Ron Onesti: My first 'KISS'
I don't believe there is anyone on the planet under the age of 65 who doesn't know the rock band KISS. The band's iconic look and music has taken it from New York City obscurity and catapulted KISS to legendary status and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
With 30 gold albums (more than any other American band) and more than 100 million records sold worldwide, KISS is by far one of the most successful bands in history.
I had the opportunity to work with Ace Frehley, founding member and original lead guitarist of KISS, on a few occasions. Because of this, I have gained a certain insight into the band, and into the personalities within.
When I first met Ace (a nickname he received in high school because of his ability to get girls), I was taken aback on how big of a guy he was. He is as big as any linebacker I have ever met -- a thick guy with a rough-edged look. He welcomed me with a half-smile and a heavy Bronx "Howyadoin."
I looked up at him as if I was looking into space; ironically so, as his stage name is "Space-Ace." Spending some time with him was, at the very least, interesting, and he is one guy I would want on my side should I ever meet up with danger in a dark alley.
I admittedly was not a KISS fan in the beginning. KISS actually began in 1973 but didn't really hit it big until the band's double live album, "Alive," came out in 1975. As much as I proclaim to be a '70s classic rocker, to be honest, the gimmicky presentation of KISS didn't interest me at the time.
I didn't realize the band was actually a band. I thought it was one of those manufactured acts, like The Monkees. Then "Beth" came out.
I loved that song and it wasn't until I bought the 45 that I found out it was the B side to "Detroit Rock City." How could "Beth," this power ballad, come from … KISS? It was the song of my first "real" slow dance in eight grade (my first "sort-of-real" slow dance was to the tune "Colour My World" by Chicago in seventh grade).
I followed the band as much as I did any other, jamming to "Rock And Roll All Night" along with Foghat's "Slow Ride," Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," "The Temples Of Syrinx" by Rush, "Songs From The Wood" by Jethro Tull, "Killer Queen" by the killer band Queen, and Kansas' "Carry On My Wayward Son." But still, I did not pay much attention to the band.
KISS went on being KISS, and my musical tastes further developed into more diverse, yet popular groups. "Back In Black" by AC/DC, "Still Loving You" by The Scorpions, "Pour Some Sugar On Me" by Def Leopard and "Paradise City" by Guns N' Roses followed as my reason to turn my WLS-AM radio to "11" in the car, with the windows down, even though it was January in Chicago and 20 degrees outside.
Ace left the band in 1982, after original drummer Peter Criss' departure. "Richie Sambora (of Bon Jovi) and Eddie Van Halen both wanted my job," Ace said. "I wanted to do my solo stuff. I wrote a bunch with the band, toured the world, was on top for a lot of years … I even designed the KISS lightning bolt logo!" he said. What else was there to do?
I was very curious about how this whole thing came to be. "Peter (Criss) told Paul (Stanley) that he was in a band called Lips. So Paul suggested KISS. The original name of Paul and Gene's (Simmons) band was Wicked Lester. So when I joined the other three guys and we changed the name, I wrote KISS on top of a Wicked Lester poster at a club we were set to play. That became our logo, and off we were," Frehley said.
The band added the makeup, a comic book style that developed into a representation of each members' unique personality. Stanley became the "Starchild" because of his tendency to be referred to as a "starry-eyed lover" and "hopeless romantic." The "Demon" makeup reflected Simmons' dark sense of humor. Frehley's "Spaceman" makeup was a reflection of his fondness for science fiction and Criss' "Catman" makeup was in accordance with the belief that he had nine lives, because of his rough childhood in Brooklyn.
Although the music took a while to catch on, it was the band's onstage antics at its live performances that drew the crowds. Simmons' tried to be as dark as his character would suggest, shooting grain alcohol from his mouth and lighting it on fire. His hairspray-laden hair caught on fire on several occasions during the fire-breathing act, beginning with his first performance. The audience thought it was intentional, further adding to his "psychotic" persona.
Simmons also would mix raw egg whites, strawberry syrup and food coloring and spit out the mixture, letting it run down his mouth as if he was spitting out blood. Yeah, something to bring the kids to!
The rest of the band also had their gimmicks. Smoke and flames would shoot out of Ace's guitar, Peter's drums would elevate and spark, and Paul would smash guitars and surround himself with pyrotechnics. The band was truly ahead of its time with the onstage theatrics.
In 1996, after years of waning record sales, Bon Jovi/Motley Crue manager Doc McGhee took on the band. He got the band on the Grammy Awards that year, and created a newfound interest in KISS. They announced a world tour, and it became the highest grossing tour of the year.
A few years later, I had the honor of meeting McGhee. I asked him what the turning point for the band's triumphant return was. "Truthfully, we killed it with the merchandising," he said. "We had over 2,000 items with KISS branding, all over the world. That along with the appearance on the Grammys and some other hype made us the most popular thing out there … again!"
As I sat backstage watching Ace do his thing, I marveled at his guitar playing ability. I thought about the millions of fans who had screamed and sang at his shows. Who would have thought that a band named KISS would be such a hard-rockin' band?
And with generation after generation falling in love with this group, this "KISS" will be as long lasting as the memory of the real first kiss we had back in school.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.