In my day, the school bus was the equivalent of the Wild West; it was the one place where kids were lumped together without much adult supervision. It is not surprising, therefore, that this is where we picked up a lot of stuff that our parents wouldn’t necessarily be happy with. Put 5th graders on the same bus with curious (and gullible) younger kids and there is bound to be some bad behavior learned in the process. It was mostly harmless stuff, but years of riding the public school bus was certainly a different kind of education than we were getting in the classroom.
It was on one such school bus ride that I first heard that the rock band KISS had connections with the devil. I have no idea why we were even talking about KISS – I don’t remember them being particularly popular at the time – but at some point in the conversation an older kid told us that KISS stood for Knights In Satan’s Service and there were satanic messages hidden in their music. Now, I was a pretty savvy kid and I was usually pretty astute at sniffing out the ridiculous in these bus ride conversations; I was one of the more outspoken advocates that professional wrestling was fake, a controversial stance to take at the time. So while I doubted the overall veracity of this statement, it still made me a little concerned. You also have to remember that this was the 1980s, when people were obsessed with finding the devil in any pop culture that they didn’t understand. Heavy Metal was often under fire for it possible connection to devil worship. 60 Minutes even did a segment on the game Dungeons & Dragons and its possible connections to witchcraft, demons and even suicide. Given the climate at the time, even though I didn’t necessarily believe that KISS was in fact in legion with Beelzebub, I wasn’t taking any chances and generally stayed away from them. “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night” didn’t strike me as all that demonic, but the news had me convinced that Satanism lurked everywhere. It is ironic that this was the time period when KISS had actually been “unmasked” and they were no longer wearing their makeup, which I found actually scarier. Gene Simmons is kind of terrifying.
Somewhere down the road, after the Lucifer paranoia had generally died down, I rediscovered KISS and found it hilarious that anyone ever thought that they were satanic henchmen. I’d like to think that Satan wouldn’t pick a band that is so cheesy to be his messenger. I don’t mean cheesy as an insult, but it’s hard to take a band that has a song called “Love Gun” all that seriously. I’d presume that the devil is more subtle than that. I didn’t necessarily seek out KISS, but I would occasionally hear a song that I liked and would be surprised to learn that it was by them. The prominence of the band’s music in the movie Role Models was another source of exposure. I was by no metric a KISS fan – I can only name a handful of songs – but given their stage theatrics I thought that if the chance presented itself for me to see them live, I should do it. That opportunity presented itself this summer when KISS rolled into town as part of a double bill with Def Leppard. The Groupon deal for discounted lawn tickets didn’t hurt either; it was a small investment to check out this traveling circus in person.
We arrived late to the show (during the opening act – that’s late to me), but it was immediately apparent that based on people watching alone the cost of admission was well worth it. It appeared that most of the people in attendance did not receive the memo that it was no longer 1985; it was like stepping into a time machine, with mullets and big hair as far as the eye could see. I’m sure that the majority of these people got “into character” for the show and do not normally walk around looking like this, but I’m sure that some percentage of them embrace this look for their daily lives. After all, one does not grow a mullet overnight. KISS fans also do not seem to subscribe to the general concert etiquette that you don’t wear a t-shirt of the band that you are there to see. Everywhere I looked, there were people decked out in KISS garb. Of course, the truly dedicated members of the KISS army came all decked out as their favorite members of the band, makeup and all. I was curious if that was something that people still did and it is a tradition that is still going strong. Though they were the minority of the audience, I still saw way more people in replica KISS costumes than I would have anticipated at this particular venue. I didn’t snap any photos, but in a way I kind of admire their commitment and passion. I don’t think I feel that strongly about anything, so kudos to them for not giving a crap what anyone thought. I did speculate that if I wore a pair of the KISS platform boots I would grow about three inches in height, which would be sweet, though I’m guessing frowned upon in my office.
