AND THE VETERANS
August 19, 2012
The venerable band teams up with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and BOOMER for a cause that’s deep in the rockers’ roots

— BY DAVID L. ROBBINS —

“This,” says Gene Simmons, “is how the big boys do it.” Simmons, a big boy, is talking about his band, KISS

Nearing 63, he exudes disdain for the modern brand of rocker, the sloppy kids he claims look no different from their own roadies. Metaphorically, he sticks his famous elongated tongue out at them.

“When I’m up there, I’m wearing 40 pounds of armor and studs, in 10-inch heels. I’m like a Marine on a 26-mile trek in a loaded backpack.” Guitarist Tommy Thayer, only a 10-year veteran of the 39-yearold rock band, concurs with the military analogy. “When we’re getting into our outfits and makeup before a performance, we say we’re climbing into our battle gear. Putting on war paint.” Worldwide, the band has legions of fans, called The KISS Army. The likenesses to fighting men go on and on for the members of this ageless group. The similarities go even deeper, and they are not haphazard.

AMERICA – A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Gene’s mother, Flora, was a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. The girl, then only 14, watched her mother accompany her grandmother into a gas chamber so the older woman would not die alone. That camp was eventually liberated by the U.S. Army, and Flora was rescued. Gene is adamant – and probably right – that without America’s troops, he wouldn’t be here. Tommy’s father, James Thayer, was a young Army officer fighting in the European theater. He was a captain in May 1945, when his unit liberated a Nazi concentration camp, Gunskirchen Lager, in northern Austria. The other two members of the band, founding guitarist Paul Stanley and 20-year drummer Eric Singer, also have personal motivations for this affinity with soldiering. Both of Paul’s parents fled Nazi Germany in the months before the war, narrowly escaping the horrors of the Holocaust. Eric hails from a long family history of military service, including cousins and his veteran father, the bandleader for whom Eric first played the drums professionally. Anyone who’s ever toiled in a band, from garage to coliseum, knows that the sweet spot is when the band plays “tight,” when you throb, croon and soar on a single united groove, so fused in the music it’s like mind reading. The members of KISS have years of experience together, married with extreme musical talent and a proven bombastic look and formula. When they rock, they really do roll.

‘PRIVILEGED TO BE AN AMERICAN’
Yet, on the other side of that wall of sound, beneath the roaring greasepaint, beyond “rock and roll all nite and party every day,” stand four serious and like-minded men united, tight, on a wonderfully unlikely mission. They want you to know who the real rock stars of America are. And it’s not KISS. “It’s really simple,” says Paul Stanley. “Any free country’s greatest national treasure is the armed forces that keep it free.”

Gene, Paul, Tommy and Eric are rich. In KISS regalia, they’re famous around the world. They play sold-out shows, they play anthems of an age, they look to be eternally young. It’s good to be KISS. But, against the grain of the preening, slouching rock gods they might have become - the downhill road taken by so many of their Boomer cohort – these four bandmates are thoughtful about their good fortune, and the nation that made it possible. And they are grateful. “I feel so privileged to be an American,” says Paul. “There’s no way to ever show enough thanks for what this country has made possible for me.”

Gene, particularly, with his somber voice like a tolling bell – the opposite of his hectic stage persona – sounds this theme of American transcendence. He was born Chaim Witz in Israel. “No one loves America more than the immigrant. America’s the best place in the world. Have you ever heard of anyone sinking to their knees and crying out, ‘Thank God I made it to the shores of Mexico’? No. Only America.” What stands out, what is rare, is how the band’s affection for America expresses itself as gratitude, then hardens into action and generosity. The band plays for the troops here and overseas every chance they get. On top of that, they put their money where their microphones are: KISS has linked up with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “Hiring our Heroes” program, hired a veteran to work as a roadie for their summer tour, and again said it will donate $1 from each ticket to the hiring program. KISS also teamed up with BOOMER to select a vet to interview the band and to give tickets to a vets-only concert.

