KISS-ed off

Reunited and it feels so good -- at least for a couple of years and a few million bucks. The pyrotechnics, the blood spitting and fire breathing, and the hyperbole churned out by that one-man, one-note press whore Gene Simmons leave no doubt KISS is back. And they're hotter than hell. Today, anyway. Rock and roll over.

But even as thousands of thirtysomethings revert to pubescence and twentysomethings ride the pop-culture nostalgia wave -- watching slack-jawed as Simmons "flies" 50 feet to the arena's ceiling, Paul Stanley makes the standard cracks about his "love gun," Peter Criss flails behind his drum kit perched on its platform, and Ace Frehley totters around the stage -- there exists a nagging, pervasive rumble: What next?

That question was answered in part a few weeks back with the not-entirely-unexpected "departure" of KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick and drummer Eric Singer, two rock-solid players who provided the band with a musical stability and honesty it lacked during much of the early Eighties. Kulick plied his trade with KISS for twelve years -- longer than Frehley was originally in the band. Singer, who played on Stanley's 1989 solo tour, became a member in 1991.

Said a Mercury Records press release dated August 15: "In light of the extension of the KISS reunion tour, guitarist Bruce Kulick and drummer Eric Singer have decided to leave KISS in order to fully pursue and consider current offers and creative outlets." It came as no surprise, really.

But sources close to the band confirm that Kulick and Singer didn't leave KISS of their own volition: They were fired, plain and pitifully simple. After all, there was no way Kulick and Singer could come back after the tour, no honest way they could KISS and make up with Simmons and Stanley after being ditched for Criss and Frehley and the millions of bucks this current tour is raking in. It would be anti-climactic, a firecracker after an atom bomb.

Simmons and Stanley were briefly in Los Angeles, prior to KISS's August 17 Donington show in England, to inform Singer and Kulick -- in person, bless them -- that their services would no longer be required. Bam. See ya. Nary a tear streaking the greasepaint.

Singer was eager to do an interview a few weeks ago, but the day after Simmons and Stanley showed up at his front door with his pink slip, Singer clammed up. He would only call the split "amicable" and insisted he was ready to get on with his drumming career -- which, since the KISS-reunion-imposed hiatus began earlier this year, has mostly consisted of studio session work.

"We want to thank our fans for their support over the years," Singer says in a press release issued by Mercury Records. "And we look forward to sharing our future endeavors with them." Not long ago, Simmons insisted that "Bruce and Eric are being paid very well," and that he understood their frustration at being left off the current tour.

"In my perception," said Paul Stanley recently, "this is a reunion of the original lineup.... It's an ongoing evolution.... We've always been very straightforward with them, and I just spoke to Bruce the day before yesterday. I was with Eric in L.A. before we left. We had dinner a bunch of times. As fans, they felt there was no choice for us but to do this, and, as members of the band, they were torn. You know, in a perfect world, they would like to be on tour, but KISS is a very ..."

He paused.
"I guess ... paradoxical kind of band and existence, and many things, as is the case now, seem to coexist. KISS is a beast that, at times, we can coax in one direction or another, and then there's other times when we just have to hold on and let it take us where it's going."

But can he imagine himself in their shoes?
"No," Stanley said, "I'd rather be in mine."
Ultimately, everybody -- from the band members, old and new, to the record label and even the fans -- had to sense this tour might be a last hurrah, even despite Simmons's cleverly worded and continual evasions. The new live compilation disc, You Wanted the Best, You Got The Best!!, is barely crawling out of stores: It has sold a meager 500,000 copies worldwide, which is about what the recent Unplugged has sold. By comparison, the band sold out four straight nights at Madison Square Garden. Tickets for three Los Angeles gigs also moved fast and furious, and band merchandise is flying out the door.

KISS in 1996 exists as a visual spectacle, not an aural one. And, yes, it's the only game in town, as Simmons often likes to boast. In Simmons's not-so-humble opinion, the only musician who comes close to putting music on the same level as performance-wardrobe-stage show is Trent Reznor. "I know while he was recording Downward Spiral, he had two dolls on his recording console -- a Jesus Christ doll and a Gene Simmons doll," he says. "Two Jews who haven't done too badly."

The beginning of the end of the KISS lineup that included Singer and Kulick likely came when the KISS conventions -- those $100-a-head extravaganzas promoting all that is KISS -- started rolling across the country last year. Criss attended the Burbank convention with his teenage daughter, and Simmons issued an invitation to Frehley to jam at the New York City gathering, but the guitarist was on tour at the time. MTV was happy to cover the conventions for The Week in Rock, and Simmons hints he first spoke to the network about doing an Unplugged around that time.

