07/09/2016

KISS is bringing its high-octane tour to the Matthew Knight Arena Tonight

By Jackie Varriano / The Register-Guard

It was 42 years ago this past February that KISS released its first album. The self-titled 10-track record had all the makings of a flop.

The cover featured the four members in their now trademark makeup (although Peter Criss looks a bit suspicious) in some sort of floating head Beatles homage against a black background.

It was released by an unknown entity — the brand-new Casablanca Records — and failed to produce a hit single. The glam rockers were told to turn down the volume, lose the makeup and write better songs (and obviously refused). Their first gig in support of the album wasn’t even in the United States — it was in Edmonton in Alberta, Canada; the second show was in Calgary.

“Nobody knew who we were,” Gene Simmons said during a recent phone call.

“We were at a college and we set up our amplifiers on the lunch tables that were put next to each other and, of course, they broke and we set the ceiling on fire and people ran out the door because our bombs went off because they thought it was, you know, some sort of bomb.”

Simmons says the audience didn’t have a clue what to make of it — “In front of them were these guys wearing leather and heels and makeup. But the ones who sat through it were like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ I’ve never seen anything like it.”

And it’s been people just like the ones who stayed at that Calgary show who eventually developed into the KISS Army. They were the ones who helped the album become a certified gold record in 1977 and the reason why after 42 years Simmons can comfortably say that KISS is the biggest band in the world.

The fans are the reason why the band now is embarking on a summer tour, hitting cities across America that they haven’t been to in at least a decade, or ever. Simmons and his brothers in leather — Paul Stanley, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer — will be playing the Matthew Knight Arena on Saturday. 

Simmons begins our conversation by saying he’s “deliriously happy.” The best thing about being Simmons is the “freedom to be anywhere at any time and do anything that I want.”

The thing is, even after 42 years, the thing that he wants is to be on stage.

“We have the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and all that stuff. But to us, always the beginning and end of it was live on stage; the electric circus, glory, glory hallelujah, all hail rock ’n’ roll.

“That feeling that you get on stage is more fun than being the pope. We get to do fireworks without praying for it.”

That feeling he gets is partially due to the reaction of fans, and if there’s one thing Simmons has been steadfast about during the past 42 years, it’s that everything he does is for them.

“When we get up on stage, we can only do 50 percent. The other 50 percent are the fans. The crazier you go, the faster you jump up on your seats and stand, the better we are.

“For us it’s electric church. The give and take, back and forth with the band — we don’t do — ‘what’s the secret of life,’ ‘why do I have my mother’s hips’ – we don’t do any of that stuff, we celebrate life. “And of course we stand guilty as charged by our harshest critics that we make a complete spectacle out of ourselves — you’re goddamn right we do.”

This devotion to fans is apparent as early as his first ever television appearance. It was on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1974, just weeks after the album had been released. A skinny Simmons clomps onstage, waving his extremely long tongue at the audience and thoroughly not impressing co-host and comedienne Totie Fields. 

When Douglas asks Simmons who he’s supposed to be with all that makeup and bat cape he hisses “What I am is evil incarnate.” However, this demeanor softens faster than ice cream on a hot day when a couple comes out on stage.

Simmons is more than cordial; he’s practically affectionate, grateful that these people are so clearly enamored by his band. It’s this one tiny sliver of the mask cracking that provides a little ammo to the argument that Simmons constant bravado is an act, that there’s more to this man than the guy who told “Fresh Air’s” Terri Gross that if she was to welcome him with open arms on her show, she also should welcome him with open legs.

During our phone call, Simmons talked a bit about those early days and how they originally got signed to Casablanca Records.

“He actually decided to sign us because of our arrogance; our blind faith in what it is that we do. Because really, at the beginning you’re going to be running on faith and the will. Before there’s money, before there’s fame or anything, the only fuel you’ve got is your belief.”

That blind faith and will has paid off exponentially. There’s the LA KISS arena football team, a KISS golf course in Las Vegas, KISS cruises and every single form of merchandise a KISS fan could want — right down to a KISS coffin for your final resting place. But has KISS reached the pinnacle?

“Oh no, there are so many other things we’re going to do… even Warner Bros. is looking at a TV series of our life story. There are a lot of things coming out,” he says.

Aside from all the KISS dolls and comic books and paraphernalia — the thing that first hooked people like that kissing couple way back in 1974 was the music and the live show.

Let’s say you’re not a card carrying member of the KISS Army — what should you expect?

“You should know that the legend is true. If all the sudden the Stones and Paul McCartney have fireworks and pyro in their show, I’m here to tell you they didn’t get that from Crosby, Stills and Nash.

“Our biggest contribution is that we upped the stakes. We made it not OK to get up on stage and charge you $100 for the privilege of strumming an acoustic guitar cross-legged on a Persian carpet with incense. That’s not a show.”

Simmons promises bang for your bucks — and he’s proud of it.

“From far away you might say all I want to do is get rich enough and famous enough to sit back and do nothing. I would probably hang myself if I did nothing. The bigger and more successful we get, the harder I want to work.” 

Concert Preview

KISS: Freedom to Rock Tour

With: Special guest Caleb Johnson

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, July 9

Where: Matthew Knight Arena, 1776 E. 13th Ave.

Tickets: $39 to $125; 

www.matthewknightarena.com

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