Part One: The Cover
I saw it. It scared me. It changed me.
Such a bizarre and chaotic picture, way more in-your-face than the other less intimidating album covers on that record store wall on that fateful day. Four alien figures, faces painted like characters from a fantastical comic book, posing imposingly amidst a maelstrom of smoke and lights. Heretofore an innocent youth, I laid eyes for the first time on “Alive!” by the pop-metal band Kiss and something stirred inside me. Something… well, wicked I guess is as good a word as any. Even before I heard the songs on the album, (which, being an adolescent boy, I would love of course, but more on that later) that cover gave me a keyhole peek into a new, thrilling, and altogether terrifying world. Not a world of Top 40 pop like I had known previously—the most raucous record in my collection up to that moment was “Jive Talkin’” by the Bee Gees—but a world of loud, vulgar, dangerous rock and roll.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if it had been, say, an Olivia Newton-John album cover that caught my attention instead that day. Would I be a more sensible, grounded adult now? Would I have never smoked or drank, never stayed out all night, never suffered the morning-after one-two punch of a raging hangover and regret? Would I have good posture and a head full of sunny thoughts, and would I not be tempted by all the bad, unhealthy fun life has to offer? But I know that’s an absurd notion. Clearly, Olivia wasn’t my destiny. Kiss and I were meant for each other.
To get to that life-altering moment, though, we need to head to one of the least rock-and-roll places on the planet: the suburban mall.
Both of my parents worked throughout my childhood and when I turned 12 or so, I was left to look after myself, happily, after school and during breaks in the school year. Afternoons were spent binging on “Brady Bunch” reruns or riding my mini-bike or palling around with neighborhood chums. Every so often during my long summer vacation, I would take a city bus to a mall, sometimes with a friend but usually alone. I preferred to go by myself because then the itinerary was my own. I could visit my favorite stores, eat what and where I wanted, even go to the movies if I had a mind to. I’d take my allowance and make a day of it.
In the mid- ‘70s, when I was just about to turn 14, my family moved to the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. The Harding Mall became my go-to hangout. It was the easiest mall to get to via bus from my house and it had all the amenities: A Spencer Gifts, a movie theater, a Farrell’s ice cream parlor—best ice cream parlor ever—and, most importantly, a record store. (As an aside, a while back I Googled “Harding Mall” and found it had been demolished and a Wal-Mart built in its place. Naturally. I bet if I Google it again in a few years, I’ll discover it’s now a pile of pulverized bricks and mortar with an Amazon delivery drone hovering over it.)
I can’t remember the name of the store, but I do recall that records weren’t its only wares. It also sold hippie home decor – big, leafy, ‘70s-friendly ferns and rubber trees lined the walls and macramé pot slings dangled from overhead, giving the place the feel of a Marin County earth mama crash pad. And a display case at the front of the store was chock-a-block with incense burners, small, finely carved wooden boxes with sliding lids, and odd glass knick-knacks with long cylindrical mouthpieces and bulbous bases.
Bongs. Yes, it was basically part head shop, but I was too naive to deduce that then. Also, I only had eyes for the records. On the back wall, from floor to ceiling, albums beckoned from wire racks. To me, it was an art gallery. You could linger for hours over the wondrously evocative details on the covers, the mysterious Western imagery of The Eagles’ “One of These Nights,” the vivid feline-and-fowl crest adorning Queen’s “A Night at the Opera,” the chilly angularity of the prism on “Dark Side of the Moon.”
But those are grown-up descriptions. At 14, I just thought, “Wow! Cool!” Yet when it came time to put my money down on a record, I’d retreat to the store’s singles bin. I wasn’t quite ready to dive into the full-album experience yet. The only LP I had ever bought was a greatest hits compilation by the group America.
And one day there it was, placed among the Linda Ronstadt and Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder long-players, but most assuredly standing apart. Check out the photo at the beginning of this story. Is that a cover designed to provoke a reaction or what? You’ve got Peter Criss hunkered behind his drum kit in the background, coolly aloof in his cat-like make-up, but with sticks raised, ready to pounce on the beat. There’s Paul Stanley on the right, the star-eyed seducer striking a purse-lipped pose, hip cocked and exceedingly hairy chest exposed. Front and center is Ace Frehley in his glam-rock spaceman get-up, wielding his guitar like a fire hose, his knees bent as if he’s been blown back by the ferocious whoosh of his riffs.
But who draws your eye first? Gene Simmons, the laughing demon on the left, tongue flicking, sinister tendrils inked over his eyes, giving him the expression of a gleeful fiend. Gene’s bass is thrust upwards, fusing with a lightning-bolt “S” in the band’s illuminated logo, which beams through the stage smoke above the foursome. An adult may view this garish tableau with scorn, but for a teenager with a Y chromosome? I can tell you firsthand, it’s irresistible.
Yet—and this is kind of an anticlimax– I didn’t leave with “Alive!” tucked under my arm that day. It was a double album and the price would have blown my allowance budget. No Farrell’s ice cream for me! Plus, it freaked me out a little, honestly. As intrigued as I was, I still needed a brave scout to check out this frightening four-sided monster to make sure it wouldn’t, you know, melt my brain or anything.
That’s where my friend James came in.