous. The build-up leading to this show was unbelievable. On show day, to our surprise, the party actually started in the parking lot. I’d never seen that before. When we got inside to our seats, I was overwhelmed at the incredible energy that was building up for that show. Finally, the lights go down, then those magical words: “You wanted the best! You got the best! The hottest band in the world… KISS!” Big explosion, and there they were. To this day, I remember how entertaining that show was from beginning to end.”
Like others, Clutch says its onstage prowess is what sets KISS apart from most other bands.
“Nobody had ever seen anything like that or even heard of anything like that before,” he said. “Alice Cooper was a master showman back then with all his killer props, however KISS had taken the stage show to the next level. I believe, regardless of their personal politics and inner band issues, that they have always been dedicated to giving their fans the biggest bang for the buck. They have a very cool stage show and a fun, recognizable catalog of hits, which have turned out to be the soundtrack to many key points in peoples lives.”
Chris Knauf, former board member, Des Moines Music Coalition and Des Moines Social Club
“My very first memory of music,” he said, “or at least of watching an actual rock band perform, was upstairs in my parents’ room, watching TV while they had company over. I can’t remember what the show was — ‘Midnight Special,’ ‘Solid Gold,’ hell it could have been ‘Showtime at the Apollo’ for all I can remember — but I distinctly remember watching this band with fire and blood and drums and guitars and being in complete awe.”
Knauf’s life could have gone down a very different path at that point, but his parents were much closer to mine on the “cool” spectrum than to Toby Benson’s.
“Like any good Catholic mom and dad would do, my parents thoroughly shielded me from anything KISS-related for the remainder of my youth,” Knauf said. “I wasn’t reintroduced to the band again until I heard ‘Beth’ off the ‘Beautiful Girls’ soundtrack. Then, any potential for renewed fascination was completely exhausted after discovering the forbidden devil band I saw years before wrote a song that was used to back a scene featuring Michael Rappaport removing snow from Martha Plimpton’s driveway as a sign of love and letting go.”
But, just like in the movies, all’s well that ends well.
“I love the song ‘Beth’ now,” Knauf said in conclusion.
Kevin Gogerty, bass player, Psycho Circus
“My first memory of KISS is 1976,” the 44-year-old Gogerty said. “I was 6 years old, and my older brothers had a few KISS albums. I remember looking at the ‘Love Gun’ cover for hours while listening.”
Thus was born a lifetime of fandom. But even though Gogerty’s devotion to the band might run a little deeper than most — his band, Psycho Circus is a KISS tribute act that takes its name from a KISS album — it was years before Gogerty was able to see the band in the iteration that many fans consider to be its greatest.
“I didn’t get to see them live with makeup until the Reunion Tour 1996/97,” he said. “VEISHEA 1997. I was star-struck when that big curtain dropped. Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter in a full KISS bombastic show just blew up everything. I felt like that 6-year-old staring at that album cover all over.”
You’re in the Army now
The KISS Army — the name colloquially used to describe the band’s fan base as a whole — is the official name of the band’s fan club that was started in 1975 in Terre Haute, Indiana, by teenage fans Bill Starkey and Jay Evans. Original membership dues were $5 a year, and included a bucket of SWAG with, among other things, an iron-on “KISS Army” patch, a 22” x 35” poster and five wallet-sized photos of the band.
At its peak, the fan club boasted more than 100,000 members. After being largely inactive for most of the ‘90s, the KISS Army fan club was re-launched with moderate fanfare in 2007 and currently boasts such luminaries as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among its ranks.
Jeff Bucknor, 40, Des Moines
“People never just assume you’re a KISS fan,” Bucknor said. “I mean, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that matters to most people, what kind of music you like.”
“But look at me,” said Bucknor, who works as an actuary for Principal and pretty much looks like it. “I guess I don’t fit the mold. When you’re like, ‘I like KISS,’ it’s just a tiny piece of small talk. But when you say, ‘I spent $4,000 on a giant KISS coffee table book,’ they start to think you’re a little weird.”
Bucknor joined the fan club in 1985 when he was 12. He’s been a religious fan ever since.
“They’ve got a level of showmanship to them that’s just amazing,” he said. “I think that persona is just such a huge part of their appeal and their success; it’s what people respond to. When you go to a KISS show, you’re not really going to hear KISS perform; you’re going to see KISS. And that’s why the merchandise has always sold so well for them. KISS isn’t a band so much as a brand.”
Samantha Knight, former LAZER 103.3 DJ
“I remember being a little bit shocked the first time I saw them,” Knight said.
As a long-time voice for Everything That Rocks in Des Moines, Knight has had plenty of opportunities to hear and witness a ton of rock and metal acts. She doesn’t exactly consider herself a member of the KISS Army, but she definitely gets the band’s idiom.
“I was young (when I first saw them), so I didn’t understand,” she said. “(But) in my older years, I’ve developed an appreciation and respect for them. They’ve influenced SO many (bands).”
