October 19, 2009
By Troy Moon

Jan DeStafney's son has been breathing fire in the backyard.

And on Monday, she's going to see the men who influenced her son to pour lighter fluid in his mouth and spit flames.

DeStafney, 57, is going to see Kiss today at the Pensacola Civic Center. She only knows of one song - the one about "rock and roll all night" - but she just has to see what the fuss is all about.

"I have to see what's so exciting about these people," she said. "Because they have mesmerized my son for all these years."

Kiss - a troupe of fire-breathing, blood-spewing, costumed comic book rock legends - has mesmerized millions since forming in December 1972 and has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide. Though perceived early on by some critics and parents as dark and sinister, most of the world has come to see Kiss as a sort of harmless escapist fantasy - a live-action cartoon with a hard rock soundtrack.

Yet their fans, even the grown-ups with mortgages and children of their own, still are devoted to the Kiss Army - the band's long-running, fan-organized fan club - who have no intention of leaving the band's service.

Which is why Jan's 35-year-old son, James DeStafney - a father of two young children - was in front of a mirror last week putting on white and black makeup to compete in a Kiss costume contest at Chan's. DeStafney won the contest, earning two front-row tickets.

"When he was 5, he drew pictures of the Kiss characters," Jan DeStafney said. "He said even then 'They're my favorite band.' And he's been saying that for the last 30 years."

Secret obsession

On the surface, James DeStafney's home seems like Normalsville, USA.

He lives in a nice, well-kept middle-class home near Creighton Road with his wife and two children, ages 4 and 7. A U.S. flag hangs near the door. Inside, his 7-year-old daughter is practicing jumpy beginner's tunes on piano. Pictures of smiling children line the walls.

Then, you see the black gear sitting on the couple's sleigh bed - platform boots, vests and jackets with oddly shaped horns jutting out.

On the nightstand is a foam mannequin head topped by a black wig - the wig DeStafney dons whenever he dresses as Kiss' outlandish bass player, Gene Simmons.

DeStafney's 4-year-old son is at his side while the makeup - first the white, then the black - goes on.

"He's going to be the real, real Gene," the boy said. "And he's going to have a wig on his hair. My dad is going to look so cool."

Apparently, it's a look the boy wants for himself.

"I want to be Gene like you," he said. "And you can paint it on me."

"Cool, bud," the soft-spoken father said back.

Then, there's a change of mind.

"I would be Paul," the 4-year-old said, as he eyed a copy of the Kiss album "Dynasty" that DeStafney props near the mirror to help guide him through the makeup ordeal. "And you can put the star on my eyes."

Yes, the boy knows Gene from rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley, and he knows Gene wears the "scary" makeup while Paul sports the black star around his right eye.

Dad knew that, too, at his son's age.

Tribute artist

"I was probably 3 or 4 when I first saw them (on television)," said DeStafney, who works in public relations for a health service organization. "There were these four masked guys blowing things up and spitting blood, breathing fire and smashing guitars. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen."

The cool factor hasn't cooled.

DeStafney plays bass - and portrays Simmons - in the Kiss tribute band Love Gun, which still is in the rehearsal stage.

His mother never thought it would come to this.

"Really, I was never concerned when he was young, because I didn't think the band was going to make it because they were so very unusual," she said. "That was a really bad call on my part."

Because induction in the Kiss Army is for life.

Just ask Charles Henke, 38, a guitarist for the local band Category 5, who has seen Kiss 12 times - his first as a 13-year-old on Jan. 21, 1985, when Kiss became the first act to perform at the new Pensacola Civic Center.

"It was life-changing," said Henke, a transport driver for disabled people and a father of a 7-year-old girl. "And since then, Kiss' music has been the soundtrack to my life."

Henke's love for the band hasn't dimmed a bit over the years. These days, he sometimes dresses up as Stanley, as he did for Thursday's costume contest at Chan's.

"People would always say 'You'll outgrow it,' " Henke said. "But you know, it's only gotten worse. It was 36 years before I ever did the costume. So I'm definitely not outgrowing it."

'About the music'

Henke, even out of costume, is easily identifiable as a soldier in the Kiss Army.

He's wearing a Kiss 2004 "Rock The Nation" T-shirt. He's got the Kiss dog tags hanging around his neck along with a gold cross - "I'm a Christian first," he said. He's got the Kiss belt buckle on his belt and camouflage pants to complete the look.

But why? Why has Kiss, always shunned by critics and the music press, retained such a devoted fan base over the decades. What separates Kiss from the thousands of other bands out there?

"I love the entertainment aspect of it," Henke said. "But honestly, it's about the music to me. It's not down, it's not negative. It's about partying and having a good time and about positive things. The songs mean so much to me."

But so does the memorabilia, which no band has come close to matching. The band has more than 3,000 licensed products on the market, from towels and belt buckles to strange trinkets such as Kiss toy cars and Kiss Mr. Potato Head collectibles.

Henke has plenty of the stuff, including a dozen Kiss guitar picks that have been thrown from the stage during concerts over the years. In fact, Henke keeps every pick preserved in its own sealed plastic bag and knows the history of each.

"The first one I got during that first concert at the Civic Center," Henke said. "They fling the picks like Frisbees. I could see it in the light as it was flying toward me. It fell into the aisle, I stomped my foot on it and reached down and grabbed it."