LONGTIME FANS PASSIONATE FOR YEARS
July 17, 2011
KISS IN SPRINGFIELD, IL ON MONDAY NIGHT

(AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

By BRIAN MACKEY THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER

You always remember your first time.

For Mike Austin, it was in St. Louis at the old Checkerdome.

“I had to sneak out of the house and lie to the parents to get to go,” he said. “I had to catch a ride with other people who had tickets.”

He was 14. It was the autumn of ’79. It was Kiss.

“After I saw them once, that was all it took,” he said.

Austin, who was living in Pawnee at the time, saw his first Springfield Kiss show in 1983.

He saw the band three times on that tour. Then he began seeing them more. A lot more.

He has driven up to eight hours to see Kiss.

Louisville. Peoria. Moline. Rockford. St. Louis. Chicago. Indianapolis.

And, of course, Springfield. Austin will be there at 7:30 p.m. Monday, when Kiss returns to the Prairie Capital Convention Center for the first time in nearly two decades.

“The July show will be my 63rd Kiss show,” Austin said.

Kiss inspires a remarkable degree of loyalty among its fans.

‘Family members’

The group, best known for hard-rock anthems like “Rock and Roll All Nite,” first performed in Springfield on Dec. 30, 1974, at the Illinois State Armory.

The band was less than two years old. Tickets cost $5 in advance, $6 at the door.

There were fairly regular appearances throughout the 1980s, but the band hasn’t been here since 1992. Yet they keep coming.

Can anything make a show really special when you’ve already seen it 62 times?

“People ask me, ‘Is it the same every time you go?’” Austin said.

From tour to tour, sometimes the songs change, or the costumes or the set. But things don’t vary much on a given tour. There will be makeup. There will be explosions.

“But it’s one of those things that I just don’t get tired of,” Austin said. “They’ve been in my life as long as family members.”

By the group’s Nov. 24, 1992, concert at the PCCC, the group had shed its makeup. But it was still working to put on a ridiculous show.

“We have a history and I want to see us live up to it,” founding member Paul Stanley told The State Journal-Register at the time. “We’ve set off more bombs in this show than anything we’ve ever done. Great lasers, too. Two hours a night. We’ll do loads of stuff from (1975’s) ‘Kiss Alive!’ right up to the latest stuff.”

To some, Kiss is the ultimate rock band.

“I’ve seen them 36 times,” Randy Bounds said. “This will be 37.”

Like Austin, that tally includes all the Springfield performances except the 1974 Armory show.

Bounds, 42, is the controller at E.L. Pruitt Co. in Springfield. His older cousins turned him on to the band.

“I saw them on ‘The Paul Lynde Halloween Special’ and ‘Midnight Special’ and that was it. They’ve been my favorite ever since,” Bounds said.

He has 474 Kiss songs on his iPod.

“A lot of people don’t give them credit for the music, but the music’s good,” he said. The band members have been nice when he’s met them, and they put on the kind of show they would want to see.

“It’s not just a bunch of guys in blue jeans coming out and singing,” he said. “It’s theatrics and the show — you get the best of both worlds.”

Austin is serious about the music, too. His parents bought him his first Kiss album at the old JR’s Music in White Oaks Mall.

He still has his copy of “Alive!” and says he buys new Kiss albums the day they come out — and he still prefers hard copies to digital downloads.

“All of my vinyls I’ve had through the years, I’ve gotten rid of all of them unless they were autographed — or unless they were Kiss vinyls,” he said.

Part of the machine

Kiss has sold millions of copies of its singles, albums and videos, but it’s much more than the weight of its platinum and gold discography.

Mark Kessler, co-owner of Recycled Records, sums up the group’s enduring popularity in two words: “marketing genius.”

The vintage vinyl/used furniture/you-want-it-we-got-it shop at 625 E. Adams St. has a wide range of Kiss products, old and new.

There’s a Starchild Christmas ornament from 2010 and an FM radio from 1998. There are toy cars and a mid-1990s concert program. And there’s a lot of vinyl.

You want an autographed copy of Ace Frehley’s ’78 solo album? A Japanese version of 1981’s “Music from ‘The Elder’” with gatefold cover? A red vinyl pressing of 1994’s “Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved” featuring a cover of “Rock and Roll All Nite” by Toad the Wet Sprocket? Got it, got it, got it.

Kessler recently sold a black terrycloth bathrobe with an embroidered Kiss logo. He even has a bottle of Kiss This, a “dealcoholized” wine, 1997 vintage, bottle No. 2,290 out of 60,000. That’ll set you back $100.

But all that pales in comparison to the showpiece item of Kiss memorabilia at Younger Than Yesterday in Peoria: a working, vintage Kiss pinball machine.

Owner Craig Moore said customers ask about the price several times a day.

“Not for sale,” he tells them. He’s owned several such machines over the years. Two were lost in fires. Others were sold. The one he still has was his first.

