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In the big, mean world of rock ‘n’ roll, there may never be so sweet a sight as the one just behind me at Saturday night’s Kiss farewell concert. With the lights down and the encore chant building to its crescendo, a father in Row Q quietly taught his son to hold a lighter aloft. Father handed son a Zippo and then watched the youngster’s arm rise into the arena-rock night. As a breeze lapped at the flame, father used his hands to form a protective cup around it.
In its long career, Kiss, too, has neither burned out nor faded away. But that isn’t to say that the group’s pyrotechnically enhanced, face-painted rock vaudeville act means the same thing it once did. When the quartet formed, in 1973, the rituals of rock fandom—from Zippo-lighting to air-guitaring—passed from friend to friend in pot-scented suburban basements. Today, they’ve moved one flight up, to the family room. And the Kiss Army, the fan club mobilized by songs about parents too old to understand, now has old soldiers right along with its new recruits.
On Saturday night, even wearing Kiss makeup was a multigenerational affair. There were toddler Paul Stanleys and preteen Gene Simmonses. Twentysomething hipsters painted makeup awkwardly over goatees and lip rings. An older Gene Simmons had gone to great trouble painting his face but had apparently forgotten the bald spot up top. The best get-ups were on a couple who came as Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. They had all the little details right: Ace’s silver boots, Peter’s cat eyes. And they had wedding rings, too.
The generational diversity is appropriate, because in its 27-year career—which band members say will end with this tour—Kiss has, in fact, been three bands. In the ’70s, it was a groundbreaking marketing concept: rock as comic book. The band’s pinball-machine personas and theatrically genius live shows helped push lunchboxes, dolls, and posters to a young audience. After 1982, when the principals ditched their makeup, Kiss became just another hair band. Its old Japanese-cartoon visual appeal had been outflanked by MTV; its marketing gimmicks had become the industry norm, and even its platform shoes seemed passe now that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had retired.
But the fabulous thing about our current age of irony is that everything can come back. And in 1996, the original members of Kiss put on the makeup and took their 1977 incarnation back out on the road. The life that Kiss was once larger than had, of course, grown since the band’s early years. Nowadays, pro wrestling is on TV nightly, rock music seems to play in every last commercial, and no rock consumer suspects that a show at a place called the Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge could ever form a threat to the establishment—parental, educational, or otherwise. Still, though the pop culture that Kiss helped create now keeps its act from seeming sensational anymore, the band’s final career stage benefits from a marketing force more powerful even than ’70s lunch boxes: kitsch.
Saturday night’s show was a beautiful event, a two-hour live-action tour of pop-culture history. That it was also a campy retro affair, where even the truest-blue fan in the audience couldn’t consume the pageantry without a heavy dose of self-consciousness, made it even more fun. When other old bands give up pretending that their new material is important, they come back with washed-out versions of their original glory, trying to adapt to a new context. Kiss, underneath makeup that erases age and standing on sets identical to those in the gatefold photographs from the Alive II album, simply re-created the past: same pyrotechnics, same songs, same T-shirts at the merchandise booth, even the same stage banter.
The only thing that had changed, it seemed, was the audience. Twenty-seven years later, Kiss has met the real phantom of the park, and it is us.
Every Kiss show begins with the same introduction: “You wanted the best—you got the best. The hottest band in the world: Kiss!” On Kiss’ farewell tour, nothing was going to be different—least of all the opening. Most bands pretend to improvise their set lists nightly. Kiss’ was actually posted at the arena’s Guest Services area. But it was a set to please: “Detroit Rock City” to start, “Deuce” and “Shout It Out Loud” to follow, “Beth” for Encore 1, “Rock and Roll All Night” to finish up.
The members of Kiss are nothing if not entertainment professionals. They hit their cues, know their lines, and mug brilliantly for the audience. The band works the name of the concert city into song lyrics better than any in the world: “I’m down to the bare wire, Washington!” (“Firehouse”); “You know it’s the only thing that keeps us together, Washington!” (“Cold Gin”); “Wo-oah, Washington, heaven’s on fire” (“Heaven’s on Fire”).
But the band knows of what it sings in “Deuce,” whose chorus begins, “You know your man is working hard.” This is not rock as art; it’s rock as theater, and it ain’t easy. Lead singer Stanley may hover around age 50, but he still dances in his 7-inch leather heels. Bassist/singer Simmons gesticulates wildly throughout the show, spitting blood and breathing fire on cue and flying up to the rafters to sing “God of Thunder.”
Guitarist Frehley and drummer Criss, the two prodigal members of Kiss who left the band in the ’80s, aren’t such naturals. On record, songs sung by Frehley—the band’s “space entity” character—have an odd robotic quality. Live, you hear why: That robot sound is what studio gadgetry creates when it tweaks a voice that can’t hit the right notes. Perhaps the one surprise inclusion in the set was Frehley’s version of the Rolling Stones song “2000 Man,” from the ill-regarded 1979 Dynasty album. (That’s the one on which Kiss also recorded a disco song.) Frehley sang wretchedly, and a song that rocks on record dragged—despite onstage explosions and a video-screen movie of Kiss fighting space monsters.
But it was no matter. Frehley’s guitar smoked and shot sparks on cue, he joined with Simmons and Stanley to thrust their guitars in unison, and the crowd loved him anyway. In any other band, Frehley might be someone they keep in the back. In Kiss, he’s Space Ace, a key part of the whole look. The band without him wouldn’t be like, say, Led Zeppelin without John Paul Jones; it would be more like The A-Team without Mad Murdoch.
The farewell tour’s one break with classic Kiss stage effects was the video monitor placed between the oversized “Kiss” signs, center stage. But even that effect seemed old-fashioned and kitschy—the feeling you get when you’re looking at an old-fashioned version of the future. Low-tech video effects transformed close-ups of band members on stage into spiralized images or kaleidoscope screens, the kind they used in early MTV videos. Cartoons that looked like bad ’80s video games showed songs’ story lines. (In “Detroit Rock City,” a car hit a truck, a la the song’s lyrics.) Kiss, though, ultimately seemed like a play that won’t translate to the screen. Anyone can do this stuff in the movies, but only these guys can do it in front of you.
And when it came down to it, Stanley made it clear that the band was rooted firmly in the past. I came to the show assuming that the farewell tour was just another marketing ploy, but as he sentimentally listed Kiss’ D.C.-area shows (at the Bayou, at the Capital Center, etc.), it started to seem real.
As the band appeared for the final encore and took a bow, Stanley—after a night of cheerleading for the audience—launched into something approximating a serious speech about what was important in the 27 years of Kiss. “People,” he said, “if you come here for a concert again, and you pay your hard-earned money and come here to see a band and they do not give you a show, and they dress like your next-door neighbor…they are not giving you what you deserve.” The crowd went wild, because—as their ’70s predecessors, who blissfully lived before the age of Hootie, never understood—they knew it was true.
And then the band played “Rock and Roll All Night,” as everyone had known it would. And flames leapt, as everyone had known they would. And fog bellowed and confetti flew and the drum riser shot toward the sky, as everyone had known they would. After all, that’s what everyone had come for. CP