The drugs and booze sure did a number on Ace Frehley's face, I remember thinking as I was watching him play alongside the Roots during a recent airing of the Tonight Show.
See, I was a KISS fan growing up, and don't think there's any shame in that. (For the record, I'm younger than 40.) Frehley was the on-again/off-again lead guitarist of the group. When I became a KISS fan, for a brief moment in my childhood anyway, it wasn't because I was into their music. I was into the theater of it all: the face paint, the blood and smoke, the characters, that movie, and especially the tin lunch boxes. It was all terrible and fun at the same time.
Just to really take in how cheesy KISS was, you have to see one of their classic lunchbox images -- the ones with the Destroyer album cover. It shows the rock-and-roll action figures jumping in the air, looking like some cartoon Kabuki actors. Some of those 1977 vintage lunch boxes can fetch close to $100 on eBay, though.
But for those who aren't satisfied with the faded glory of memorabilia, there's always Ace. The 63-year-old founding member of KISS was probably the only true musician in the group anyway. His latest album, Space Invader, has gotten some decent reviews, and even debuted in Billboard's Top 10 this week. But it's anything but the post-glam anthem rock of KISS. And based on what critics are saying, it's not even as bad as the group's slouchy comeback material of the late 1990s.
Space Invader brings the aging granddad rocker back into the spotlight, right where he probably deserved to be. Nowhere near the best group of their day, KISS was way campy, and Frehley arguably helped elevate their brand when he was a member. His latest set of songs, though, is a Valentine built for fans of rock's halcyon days.
KISS released their first album 40 years ago this year, and in April the four original members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sure, they were pissed it took so long, so much so that head honchos Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley didn't want to perform at the ceremony, which in itself caused a little static. But Frehley, even with his minority stake in the KISS brand, seems to have come out on top anyway, at least musically speaking.
Frehley originally left KISS in 1982, rejoined them in 1996 and did three tours through the early 2000s. Maybe they weren't that great when you think of solid classic-rock groups, but their arena shows touched a lot of lives.
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In an interview, California DJ and producer Dam-Funk once told me that one of his greatest musical memories was seeing KISS perform at a Hollywood-area show when he was a kid. It was hard to process for a minute -- how was this purveyor of rare grooves and funk co-signing KISS? I asked him recently what made the band so great to him. "Music for the everyday people," he said in an email. "Straightforward riffs, anthems [and] fantasy. Perfect match."
It was music for the people. Maybe more style than substance for rock snobs, but that's where the "Spaceman" came in, bringing that anthemic flavor. Even more respected rock groups hail Frehley's skills; ask Pearl Jam. He was probably the most rock-and-roll member of the KISS collective.
Frehley has earned a decent critical reception for his guitar-rock album, either from still building on that nostalgia or maybe he was just always one of KISS's more talented members on his own. Space Invader's debut in the Top 10 might not mean as much as the promotional outfit pushing the album thinks it does, but it still sends a message.
His cover of "The Joker," where's he makes a fitting Space Cowboy, is one of the album's standout tracks. It's a cover, like his version of Russ Ballard's "New York Groove" from Frehley's debut solo record in 1978.
But KISS has always been more about the show than the music, and Frehley knows that. It was after the band had filmed their movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, that Frehley went off to record that solo album. You should get drunk and watch it sometime.
I never paid attention to any KISS solo records. My interest in the group was as fleeting as that wack movie, and probably lasted as long as my fifth-grade friend Doug's pictures drawn on lined notebook paper lasted on my bedroom walls. I mean, these were carefully illustrated portraits that opened my world up to the KISS mythology. It got to the point where he told me the story: who the characters were, who was still in the group, and who started it. I was a Kiss expert at eight years old, but still didn't own an album.
Space Ace (Ace Frehley), Starchild, (lead singer Paul Stanley), The Demon, (Gene Simmons) and Catman (Peter Criss). Wow. This was way before musical collectives with distinct characteristics came into play. I would become a more authentic Wu-Tang Clan fan many years later, probably because there were so many different styles to associate with.
That was the extent of my KISS fandom. And trying to understand it for a brief period seemed like the thing to do. Today, Destroyer and Alive! are still in my record collection.
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