Anyone who saw VH1's "Opening Night Live" of this tour from Phoenix might have noticed some of the glaring cracks in the Kiss fantasy that no amount of kabuki make-up and flashy outfits could hide. Paul Stanley, once the high energy theatrical focal point of any Kiss show, seemed out of breath and quite stationary. His once proud mane, which he shamelessly used to shake, looks suspiciously like a weave or a wig. Gene Simmons looked as though he had to be packed into his outfit with a giant shoe horn. Ace Frehley mangled his solos and Peter Criss played with as much verve as a Thorazine patient.
For a writer whose own closet is filled with the childhood fantasy relics Kiss once provided, this is not easy to write. It appears the fantasy is truly over. Don't call this the Farewell Tour. It's more like the 401K tour.
Kiss has always been thoroughly thrashed by the critics. Their fans never seemed to care, though, because they always delivered on album and stage. But the real truth is that the Kiss chameleon side-show of gimmickry has been more about merchandise than music for more than 20 years. They haven't delivered a truly excellent Kiss album since 1977's Love Gun.
Hints and flashes of the Kiss musical magic have only subsequently appeared long enough to fuel the sales of comic books, dolls, lunch boxes, sheets even a Kiss MasterCard and anything else that would handle a Kiss logo. Now, this isn't a sudden critical exposé of Kiss' merchandising strategy. This band has always unashamedly decried their love of money and more of it. As long as someone is willing to pay $150 for a Kiss coffee table book, why the hell not put it out? And no one has ever questioned the quality of the merchandise.
But what about the music? Stack "Kiss," "Hotter Than Hell," "Dressed to Kill," "Alive," "Destroyer" and "Love Gun" next to any classic rock of the 1970s and they hold up extremely well. Many of the riffs and songwriting structures are inspired for the time and laid the groundwork for many metal bands to follow.
When Kiss first announced they would reform with original members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley, there was a genuinely joyful reclamation of youth's fantasy by their legions of aging fans. The "MTV Unplugged" project had been a critical and musical success and seemed to fuel Gene Simmons' contention that "the magic is back."
The subsequent tour set out to prove the old myths were real and, to a large extent, it did. Kiss rehearsed musically and physically to produce an outstanding representation of the band's glorified past. It was a deserved sell-out all over the globe. But when it came time to record new music, they lost it and truly let their fans down. Instead of simply writing and recording with Peter and Ace again, Gene and Paul brought in a myriad of studio musicians (including guitarist Bruce Kulick, from the band's make-up-less days) to produce an uninspired '80s-sounding rip-off of themselves.
Peter and Ace were presumably getting coffee and waiting to hit the road again during the sessions. Smelling fraud, die-hard fans let the band know how disappointed they were. The stale Psycho Circus was critically panned, as usual, but this time, even fans stayed away. And amazingly, the tour stiffed too.
Forced off the road, Kiss regrouped with a new marketing strategy. While Paul was off crooning Phantom of the Opera, the rest of the Kiss machine poured their minds into Pepsi commercials, new dolls, new comics and a new shtick. But while taking the make-up off saved their careers in 1983 and putting it back on saved it in 1998, what's left to do now? The Farewell Tour, it seems, is the band's last raping. Of course, there's no guarantee this is really the last of Kiss. Latter-day members Bruce Kulick and Eric Singer will probably return from Kiss convention limbo for another album at some point. Hopefully, it will be better than Psycho Circus.
After finally seeing my childhood heroes in all their glory on the first reunion tour, I'm content to let that be the memory of Kiss that sticks with me. But plunking down $67 for a pale reflection of that? No thanks.
Kiss performs at Philips Arena Sat. April 15. Tickets are $47-$67, available through Ticketmaster.
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