On Friday, the newest issue of Rolling Stone magazine hits the racks. On the cover will be a 1975 photograph of a bunch of freakily made-up New York City guys who look like they can’t decide whether they’re trying to be the New York Dolls or a failed Marvel Comics “supergroup.”
Yes folks, after 40 years in the business, during which time they’ve proven themselves to be one of the most commercially successful rock bands of all time, Kiss has finally gotten the nod from Rolling Stone.
Why now? Well, on April 10, Kiss will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fans of the band have been clamoring for this for years.
This should be a victory lap for Kiss. Instead, it is turning into a bit of a public relations fiasco.
The problem is the same problem that has plagued the band since its late-1970s heyday: the original members of Kiss form a dysfunctional family. Co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are the sole original members, and are basically running Kiss as a business, a brand more than a band. They don’t get along with original guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss.
The core of the problem can be whittled down to what are essentially widely varying lifestyle choices. Simmons and Stanley are teetotalers. Frehley and Criss have battled substance abuse issues for decades, though both are said to be sober these days. Picture a couple where one spouse drinks constantly, while the other won’t touch a drop. Tough to find much common ground there.
Critics always have hated Kiss, all but universally. But if, in the late ’70s, you were between the ages of 10 and 20, you really didn’t care what the critics thought. Kiss was made up of comic book figures and horror movie monsters come to life. And Frehley was an awesome guitarist. Kiss was a rite of passage. Particularly if you didn’t live in New York City, which would mean that you would never have heard of the New York Dolls.
Lisa Robinson, a prominent rock journalist throughout the past four decades, writes in her soon-to-be published memoir “There Goes Gravity” of her first exposure to Kiss, at the seedy Hotel Diplomat in New York in the latter days of 1973. “I was appalled that this foursome, dressed as cheap cartoon superheroes, were ripping off the music of the adored New York Dolls. Badly. Without a modicum of wit. I told [Casablanca Records president] Neil [Bogart] they should be ashamed of themselves, they’d never make it. They were, basically, criminals.”
Even amid constant critical drubbing, the band’s most powerful enemy was itself. Not just Criss and Frehley, who certainly did some damage to the band while doing considerable damage to themselves while partying like madmen. No, it was Simmons, mostly, who did the most damage, with Stanley as his often willing co-conspirator.
Simmons was, and appears to still be, an unfailingly arrogant egomaniac and unregulated capitalist who is willing to sell off whatever credibility the band earned through its music. The band’s rampant commercialism, the runaway consumerism that seemed to be part and parcel of the Kiss business plan, made it tough for fans to remain enthralled with Kiss after a certain age.
However, decade after decade, many did. Kiss has accrued new fans across the generations from the 1990s forward, but a healthy portion of its fan base is between the ages of 45 and 55, and these are the people who lobbied tirelessly for the band’s induction into the rock hall. Imagine the sense of betrayal they feel, then, when they learn that the original band members will not perform together at the induction ceremonies.
Instead, when Kiss is inducted into the hall, the band that performs will not include Frehley and Criss, but will instead feature their stand-ins: Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer. Frehley and Criss are not too keen on this state of affairs, and have made that fact plain.
The question remains: Is this really Kiss? Or did that band die 30 years ago? It could very well be that the Rolling Stone cover story comes at least a quarter-century too late.
Maybe it’s time for fans to let it go. They wanted the best. They got the best, for a little while at least. Now perhaps it’s time to move on.