“Ten, 20 years ago, if somebody came in and offered me five grand for it, it’d be gone,” he said. “I don’t need the five grand to let go of it.”

“It’s just cool,” Moore said. “The band still exists and there’s all this mythology about Kiss, and Gene Simmons is still out there doing his best to continually reconstruct the mythology.”

All the merchandise in the world doesn’t do any good if you’re not selling something people want. Beyond the music and behind the merch, Kiss is just a band — and a brand — people can get behind.

For Simmons, the co-founder and frontman, it’s all been part of a lifelong ambition.

“Fame and riches are fine, but one can have both and still have no power,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Kiss and Make-up.” “Power is something I craved from the time I first set foot in America. I was made fun of because I couldn’t speak English, or because I was Jewish, but it really came down to not having power.”

Devil worship?

Kiss has had its share of detractors.

“Springfield has never seen anything quite like it,” Bob Mahlburg wrote in his SJ-R review of the group’s Feb. 25, 1983 show at the Prairie Capital Convention Center. The opening act was Wendy O. and the Plasmatics. “Both groups demonstrated their ability to wrench the crowd’s attention Friday — but showed painfully little musical ability.”

Mahlburg spent a hefty chunk of his review on the antics of Wendy O., then got around to the headliner: “Kiss showed a little more taste, but were guilty of an even more serious offense for a rock performance — they were just plain dull.

“Despite throwing in every gimmick — from torches to shooting six-foot spark showers and more explosions than a state fair fireworks finale — their heavy metal pounding was more plodding than rocking.”

And beyond the band’s musical merits, there were other types of controversy, stemming in part from the group’s odd appearance and live shows that included fire and fake blood.

There was no hint of it in coverage of the 1974 show, but by the time the band returned to Springfield in 1983, rock ’n’ roll paranoia was on the march.

Mahlburg noted that the band had “stirred controversy in some areas because of their alleged link to devil worship.”

Members of Trinity Lutheran Church distributed Christian literature outside the PCCC before the show.

“We understand Kiss is not a Christian group,” Paul Hartman told Mahlburg. “We believe you either worship Christ or worship something else.”

Stanley addressed the concerns in his 1983 interview with the SJ-R: “I feel bad for anybody who listens to a self-appointed expert on religion and rock ’n’ roll.”

“What’s real interesting is that most of these creatures, if you ask them what church they represent, they might as well be Al’s Church because they’re usually self-ordained ministers, who are only trying to make sure their names are spelled right in the newspaper,” he said.

The band’s dangerous image seems to have softened over the years.

In a scene from the A&E reality show “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels,” Simmons was seen recording an audio children’s book.

“Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the young fish used to go and swim in the giant octopus’ garden. ‘How happy we are,’ they cried to each other,” Simmons said.

“You know it’s really funny I’m doing an audiobook for kids when people in the ’70s used to think I ate them.”

Cannon fodder

Today’s Kiss concerts are family affairs.

Bounds’ son Forrest has accompanied his father to several concerts. One such father-son outing gave Bounds’ his favorite memory of a Kiss show.

Forrest’s first show was at the Riverport Amphitheater in St. Louis in 2004. He was 9 or 10, and as the show progressed, the pair snuck closer and closer to the stage.

The final song, as usual, was “Rock and Roll All Nite.” Bounds lifted his son onto his shoulders.

“They have these confetti cannons,” he said. We were right in front of it, and it was coming out so hard against us that I was having trouble holding him up.”

Afterward, Stanley told the concertgoers to lift their kids up so he could see the new Kiss Army.

As Stanley came by, he tossed Forrest a guitar pick.

“The last couple years we’ve gone over to Indianapolis for the Kiss conventions; the drummer Eric Singer has been there and he’s been very nice to us both times.”

It’s almost like a club, Bounds said, like being a Cardinals or Cubs fan.

Bounds and Forrest, now 15, will be in the second row Monday night.

Austin will be in the row in front of them. It’s the first time he’s had tickets with the coveted Row 1 designation. He, too, has a bond forged through Kiss.

“I met my best friend at a show in Springfield,” Austin said. “They played here in ’87, and I decided I was going to go down and hang out outside the convention center, take a couple albums, and try to see if I could get them autographed.”

That’s when Dave Fyke, who lives in Decatur, stopped by to do the same thing. They struck up a conversation, and eventually moved to the Renaissance bar, hoping the band would come to the hotel. They did, and Austin got autographs and pictures and a new best friend.

“Ever since that day — that was in December of ’87 — Dave’s been one of my best friends,” Austin said.

“He stood up with me in my wedding … I was best man in his wedding,” Austin said.

And in perhaps an even truer mark of friendship, Fyke will get Austin’s other front row ticket.

Brian Mackey can be reached at 747-9587.

Want to go?:

Kiss will perform at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Prairie Capital Convention Center. Tickets cost $51-$91 and are available at the PCCC box office and through Ticketmaster, (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.