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KISS and Tell

Paul Stanley, king of the nighttime world, just woke up. And you can tell. His voice has little of the distinctive arena-rock urgency that one somehow can't help but expect after hearing all his rousing stage patter between tunes on Alive!, KISS's epochal 1975 live double-LP. "I wanna know how many people here like the taste of alcohol?" he asked right before "Cold Gin" on side four.

Who knows what, or if, the 43-year-old KISS guitarist-singer was drinking last night, but this morning, at a little after 8:00 L.A. time, he doesn't exactly seem to be at the top of his game. "My alarm, like, just went off a few minutes ago," he confesses in a voice still thick with sleep. He sniffs a lot. He sounds, amazingly, a tiny bit like Woody Allen. "But I said to myself there's no way I'm going to miss this interview. I take this stuff pretty seriously."

So Paul Stanley (born Stanley Paul Eisen) clears his throat and gets down to business. Say what you will about KISS -- the monsters of Seventies pop-culture infamy or the fortyish metal vets of today -- but never for one moment question the band's work ethic. Underneath the S&M costumes and kabuki makeup, theirs was a story of classic American stick-to-itiveness and a fearsome determination to get to the top. And stay there, long after it seemed likely or conceivable. "Will do anything to make it," drummer Peter Criss wrote in that famous Rolling Stone classified ad he ran in 1972 before joining the band. Criss is gone now, of course, but little else has changed.

Today Paul Stanley is flogging the band's latest venture, the First Worldwide KISS Convention. Instead of working the usual summer tour circuit, the band is taking to the road with a massive traveling museum of KISSabilia, making stops in hotels and convention centers in 23 cities (the KISS caravan pulls into Miami's Radisson Mart Plaza Hotel today, July 6). Along with the usual tables of Trekker-esque paraphernalia vendors and traders in collectibles, the convention will trot out twenty complete stage costumes the band has unearthed from its warehouses -- plus an assortment of instruments, doodads, and sundry KISS ephemera (Criss's original drum stool! Gene Simmons's actual flame-spitting sword!) certain to satisfy the faithful who pony up $100 each to get in.

Most important: Each stop on the convention trail has KISS itself; the band (Stanley, bassist Simmons, drummer Eric Singer, and guitarist Bruce Kulick) will field questions, sign autographs, play a two-hour set of audience requests acoustically, and generally mingle with the troops. Stanley and company promise a most unconventional sort of convention. "It's this twelve-hour tribal powwow," he explains.

Tribal indeed. There always has been something spookily clannish about KISS and its devotees (collectively known as the KISS Army). In their mid-Seventies heyday, the band commanded legions of greasepaint-caked American youth, kids who made their own Gene Simmons armor out of tinfoil, spat ketchupy fake blood at each other at birthday parties, freaked out their parents, and discovered -- in the forbidden cartoon grandeur of KISS -- the spirit of rock and roll. They also bought Marvel's KISS comic books (printed with band members' own blood!), picked up all four simultaneously released solo albums, watched KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (the group's first and only TV movie), and turned the band from Long Island into a powerful, if schlocky, merchandising force in the late Seventies. It is these fans who somehow have rehabilitated the band they still love, and it is these fans KISS now is counting on to show up this summer to see their childhood heroes again, this time as leather-swaddled mannequins behind Plexiglas.

"We're aware of our past and we celebrate it," notes Stanley, who does not look back with either anger or irony at the band's slightly ridiculous years at the top. "The more we're in touch with our past, the more we know where we're headed.... That's what this convention is all about. It celebrates the history of the band, but in a way it also celebrates the history of the fans. Everyone who comes and sees the costumes or whatever remembers what they were doing when they saw the band for the first time. It's almost like a living photo album. But it's not only our photo album, it's the people who were there."

Many people were there. The sweet smell of Seventies nostalgia has caught up to KISS with a vengeance. Last year an oddball lineup of artists gathered to cover KISS songs on the KISS My Ass tribute album -- everyone from Lenny Kravitz to Anthrax to, most nuttily, Nashville's number-one KISS fan, Garth Brooks. (An earlier tribute album, featuring mostly Northwestern punk and grunge bands, was put together by Seattle's C/Z Records in the early Nineties. It was called, aptly, Hard to Believe.) Stone Temple Pilots and White Zombie have been known to take the stage in full mock KISS makeup. Way back in 1984 Paul Westerberg offered reverent (and prescient) homage with a dead-on "Black Diamond" on the Replacements' Let It Be album. It wasn't considered very cool then, of course, but maybe that was the point.

All of which surely must flatter the present-day Stanley and Simmons, but as the pair takes some pains to point out, the band's not quite dead yet. Despite slipping sales (1993's Alive III has yet to hit gold, a KISS first) and advancing age, KISS continues on, scowling grand old men of metal winking at the past.

"Since we've taken off the makeup, which is now twelve years, we've probably sold another twelve million albums," Stanley points out. "And there are some fans who consider Lick It Up -- the first album without makeup -- they consider that the first album. We have fans that go back twenty years and we have fans that go back two years. That's really the beauty of it."

In truth the KISS story took a turn for the worse, appropriately, right about the time the Seventies ran out. "Towards the beginning of the Eighties, there was a lot of tension and a lot of problems in the band," Stanley admits. "There were all kinds of chemical excesses and egos out of control. We were all, in our own ways, a bit lost."

