During this era, even though we lived in different states, Danny and I spent several summers together. My mom was instrumental in this. She always felt it important that Danny and I retained our bond. She often paid for his travel and welcomed him into our home for weeks or months at a time during the summers. But as we grew up, with the physical distance between us, then high school, then college, and girlfriends, and all the rest, despite my mom’s valiant efforts, Danny and I grew apart.
I saw KISS several times during the ‘80s, but it was never the same as that first time, that night with my mom and dad and brother at the old Chicago Amphitheatre. It wasn’t just the absence of the makeup and costumes and the identities, there simply will never be the alchemy that existed with the original KISS lineup. The four broke guys who rehearsed in a threadbare loft in the Flat Iron District of New York.
Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were the visionaries with unstoppable drives and the work ethics to make it all happen. But Ace Frehley and Peter Criss with their antics, addictions, and unpredictability, brought danger to this rock and roll dark carnival. Criss was more of a jazz drummer than a hard rocker, and the early KISS catalog had swing and swagger as a result. And as Simmons himself said of Frehley when the band was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, “His iconic guitar playing has been imitated, but never equaled by generations of guitar players around the world.” To this day, most KISS fans can literally hum Ace Frehley’s guitar solos.
I saw KISS at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin on 29 September 1990 and they seemed to recognize, fully, the seismic power of their past. The setlist that night was loaded with early KISS classics that had the crowd standing on their feet. Except one dude who I will never forget. He had consumed way too much alcohol in a pre-game warmup and was passed out on the lawn of the massive southern Wisconsin music venue. He was literally face down, hugging the dirt. As KISS tore into “God of Thunder”, even that drunk guy, lying in a grizzly puddle of his own puke, tapped his foot to the beat. KISS fans are hardcore.
In late February 1991, I received one of those phone calls you never want to receive. Sort of like the telephonic rendition of a solemn man in full military dress regalia walking up the sidewalk to ring the doorbell. Danny’s mother was on the end of the line, hesitant to tell me…something. And I knew right there. He was gone. A car accident on an icy Minnesota highway. Our friendship was so much more than KISS, yet KISS was always omnipresent. Devastated, I lit some candles that night and put on KISS Alive! Danny changed my life in innumerable ways. I miss him to this day.
Around that same, very tragic time in early 1991, as KISS prepared to reunite with Destroyer producer Bob Ezrin to begin work on a new album, drummer Eric Carr was given the extremely rare and mortifying diagnosis of cancer of the heart. This was a devastating blow to the band. Carr had the reputation of being the most accessible member of KISS, the good guy, always having time for fans, always a great sense of humor, bringing his all to every show.
KISS moved forward recording the next record, Revenge, another return to their hard rock foundation. The first song recorded, a reworking of Argent’s “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” appeared on the soundtrack to the film, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, without Carr on drums. He was too sick to play. When it came time to shoot the music video, Carr insisted on performing, despite his declining health. It would be his last work with KISS. Carr died at age 41 on 24 November 1991 after suffering an aneurysm and then a brain hemorrhage. He died on the same day as Freddie Mercury, legendary frontman of Queen.
Throughout the video for “God Gave Rock and Roll to You II”, there is footage of classic makeup-era KISS strewn throughout. I didn’t know it then, no KISS fan did, but it was another indication, despite the terrible loss of the mighty Eric Carr, a foreshadowing of something nearly all KISS fans wanted. A reunion of the original band.
The dark year that was 1991 didn’t end there. The story took a much sadder, more unbelievable turn for me, in the summer of 1991. My mom was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. At the University of Chicago, seeking treatment options, my mom was told by the doctor “to get her affairs in order.” Driving home that day with her, we were destitute.
There were nine months of chemo and radiation. Her hair fell out. She lost weight. She felt sick. But she kept her sense of humor and her hope alive. She went into remission for a brief time, around Christmas of that year, but the cancer came back in the spring of 1992 and it spread. Everywhere. My rock star of a mom, Barbara Jane Joy Weller, passed away on 10 April 1992.
