May 07, 2014
Diehard KISS fan and reporter: How I survived meeting my boyhood hero, Paul Stanley

By Adrian Dater

What do you say when a rock god, when one of the three biggest boyhood heroes of your entire life, calls your phone and asks to speak with you?

In my case Sunday, when Paul Stanley called my phone — that’s the Paul Stanley from Kiss, a little rock ‘n’ roll band you might have heard of — what I said was: “Oh hi, Paul. Thanks for calling.”

Why did he call me? More on that later.

I’ve never been the type of person to scream and jump up and down at seeing a famous person. I’ve been in some situations before – Ethan Hawke right behind me at a rental car line in Vancouver, Martin Sheen right behind me at an airport security line, Dave Thomas from SCTV right ahead of me at a security line in, I think, Toronto, once.

Hawke was in one of my favorite movies ever “Reality Bites”, Sheen was in another of mine — “Wall Street” — and Thomas kept me howling as a teenager watching SCTV late on Friday nights, especially when he did Bob and Doug McKenzie skits. (“Goood-loook-gooo-gooo-gooo-goo-goo-goooo, gooood-look-goooo-gooo-goo-goo-goo-gooooooo.”) All three times, I never once made any eye contact, never tried to strike up a “hey, big fan, really loved you in…” No, I never wanted to be THAT guy.

But there have been times when I’ve met some real boyhood heroes, or talked to them over the phone. Those were the times I got pretty damn scared. The first time was around 1997 or, when Larry Bird came to Denver as coach of the Pacers, and I got assigned to cover that night’s game for The Post, filling in for Mike Monroe, I believe.

A couple years ago, I remember reading something in a Bill Simmons ESPN column that really stuck with me, about the best way to handle yourself in a chance encounter with a big celebrity. Don’t try for the complete game shutout, Simmons warned. Be happy with the five-inning decision instead. Get in, get out. Don’t get fancy or start some long-winded story about “Hey, when I was in 5th grade, and I saw you on a box top for the first time, I went to my mom and said, ‘mom, this is the box top I want’ and to this day I still have that box top and, hey, would you like to see them, it won’t take long, I promise and…”

Simmons’ warning was well at the front of my cerebellum when my cell rang today at 3:30 p.m. — the exact time Paul Stanley’s book publicist said he would call me.

Wait, what? Paul Stanley will CALL ME? Like, it’s in his day-timer right now: “Sunday, May 4, 2:30 (Pacific time, where Paul lives), call Adrian Dater, 303-xxx-xxxx.” All night Saturday, I kept just shaking my head at that.

Because, let me tell you, Paul Stanley and Kiss were EVERYTHING to me for a good, solid four years of my adolescence. I’m the kind of person who, when he gets interested in something, I go in for the deep dive. It wasn’t enough for me to just be a Kiss fan, starting in 1981 when, at my folks’ remote summer cabin in New Hampshire, I bought Paul Stanley’s solo album.

I didn’t just buy other Kiss albums and listen. I found underground bootleg cassette tapes on the black market and bought many of them. I had Kiss penpals around the country (remember kids, no Internet or texting or smart phones in 1981) to whom I’d write long, long letters to about the latest rumors/goings-on with Kiss. I called my local radio station day and night requesting Kiss songs and getting super adolescent-y pissed off when they didn’t always play them. For every new Kiss album starting when I was a real fan, which began with “Music From The Elder“, I would feel it was my duty to buy the a) album b) cassette tape c) the 8-track tape. As Chuck Klosterman wrote in a brilliant recent piece for Grantland on his own experiences as a Kiss fan, we Kiss fans “gladly” gave our money to this band, even when many of us had very little to give.

By buying all three versions of the product, I felt better about myself. I actually, no joke, felt good that “maybe this money I’m giving them will help those guys, because maybe they really need it.” They were all millionaires several times over, even then no doubt! But that’s just how us Kiss fans felt.

But back to the call. As I said, Paul Stanley was one of my three real boyhood heroes and Larry Bird was another. The third? Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bird was a hero just because he was the greatest basketball player I ever saw, and I loved hoops in the 70s and 80s, passionately. Stanley because he was the star of my favorite rock band, the one that many by the early ‘80s were making fun of and anyone who followed them. It was all Van Halen and REO Speedwagon and Journey and Loverboy to anyone at my school in 1981-83. Kiss was a dinosaur has-been to them, a mockery.

