HOW MY TWO HIGH SCHOOL BUDDIES MADE IT BIG
September 15, 2013
Nothin' To Lose - The Making of KISS - 1972 - 1975: The Story of How My Two High School Buddies, Starchild and Monster, Made It Big!

By Binky Philips

School year, 1969/1970...

There were three guys at the High School of Music & Art in New York City who owned a Gibson guitar, the true no-argument Rolls Royce of guitar companies.

There was me. I had a 1962 SG - style Les Paul.

There was Murray Dabby, the best player of this trio, who owned a 1965 SG Standard, almost the same guitar as mine, just a few years newer.

The third guy had a 1960 Les Paul Special, the model just below mine.

This Gibson connection was a bond.

I grew up to be... what? I don't even know. A guitarist? A writer? A music biz sleaze ball? All of the above?

Murray grew up to be a full-fledged shrink, doing the good work, in Atlanta.

The third guy was Stan Eisen. He grew up to be Paul Stanley, Starchild, Global Icon.

All three of us still play guitar.

While Murray and I were tight, very much a bro, oddly, it was Stan who I stayed in touch with after graduation. He left the year before me. I'm 374 days younger.

One day, Stan called to tell me he'd just legally changed his name to Paul and it would mean a lot to him if I started calling him by that name.

I said, "Sure, Stan."

"Ummm, well, you just called me Stan, Binky."

"Oh, wow, sorry, PAUL."

For the record, my headline is pure nonsense. I met Gene a year after graduation.

A few years later, July 13, 1973, Paul, Gene, and I were sharing the stage at the now-gone Hotel Diplomat on West 43rd St, just off Times Square. I was the lead guitarist of The Planets. We opened for KISS that night.

Paul and I have never really lost touch. Watching a goofy pal go from struggling guitar dope to Rock Royalty has been a trip, I can assure you.

Which is where I'm gonna segue into a review of the latest, and possibly tastiest, of all the various KISS 'n' tell books out there on the decades-thriving spectacle that is KISS, Nothin' To Lose - The Making of KISS - 1972 - 1975 by Ken Sharp with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, out now on !T Books.

Comprised of over three years' worth of interviews with well over 200 individuals who, in one way or another, interacted with KISS as a band or as individuals. Managers, knucklehead band guys from New York City, famous rock stars, record label peeps, roadies, promoters, writers, studio rats, anyone who had anything of worth to contribute, Detective Ken Sharp tracked down, and grilled. Yes, I'm one of them.

Ooops, yes... Sorry. FULL DISCLOSURE: I'm all over this freakin' outstanding book.

Way back when, Paul and Gene had (to my surprise and gratification) a great deal of respect for my opinion. That's why they invited me down to just their third rehearsal with Ace... to see what I thought of the 'new' guy's playing. It kinda felt like he was still on 'probation,' frankly.

So... Yes, I saw them perform "Strutter," "Deuce" and "Firehouse" in their dingy hole of a room on the 4th floor of a truly decrepit building... 10 East 23rd Street... soon torn down, actually.

First, they did the three songs as a trio... ummmmmm, new boy, Ace, was late! Nice. Then, when he finally showed up, acting surly as if everyone else was early (WTF?), I heard them do those same three tunes as The Quartet. Man, they sounded so much better with Ace. Yes, this story, in great detail, and dozens and dozens of others, like my visit to Electric Ladyland when they were recording the "Dressed To Kill" album, are in this fine, fine oral history of those exciting and risk-filled early days of a band that was destined to become, quite literally, the biggest band in the world.

Ken Sharp has a gift, it would seem. I know firsthand how skillful and relentless he is in wringing out as many details from you as he can... but, here, much, much more importantly than minutia/trivia, Ken has gotten four guys, drenched in decades' worth of animosity and ill will, to go back and relive... The Hungry All For One, One For All days.

In almost every quote from Paul, Gene, Ace, Peter, the air of wistful and still-dazzled-by-it-all reminiscence is palpable.