For Kulick and Singer, the real specter of unemployment arose as hush-hush rehearsals began in New York in the fall of last year for the Unplugged episode -- with the original and current KISS lineups working side by side. It became apparent to everyone that Simmons was paving the way for a reunion. But at that juncture, even the know-it-all Simmons might have been unsure whether the concept would fly.

"We didn't have a clue what to expect," Simmons now insists. "People could have hit each other, or they could have loved each other."

The end result of Unplugged, the episode and the album, was nothing but positive: There was a resurgence of interest in the KISS phenomenon after the show aired, and Simmons saw another potential for big money ahead. The time was right, and Simmons took great pains to make sure the comeback would succeed -- pains that included hiring personal trainers and getting deeply involved in plotting marketing strategies.

But as Unplugged was setting the stage for KISS-mania, in January 1996 Simmons professed that neither KISS's then-drummer nor its guitarist was threatened by Frehley and Criss joining them on Unplugged. "It could have turned into a disaster, hurt feelings," he said after Unplugged, around the time the reunion tour had been confirmed. "But I can't say how positive and supporting both Bruce and Eric were to that. And how you feel about somebody can't negate the fact that the original lineup did some great stuff!"

Singer and Kulick were the consummate pros and remain so now, even though they will likely be viewed as mere blips on the KISS radar despite their lengthy tenures in the band. For all intents and purposes, they might as well have not even been members of KISS: The pair weren't around during the Seventies glory days of makeup and excess, got benched just as Simmons was masterminding the comeback of the century, and now they've been informed there won't be another round where they're concerned.

Originally, Simmons and Stanley planned on keeping Kulick and Singer on retainer until the end of the year. That was also a slap in the face, mitigated only by the paychecks that kept rolling in. No musician who truly likes to play wants to take a forced vacation, even a well-paid one, but there was also the sting of having to face friends and fans who knew the inevitable lay around the corner. The money barely eased the blow of seeing their band mates on the cover of every magazine they wanted to be on but weren't.

So was this recent dismissal about money? Yes and no. The move sends two messages: Clearly, KISS will not be re-forming with Kulick and Singer; and if the band continues with or without makeup, it will be with either Criss and Frehley or new members. Maybe even not at all. Simmons occasionally hints at the latter possibility, which is a smart business move. It sends the message that you'd better buy a ticket to this tour because it's the last chance you'll ever have to see the mighty KISS. Well, maybe. Keep in mind: Simmons signs his name with a dollar sign.

While this latest twist in the KISStory seems cut-and-dried, there are a few considerations. As ticket sales attest, fans and non-fans are thrilled about the reunion, and only the die-hards -- those who bought Revenge, not to mention such throwaways as Animalize and Crazy Nights -- might feel some animosity toward Simmons and Stanley over their abandonment of loyal band members. That really doesn't matter. What's a few pissed-off fans when there's money to be made? After all, Simmons proudly notes, "I'll sell ice to an Eskimo."

There is, however, a slight hitch -- the new KISS album with Kulick and Singer that was completed after Unplugged. The disc has been leaked and is now a hot bootleg among fans. Simmons says it's up to Mercury whether they release the record, but the label's party line is "We have no plans to release it."

Fans have taken to calling the album Carnival of Souls, but according to Paul Stanley, the twelve-cut album making the rounds and garnering press in England is officially untitled. Just weeks ago, Simmons and Stanley spoke glowingly about the record: Gene calls it "the heaviest disc we've done," and Paul calls it "arguably our best studio album in the last ten years."

The record, as it exists now, contains its share of dreadful moments -- which puts it on a par with most KISS records of the Eighties. The record will likely sit on a Mercury shelf, though a few tracks could make it into the boxed set that a Mercury employee confirms is in the works. More money for Simmons, Inc.

And the KISS commandant should cash the check quick because even if his ego encourages him put together the unmasked KISS once again, it's likely no one will care ... again. Simmons spent the last several years rounding up artists such as Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, Garth Brooks, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to perform on the less-than-memorable Kiss My Ass, a tribute record Simmons himself masterminded. Then there were those less-than-prestigious club gigs in 1992, couched in the terms of "cool" and "underground" for PR purposes.

The question now remains: After this tour, after they've Hoovered in every last dollar and plundered every last village, where do they go next? Can they keep playing the arenas, or will they eventually fall off their platform boots and hit the clubs one more time?

Ultimately, Simmons is the predator, never satisfied with what's on his plate and always looking to see what's on yours. At the end of the day, the tour, the minute, he wants more.

"Always more," he says. "More money, more good tunes, more fame, more women. That's what it's about. Once you're the champion pole-vaulter of the world and nobody else comes close, aren't you at home trying to break your own record? I'm not in competition with anybody. I'm in competition with myself. It's the striving, the hunt, not the kill. I want more. It's called living." And no one's going to get in his way.

KISS performs Tuesday, September 17, at the Miami Arena, 721 NW 1st Ave; 530-4444. The show is sold out.


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