“One thing about KISS,” she continued, “even they will tell you they’re not the best musicians on the planet. But they are showmen and pretty much the best at what they do. Love them or hate them, they’ll kick the crap outta anyone when it comes to merch. And for that? Mad respect. I mean, the KISS Koffin for Pete’s sake! And God rest his soul, (former Pantera guitarist) Dimebag Darrell was the first to be buried in one. KISS were his idols.”
Time and time again, people’s stories came back around to the band’s showmanship. Whether on stage or off, the band and its component members have always had a flair for the dramatic and a keen sense for the moment. And of all the KISS members throughout the years, probably none of them honed those abilities better than bassist Gene Simmons.
“I never met the band until Indy car racing came to Iowa,” Sipolt said. “At the time, Gene Simmons owned an Indy car racing team. So, I was walking around pit row right before a race, and I turned around, and there he was. So I pull out my recorder and say, “Hey, Gene, I’m doing this thing for radio, can I get an interview?” He says yes, and, of course, as soon as we start the interview, the green flag waves. So he’s talking to me, giving this answer to a question, when all of a sudden all these big, loud Indy cars go screaming around the turn. He just stops, lets them all pass, then says, ‘THAT is real music.’ ”
“The rest of the guys in the band always had these kind of vague back stories for their makeup,” Bucknor said. “But with Gene, it just felt so much more fully formed. In the original lineup, people were like, ‘Oh, there’s Peter. He’s the cat. That’s cool.’ But with Gene, his costume always seemed bigger, his makeup was the most intricate, and it wasn’t just a name. You weren’t just like, ‘Yeah, he’s The Demon.’ You know? You were like, ‘Dude! He can spit blood and his tongue is really long, and he breathes fire, and they say he can fly! ”
“Being a bass player, Gene Simmons has been a BIG influence,” Gogerty said, “(So) when I met a few other KISS Army members who were starting a band, and they were looking for a Demon and asked me to join… my KISS dream hit a new high.”
“(I own) a replica Destroyer costume with the platform dragon boots to the battle axe bass,” he continued. “My wife and kids are pretty supportive when Dad puts on the makeup to play in front of crowds of people. KISS is a big part of who I am.”
As the KISS Army will readily attest, there’s probably no band in the history of history that has marketed itself quite as effectively as KISS. The band has its name and likeness on so many things, its doubtful the band itself even knows it all. And that’s served to make KISS more about image than overall technical ability.
“It’s almost got nothing to do with the music,” Bucknor said. “I mean, I love the songs. But look at it this way: KISS and The Beatles are both in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now wave a magic wand and swap their song catalogs. KISS still gets into the Hall of Fame playing “Back in the USSR.” I’m not so sure The Beatles do playing ‘Rock and Roll All Nite.’ ”
“You’ll have the people who say, ‘They’re not a great band, they’re just great marketers,’ ” Sipolt added. “But they did a great job. They rocked it. They played the music people wanted to hear, and their live shows delivered. Not only did they deliver, but they always delivered more than they promised.”
Toby Benson, 37, childhood best friend
I hadn’t actually spoken to Benson since I moved in the third grade.
“This is a weird phone call,” he said after I’d tracked him down, re-introduced myself and explained what I was doing.
“Yes,” I conceded. “Sorry about that.”
I ask him about the lunch box.
“They were just cool, man.” Toby Benson still calls people “man.”
“That makeup had a lot to do with it,” he continued. “When you’re a kid, you have this tendency to believe everything, you know? So when we were kids and you’d hear these kind of through-the-grapevine rumors, like, ‘Oh, nobody has ever seen them without the makeup on,’ your kid brain doesn’t think, ‘They’ve never played a show with no makeup.’ Instead, you think that they’ve literally had that shit on their whole lives. Then you start making up your own rumors, because you want to be cool, too. So then it’s not just that nobody’s seen them without makeup, it’s ‘I heard that a reporter broke into the dressing room one time before they’d gotten the makeup on, and they killed him!’ It all just adds to the mystique.”
Benson has a wife and a couple of kids of his own now. He said he is working for John Deere, which has always maintained a large facility in Dubuque. Before he hangs up, I ask if he’s still a KISS fan.
“Oh sure,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m a fanatic about it or anything, but that’s the music I grew up on, you know? So it’s always got those good memories. For me, anyway. And you know what else? Even if it’s not the greatest, most complicated music in the world, it’s damn catchy. You can write them off as being commercial and this kind of ‘harder side of pop’ thing all you want. But you can’t deny that when it comes to making a kick-ass rock song that will NOT leave your head, nobody did it better.”
And he’s right. For as complicated as the fans’ relationship with the band is — controversial lineup changes, the band’s decision not to play with Ace Frehley and Peter Criss during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and Gene Simmons’ recent comments on everything from the economy to former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling have all done their share to disillusion a number of fans — there’s no denying that the band has made some of the biggest, most memorable hits in American music history.
Gogerty, Des Moines’ own Demon, sums it up nicely:
“Even KISS haters will know at least one KISS song.” CV