That almost pathological confidence of Gene's is almost nowhere to be found. Mr. Simmons, throughout, lets some light shine on the real him. In fact, it seems like in the earliest days, it was Paul who was the rally-er, the faithful one. And I do vividly recall feeling just a wee bit baffled by Paul's slightly 'strutty' attitude back in high school. It wasn't arrogance, just his general comportment had a very strong sense-of-self... maybe a little cocky, not off-putting, but, honestly, at the time, it seemed a little misplaced.

"Nothin' To Lose" offers a richly detailed day-to-day accounting of all the myths in their legend, and the mundanity of a band's early life, as they really happened...

You are in the room, the afternoon Paul and Gene meet for the first time, with Paul wondering, "Who the fuck does THIS guy think he is!?" HA! Guess we all found out, huh, Paulie! Although, truth be told, Gene has always treated me like an equal... an equal he's kinda disappointed in. I don't blame him.

You are in Electric Ladyland as Paul and Gene try to go from being coffee-getters to recording artists... hint: they stay coffeemakers for quite a while.

You are in the cab that Paul's driving all day before he practices all night.

You are in Bill Aucoin's office when he promises them a record deal in 60 days or they can walk away.

You are in the studio as they cut their first album, having no clue real clue, one that now sounds barely passable as a demo.

You are in the station wagon with Peter, Paul, Ace, and Gene, as a roadie drives them over 600 miles from Lansing, Michigan to Macon, Georgia, for a show the next day. And then you are back in that station wagon as they drive back up north to Fort Wayne, Indiana, 500 miles, the next day.

You are there, when for the first and maybe only time in his life, Paul Stanley gets roaringly blazingly drunk at the photo session for the cover of the "Hotter Than Hell" album [I remember him telling me that when he was looking at contact sheets of the shoot, there were hours he just simply could not remember].

You are in the motel when KISS and Rush, both struggling opening acts being thrown off bills by headliners, are being very naughty Keith Moon wannabes,

You are backstage when Paul peeks through the curtain at the sold out Cobo Hall show and realizes, "Holy fuck! This is really happening!"

You are right there, center section, front row through every twist and turn, every victory and all the myriad setbacks and (temporary) defeats.

You come to realize that while KISS got signed to a major label very, very quickly in their career, they did NOT escape Paying Their Dues. Not by a long shot.

KISS was an enterprise teetering on the brink of doom for more than two straight years. The desperation at certain points comes off these pages like an odor!

Yet, for the most part, you get all that sorta 'bad vibe' reality stuff from all the other professionals featured in the book. The four KISS-ers were all so 'pinch me' excited about having gotten 'this far' that they never realized, for just one instance, that being asked to cut another album less than four months after they'd done their 2nd was an act of frantic panic on Casablanca's part. Paul and Gene just sat down and started writing more songs.

Songs.

Folks, listen to me carefully...

IF PAUL AND GENE WERE NOT WORLD-CLASS SONGWRITERS... their visual gimmickry would've given them an 18 month run... at best. KISS is perhaps the most glaring proof that beyond anything else, songwriting is the heart, the soul, the lungs, of a band's success.

EVERY TIME!

KISS-haters, legion though they be, are missing some of the most fun, most well thought out, rock music ever recorded. KISS's template was a combination of Humble Pie - Live at the Fillmore East and the hits of Slade, a huge band in the UK and Europe at the time. If you love guitar rock, why would you not want to hear that blend?!

Wanna finally investigate that which you loath only general principle? Here's what I consider KISS's Top 20... in rough chronological order...

