Notes from the Front

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.

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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.

"I can remember," says Cool, "making my friends apologize to my posters if they tore them. Apologize to whoever was on the poster.

"Here's some carnival pictures I won," he adds, moving on through the treasure box to some rumpled posters. "See, they were rolled up in my back pocket."

Avitia and Cool claim that they're fans, not collectors, though they both covet a particular vintage-logo belt buckle, one of a selection of valuable pieces of the Kiss collection that are beyond their reach. Cool adds he "went on a three-month search for the dolls, they're like Ken dolls with Kiss makeup. I looked for those forever, and then I found them years later for $500."

"The thing about being the age that we were, we thought it was cool," he continues. "But it was more like toys, so we didn't put stuff in a box and keep it in mint condition. Collectors still have their little plastic guitar with Kiss on it, that I had, but my brother broke. But I do have a picture of me in my Dallas Cowboys pajamas playing it."

Cool shows off another category of merchandise: "These are so tacky, but I had to buy them."

Avitia: "What are those?"
Cool: "They're bandannas, man."
Avitia: "No way! Did they sell them at shows?"

Cool: "Hell yeah, dude. I had to get one of each. I was a little spoiled; if Kiss was on it, my mom would buy it for me."

There's a critical movement under way to rehabilitate Kiss the band in the face of Kiss the marketing phenomenon. The movement has been fueled both by the fact that many well-known '90s bands have claimed Kiss as an influence, and by music writers' embarrassment over not getting the point the first time around. After all, here was a band that sold more than 75 million records despite negligible radio play and bad reviews. The movement is also driven by Simmons, who remains a masterful spokesman for his group. The critical reevaluations tend to look pretty silly, though, since Kiss was never a musical group so much as a commercial spectacle.

Cool and Avitia both dig the music, but they don't talk about it much, mainly because there isn't much to say.

Avitia: "They were kind of like a Led Zeppelin takeoff or whatnot, I guess. They just plain rocked. And their lyrics were cheesy."

Cool: "Oh, they were so simple, that's why I liked them. You could follow along. The coolest thing is, lots of kids loved them and all they sang about was fucking."

Ask them why Kiss is getting back together, in full glam regalia, and Cool and Avitia act as if they've rehearsed the sound of cash registers clanging: "Tch ching, tch ching, tch ching." Both figured out at some point that they were on the receiving end of a marketing coup to rival P.T. Barnum, but neither much care how they were roped into it. In fact, they're impressed by the scheme's effectiveness.

"I realized it later. I thought Gene Simmons was a genius for it. I mean," Cool says, holding up a purple banner, "he made me buy this. You gotta give him some respect."

Ask them what they expect from the upcoming reunion (both secured tickets for a Houston show that sold out in three hours), and Avitia nails the desire of his brethren, all those Kiss Army kids who traveled through elementary and junior high school drawing Kiss logos on their notebooks and tracing likenesses off the shiny, embossed cover of Double Platinum. "We want to see a really good recreation of what we missed," he says.

That's exactly the sort of give-the-people-what-they-want tour that Kiss is promising. And which will surely be the last of its kind.  

Avitia: "Gene and Paul are supposed to make something like $10 million each off this tour. If I was Gene Simmons, I'd get a 401-K and pray to God I could make the money last."

Cool: "He's worth way more than $10 million already."
Avitia: "So why even tour?"
Cool: "For the kids, man."

Kiss performs Saturday, July 6, at the Summit. Pushmonkey opens. Sold out. For more information, call 629-3700.

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