September 08, 2012
By Mark J. Price
Beacon Journal staff writer

All I really need to know about music, I learned in middle school.

Rock and roll all night. Party every day.

Could the guidelines be any simpler than that?

I owe my questionable taste in loud, flamboyant rock to Billy Barath, a seventh-grade classmate at Manchester Middle School who changed my life in 1976 with a startling pronouncement.

“Kiss is the best,” he told me.

What?!?! Those weird guys in the makeup? Better than Bachman-Turner Overdrive? Better than the Captain and Tennille? Better than K.C. and the Sunshine Band?

This merited investigation. Listening intently to the radio, turning the knob from station to station, catching songs like Rock and Roll All Nite, I determined that Billy was a genius.

Kiss rocked.

The first album I ever bought — actually, it was an eight-track tape — was Kiss Destroyer, which included such classics as Detroit Rock City, Shout It Out Loud, God of Thunder and, of course, Beth. I played it every day after school, blasting the speakers of my home stereo, memorizing the words to each song, strumming air guitars and pounding imaginary drums.

Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss became my heroes.

I worked my way backward through the Kiss record catalog, buying Alive, Dressed to Kill, Hotter Than Hell and the self-titled debut Kiss. I spent countless hours blaring music, analyzing album covers and reading liner notes. I recall studying each face in the crowd photo on the back of Alive and thinking that the two girls holding the Kiss sign were total foxes. Decades later, I was shocked to learn they were boys with long hair.

As my obsession grew, I plastered Kiss posters on my bedroom wall, scoured magazine racks for Kiss issues and raided candy stores for Kiss bubble-gum cards. My friends and I debated and exchanged the latest Kiss gossip. Did the band’s name stand for Knights In Satan’s Service? Did Simmons have a cow tongue surgically grafted to his own? Was the band killed in a tour bus crash and replaced by imposters in identical makeup?

I will never forget my first Kiss concert Jan. 8, 1978, at the Richfield Coliseum, and I’m sure I’m not alone. A winter storm slammed Northeast Ohio that evening, dumping nearly a foot of snow, plunging temperatures to zero and clogging Interstates 271 and 77 with traffic bound for the sold-out show.

My North High freshman classmate Tom Gallagher and I made it safely to the arena, thanks to the white-knuckle driving of my mother. Tom and I found our seats on the main floor and waited for the show while my mother went to an upper-deck area where parents were allowed to stay for free until the concert ended.

With all due respect to Ringling, that Kiss concert was the greatest show on earth. The band’s giant logo, blazing in white lights, seared our retinas as Kiss emerged in black spandex at the top of the stage and descended on hydraulic platforms toward the screaming crowd. Cranking out song after song, Kiss treated us to a flame-throwing, explosion-rattling, fire-breathing, blood-spitting, rhinestone-sparkling, guitar-smoking, drum-levitating, confetti-showering extravaganza.

After the concert, my friend and I were in for another thrill. My mother had befriended an usher, who was kind enough to take us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Coliseum. The storm was raging, so we weren’t in any hurry to leave.

Stopping at a loge level, the usher pointed to a long-haired man in denim who was eating a cup of yogurt while walking.

“That’s the one with the star,” she whispered.

We took another look. It was Paul Stanley in street clothes. Without makeup!

Kids all around the world had wondered what Kiss really looked like. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Stanley stopped to sign autographs for us — and I still prize that scrap of notebook paper.

Next, the usher took us downstairs to a backstage area, where we saw Gene Simmons and Peter Criss waiting for the storm to subside. At least, I think it was them. It was hard to tell without the makeup.

My first Kiss show was memorable, all right. When Tom and I went back to school, we had some amazing stories to tell our classmates.

After that concert, I was a fan for life. I bought every album, every magazine, every T-shirt. Kiss remained my favorite band despite changing lineups and fluctuating popularity. When I wrote to the Coliseum about my desire to see the band up close in 1982, public relations director Joe Cali kindly secured fifth-row tickets for me. I wore Paul Stanley makeup to the show but nearly died of embarrassment when a fan pointed out that I painted the star on the wrong eye. What a rookie mistake!

Being a fan had unintended consequences. While studying journalism at Kent State, I received a call from Cali, who offered me a Coliseum internship in public relations. I would have done that job for free.

Undoubtedly, the high point of my internship was when Cali arranged with Belkin Productions for me to be an errand boy for Kiss at a 1984 concert. By then, the band officially had taken off its makeup.

Among my travels that day, I went to a Mayfield Heights bakery to pick up a congratulatory cake for Simmons, whose new movie Runaway had just come out. The icing read: “We Hope Your Movie Is a ‘Runaway’ Success.”

Belkin then gave me $100 to go to Summit Mall to buy several pairs of weight-lifting gloves, which Stanley liked to wear onstage. In the video for the song Thrills in the Night, I’m pretty sure he’s wearing gloves I bought him.

Next I went to a dry cleaner in Brecksville and picked up the band’s costumes for the concert. I’m not sure what Kiss would have done if I didn’t show up. I felt important as I flashed my ID badge at the security gate and lugged the outfits backstage.

Stanley met me at the star dressing room and held open the door for me.

“I see you have my dress,” he joked. “You can put everything over there.”

I was expecting to see groupies everywhere, but the band was all business during the day. Stanley had phone interviews to conduct before doing a sound check.

Later, I had dinner with the roadies at a backstage buffet and tried not to gawk as Stanley and Simmons sat at nearby tables. I was the consummate professional, pretending like I did this all the time, but the fanboy in me was secretly singing the Hallelujah chorus.

Over the last 35 years, I’ve attended about 20 Kiss concerts in Northeast Ohio, enjoying every incarnation of the band. The makeup returned. There was a reunion tour and a farewell tour. The band kept on chugging.

Joining Stanley and Simmons in the current lineup are guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer, a Cleveland native. Some fans aren’t happy that Thayer and Singer are wearing the makeup originated by Frehley and Criss. I’m just glad that Kiss is still touring and making music.

Like any devoted fan, I’m waiting impatiently for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to come to its senses. I renew my membership just so I can write on the envelope “INDUCT KISS.” Until then, I refuse to set foot in the place.

The band provided the soundtrack to my life and I am forever grateful. When my wife and I go to the Kiss-Motley Crue concert Wednesday at Blossom Music Center, we will be front and center. I guarantee we will rock and roll all night.