All three of these guys were heroes to me, essentially, because I identified with their underdog upbringings. Bird came from poverty from French Lick, Ind., to become a Hall of Famer. Schwarzenegger spoke no English in coming to the U.S from Austria, but worked himself in a champion bodybuilding and, later, governor of Ka-Lee-Forn-ya. Paul Stanley came from a working-class home, with no right ear thanks to a condition called Microtia, and worked himself to being lead singer in one of the most popular bands of all time.

Me? I was 16 years old when I bought my first Kiss album. I was about 6-foot-5, 135 pounds. No lie at all. Skinny. Picked on a lot because of it. I was built like an exclamation point. No girlfriends. Horrendously self-conscious. If I went out in public at all, which wasn’t often, I would try to pad my clothing to look bigger.

Underneath my skin-tight Levi cords I’d wear — and this is no lie — two or sometimes three pairs of full sweatpants, PLUS two or three pairs of shorts. Four to five layers of extra clothing every day, just to feel normal at school. Under my shirts, I would wear at least three or four regular or t-shirts to try and pad out my scrawny arms and chest. But that never stopped the non-stop teasing. They called me “Twig” and laughed their heads off at me. I was like a human praying mantis. I was just long, spindly limbs and nothing more. A girl wouldn’t go within 50 feet of me.

In those miserable, worry-chocked days of teenage youth, the music of Kiss was one of my constants, to help get me through. The music was uplifting to me. It conjured not only images of fun, but of maybe the guy I could be some day. The guy who got the girl somehow.

Right around late senior year of high school, I discovered something radical: weight-lifting equipment. All I had to do, it turned out, was spend every night lifting as many of these weights around and, voila, I wouldn’t need to pad my clothes anymore. I spent every single night, from about age 17-21, in a gym somewhere, getting big. I went from 6-5, 135 to 6-5, 215 by my sophomore year in college. I put on 80 POUNDS OF SOLID MUSCLE. Arnold was my pictorial inspiration in the gym, but always, Kiss was playing on my primitive Walkman cassette players while I heaved and groaned under the barbells.

Girls actually approached me now. They wanted to know “what I was doing later.” And all those guys who used to pick on me a lot? Well, they didn’t come my way much anymore, shockingly.

So, for me, Paul Stanley’s book was so good because of what it WASN’T ABOUT. It wasn’t about (much) this tale or that tale about some sexual conquest of some model. It wasn’t about how big his house was, and how many cars he has. It was a book about a guy born without a right ear, who was called “Stanley the One-Eared Monster” through his childhood from mean schoolmates. It was about a guy who overcame all that early trauma, along with a dysfunctional household, to make something of himself, to achieve his dreams.

When kids picked on me non-stop in high school, I used to try to tell myself: “there’s another life out there somewhere, and while this one might suck ass right now, you just have to hang in there and get to that better life.”

So when the phone rang today, I felt in some ways I was talking to a kindred spirit in Paul Stanley, and that’s what, I think, made our 15-minute conversation flow pretty well. Did I still feel a little nervous, with a mind that couldn’t slow down enough for my taste, to have a more natural flow to the conversation? Yes. When Paul stopped talking each time, I kind of felt that little 3-alarm fire go off in my head. “OK, time to make the next segue to the next topic here kid, don’t stumble.”

“Hello, it’s Adrian,” I said.

“Hey, it’s Paul Stanley,” came the voice on the other end (and for any of you hoping his phone number came up and you’re already scheming to get me drunk and give it to you or just outright steal it — the phone said “No Caller ID” on the ring. Right, you think Paul hasn’t thought of that before?”).

“Oh, hi Paul. Thanks for calling, appreciate it,” I think I said in response.

At this point I had a choice: I could give in to the wild excitement building in my sternum over the fact that I WAS NOW ON THE PHONE WITH PAUL FREAKIN’ STANLEY, THE GUY WHOSE FACE WAS ALL OVER MY WALLS AS A TEENAGER GROWING UP or I could just remain very calm and get on to the next order of business, which was to initiate a discussion about why he was coming to Denver the next day for an appearance at the Tattered Cover bookstore to sign copies of his book “Paul Stanley: Face the Music, A Life Exposed.”

I did start off the conversation by telling him that my favorite part of the book was when he got his ear fixed at the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Clinic, in Hanover, N.H., 1982 or so. Because I GREW UP PARTIALLY IN HANOVER, and my MOM WORKED AT THAT CLINIC right when he was admitted.

That broke the ice pretty effectively with Paul in the conversation, though right at the start he said something like “I wish I had more time to spend here” on this, which meant I had to mentally shift right into pure business mode, and just ask the questions I’d had planned. No silly fan boy stuff here. I knew I was a journalist first, old fan second, and I wasn’t about to lapse into Chris Farley territory, (that interview with Paul McCartney in his famous SNL skit.)

