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Notes from the Front

Vamping down memory lane with members of the Kiss Army

As the story goes, Gene Klein quit his day job as a teacher at a Manhattan public school in 1972 and changed his name to Simmons. Fellow New York City resident Paul Eisen went a similar route, renaming himself Paul Stanley. The duo found Peter Crisscoula (later Criss) via Crisscoula's Rolling Stone ad, and Ace Frehley (apparently his real name) responded to the fledgling trio's notice in the Village Voice. They all -- especially Simmons -- were into hard rock, glam theatrics and marketing as an art form.

Thus was born Kiss, who strode forth and ruled the planet, rock-wise, in the '70s. From 1975's Alive to 1978's Double Platinum, Kiss was, in the words of too many fans to count, the shit. They wore the thickest makeup; they staged the most pyrotechnically garish shows. Simmons spit capsulate blood off his stupidly long tongue; Stanley blew kisses to all the ladies in the house; and Frehley soloed on a smoke-spewing Les Paul that would ascend toward the rafters, levitating from his upturned palms as if on the invisible hands of God. The band also recruited countless fans for the Kiss Army, a gargantuan international fan club fueled by pre-adolescent hero worship, trivia and junk.

You should know all this already, or at least its essential outline. It's not significant stuff, really. Unless, for some reason, this 20-year-old chunk of history is an important chunk of your life.

It happens to be just that for Robbie Cool and Tony Avitia. Cool, 24, used to play bass in Monster Soup, and now he books bands at Fitzgerald's. Avitia, 25, works a day job and owns and operates the small Broken Note record label. Cool and Avitia were 11 and 12, respectively, when Kiss toweled off their makeup for the last time and traded off Criss and Frehley for new members, thus transforming into a remarkably unremarkable metal band. About that time, Cool saw his first Kiss concert, and he's seen every Houston show since, with the exception of one, which was sold out before he could get his hands on tickets. Avitia has seen Kiss only once, on the Crazy Nights tour, with Ted Nugent opening. But it was enough.

Both are proud owners of boxes and boxes of Kiss paraphernalia. A brief inventory of their combined booty reveals the following items: posters, playing cards, picture discs, comic books, fanzines, eight-track tapes, rub-on tattoos, fringed banners, satin scarves, mirrors sporting the Kiss logo, autographed guitar picks and the cardboard "Love Gun" off the sleeve of the original 1977 pressing of the album of the same name. Cool's even got a homemade body suit made to replicate the one Paul Stanley wore circa 1977; he wore it last year when Monster Soup, along with a bunch of other local bands, played a Kiss tribute show at Fitzgerald's.

Neither fan, though, has ever seen golden-era Kiss, with makeup and original lineup intact. And so to them, Saturday's Houston stop on Kiss' 1996 nostalgia romp through the country -- the first in 17 years to promise all four original members and 1977 Kiss Alive II-era getups and stage show -- carries all the significance that a different sort of fan might attach to the recent recorded Beatles reunion, or the imminent Sex Pistols swindle, or, perhaps, the second coming of Christ.

Sitting on the floor of Cool's north-side home, the pair jump right into it, two hard-core Kiss freaks reliving the glory days of fandom.

Avitia: "So how old were you? I know I was, like, six."
Cool: "My first album, Love Gun, my baby sitter gave that to me when I was six. With the poster. She was, like, a mom, it was weird. She was probably 18. Kiss was like, they were the shit in elementary."

Between them on the carpet are dozens of LPs -- made-up Kiss; post-made-up Kiss; the four solo albums the original band members released in 1978. Consensus holds that Gene Simmons' Kiss-like solo release is the best, followed by Paul Stanley's lady-killing balladry, Ace Frehley's nebulous space rock and Peter Criss' disco capitulation.

Frehley may have had the smoking guitar and the silvery greasepaint mask, Stanley the hairy chest and black star encompassing his right eye, Criss the cat whiskers (which didn't prevent him from being, in Cool's words, "a dork, man"). But all Kiss fans dig Simmons the most. He's Lennon and McCartney all rolled up into one.

Cool: "What was your worst Kiss experience?"
Avitia: "I think there was a little phase in my life for a period of, like, one month where I was scared of them, having nightmares."

Cool: "I remember in fifth grade I wanted to go to the Kiss show so bad; it was the Creatures of the Night tour, their last in makeup. They had commercials on the TV, and I would just stare. 'Whoa!' my parents went. 'Oh, yeah, you can go, we'll take you.' And it fell on the same night as some school program crap that we had to do. So I was very upset."

They didn't get to go, so instead, they bought. Avitia acquired most of his Kiss merchandise at Woolco; Cool got a lot of his at Texas Tapes and Records in Pasadena. Cool pulls out a beat-up cardboard box filled with Kiss photos cut from magazines -- hundreds of them. They used to cover his bedroom walls, but when he moved out after high school, he organized them in folders -- a different color for each band member. The box was stored in a band rehearsal space for months, where it was rifled into its present disorganization.

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