Nationwide Arena, Columbus, OH – March 16, 2019
Some people are natural born rock stars. Paul Stanley is one of them, a strutting, preening, painted master of ceremonies with a (still) million dollar arena rock voice and potent if occasionally perplexing mixture of heart-on-sleeve earnestness and winking three ring-ready showmanship. The giant, black, eye-enveloping star that dominates his otherwise flat white facial makeup (minus the cheeky, fire engine red lipstick) as the frontman of Kiss might as well be a window into his soul. Gene Simmons, his business partner and bandmate of over 45 years, is not a natural born rock star – nor, some would assert, noticeably possessed of a soul – but built himself into one anyway via a combination of dogged persistence, shameless, in-your-face theatricality, indefinable, at times creepy, charisma, and blunt, dependably macho chutzpah. Offstage, Stanley seems a bit more person than persona, with Simmons the exact opposite. Onstage, they are a literal fireworks display. It’s difficult to envision a performer like Simmons, a hedonistic, money-worshipping elitist who nevertheless styles himself and his band as stealth men of the people, even approaching his long-ago cultural cache today, though innate work ethic, self-belief, and intangibles – he’s terribly bright as sexist pigs go – would make him formidable in most any marketplace. It’s fortunate he and Paul came up together as the freewheeling 1970s first gathered steam. A lot of Kiss’ explosive early success was as attributable to novelty and mystique as it was to their relentlessly underrated, casually dismissed musical acumen or slavish devotion to good time rock and roll, but what has enabled the band’s longevity is its enduring connection to its fans.
I’ve been one of those fans since back before I even technically knew what “rock and roll” was. Cast your mind: At a moment in the late seventies when, already well established and comfortably wealthy, if not yet quite ubiquitous to their liking, Kiss, to some derision, started catering overtly to the elementary school-aged Saturday morning crowd in addition to their older siblings who’d bought Alive! three years earlier and still raised hell on Saturday nights. I was, at the time, a member of the former audience. So it happened that, long before I ever actually heard “Rock and Roll All Nite”, or “Beth”, or any of their menagerie of legitimately good songs, I waddled into the kitchen one otherwise ordinary Saturday morning and announced to my parents that Kiss was, in fact, my favorite band ever – this on the dubious strength of a single, thirty-second snippet I would discover, years later and to my horror, was not a Kiss song at all but, rather, the catchy but inane jingle to a television commercial hocking hideously pretty ten-inch Kiss fashion dolls, complete with “crazy poses” and brushable hair. You can’t say they didn’t understand their target demographic. Even then, Kiss never met a product for which they wouldn’t shill. Some forty years later, the rock lifers are finally (supposedly) hanging up their codpieces and platform heels with a suitably bombastic, multi-year thank you and bon voyage, and I’m left processing feelings I didn’t even know I had before the tour was announced, or knew were strong until the night itself loomed.
There has been a handful of bigger rock bands that weren’t quite as subjectively dumb. There have been dumber bands by the barge load that never became one tenth as big. No one in the history of the unofficial form, however, has ever seen the full equation of “big dumb rock” with the clarity and cunning of Kiss, or performed and, indeed, embodied it with anything approaching their equally cartoonish and muscular aplomb. Onstage, pure spectacle is their mandate and single goal. When an accomplished, only comparatively younger band like Motley Crue complains publically that its 2014-15 “farewell tour” was ripped off by Kiss’ stampeding current edition, it is, of course, tinged with professional jealousy, not to mention deeply ironic given the overarching inspirational debt owed. That’s not meant as a slight, however it might read. I’ve always liked Motley Crue. It can be argued, if not all that persuasively given some recent (new) soundtrack output, that Motley Crue retired from the road prematurely, though the fact remains that I also had opportunities, at only minor personal inconvenience, to see the Crue pack it in but, for whatever reason, couldn’t bring myself to take them. On the other hand, critics and other self-appointed guardians of good taste have breathlessly awaited Kiss’ retirement since the mid-1980s, only to be disappointed time and time and time again. The explicit promise of this latest tour, named “End of the Road”*, guaranteed an event even by Kiss’ lofty standards. I purchased my ticket immediately, plus another two for dear friends without whom I couldn’t imagine seeing the show.