This was the first time in my life where KISS, or any rock ‘n’ roll for that matter, gave me no comfort whatsoever. After the loss of Danny, then my mom, blasting “Shout It Out Loud” was not what I needed. If anything, it was a time to listen to blues and old country and melancholy pop music that ached because I ached and I didn’t know how to feel better and I really didn’t want to. I just wanted to be sad. I needed to be sad. There’s no getting around it.
As I worked day by day to reassemble some of the shattered pieces, I eventually returned, at some point, to listening to KISS. As I reached the “anger” stage of grief, I was listening to Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses on regular rotation. The loud and raucous guitars, the sheer angst of the music, Kurt and Axl served as my bridge back to KISS.
The timing was perfect.
In 1995, KISS, comprised of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Bruce Kulick and Eric Carr replacement Eric Singer, witnessed the phenomenon of “KISS conventions” cropping up around the world. Similar in nature to Star Trek conventions, these gatherings were a celebration of all eras of the band, a nerdgasm of rabid fandom, cosplay, vendors selling KISS collectables, T-shirts, rarities, bootleg audio and video, and artwork. KISS tribute bands that looked like inadvertent horror movie clowns performed, and occasionally past KISS band members appeared for signings and Q and A sessions. It had been 20 years since KISS Alive! had put the band on the pop cultural map. Fans had grown up and were now nostalgic for the soundtrack to their childhoods. Ever the capitalists, Simmons and Stanley saw the convention phenomenon and launched official “KISS Conventions” that included an acoustic performance by the band featuring seldom, if ever, performed songs. It was a chance for the KISS Army to be up close and personal with the band.
In Los Angeles, fans were shocked when original drummer Peter Criss joined the group to perform two songs. After years of bad blood and pot shots in the press between Simmons and Stanley and former founding members, Criss and Frehley, it would appear that a détente was in order. And then, on August 6, the event fans clamored for transpired. While taping a Halloween edition of MTV Unplugged, original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss joined Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley on stage. The audience lost their minds. Could a full-fledged reunion be far off?
KISS never won a Grammy award and, for 40 years, never made the cover of Rolling Stone.
But who cares? They have a ridiculously fervent fan base that dresses up like them and have taught their own children to dress up like them, too. In the U.S., they are second only to the Beatles in gold and platinum albums. To this day, they have sold well over 100 million albums worldwide. The music establishment never got KISS, looked at KISS as a novelty act, and snickered at the over-the-top marketing campaign that is the unstoppable KISS machine. And this is why on February 29, 1996, a stunning development occurred at the 38th Grammy Awards, the bastion of the music establishment. The four original members of KISS—Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss—the only other fab four besides the Beatles—appeared alongside Tupac Shakur to present the award for “Best New Artist” to Hootie & the Blowfish (does it get any weirder than this mélange?). The showstopper? KISS appeared in full 1977 regalia—the costumes and the makeup.
The energy was atomic. KISS was back.
The KISS reunion tour kicked off on 29 June 1996 at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. The show—nearly 40,000 seats—sold out in an hour. The chemistry between these four members, the Demon, the Starchild, the Spaceman, and the Catman, was undeniable, even to a KISS neophyte jumping on the nostalgia cherry-picker. No other KISS lineup can come close to this chemistry.
I saw the band on the sixth show of the tour, at the Houston Summit, alongside my brother and dad. My mom would have loved it. Danny would have loved it, too.
As the curtain dropped, amidst the fire and the smoke and the chaos, the four were reunited after 17 years. They stormed into “Deuce”, the classic, raw, glam-rocking song from their first eponymous album—the lead track from KISS Alive! The energy was super-charged, on stage and in the audience, a 90-minute epic summer heat lightning storm. As I watched the original four, in shape, having fun, high-fiving each other, I thought about that old Thomas Wolfe quote, “You can’t go home.”
You know what? You can.
It has been 25 years since the original four members reunited. The second coming of KISS was, for most members of the KISS Army, one of the great highlights of the band’s nearly 50-year run. The lineup of Simmons, Stanley, Frehley, and Criss stayed together four years on the reunion tour, then recorded the album Psycho Circus and toured behind that. Then they embarked on the “Farewell Tour”, the last time the original four performed together. Criss, at 75, has retired. Frehley tours with his solo band who can play classic KISS songs and make them sound like classic KISS.
