I’ve found myself reading all sorts of musical biographies over the last few years. That trend has continued this year. Last year, I read Peter Criss’ and Ace Frehley’s memoirs. Peter was my first rock hero. I played the drums in the grade school band, and so I always imagined that if I was going to get into music, it was going to be as a rock and roll drummer. And I thought The Cat was cool! Needless to say, I never did pursue drums further; never did become a rock drummer; never did pursue music again until I was almost 50 years old, and then it was bluegrass guitar. (Go figure. 😉 )
Anyway…I read the Peter and Ace memoirs, and they certainly had the tone of two guys who had been tossed out of the band. I wondered what Gene Simmons’ and Paul Stanley’s stories were…but not strongly enough to go search out their books, if they even had any. And then I saw a book written by an outsider about the band’s early years. I thought this might give some good perspective about how the band…who had all sorts of reasons not to be taken seriously…got big in the first place.
Nothin’ to Lose looks at the band’s career up through the Alive! album. KISS’s existence had been touch and go until then. From their beginning, they could draw a crowd, but their album sales had never been up to expectations. KISS and their management finally decided that the best way to get their message across was to give the album-buying fans a taste of a live KISS show. The Alive! album was what really kicked their career into high gear.
All of this had happened before I became aware of the band. Alive! was released in 1975. Three albums were released between then and Alive II, which was their second live album and released in October, 1977. Alive II was their newest album when I really became aware of them in 1977 when I was 13. One of the first cassettes I ever bought with my own money was Love Gun, which had been released shortly before Alive II. KISS’s first album after I became a fan was Dynasty in 1979, which included their famous disco number, ‘I Was Made for Loving You’…which was the end of KISS for me. Disco was not permitted on my stereo. No way, no how. I moved on and discovered Rush with Permanent Waves. Woo-HOO! Anyway, I looked forward to reading about the rise of the band and what made them great. Yes, I admit…there was an element of personal nostalgia here as well.
One of the things making Nothin’ to Lose an interesting book was the format. It was written in the form of interview questions asked of the band, their crew, and all sorts of people who were around them as they created the band. It had the feel of actually talking with the participants in the KISS story.
The KISS story, as I understand it from this book and the Criss/Frehley memoirs, is about four guys with a solid vision for how they wanted to do music. They didn’t let themselves get sidetracked by people in the industry ‘who knew better’. (Well…until they went disco, anyway. 😉 )
The dream actually started with Gene and Paul. It was their vision of how the music would be presented in concerts that was the key to their success. For Gene and Paul, the music was always just one part of the show. When somebody gave Gene Simmons a new bass guitar and started telling him about all about the specs on it, and Gene interrupted with “Yeah, yeah, yeah…but how do I look with it?”, that tells you a lot about what you need to know. The theatrics for which KISS became renowned was foundational to the Simmons/Stanley vision, and Peter and Ace bought into it and went along for a great ride. Gene and Paul did have some songs written before Peter and Ace were added to the team, but I think it was Peter and Ace that gave the band musical credibility. However, it also seems to me that there was always tension between the businessmen/showmen of Gene and Paul and the musicianship of Peter and Ace.
One of the polarizing features of the band that finally broke up the original team was Peter and Ace’s substance abuse. Gene had a reputation as someone who stayed away from drugs, even marijuana. I have never seen any reason from anybody’s point of view to doubt that. I don’t know if Paul was as clean as Gene, but I think the evidence is pretty clear that Peter and Ace overindulged to the detriment of their health as well as their careers.
The one question that I am not so clear on…Peter and Ace both talk in their books about the control that Gene and Paul maintained with most of the major band decisions. It’s easy to see guys who already gravitated towards drugs to feel pushed even further towards them out of frustration with the band leadership. Then again, as Paul said in a recent interview “(T)here is a reason that defense attorneys don’t put alcoholics or drug addicts on the witness stand.” So…who knows? I can certainly see how Peter or Ace could go sulking into a corner to find a little solace in the bottle or with a joint because they felt ignored or disrespected, and then Gene or Paul getting ticked because the other guys are slacking off and trying to take even more control, causing Peter and Ace to do more drugs, leading to Gene and Paul exerting more control, until finally throwing Peter and then Ace out of the band. I think there is an element of truth in Peter and Ace’s stories, but how much truth…that I do not know.
Once KISS had the vision, the rest was all about hard work and not allowing themselves to get sidetracked from the vision. They would play any gig, anytime, anywhere, and they always performed their whole show like they were playing a huge hall. They never dialed anything back…lights, pyrotechnics, blood, fire…even if they were only playing for thirty people. They persevered. They found a management team that believed their vision would work, and they all chased the dream…and won.
One of the most positive aspects of KISS that I learned about from this book is the respect that all of the KISS members showed their road crews and opening acts. It’s common in the music business for a headlining act to take measures not to be shown up by their opening act. KISS faced a lot of this because their shows were always such over the top productions that other bands actually became afraid to follow them onto the stage. I mean, when all you’ve got is music, how are you supposed to look good after crunching rock and roll, and flames, and blood, right?
After KISS became a headlining act, they always made sure that their opening acts had plenty of time to warm up, and all of the equipment they needed. Sometimes they even made sure the opening act was fed! Reading the accounts from their opening acts, such as Rush, was one of the highlights of the book for me.
I do have to clarify one thing about them ‘never’ dialing anything back, and it shows a side of the band that we don’t usually get to see. There was one big show very early in their careers in Cadillac, Michigan. You really need to read the book for this whole story. It’s worth the price of the whole book. (Or use your library! I did!) But there was one thing in particular about the Michigan show that caught my attention. The entire town was turning out for the show…old and young…because the show was part of the homecoming celebration for the high school football team. Gene Simmons was talking to the high school principal before the show and saying what an awesome show it was going to be. The principal said something to the effect of “Gene, about the show. With all of the little kids who are going to be around, can we skip the blood?” Gene replied “No blood?” “No. No blood. And could you not play ‘Cold Gin’? I’m not sure that would be a good song for a high school fund raiser.”
And these masked demons, including Gene “Evil Incarnate” Simmons, skipped the blood and the gin for that show. How cool is that?
And I have to wonder if that principal really knew what any of KISS’s other songs were about.