Part Two: The Army
Among the small core group of friends that I’d made after moving to Nashville as a young teen, James was the most adventurous. He always did things first. He had the first girlfriend. (Though I tacitly sat out that race for reasons which would become clear to me a few years later.) He smoked the first cigarette, drank the first beer, heard “Stairway to Heaven” before any of us, thanks to his older brother’s record collection. But he wasn’t a juvenile delinquent or a bad influence in any alarming way. With blonde wavy hair, a crooked grin and a gregarious demeanor, he was basically a good Southern boy. Just a touch more fearless than the cadre of quaking 8th-graders he hung around with.
When I confessed to him my cowardly retreat from the “Alive!” album cover– detailed in Part One of this series— James vowed to check it out for himself. It’s weird now to think that he couldn’t look it up online or say “Kiss albums” into his phone and have it appear within a nanosecond. No, in those days you had to track stuff down via old-fashioned shoe-leather sleuthing. Or in this case, sleuthing via James’ brother’s van. After what probably involved some begging and a promise or two to assume household chores, James got his bro to chauffeur him to the Harding Mall, where he followed my directions to the back of the head shop/record store and found the album. And as I’d hoped he would, prayed he would, he bought it. He went home and played it and reported its awesomeness to me the next time I saw him at school. We made plans to listen to it together on the following Saturday with two other neighborhood friends, Randy and Steve.
The weekend came and the four of us gathered at James’ house in his rec room. We plopped ourselves in front of the stereo console, Charles Chips and Cokes at the ready, as James put side one of “Alive!” on the turntable and lowered the needle. Crowd noises emanated from the speakers, growing in volume until an anonymous, highly excitable announcer bellowed, “You wanted the best and you got it! The hottest band in the land, Kiss!” Then, piercing screams and cheers, a swaggering guitar riff, an explosion – had to be stage pyrotechnics– and we were off. For a double album, it seemed to zip by in no time. Aside from a drum solo on side three that dragged on a little too long, most of the tunes clocked in at an easily digestible three to four minutes. They bore appealingly succinct titles– “Strutter,” “Black Diamond,” “Cold Gin”– and were nearly identical in structure and theme. Crunchy, catchy guitar riffs supported shout-along lyrics touting sexual prowess, bacchanalian drinking habits and general bad-ass behavior.
We were instantly smitten. Before this momentous listening party, James, Randy, Steve and I were pretty close buds. After it, for a time, we became an inseparable band of brothers. Kiss was now the focus of our relationship. We all procured our own copies of “Alive!”, of course, and dedicated as much of our allowances and lawn-mowing money as possible to Kiss-related paraphernalia: T-shirts, posters and patches, lunchboxes, you name it. When my family went on vacation to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I was thrilled to find a Kiss t-shirt that I hadn’t yet seen in Nashville in one of the town’s tourist-trap shops. I bought it and when we returned home, I wore it to school. Envious stares tracked me through the halls. Kids were like, “Where did you get THAT?” That was by far the highest my cool factor has ever been.
When Kiss’ next album, “Destroyer,” came out, we all got that too. Again, the cover was breathtaking, the music formulaic and, to our young ears, perfect. And we all enrolled in the Kiss Army, the band’s official fan club. One of the few artifacts that I’ve hung onto from this fervent phase is my Army memorabilia folder, complete with “induction” certificate, where I long ago scrawled my name in crude Bic pen letters on the provided blank line.
For Halloween, we dressed as… who else? James got to be Gene because he had claimed that right with his trailblazing purchase of “Alive!” I chose Paul, my favorite band member after Gene; Randy was Peter and Steve was Ace. Our costumes and accessories, cobbled together in James’ garage with his dad’s woodworking tools and in our moms’ sewing rooms, were DIY in the extreme. For my platform shoes, I sawed off chunks of plywood, nailed them to an old pair of desert boots, then spray-painted the boots black. My “guitar” was also plywood, with an inlay of white poster-board, courtesy of the local dime store. My “black leather” pants? Tights pulled over an old pair of cut-off jeans. And my top was a black mock turtleneck cut down the front to the navel, hemmed into a deep-V to show off my hairless, barely pubescent chest, then outlined with glue and glitter. My mom did my make-up and teased my hair. She was, and is, a way-cool mom.
We went to a neighborhood Halloween party that night, where we were the kings. Everyone wanted to know how we made our outfits! We also hit up some houses for candy, shocking our neighbors senseless. It’s for sure my favorite Halloween of all time. Afterwards, I kept the components of the costume for a while. The platform shoes sat on the floor of my closet, neglected under successive piles of dirty clothes. The turtleneck top lingered on a hanger above, its glitter gradually flaking off until the time—likely a couple years later when my family was preparing to move to Atlanta—the entire costume was bequeathed to the rubbish gods. I’m not sure what happened to the guitar.
There is a picture somewhere of the four of us, snapped pre-Halloween party by mom in the foyer of our house, posing in all our regalia. We look magnificent. I’ve thought about that photo often over the decades and I’ve tried and tried to find it among my belongings, but so many years have passed between then and now and I’ve relocated so often, packing haphazardly each time, that the photo has gone missing. Hopefully it’s stuck in a book somewhere and one day I’ll take that book out of a storage box and I’ll flip to the right page and gasp with relief. For now, I only have a photo of me alone, taken in that suburban Nashville hallway before I ventured out with my mates. No longer merely a doughy, dweeby teen, but a painted and preening rock god to rival the real Paul Stanley. If only for a night.
Stay tuned for Part Three, “The Show,” to be published soon!