As I waited for KISS to take the stage at Enterprise Center on Tuesday night, one of the final shows on the final leg of their final End of the Road Tour, I couldn’t help but imagine some young kid decades ago falling in love with KISS and therefore rock and roll music. That kid would be middle-aged by now, probably with teenage kids of his own, and here he would be on this night facing a full-circle moment. In a few minutes he would be, all these years later — incredibly, improbably — a few yards away from his childhood heroes, seeing them for the last time and therefore saying goodbye.
Let’s say that kid was 10 years old when he used his Easter basket money one day to buy KISS’ 1975 double album Alive at Wal-Mart, took the album home and played it on his cheap bedroom turntable for 1,000 hours straight, thereby dividing his life into two halves: before Alive, when Disney Read-Along Records and his mom’s Elvis 45s dominated his record player, and after Alive, when his room forevermore surged and swirled with gaudy guitars and howling vocals and riotous rock-altar anthems fueled by exploding amps and dripping with ungodly lasciviousness.
He’d never heard anything like it. These were songs about getting “Hotter Than Hell” and drinking “Cold Gin” and doing whatever the hell “Deuce” was about. He had to listen with his door closed. KISS was the first real rock music the kid ever loved independently of his parents, and it seemed to promise to unlock all of the mysteries that he couldn’t yet possibly understand about rock ‘n’ roll parties and flaming youth and strutters and makin’ love. There was no going back after this.
Of course, it was rendered more irresistibly thrilling that the music was made by eight-foot-tall superheroes who could breathe fire and shoot lasers from their eyes and teleport through space. The kid spent hours staring at the album covers and drawing pictures of Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter. He collected the trading cards, which discharged a singular smell known only to first-generation KISS fans and that scientists have since been unable to replicate, until he had all 132 cards, meticulously sorted from favorite to least.
This kid carried a KISS lunchbox, bought the comic books (rumored to have been printed with red ink made from the band members’ actual blood), played with the action figures, bonded with other KISS fanatics at school, sang an a cappella version of “Rock and Roll All Nite” at his fourth grade recital wearing his Peter Criss T-shirt, prayed in bed at night for God to grant him KISS superpowers for real and thought KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was probably the greatest motion picture ever made.
And let’s say the kid once wrote a letter to Gene Simmons, opening with, “Dear Gene. I’m your biggest fan. I like it when you spit up blood,” referring to the bassist’s notorious stage stunt. He imagined the Demon himself in full costume holding his letter and reading it and writing him back. He asked his mother to mail it for him. She agreed, stipulating that if he had said anything in the letter about Gene spitting up blood she would refuse to mail it. (The kid did not confess.)
For this kid, one imagines, the idea of actually attending a KISS concert seemed as likely as traveling to Jendell, the planet Ace Frehley was supposedly from. He used to stare in wonder at the back cover of Alive, which showed the crowd inside a packed Detroit arena waiting for KISS with two longhaired rocker dudes holding a homemade KISS sign. Those guys are probably all high, the kid surmised in awe. It all looked excruciatingly exciting and libidinous and perfect and scary as hell.
And so now that kid was somewhere in the crowd at the Enterprise Center 45 years later waiting for Paul and Gene to come out. In fact, the arena was crawling with those grown-up kids. KISS shirts were stretched over thousands of torsos a half-century or more in the making. Hundreds painted on their own KISS makeup for the occasion — some artfully applied, some the stuff of nightmares. A family of four arrived in business suits to recreate the Dressed to Kill album cover. A full-costumed “Gene” struggled to walk down the stairs in his platform boots before taking his seat — to the chagrin of the gal seated behind his poof-bunned wig.
Oh, how was the show? You already know the answer to that. It was a KISS concert, and by now Paul and Gene are parodies of the parodies of their characters, still doing the same songs, stunts, crowd-participation bits and pyro-drunk production that they’ve done at every show for eons. And that is precisely the point of a KISS concert. “Did you get what you came for!?” Paul caterwauled at the end of the show, and, of course, he already knew the answer.
It goes without saying that they opened on descending risers to concussive booms on “Detroit Rock City.” And that Paul divided the crowd in half for the traditional scream-off: “It’s sooo clooose!” he pretended to estimate. And that a line of drool drained off the tip of Gene’s tongue as he stomped menacingly around the stage in his dragon boots. That’s show business.
Gene did his kerosene spit-take after “I Love It Loud”; I’ve seen better fireballs from him, but it looked better on the slo-mo replay. Later, his blood-barfing bit came before “God of Thunder” as a platform sent him to the rafters in symbolic solidarity with the folks in the nosebleeds. Everybody took turns taking long cacophonous solos; Tommy Thayer went skeet-shooting, blasting sparkbombs from his guitar’s headstock into the decagonal video screenpads overhead. Eric Singer executed the double-kick drum trick where he acted like he was wiping his hands with a towel, that old gag.
Say what you will about allegations of lip-synching and backing tracks during KISS shows, but those Les Pauls were cranked. When Paul and Tommy squared off on their guitar duel after “Makin’ Love” (a welcome deep cut) or during a detour into the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” midway through “Lick It Up,” there was no faking it. Paul, in fact, played more guitar than usual. He has always given it glancing blows when prancing and sashaying around, but he ripped into it for real a few times.
And how about that flight across the crowd to the second stage? They harness and buckle Taylor and Beyonce into those contraptions, but the 71-year-old Paul just stepped on the hoop in his seven-inch heel, grabbed hold and zipped across the arena.
Paul and Gene look great, too. It’s fun to imagine them in their 20s back in New York starting a band. Little could they have known that they would still be playing together in their 70s and that their Kabuki makeup gimmick would give them the advantage of never appearing to age. Got to hand it to Paul, though. The dude still shimmies and prances like a young man or woman, and he’s been sticking with his arms routine. In fact, Paul’s stage banter is now more awesome in its hilarious terribleness than ever, especially because he never seems to be in on the joke, even though he now sounds more like Edith Bunker than he does the younger version of himself.
“St. Looouuuiisss!!” Paul lisped over and over, teasing his wig with swishing femininity, telling us that it was the 18th time KISS has played here, mentioning the KSHE Kite Fly, Kiel Auditorium and the Checkerdome. Then he reminded everyone that this would be the last KISS show ever in St. Louis. Cue the boos.
Do they mean it this time? We’ve been here before. A guy sitting near me was wearing his KISS Farewell Tour tee-shirt from back in 2000. But now Paul and Gene are septuagenarians. It’s not clear how long Paul will be able to get his “Love Gun” up. When Gene opens “Cold Gin” with the line, “My heater’s broke and I’m so tired,” maybe, after performing the song 2000 times, he really means it.
If this is indeed the last-ever KISS tour, only 20 shows remain after St. Louis. After Eric sang “Beth” (OK, yes, that piano was fake), and before the giant beach-ball party of “Do You Love Me” and the confetti orgy of “Rock and Roll All Nite,” the four band members stood at center stage and posed for a picture with the crowd behind them.
At one point as the band was waving their goodbyes, Gene stood stock-still for a few moments just staring expressionlessly out into the crowd. It was as though he was taking in not just that moment but contemplating a whole half-century of this exhilarating, ridiculous, wonderful rock ‘n’ roll communion.
That kid from back in the KISS Alive days, now a grown man saying a teary farewell, was probably doing the same thing.
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