Part Four: The Breakup
Like most first loves, it wasn’t meant to last.
I broke up with Kiss in 1980. I probably should have ended it sooner. After the honeymoon highs of “Alive!” and “Destroyer,” the romance continued for a while with “Rock and Roll Over” (late 1976) and “Love Gun” (’77). A reserve of goodwill carried me through the spotty solo efforts released simultaneously by each member in 1978. But by 1979, the flame had started to fizzle. The next album, “Dynasty,” featured the Top 40 hit “I Was Made for Loving You,” a woeful attempt at disco. The poppy follow-up, 1980’s “Unmasked,” made almost no impression. I listened to it maybe one-and-a-half times and I couldn’t tell you the name of a single tune on it. And its tantalizing title—implying that the perennially disguised rockers might expose their true faces behind the makeup, something fans had buzzed about for years—was a tease. They kept the masks on. (Although they would follow through with the reveal a few years later and it wasn’t pretty.)
Our band of brothers broke up too. In the summer of ’77, my family moved from Nashville to Atlanta and I left behind my comrades in Kiss-dom, James, Randy, and Steve. But even before that, the bond among the four of us had faltered. Steve was dealing with “problems at home”—that vague description was all we ever heard or knew—and drifted away. And I fell out of favor with James and Randy after I crashed my mini-bike with Randy on the back and he chipped his tooth on my helmet. Parents got involved, dental bills and recriminations ensued. James sided with Randy—they were friends long before I came into the picture. We continued to hang out and swap Kiss news on occasion, but the incident definitely weakened our friendship. After the move, we didn’t stay in touch.
In Atlanta, with no sidekicks to share my obsession, I might have made a fresh start. Yet I clung to Kiss a little longer. Entering a new high school at 16 and meeting new people was stressful, so it’s no surprise that I persisted with my old, ingrained Nashville habits. I saw Kiss play in Atlanta on the “Love Gun” and “Alive II” tours. My fun-loving uncle went with me to one of them—can’t remember which, but I know we had a blast. As time marched on, however, I began to feel more at ease in my surroundings and I made new friends with different interests. Electrifying music by the likes of The Clash, Elvis Costello, and the B-52s began to turn my head. I grew to think of Kiss as kid’s stuff best left in the past. The albums that had once consumed my every waking moment now languished un-played in my increasingly diverse record collection.
And honestly, the band made it easy to stay away. The ‘80s were a lost decade for Kiss. First, Peter left, or was canned, depending on who is telling the story. Then Ace split to go solo. Their replacements, including Eric Carr and Vinnie Vincent, were decent enough players, but the chemistry just didn’t gel and their bland new characters—Carr adopted the nondescript persona of the Fox—lacked the mystique of Peter’s Cat and Ace’s Spaceman.
Then Kiss finally did decide to ditch the makeup and show the world that they were… four average-looking dudes. And that’s being kind. What an anticlimax! The music in turn became faceless in a way that it hadn’t been before. Songs like “Lick It Up” and “Heaven’s on Fire” could have been churned out by any number of ‘80s hair-metal groups. Perhaps due to restlessness, Gene tried his hand at acting in various B-movies and TV cop shows, where he displayed virtually none of the charisma that oozed from him in his rock star day job. Concert attendance plummeted. By 1992, these once mighty stadium fillers had downsized to small theaters like the 1000-seat Center Stage in Atlanta.
The late ‘90s brought a welcome resurgence to the band’s career. Gene and Paul re-recruited Ace and Peter, as hired guns only this time, for a worldwide reunion tour. They slapped the face paint back on—thank God—and promised a hit-heavy set. News of the tour kick-started my long-dormant affections and I knew I had to be there. My friend Mike and I scored tickets for Kiss’ Atlanta stop. I pretended I was going ironically, but secretly I yearned for a repeat of the thrill of that first experience in Nashville.
I got a repeat, alright. Aside from a few costume and set tweaks, the concert was exactly the same as it was in 1976, down to Paul’s between-song patter. Spectacular, yes, but a rote spectacle. Mike and I clapped perfunctorily and yawned more than once. What did I expect? I was a grown-up now, with a grown-up job, grown-up worries, and at least relatively mature musical tastes. This magic show wasn’t for me anymore.
So I moved on, for good this time. But as with many bright-burning bouts of teen ardor, an ember still glows faintly inside me. Any Kiss-related memorabilia I chance upon elicits a warm whoosh of nostalgia, and coming out publicly as an erstwhile acolyte has netted me some groovy gifts. I’ve received a Kiss grocery list from a dear friend, which gives me a chuckle as I’m shopping for my kale and quinoa. (Reality: bacon and ice cream.) Another pal gave me a Kiss mug for Christmas; I drink coffee from it every Friday morning like clockwork, a ritual for which I have no sound explanation. And yet another gifted me with a bottle of Kiss cologne, which I wear—well, never, because frankly it smells suspiciously like Off mosquito repellent. But the thought was lovely and the bottle design is super cool.
Indeed, I’m into Kiss tchotchkes far more than the actual music these days. Sure, it’s fun to hear “Rock ‘n’ Roll All Nite” on oldies radio or watch a YouTube video every now and again. (Check out this performance clip from the deeply weird “Paul Lynde Halloween Special.”) But sitting down and listening to an entire album? I can’t imagine these middle-aged ears could endure it. And my original copies of “Alive!” and the others are long gone now anyway. Recently I’ve rekindled my passion for vinyl and I adore exploring the used record shops around town. I’ll flip through the new arrivals bin and spy a copy of “Love Gun” or “Destroyer” and that inner ember flares. I’m tempted to buy it, but then I think about putting it on my turntable at home and the temptation ebbs.
Can you love a band without actively listening to its music? The relationship I have with Kiss at present is far different from the one I have with, say, R.E.M., whom I fell for back in college and have been sweet on ever since. I can pull out “Murmur” or “Document” now, decades later, and still get enormous pleasure listening to it. Then again, I’ve just written nearly 5,000 words on Kiss, easily, and I’d struggle to do that with any other musical act. So the band must mean something to me. But maybe it’s not Gene, Paul, Peter, and Ace that I harbor a lifelong fondness for so much as… Doug, James, Randy, and Steve. Those four teenage amigos, hunkered shoulder-to-shoulder around the stereo, listening to “Alive!” for the first time, totally owning Halloween in their homemade Kiss costumes, and pumping their fists and slapping each other on the back at the “Destroyer” concert, the dazzling stage lights reflected in their wide eyes.
I love those kids, loving Kiss.
Read the entire series, beginning here.