Hanging out with…The Hottest Brand in the World, KISS!

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It is lunchtime, on a July day in Vancouver, and I’m standing a few feet away from KISS, who are in full makeup.

It is surreal, of course, to be standing a few feet away from KISS in full makeup.

Imagine if the Muppets materialized in front of you, but the Muppets were bigger, uglier, Jews from New York who were wearing cod-pieces, platform boots, leather harnesesses, blue-black feathered hair, lyrca and wings. Gene Simmons sticks out THAT TONGUE at you and throws the double rockhands. Imagine how much that would blow your tiny mind. Then multiply that amount of surreal by the time you had your face painted as Peter Criss in 1982, add to it the time you met Paul Stanley out of makeup in 1996, then divide it by the time NOW when you stuck YOUR TONGUE OUT to see if it measured up to Gene Simmons (answer: “I don’t think so; keep practicing”) and you’re halfway there.

KISS are awesome.

Kiss, photo Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com

KISS are awesomer still for not just kicking off their 40th (!!!) Anniversary “Monster” tour in BC (the first show was held in Victoria), but donating $10K to Sophie’s Place, a new child advocacy centre located in Surrey, near Vancouver, named for Gene’s daughter and the centre’s patron, Sophie Tweed-Simmons. Sophie’s Place will provide a safe environment for kids up to age 18 who have been physically, mentally or sexually abused.

“When you’re in a position such as we are,” explained Paul Stanley,  the impeccably media-trained, quote-generating, star-faced mouth-piece for the KISS organization, “the idea of charity or philanthropic work is not an option, it’s an obligation.” And he’s right. It’d be ridiculous if KISS didn’t put the benefits of decades of canny business and marketing acumen to good, altruistic use. So good on ‘em. Gene Simmons Rockhands, photo Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com

KISS are not just a machine with an Army of fans, they are, as one musician friend put it, “a system.” An army themselves. They may rock and roll all night, and but the partying every day probably more closely resembles conference calls, paperwork and shrewd moves. In fact, in the week leading up to this, KISS’s crew set up a pop-up shop – the KISS DEPOT – in downtown Vancouver, rammed full of t-shirts, iPad and phone covers, a pinball machine, makeup, masks, toys, Lego, posters, DVDs, kids stuff, Demon-faced Hello Kitty toilet paper, and oh yeah, some music.

KISS are icons for a reason; not just because they blew minds in the 70s with their big, dumb rock songs and epic blood-gushing, make-up-wearing, pyro-flaring live shows. They’re icons because they worked hard; KISS evolved from a band, into a brand. So in keeping with that notion, I find myself standing before KISS about to ask them something related to this. A question a hardcore fan friend wants to know. A question I want to know.

Some context, first.

For the 500th episode of the the Best Show, (a hilarious podcast hosted by Tom Scharpling and featuring Superchunk’s Jon Wurster), there was a bit in which Tom finds himself talking to a scientist at a laboratory, who happens to be firmly rooted in the not so distant future, about 20 or 30 years from now. It is a time where Eddie Vedder is president. And Tom wants to know what the future’s like. To paraphrase, the lab assistant says that he’s planning on going to see “one of the KISSes” live. And Scharpling asks “what do you mean, ONE of the KISSes?” and the guy replies that at any given moment in time, there are FOUR versions of KISS bands on tour across America.

It was funny…and prescient. If former KISS road manager Tommy Thayer could take on Ace Frehley’s guitar role and Spaceman makeup, and Eric Singer could take on Peter Criss’ Cat and drum role, then could KISS themselves see a time when KISS still existed, well, without KISS?

I asked.

“Paul, you’ve talked in the past about how KISS will live forever. And I think we all want KISS to live forever. But can you imagine a time when you might have actually different personnel in KISS?

Paul: Totally! Totally!

Tommy: We already do have different personnel in KISS. Me: I’m talking about in 2115 when there won’t be any original guys, no Paul, no Gene.

Paul: I think I’m really great at what I do. But I don’t think that there isn’t someone else who can do what I do at least as well and add something new to the band. There was a time where everybody said, ‘Oh, it’s got to be the four original memebers’. Well, those people are 50% wrong now, and that will play out over time. I would be proud to be replaced at some point because it only means that KISS is everything that I hoped it would be. And I’d like to sit in the audience and see the greatest band, without me in it. But not anytime soon.”

Hmmm. I see. But! But! But! The tongue! The moves! What about the fans who grew up knowing the ONE KISS, not the one of four KISS live, photo Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com KISSes? What about the MUSIC, man? It matters! But could he actually be right? Could it work?

Two nights later, I’m standing amidst a crowd that hasn’t filled the arena (maybe 50% of the fans DO care who’s behind the makeup?). Kids, women and men who should never wear fishnets, are excited to be there and dress up like their heroes. And I am too. The Monster stage show is as ridiculous and wonderful as you’d imagine.

“You wanted the best and you got the best, the hottest band in the world…KISS!” Paul belts from above, as the band descends from the sky on the platform of what is supposed to be a giant metal spider. They launch into “Psycho Circus”.

I am the only woman in the photo pit for this, and my face is being warmed by the pyro flames spitting up behind Singer as the guys play “Shout It Out Loud”. Gene and Paul literally move to the lip of the stage and pose for each photographer. I grin as I shoot. “Let Me Go, Rock n’ Roll” is next and Gene goes does his shtick: throws the horns, strums a chord, sticks out his tongue. He breathes fire during “War Machine” and the flames rise higher. Stanley’s on-stage banter is more high-pitched and New Yawwwk than two days ago in person, as he tries to raise interest in new songs. There is none.  He relieves everyone by eventually introducing old ones.

The guys around me in the stands happily smoke pot and fist pump the sky. “Rock and Roll All Nite”, “Detroit Rock City” “Lick it Up” “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” are brainless, cotton-candy fun.

Like I said, KISS are awesome.

There are currently eight different Cirque De Soleil shows happening in Vegas at the same time. So the system that Paul imagines, The Greatest Band in the World, Living Forever, may in fact work. And while in 2115, no person will be able to stand in front of Gene Simmons and have their tongue assessed, no-one will benefit from Paul Stanley’s majestic chest and no-one will hear the songs in quite the same way (bah! music!)… you wanted the best? You got the best. The Hottest Brand in the World… KISS! \m/

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