*As a survivor of Kiss’ previous “farewell” tour in 2000 – in which the only folks actually shown the door were briefly reconciled original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss – if not the dozen other worldwide outings undertaken in the interim, I understand there’s ample cause to be skeptical about this arrangement’s permanence. I wasn’t too concerned then, and, even facing down what feels much more like a legitimate end, I couldn’t be less concerned now. Having long engaged in an ongoing, cheerfully dismissive hate/hate ballet with the music intelligentsia, Kiss exists now only for lucrative fan service, providing portable, dependable escape, whether in a single song snuck onto the radio or shoehorned into an otherwise stuffy playlist, or holding explosive court in a sold out sports arena. Their music is, face it, classic, and, even if you disagree, omnipresent, and, at any rate, probably isn’t going anywhere. If, in another five years, we happen to find the band slinking back around, sheepishly peddling their “Sayonara-rama…For Really Real This Time” tour, I would hardly be surprised. Or the least bit conflicted about whether to go.
Like the advancing Roman Legion but with less discipline and extra debauchery, being ground level in the midst of the fully mobilized Kiss Army is no joke. These fans drive everything, and hard. There is no conceivable cap on their overall excitement level, vanishingly few external forces or concerns that might plausibly cause them shame (or pause), and last call is always hours away no matter the time of day. Even with the area behind stage (mostly) cordoned off, I can rarely recall seeing the Nationwide Arena so full, and, despite pre-gaming for most of the afternoon and early evening, my two friends and I were surely still among a courageous handful of the most sober people in the building. Those kids I mentioned above are all, as the cliche prescribes, now way past old enough to have kids (or grandkids) of their own, and you’d better believe they brought ‘em…in costume. Kiss live is equal parts Halloween and Mardi Gras, amped up, spliced with Super Bowl Halftime Show DNA**, and topped with flaming confetti. Nineteen years prior, at what was also billed as a farewell concert, I stood in the middle of an amphitheater lawn and honestly didn’t notice much extra in the air except the unseasonable cold. I left that show happy enough but not overly impressed. Inside this packed arena, however, I felt the palpable buzz and intensity of big-time playoff hockey, something at which the Nationwide’s primary occupants – the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets – are only now getting extended experience. Cameras panned the jubilant crowd looking, to comedic effect, for big screen-ready faces onto which classic Kiss makeup might be digitally superimposed. The gigantic Swiss Army stage, equal parts spaceship, funhouse, and flamethrower, shrouded in a multi-story curtain for only a few seconds more, loomed suggestively, full of all kinds of tricks to spring and mildly unsavory behavior to abet.
**It’s kind of insane that Kiss, who has collected unique career milestones like certain fourteen-year-olds collect Pokemon, has somehow never played the Super Bowl halftime show despite being almost uniquely qualified in terms of massive blue collar popularity and blinkered verve to entertain. Perhaps there were discussions in the early 2000s but they priced themselves out of the gig. Perhaps the producers were intimidated by a stage show that couldn’t realistically be embellished further for broadcast. That moment, if it was ever going to come, has almost certainly also long since passed, but, if “End of the Road” is any indicator, it’ll go down as a missed opportunity on a fairly colossal scale.
This crowd wasn’t even restless, by the way; it was already mid-party. You could’ve started the show at midnight and the energy level would’ve barely flagged in the interim. Then, Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” ended in its own glorious cacophony, the P.A. dramatically cut out along with the lights, and the audience roared in single-throated, firmament-shifting response.
“All right, Columbus! You wanted the best, and you got the best! The hottest band in the world…KISS!”
That the “Detroit” of 1976 classic “Detroit Rock City” refers not to the plucky but poorly planned urban hellscape whose frustrating downtown crush (especially on game days) and useless surrounding sprawl once cruelly conspired to deny a wide-eyed tourist named me an opportunity to see the reunited Faith No More live in concert (yep, still bitter), but to every city, speaks to the sort of populist genius a band like Kiss can claim. They aren’t the “best” band in the world, see, nor the “greatest”, but, rather, the “hottest”. Why, that’s simultaneously impressive and damned near meaningless. Argue it at your peril. By the same token, the elemental, very human impetus, explored in “Detroit’s” famous, infectious chorus, to move one’s feet/leave one’s seat is, I would think, fairly universal, less a command, or saucy exhortation, than a deep-seated biological imperative. Sure, Isis, say, would probably interpret things differently, but I’d also pay real money to witness their representatives, jaws agape, watching Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, and highly competent “substitute Ace” Tommy Thayer descend from the rafters of that massive stage, playing that insistent guitar riff in unison on flying saucer-like platforms that only appeared supported by columns of steam being shot upward from stage level, listening to the driving cautionary tale that nevertheless became one of rock’s indelible anthems, and absorbing the stunning, self-contained, practically award-worthy pyrotechnic display during the song’s finale. On a night where Simmons would both breathe his customary fire and spit his customary (one assumes) stage blood one more time, Stanley would casually zip-line inches above the spinning heads of approximately one hundred yards’ worth of giddy fans, and Thayer would literally shoot sparks worthy of Frankenstein’s laboratory from his guitar, first impressions still meant the most.