Here is some of my interview with Paul that didn’t make the print version:

If you didn’t get your ear fixed (at Dartmouth’s Hitchcock Hospital, where my own mother worked and where my stepfather went to college), might you still have had many of the same social problems you spoke about? Or, would that have faded more, after all your success even with the ear deformity?

Paul Stanley: Well, interestingly, the bottom line is that fixing things on the outside is only a help when you’re done the work on the inside. You can cover things, you can alter them on the outside, but your secrets and your issues stay the same. So while it’s wonderful to have had my ear rebuilt, had I not had all the other work, without all the other exploration and the excavation in my life, it wouldn’t have had the same results. Because, again, altering the external would be no different than covering the external.”

It seems like when you met your second wife, Erin, and settled down to have a family with her is when so much of your growth as a person happened. Is it just that simple?

Paul Stanley: I say in the book that I think that a good barometer of how your life is and how well adjusted you are is a direct reflection of how your relationship is. Who you choose is a real reflection of who you are, and when you buy into turmoil, or buy into unrequited love, or whatever, it’s surely a sign that you’re not ready. So, Erin, in much the same way — and thank god for her that she came into my life and I don’t know how she did — she was a necessary part, as was having my ear rebuilt. But neither one – I couldn’t take advantage of either one of them, had I not found some sense of self. And put some issues to rest. I knew what I was looking for in a relationship, but I had to go through a relationship that wasn’t ideal to reach that point. And yet, some people, sadly, go through the same relationship over and over, and somehow manage to blame bad luck. Well, we make our luck, you know? Whenever someone says to me, ‘I have bad luck with women’, I immediately think to myself, ‘well, there’s your problem right there.’ The fact that you’re attributing it to bad luck instead of responsibility – that’s one thing that the book is about. It’s about taking responsibility. It’s very easy to be a victim. It’s very easy to point fingers at people and say ‘they’re the reason I am the way I am.’ But that gets you nothing. Being the victim, the only life that’s compromised is yours. So, at some point you either decide to get up, dust yourself off and make a great life for yourself, or you spend your life blaming other people. And the only loser is you.”

One of my favorite lines in your book is when you said. “Doing for others now is the most satisfying thing in my life. It’s the gift I never knew. It’s fulfilling in a way much more than when I was young.’ Ironic, right? You got the most of what you really needed when you started giving more of yourself. The ‘reap what you sow’ element seems strong with you now, yes?

Paul Stanley: It’s so interesting that we’re so blind to the solution in being giving to others. That’s how we get the most. It’s lost on so many of us, that the way to contentment and a better life is by helping others.

But that’s hard to do. A lot of people do “good works” in the secret hope that they’ll get more out of it financially or publicity-wise, than the one they’re supposedly helping. When did you start to not care what might be in it for you, in “paying it forward”?

Paul Stanley: I think it’s been 14 or so years now. I remember having a revelation about ‘who am I to judge anybody asking for a handout on the street? What gives me the right to look down at them? Or pass judgment or to tell them to go get a job?’ I may not be able to solve their problems, but maybe I can give them five minutes, 10 minutes of a little like in their life. Regardless of their position in life, they’re in their position, and I’ve never walked in their shoes, but there but for the grace of God, go I. When we give and expect nothing in return, we make the world better and we make ourselves better.

One part of the book I liked, and what made me buy in more to what you’re saying about really giving back and not just being a conspicuous consumer, as you so clearly could be, was when you talked about how at birthday parties for your kids, they are “no present parties.” Gift givers can bring money to give to your child, but it is to be put to a charity of their choosing.

Paul Stanley: Our responsibility as parents is to teach our children responsibility about society. To teach them ethics, and what their role is. And when we leave this earth, we leave behind a better generation. All I wanted to do was to write something that might help somebody else. And show my children what my life was like and how I could never tell them as succinctly.

How did I end things with Paul Stanley? No fawning. But I did give a brief few words that I want to keep private. Nothing scandalous. Just a few words, and he kindly responded back to them.

That was my 15 minutes with a boyhood hero. That’s all it was, but it left me with a warm glow the rest of the day. In a way, I felt like I had been struggling as much in my life to achieve talking to a guy like him in a professional interview, as he did struggling to overcome that ear problem and make it as a rock god.

Both are our paths crossed along the way in each of our journeys. He’s got a little more money than me and a little more star power, but I achieved what I wanted in life and so did he. That’s why everyone needs a hero to look up to when they’re a kid.

So, thanks Paul. Good luck in the rest of your own journey.

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