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His name is Scott McClusky. But you can call him Ace -- that is, with the understanding that "I'm not trying to be the new Ace Frehley, the guy who got drunk, wrecked his car and quit the band. I'm trying to be the space guy (Frehley's Kiss character)." McClusky speaks with a let's-get-this-straight tone filtered through a chuckle. "People ask me, 'Why don't you guys write your own music?' Well, I tell you, Kiss didn't write their own fuckin' music. They had writers, you know what I mean? Almost every album -- outside writers, outside musicians, studio drummers, studio guitar players. Gene played guitar on a track; Paul played drums on a track. Those guys switched instruments so many times that by the time they finally finished the packaging and put it out on the market, it was polished and candylike. That's why it appealed to the children like it did, and the kids bought it all up."
But are the kids all right? They're all grown up now and want to relive old concert experiences, despite pesky little drawbacks: You say your favorite group doesn't tour much anymore? No problem. That's where McClusky's band Hotter than Hell comes in. You say the lead singer is dead? No problem. The post-Beat mysticism of Jim Morrison, who died in a Paris bathtub at age 27, hasn't gone down the drain, thanks (or no thanks) to Jim Hakim. For 18 years, he's appeared as Morrison in the homage band the Back Doors, carrying the torch of a tortured life. With Kiss, things are a little more upbeat: Hotter than Hell doubled for them in the upcoming movie Detroit Rock City, in which they play Kiss circa '78. In one scene, explains McClusky, 5,000 extras showed up, some of them wearing '79 or '82 Kiss T-shirts. "Gene (Simmons) would walk around and say stuff like, 'That guy in the back -- he can't be in the film with a Dynasty T-shirt. That hasn't happened yet.'" Beaming, McClusky adds, "This is the only band ever endorsed by Kiss, handpicked by Gene Simmons."
The Back Doors can't make the claim that they're approved by Morrison. And chances are Hakim keeps away from hotel bathtubs. Still, as an evocation of the Doors singer, he's relit that fire. Initially, though, it was a match made in hell. "I really had to train hard for a couple of years just to get that sound he had," Hakim admits in a voice that evokes the late Wally Cox more than a late rock star who flashed his cock. You'd think there'd have to be a natural talent -- a predisposition toward being a Lizard King -- to go along with the training. "It takes a little bit of both," says Hakim. "It comes naturally, but you have to work on it, too. Morrison was a great rock & roll singer, just exceptional. There are a lot of different ways he sang. He had such a great voice -- soothing. Strong and soothing."
Hakim thinks that looking the part is a bonus. "The main thing is the sound. The sound is the hardest thing to master." As far as artistic satisfaction goes, he has a home studio where he records his own songs. That's his first love, but Hakim says playing Morrison is "the next best thing."
Ah, the next best thing -- that seems to be the built-in stigma of tribute bands. Some say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But the general feeling about rock-group simulation is that it's an artistically vacant way of having someone else's overnight success, a vampiristic ploy that usually sucks. But the source itself can be vampiristic -- both Kiss and Jim Morrison relied on dark, fiery imagery. Describing Hotter than Hell's show, McClusky says, "We've got the blood-spitting, the fire-breathing, the guitar-smoking, the pyro-exploding." He balks at the idea that tribute bands consist of artless performers paying tribute to their own wallets. "What we're doing is the ultimate re-creation. It's not a tribute band. I don't even like that term."
For both Hakim and McClusky, paying tribute to their respective icons lies somewhere between a job and a religion. For instance, you can tell that Hakim worships Morrison for his singing, not his dubious poetry or sexual charisma (well, that may come in handy) -- and, most important, he doesn't think he is Morrison. The worship is that of a fan with the chance to live in his hero's shoes, not his skin. "It's the next best step to being original," says Hakim, "when you portray someone you really respect." McClusky analyzes his role (literally) in the ongoing Kiss phenomenon: "With any other band, like Elvis or the Beatles, you are actually portraying another human being. You are trying to look like that human being. With Kiss, they were the first incarnation of the tribute Kiss. If you think about it, they picked four characters -- the Demon, the Star Child, the Cat Man and the Space Man -- they picked those characters to become them, and the real guys put the makeup on and became the Demon, the Star Child, the Cat Man and the Space Man. So they were the first tribute -- to themselves. They created alter egos, and I've taken over one of those alter egos. It's like the pope. If that guy dies, another guy comes in, and he's still the fuckin' pope."
Hotter than Hell performs at the Galaxy on Saturday, March 27. The Back Doors play Mississippi Nights on Saturday, April 3.