By Todd Lancaster
Long before I ever enlisted in the U.S. Navy, I was in the army — the elite KISS Army.
Somewhere in the mid-to-late 1970s I was a card-carrying member of the rock band KISS’s fan club known as the KISS Army, just about the coolest group of pre-pubescents to ever to ever find the answer to most of life’s difficult questions were all contained in 12 inches of vinyl and a little white grease paint (and a $5 membership fee).
At 12 or 13 I discovered the rock group KISS and I was pretty sure my life would never be the same. For a teenage kid in suburban New Jersey, KISS was the answer to most of my questions. They were loud, they were simple, they spoke a language only teenage boys understood and when they were on stage, they came on like a charging rhino in heat.
In other words, I had found my tribe.
Now truthfully, KISS’s first three albums were not very good; they were essentially a bar band with a record contract, and until their album KISS ALIVE broke the band nationally, they were just an underground band in lower Manhattan.
And as they say, “only in America” could this group of unremarkable near-hippies invent a persona that made the world (of 14-year-olds) stand up and take notice. Between their comic-book superhero personas, 7-inch heels, fire-breathing, tongue-wagging, blood-spurting antics, KISS seemed to externalize everything I internalized as a kid who was waiting for his Clearasil to kick in.
I remember my mother walking into the bathroom one day as I was mixing every conceivable red food item (catsup, Jell-O, etc.) and household chemical to create a concoction that would flow like the blood that demon bassist Gene Simmons dripped out of his mouth before the encore. I think she is still disturbed by what she saw and is still hoping it was “just a phase.”
I doubt there was a week that went by where I wasn’t sporting a KISS belt buckle, T-shirt, or buying posters, KISS keychains (although I had no keys), a KISS radio or anything else that would eventually transfer my currency into a deposit at the First National Bank of Ace, Gene, Paul and Peter. At one point, I remember walking 2 miles to Teaneck, New Jersey, on a cold November day to buy the first issue of the KISS comic book. Why? Because each member of KISS donated a vial of blood that they mixed in with the red ink, duh.
Just like it was yesterday, I remember my mother ironing a KISS transfer on a T-shirt and telling me I wouldn’t even be listening to KISS in a year. I thought that was the craziest thing that ever came out of her crazy mouth; after all, being part of the KISS Army was a LIFESTYLE CHOICE.
Between their comic-book superhero personas, 7-inch heels, fire-breathing, tongue-wagging, blood-spurting antics, KISS seemed to externalize everything I internalized as a kid who was waiting for his Clearasil to kick in.
My middle-school music teacher, Mr. Walton, was just about the coolest guy in the world. On his classroom walls were posters of Queen, David Bowie and KISS, and he wore a Grateful Dead T-shirt over his shirt and tie on Fridays. He also told us that in 20 years Elvis Costello would be a legend (and he was right, for the most part). He taught basic guitar in music class, and every day I would find an excuse to get out of Spanish class early so I could be the first one in line to pick out the cheap sunburst-painted nylon-string guitar that looked the most like the one Ace Frehley played.
The funny thing is 40 years later, I would still rather play guitar than just about anything else, and I’m sure if my wife ever met Mr. Walton, she would have some choice words for him.
My mother was right; about a year later, I had moved on to Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Jethro Tull, the Stones and every staple of FM radio. I sold my KISS albums to my friend’s little brother and never put on the grease paint again.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, KISS also took off the makeup, fired band members and made some of the most painfully predictable and uninteresting “hair metal” ever created.
However, at some point in the early 2000s, they realized that there was a whole generation that was ready to relive 1970s junior high. So KISS put the makeup back on and has been cashing checks again ever since.
Recently, Sirius/XM satellite radio introduced a KISS Army station and my radio has been stuck there. I can’t believe how poorly produced the early stuff was or how blatantly misogynist most of the lyrics were, but nevertheless, it still makes me smile to hear “Detroit Rock City,” “Flaming Youth” or “Hard Luck Woman.” My 18-year old daughter doesn’t get it and unless you were part of that exact sliver of the Baby Boom generation, you wouldn’t get it either. I know one thing for sure: Junior high girls in 1977 didn’t get it.
Look, I get it; KISS was rock and roll’s version of the WWF, but for those who were part of that zeitgeist, there will always be junior high — and always a KISS poster on the wall next to Farrah Fawcett in your old bedroom in your parents’ house.