As for KISS itself? The machine is still going, well-lubricated, led by founding fathers Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, the Lennon and McCartney of stadium rock. They are joined by Tommy Thayer on guitar and Eric Singer, who, somewhat controversially to KISS Army lifers, have assumed the roles of the Catman and the Spaceman. It is this incarnation of KISS that embarked on the “End of the Road” tour, marking, as the band is billing it, the “Last Tour Ever”.
There’s good reason to believe this hype, despite the KISS casket, KISS condom, KISS anything-you-can-think of branding hyperbole of Simmons and Stanley. These guys are pushing 70 and, let’s be clear, Keith Richards ain’t wearing 40 pounds of armor and seven-inch platform shoes, flying to stadium rafters, breathing fire, zip-lining out to the crowd, and doing it all in kabuki makeup madness. Neither is Elton. Or Billy Joel. Or Sir Paul. Or Aerosmith. Or any other icon from the stadium of excess that gave of us KISS, the self-proclaimed “hottest band in the land.”
In March 2019, my wife suggested we see KISS on this final tour and that we take our three young daughters to experience it, too. I was reluctant. Part of me was fine having seen the band for the last time with all four original members. I saw KISS five times during the reunion era. But I thought about it. My sweet girls had painted their faces and learned the lyrics to “Shout It Out Loud” and performed for one of my birthdays. They were already well familiar with many of the songs. This would be their first stadium concert.
In the end, my wife bought five tickets for me to say goodbye to the band that had been with me throughout my life. I had gone with my mom, dad, and brother to the first show, and now there was a chance to introduce my own family, my wife and trio of daughters, to this rock ‘n’ roll spectacle. This celebration of life.
Standing in the upper deck at the United Center, wearing KISS T-shirts and noise-reducing headphones, my girls were in awe when the black curtain with the KISS logo dropped and the members of KISS lowered from the ceiling of the stadium upon exhaust-spewing pods, flames exploding across the stage. Granted, it wasn’t the original four, but it was the two founding fathers, and two reliable and talented, long-standing “new” members. The sell-out show was KISS on steroids, an over-the-top enhancement of their legendary ‘70s spectacle. In order to live up to the myth, the only choice is to out-do it. And Simmons and Stanley are, from this KISS Army lifer’s point of view, the finest showmen in rock history. Full stop.
No band engenders the level of opinion, pec-thumping bravado, anger, animus, and all-out LOVE as KISS. No band. Between KISS Kruises, countless KISS podcasts, and countless people with KISS tattoos, I believe this truth to be self-evident. Visit a fan forum like KISSFAQ.com and go see for yourself.
Like Star Wars, KISS elicit, shall we say a particularly impassioned range of opinions from its fanbase. Perhaps this is because the George Lucas space opera and the super-heroic rock band came of age at almost the exact time with the same generation of fans. But more likely it’s because, truth be told, the fans of both universes, Star Wars and KISS, are a throng of overly-opinionated diehard A-holes who refuse to enjoy their entertainment without espousing their “wisdom” on the evolution of their pop-cultural obsessions. I am certain that, at times, this abundance of annoying know-it-alls, with their unsolicited opinions and “advice” must drive Simmons and Stanley wild and crazy in the worst way. I firmly place myself amongst this ilk, by the way. Star Wars and KISS fans can be super annoying, a scrubby mélange of walking encyclopedias.
And, so, of course, I am going to toss my own annoying opinion on the pyre as to how KISS can and should finally call it a day.
Prior to the arrival of Covid-19 in 2020, KISS announced the date of their final show for 17 July 2021, scheduled for a New York City venue to be determined. They posted a countdown ticker on their web site. But then the hellscape of the global pandemic ensued, the gall of a virus interrupting the almighty KISS! Now, with quarantines easing, and social distancing restrictions loosening, the KISS machine will fire up, one last time.
So here we go. My three possible scenarios for how KISS should end it all.