Drummer Peter Criss, "the Cat," left the band in 1980, to be replaced by Eric Carr (who took on the makeup persona of "the Fox" and boasted the highest high heels in the band -- nine inches). The band recorded an odd concept album called Music From "The Elder" (with songs co-written by Lou Reed); a few critics liked it, but the kids stayed away in droves. Guitarist Ace Frehley took off shortly afterward, and it looked as if KISS's strange heavy metal dynasty was in its twilight.

"We continued with the makeup for another year or two, and then we really had to think, 'Is it time to leave this behind?'" Stanley recalls. "Not because we weren't proud of it, but because we're very proud of it. If you're proud of something, you should know when to say goodbye. When people say, 'Wasn't it a pain in the ass in the Seventies to put all that makeup on?' Hey, that was the proudest part of the evening for us...to go out and really put on your war paint and blow up the arena."

Stanley has resisted the urge to cash in on the band's recent surfeit of nostalgic goodwill by recruiting the departed Frehley and Criss, slapping on makeup, and blowing up arenas with a full-blast heavy metal reunion. "It's morbid," Stanley says. "We did something once, because we believed in it. To do it now as mimicry or to re-create something A unless our hearts were in it, I think it would be real transparent. If you're heart's not in it, you're just doing a Vegas act. It might let people down, and even if it didn't, quite honestly, it would let us down. It's no secret that there's a lot of money to be made doing it, but it's just not appealing."

Instead the group has made a unique devil's bargain for the conventions, hiring KISS tribute bands to duplicate painstakingly the costumes and pyrotechnics of a vintage Seventies stage show; this way the band avoids having to don the gear and explode the flashpots themselves. KISS employs a rotating lineup of regional mimics to close each day's festivities with a full two-hour set. Apparently Stanley enjoys the spectacle of seeing his past come back to sweaty, hairy life. "I haven't seen the ultimate me yet, though," Stanley muses. "I guess I'm the harshest critic when it comes to doing me. I'll look at these bands and think, 'Man, that Gene is amazing.' Or, ~'That sure looks like Ace.' But I can't say that guy looks just like me or moves like me. And, quite honestly, the chances of somebody jumping around and doing splits in eight-inch heels [again] are pretty slim."

It is a canny deal: The fans get their fix of blood-spitting theatrics, and KISS gets to rock with its dignity more or less intact. Given the band's long march to pop iconhood, it is easy now to forget that KISS was -- and remains -- an actual band. Their last studio album, 1992's Revenge, broke a string of increasingly feeble mid-Eighties releases and surprised critics and fans alike, many of whom had written off KISS as lumbering hair-metal relics. Revenge rocked, mostly. And when the last leg of their last big arena tour was cancelled due to poor ticket sales -- a reminder both of the dire state of old-school hard rock and the band's own increasingly selective appeal -- KISS ditched the smoke bombs and hit the clubs for a gritty no-budget mini-tour.

Stripped of their goofy spectacle, the band revealed itself to be, well, a band -- a pretty good one. Stanley's voice is still quite the force of nature; the yowling old Mean Gene actually sounds better with age; and guitarist Bruce Kulick faithfully replicates the spirit, if not the actual exuberant ham-fistededness, of Frehley's leads. KISS's battery of teen anthems might not be as life-changing as they seemed in 1975, but the best of them hold up impressively. More impressive still was the unexpected enthusiasm these vets mustered in delivering the hits. Even twenty years later, KISS can parachute into some crummy club and throw themselves into that galloping opening riff to "Deuce" with a frankly astonishing passion.

"As though our lives depended on it," Stanley says, adding that the band has little interest in fooling around with the canon. "When we play the older songs, they sound exactly like they're supposed to.... What would be worse than for me to say, 'Now we're gonna do "Love Gun,"' and suddenly you hear a reggae song?"

In a way, the group's greatest achievement might be just hanging in there. "KISS is almost like this living, breathing thing that we're kind of holding on to," notes Stanley. There's still a note of genuine wonder in his voice when he talks of the old days and how it all has ended up. "When we started out, John Denver was the biggest act, and people looked at us like we were out of our minds," he remembers. "I think we hoped for about five good years. That would have been amazing. The concept of being together in twenty years was pretty absurd."

So here's KISS in 1995, hauling its own traveling museum across the world, taking aim on the Beatles' streak of 26 consecutive gold records, and basking in something approaching respect. Even music critics, who for decades have delighted in ridiculing the band as kiddie-rock buffoons, have started to come around to the KISS way of thinking.

"Why? Because they're not the critics of twenty years ago," Stanley says, triumphant. Finally that bleary voice starts to sound like the guy at Detroit's Cobo Hall in 1975. "They're the fans who've now become the critics. What's happened is that this virus has permeated everything. KISS has worked its way up the ladder, mainly because the fans have done the same. All those people turned out to be doctors, lawyers, policemen, you name it."

At that Paul Stanley pauses, savoring perhaps the vision of the conquering KISS Army and the KISS World that has come to pass at last. "We won," he says. "And it was a long battle."

The Worldwide KISS Convention takes place today, July 6, from noon to midnight, at the Radisson Mart Plaza Hotel, 711 NW 72nd Ave; 261-3800. Admission costs $100.

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