“Play the hits” is the rigid mantra of most every live act, whether or not they openly court nostalgia, but few other bands as successful as Kiss ever amassed their platinum setlists in quite the same way, with minimal fan input but with complete fan acquiescence. With little help from radio and open hostility from most trade publications, Kiss simply began populating their incendiary live show with certain songs played over and over, and counted on their repeat customers to enthusiastically embrace them. And embrace them we obviously have. This almost totally predictable twenty-song set was predictably outstanding from both a visual and, more important, aural perspective, brimming with consistent energy that belied the participants’ age and spectacle that more than adequately distracted the crowd’s handful of narcs and cynics. “Detroit” slammed right into Destroyer’s other unquestioned crowd-pleaser, “Shout It Out Loud”, before the set hung an unexpected post-millennial detour then took a two-song siesta in the criminally underappreciated 1980s. Paul must’ve hoped that inserting 2009’s “Say Yeah” into the early going would result in a earthshaking sing-along, but the song proved a bit too obscure for the room, while makeup-free MTV standards like “Lick It Up” and “Heaven’s On Fire”, which are nobody’s idea of obscure, delivered the goods mightily. If Paul’s voice seemed a touch rough initially, it soon rounded into fine form, buttressed by all that fearsome starpower, if perhaps 60% fewer stage moves than he might’ve made in 1976, and, for the record, nary a hint of a backing track.
For the two sexagenarians (great word, huh? and appropriate) at center stage, “End of the Road” was an occasion for working smart as well as hard, and the whole endeavor came off the better for it. Stanley effectively camouflaged any stamina issues – though, at 67, he looks way fitter than most 20-year-olds – by limiting his legendary aerobic activity and graciously allowing/encouraging Simmons to sing more often. Although I remain mystified by the exclusion of 1992’s “Unholy” from Gene’s standard repertoire of mid-paced “Look at Scary Ol’ Me” showcases, the fact that he not only dusted off the other three – in ascending order of vapidity, “War Machine”, “God of Thunder”, and “I Love It Loud” – but nailed them right between the proverbial eyes only constituted a mild surprise. Everybody was on point this night. Moreover, the fact that no songs from the original makeup era were played that did not also feature on either the genre and form-defining Alive! or its bloated but capable 1977 sequel did little to dim our enthusiasm upon hearing not just sparkling no-brainers like “Deuce”, “Love Gun”, and “Cold Gin” but second-level canon stalwarts like the rumbling “100,000 Years”, rollicking “Let Me Go, Rock and Roll”, and dependably spine-tingly “Black Diamond”. After relating to the crowd how much he loved and lived for the stage and going for a brisk ride across the arena, Stanley sang the aforementioned “Love Gun” from a platform located behind the soundboard some fifty yards away, then, for an encore, had the temerity to unleash Kiss’ unequivocal biggest hit, the 1979 disco abomination “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”…and even that sounded great.
“Kisstory” as any sort of artistically viable continuum (yes, I’m chuckling to myself as I write) essentially expired for me not when their famous makeup, in what must be said was both a shrewd and wholly necessary publicity stunt, first came off in the early eighties, but when Kiss’ diesel late eighties/early nineties lineup was unceremoniously cast aside in favor of a quartet of reunited, check-cashing old men and cold, financial logic dictated that it must inevitably go back on. The years between that moment and this one – or, for the sake of context, between two “farewell” concerts nineteen years apart – have been mercenary and occasionally quite meager, a sustained grasp at, if not relevance or respect, then market share. At a moment when many of their surviving Seventies peers (Bob Seger, Elton John) seem to be retiring from the road as well, Kiss picked an auspicious time to finally go with the grain. I can only imagine how those other shows unfolded, and envy the fans who watched it all happen. Again, I had my chances, and a certain level of interest, and again, for a variety of reasons – financial, meteorological – I stayed home. I couldn’t in good conscience miss Kiss’ swan song, however, and every moment I was thus engaged validated that choice tenfold. Not even the double-barrel shotgun blast of applied mediocrity that is saccharine ur-ballad “Beth” and “big dumb rock” national anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” (misspelling very intentional) – a.k.a. the standard Kiss encore (flanking the somehow even dumber not-quite-perennial “Do You Love Me?”) – could deter me. Watching Simmons and Thayer float around the near arena riding modified cherrypickers while Eric Singer played from a hydraulic drum riser three stories tall and a spent but satisfied Stanley surveyed his domain amidst a climactic riot of fireworks, glitter, and confetti, you just couldn’t help but smile.
“Did you get what you paid for?” he asked the crowd. Our response was…predictable.