Def Leppard took the stage first and worked their way through their seemingly unlimited number of hits. I’ve seen Def Leppard before and while I’ve enjoyed them both times I was struck both times by how quiet they were. I don’t know who is setting up their amps and sound system, but they are not nearly as raucous as other bands that I’ve seen at the same venue. The first time I saw them they were blown off the stage by Journey and while my affinity for Journey knows no bounds, they shouldn’t be out-powering a band like Def Leppard. We weren’t that far back on the lawn and they sounded somewhat muted. Maybe it’s from years of being on stage and their hearing is damaged; the word deaf is right in their band name. Whatever the reason, it was definitely noticeable and slightly took away from the overall show. It was hard to make out anything that they were saying in between songs and while I doubt I missed any great oration it still would have been nice to know what they were saying.
Still, listening to Def Leppard is like a visit to my early adolescence and even a quieter version is enjoyable. I still think that Hysteria is one of my favorite all-around albums and it is impressive how many hit songs they actually have. In fact when they came back on stage for an encore at the end of their set, I was puzzled as to what they were going to preform since they had seemed to hit all the high notes of their career already. Of course, the band knew better than I did and they had two more popular songs in reserve (“Photograph” and “Rock of Ages”), which I somehow either forgot about or just assumed that they had already played. They were solid and I’ll always be impressed with the skill of their drummer, but I don’t know that I necessarily have to see Def Leppard for a third time.
The reason that I was there was KISS and I was surprised, given the number of people we saw wearing KISS paraphernalia, that the crowd on the lawn really thinned out after Def Leppard finished their set. It appeared that a lot of people left, though perhaps the more die-hard KISS fans just made their way closer to the stage. I really couldn’t see much of anything during Def Leppard – even standing I couldn’t see over the people in front of us – so I mostly just relaxed in my chair. Def Leppard may have a lot of hits, but they don’t have much in way of a stage show. By the time KISS took the stage, I could move up enough that I had a pretty clear sight line of the entire stage. And for what was about to be unleashed, you wanted to have a good view.
Despite the fact that I don’t love the lawn, I had balked at getting inside tickets for the show because I could not justify spending over $100 to see these two bands. I couldn’t figure out why they were so expensive for performers whose most popular days were probably behind them. But once KISS took the stage, the staggering ticket prices suddenly make sense; the sheer amount of pyrotechnics that they set off during the show probably cost more than the GDP of some small countries. It was insane – between the lights and the pyro and their costumes, I had no idea where to focus. I may have briefly given myself ADD as I struggled to take it all in.
KISS was just as cheesy as I had hoped that they would be; at this point, their on stage banter sounds exactly like you would expect a stereotype of an arena rock band to sound. Paul Stanley did all of the talking and it was clear from his earnestness that he really loves performing. I’d always assumed that Gene Simmons was more of the front man of KISS, probably because he was the only member who I knew thanks to his gift for self-promotion, so I was a little confused by all this. When Stanley asked the audience to chant his name, I had to confirm with my friend what his name was. On top of all the pyro, Stanley also flew out to the middle of the crowd on a zip line and Simmons made blood come out of his mouth. It was all the spectacle that I always assumed would occur at a KISS concert, but I was glad that I got to experience it first-hand.
I must have picked up some knowledge of KISS songs by osmosis, since there were far fewer songs on their playlist that I failed to recognize. The crowd loved every minute of the show and was enthusiastic throughout the set. We were sitting next to a family of four, with a pre-teen son and teenaged daughter and I was surprised by how into all of this the kids were. The daughter was shrieking and jumping up and down like she was at a One Direction concert which was impressive given that she wasn’t even born when these bands were at their peak popularity. The only issue was the obnoxious group of people sitting a few rows ahead of us. They had smuggled in alcohol which they had consumed in excess and somewhere toward the end of the KISS set one of the guys, slumped over in his chair, vomited all over the lawn. His friends found this hilarious and took photos of this; it’s worth mentioning that this group was in their mid-forties. Thankfully we were far enough away from this hot mess that it didn’t directly impact us, but it certainly wasn’t the best aroma to have wafting through the crowd.
In the interest of beating traffic – it was a school night – we ducked out a little early, so we heard “Rock and Roll All Night” from the parking lot. That was fine with me – I’d kind of reached my KISS limit at that point. It was a fun show and I’m glad that I got to see it with my own eyes, but it’s not necessarily an experience that I’d be anxious to repeat. Even if you don’t dig their music, I think it’s still worth going to see KISS once in your life just to say you did it and to see the spectacle unfold before you. They really are entertainers first and a rock band second. It was a surprisingly fun night.