A few weeks back, Bill Graham Presents was running a promotion (to help the struggling summer concert season) whereby lawn seats to any local amphitheatre shows was $20 flat, with no convenience fees. The same day as this one-day promo, KISS was playing one of the amphitheatres, so I hit the ticket page to see if they also had $20 lawn seats, but for their show every available seat was $20. I had always been curious, and now for a yuppie food stamp I could get myself a reserved seat, so I did.
It should be noted that not only would I be seeing KISS for $20, but also Poison. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into, but I boarded the train to get to the venue a mere two hours after buying my ticket, giving the night a warm surreal glow.
Growing up, KISS was the refuge of my brother. He had all the albums, many of which I had learned through the osmosis of our close quarters. I own no KISS albums, but I figure I should see the spectacle before it was too late. I now fear that seeing KISS anytime after the 70s may have been too late.
To quickly sum up Poison, they weren’t under any delusion that we wanted to hear any new songs, assuming they even have any. It was mediocre hit after hit, with Bret taunting the crowd with the subtlety of a nudist doing burlesque without props. “Are you all ready to open up and say Ahhhh??” “Do you want to see what the cat dragged in?” He pummeled the stage in his messy Kid Rock southern outfit that either masked a pudgy figure or gave him the appearance of one. The most disconcerting thing about their show was how many songs I knew. Unskinny Bop? Talk Dirty to Me? Every Rose Has Its Thorn? OK, I can see a chorus or two causing a subtle moment of recognition, but I knew full-on verses of many songs. In fact, I think I knew more Poison songs than KISS songs.
One thing I didn’t know was that KISS has been building entirely new generations of fans. Kids no older than 10 or 11 were in a row, and all four of them had the makeup of a different KISS member painted on their face. The guy in front of me had his two younger sons with him, and later in the show, whenever the cameras caught someone close to the stage lifting up their tops, the father and his oldest son would look at each other, smile, and throw the goat at the screen in a moment of creepy shared patriarchy. It built on the image of the 8 year old boy on the train over who had a balloon exclaiming that his family had enjoyed their dinner at HOOTERS.
KISS definitely puts a lot of money into its stage show. And they are HUGE drama queens. Before they even take to the stage, the entire set is draped in a black curtain, so we don’t see what awaits us. As the lights go down, the black curtain is pulled down to reveal… another black curtain with a huge, silver KISS logo. As Gene Simmons has said in interviews, why be in a rock and roll band when you can be in a rock and roll brand? They are masters of marketing. Every show is available live as you exit on CD, and their T-Shirts feature pictures of the band that were either taken during or airbrushed to reimagine their youthful glory. And the shirts all involve the audience by giving them wearable bragging rights, with “I Was There,” “I Saw Them Live,” and older models touching on their decades-old introduction, “I Wanted The Best, I Got The Best…”
They open their set with Love Gun and a flurry of fireworks and pyrotechnics, and every single person around me is at one of the most amazing concerts of their life. I just see a spectacle for which I am 25 years late. For years, I have heard of their stage antics, the tongue-wagging, the spitting blood, the spitting fire, you name it. But, live, it all exists without context. Gene’s tongue seems to be a Pavlovian reaction to the red light of any television camera near him turning on.
Paul and Gene (I found out later Ace and Peter were not there, although with the makeup, who would know?) also made sure to personalize the InstantLive CDs by saying the word “Concord,” where the show was held, more than I have ever heard it said in a two hour period. Are you ready to rock, Con-cord? Always two syllables. Between nearly every song.
At the end of a bass solo (is that ever a good idea?), Gene finally starts chewing his blood capsules and the crowd goes crazy. They know it is coming. He looks out over the crowd and shares their anticipation. Finally, he pounds out some more notes on the bass, and the strobe lights hit him as blood starts shooting up out of his mouth and coating his chin and throat. The crowd erupts, Gene wags the bloody tongue gleefully, and I feel like Peggy Lee out of context. Is that all there is? Did this have a point once? Was there a lyrical cue? Did this play crazier in the 70s when no one had ever seen anything like this ever before?
While I am thinking this, Gene ends up flying on wires up to the lighting rig, which has lowered to half-staff, and the rest of the band come out and he plays a song up on top of the lighting rig. Why? Because he can? No other reason, really. Same reason that at the end of an earlier song, Gene went backstage was handed a flaming sword, filled his cheeks with lighter fluid, blew a ball of fire, and tossed the sword into the stage as he wagged his tongue at the crowd. It was just an old vaudeville show at this point.
Eventually Paul will also fly out to the middle of the reserved seats on a wire to sing “I was made for loving you” on a small stage nearby. What I am most amazed with is how few great songs they have. I mean, they did have a lot of good songs they didn’t play, and of course, Paul sounds like he is recovering from a recent asthma attack or having recently been strangled. Gene’s voice, while never all that great, seems to have gotten worse, if possible.
Now, I wouldn’t say I had a bad time. Nor would I ever see them again. But one of the most telling moments was with their penultimate song before “(I Wanna) Rock and Roll All Nite Party Every Day,” “God Make Rock and Roll For You,” which is accompanied by video clips of other rock legends, the assumption being we’re seeing similar rock legends live and in person now, if you forgot. On the video reel, they show live footage of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Who… and you are left thinking that any of these bands on their worst night would have possibly put on a more inspired show than what we just witnessed.