The men and women in uniform – the green and khaki ones, not the studs and black spandex – return the love. It’s easy to find KISS tattoos, posters, concert shirts, rocking-out iPods and heartfelt KISS loyalty at every U.S. military base on the globe.

THE GENERAL’S SON
Tommy Thayer came of age with KISS. In 1974, he saw them for the first time at age 14. They were “real rock stars, pure showmen,” and he wanted to be like them. He bought his first guitar, tore it up practicing and made himself into a master shredder. He did all this under the watchful eye of his career military dad. “I come from a sound family background. Disciplined and aware. My father helped me avoid rock and roll stupidity.” James Thayer didn’t talk about his experiences in the hinterlands of Austria, the rubble of Germany. He did what soldiers have done for generations, the job, where and how it needed to be done. Then he came home, raised a family, became a successful businessman in Oregon and a brigadier general in the reserves. Like General Thayer, today’s warriors return from foreign battlegrounds to an unsure present and have to make the best of it they can. Like the general, they don’t talk much about what they’ve done and suffered in the name of freedom. But unlike Tommy’s father, who walked into the waiting arms of a grateful nation, the men and women of our contemporary military come back to a country that, while applauding them, has yet to embrace them. “Our military has the best we can offer them on the way in,” says Gene. “Why not do that for them on the way out?” “Way too often,” says Eric, “people leaving the military carry burdens. Burdens the rest of us probably have no idea about, nothing we can identify with. We’ve got an entitled attitude in this country. What do most of us do to earn that entitlement, to deserve our freedom?

These men and women, the ones who put their lives at risk for me and you? They’re the ones entitled.” Paul echoes the sentiment: “I want to raise awareness among all Americans that when the soldiers return, they and their families
deserve to be given all means necessary to rehabilitate and integrate back into society.” Tommy goes a step farther, expressing the belief that supporting the troops after service is “a civic ideal, something we should all agree on.” He adds, “But I’m an optimist.”

‘PHILANTROPHIC FOR THE TROOPS’
Last year they raised over half a million dollars for the Wounded Warrior Project. “Maybe we can set an example,” says Tommy. “Maybe we can encourage more people to be philanthropic for the troops.” Charity aside, Gene literally growls about the failure of American businesses to open up sufficient opportunities for returning soldiers. “I want to send a heads-up to anyone who’s hiring. There’s no clock in the military, OK? No unions. They come already trained. They’ve proven they can do a tough job. Who better to hire than a vet? It’s not just morally right. It’s good business.” Gene heaps the same scorn on people who don’t value the sacrifices of the military as he does on today’s baby fat rockers. “People appreciate firemen because their houses could burn down. And cops because their lives could be in danger. But soldiers do their work out of sight. And unlike a house or a life, we assume our liberty could never be taken away. Wrong.”

AND WORK HARD EVERY NIGHT
How do men living what Tommy Thayer says “looks like the ultimate party life” have such a strong empathy for the men and women in uniform standing watch on faraway seas, in sere deserts, in the skies? This mature affinity seems a long way from hammering out rock tunes in heels and fake armor, wearing comic book hero outfits in front of ten thousand at a time of their private KISS Army. It seems a life best suited for hedonists and arrested development boys, even big boys. Not boomers. Not philanthropists. After 39 years of fame and wealth, silliness and tragedy, why isn’t KISS spoiled? Uninspired? Why aren’t they, at the very least, tired? “We love what we do, and we work our butts off,” says Tommy. Attend any KISS concert and that much is obvious. No secret there. A lot of us love our work and go at it hard. After a point, we’re over it. But not KISS. “Be like the old drill sergeant,” Gene says, “who can kick the hell out of a 20-year-old recruit. Know how to pace yourself.” A great American general once said something like this. He spoke in praise of old soldiers, but it’s not a stretch to apply the adage to the music, members, and the message of KISS. Never die. Just fade away.