"Strutter"
"Deuce"
"Black Diamond"
"Gotta Choose"
"Rock Bottom"
"Come On And Love Me"
"Love Her All I Can"
"Detroit Rock City"
"Do You Love Me"
"King Of The Nighttime World"
"Shout It Out Loud"
"I Want You"
"Calling Dr. Love"
"Makin' Love"
"I Stole Your Love"
"Love Gun"
"Christine Sixteen"
"Shock Me"
"I Love It Loud"
"Tears Are Falling"

A bonus: Three quick stories that are not in the book... only because I somehow forgot them when Ken was giving me the 3rd degree...

Sorry, Ken... Sorry, !T Books...

All three are my personal favorite little moments in my long friendship with Starchild and Monster...

My Gene story...

Gene was in town [they really were on the road forever]. He knew I'd finished my demo for Warner Bros. Records at the Record Plant, because my band, The Planets, had used KISS's main engineer, Corky Stasiak, a great, great man.

My phone rang...

"Hey, Binky, it's Gene. I'm back in New York for a few days. I really want to hear your Warner Bros demo. When can we get together?"

I made it over to his place later that day. It was an apartment in Manhattan in the West 70s. He was renting the spare bedroom from a woman I did not meet. He was on the road so much, it was all he needed.

Gene peppered me with technical and aesthetic questions throughout our listening to the demo tape. While he was listening to a track called "Lexington Avenue", basically an exercise in writing with diminished chords, he looked at me with astonishment, "You wrote this?!" Yep. 30 seconds later, "YOU WROTE THIS?!?" I took the compliment.

Then, after gracious praise for the whole five song tape, Gene asked, "Wanna hear my favorite song of all time?" Sure.

He got out Mountain's album, "Climbing" and put on "Never In My Life", a fantastic piece of riff-ery. Within 60 seconds, I was no longer there, the world was no longer there. Gene was air-drumming along with Corky Laing, back in his childhood bedroom, just flat out grooving, as blissfully lost as a teenager. A moment, a peek, I treasure.

My Paul story...

Late one night, well after midnight, my phone rang. I was channel-surfing...

"Hey, Binky, it's Paul. You up?"

"Yes, and I just smoked some reefer, too."

"Ha! Good! I wanna play something for you. I just came up with this riff. I want you to hear this."

"Oh, fuck, yeah. Hey, where are you calling from?"

"I don't know. What day is it?"

"Thursday. Jeeez, Paul!"

"I think that means I'm in Oklahoma City."

"You really don't know where you are! That's fabulous."

"Okay, let me turn on my Pignose [a tiny guitar amp very popular at the end of the 1970s]..."

And then, Paul played me the central riff for "I Want You", the opener on one of the best KISS albums, "Rock 'N' Roll Over".

I was the first person to ever hear that riff other than its creator...

"Paul, I think that might be the coolest riff you've ever written, man."

"You know, I think you're right. I knew you'd dig it. But, I have no idea what to do with it."

"Oh, you'll figure it out... Play it again, man!"

My ego-trip story...

One morning, my phone rang... It was engineer, Corky. I'd seen him a few nights before when Paul and I briefly stopped by a Gene-vocals session at the Record Plant for the album that would become "Rock 'n' Roll Over"...

"Binky, I had to call you. You are gonna love this. Last night, Ace was cutting solos on two of Gene's songs. He's got one called "Calling Dr. Love". It's one of the best on the album, I think. Just before we had Ace try the solo on that song, Gene gave him this one instruction... 'Give me a Binky solo.' Ace immediately understood and put down a totally wild solo... emulating you, man. It's the keeper! Ya gotta love it, Bink."

And I did and do.

Coda: I went to a book signing for "Nothin' To Lose" out at the Barnes & Noble on Staten Island this week. Paul and I had reconnected about 18 months ago. But, I hadn't seen him or Gene in the flesh in, well, decades. I want to thank both Paul and Gene for making a genuine fuss over my showing up. "Holy Crap! Binky!" And no, of course, I didn't get my copy of the book signed or have a picture taken with my two old guitar bozo pals. Why would I do that?!

Anyway, it warmed the heart of this old still-guitar-obsessed fanboy. Ya done good.