Sunday, February 10, 2013

All I Need to Know I Learned from KISS

Interesting how music stays with you.

36 years ago I was an 11-year-old boy who had just moved to Ohio from Michigan. It was the summer of 1977 and I remember it well because Elvis Presley had just died. We took a family trip to the store, and being the impressionable youngster that I was, I wanted a record album. But not just any record album, mind you. We had just spent some time with my mother's family, including cousins who were in their late teens/early twenties, and I wanted the music they were listening to. I wanted…

"You can look at the records, but no Kiss!" my father intoned authoritatively.

Well, crap. That's the group I wanted. So I did what any rational 11-year-old boy would do when he wanted his own way- I threw a fit in the middle of K-mart. Having two children of my own who are prone to fits, I know how embarrassing they can be to a parent. At the time, of course, I didn't care. I had the allowance money available, and I wanted a Kiss album! I wanted a Kiss album! Soon my father relented, with the understanding that under no circumstances would the volume approach the level appreciated by Dan and Don. "Sure," I said with a wink. I would just wait until you weren't home. With the deal struck I was allowed to peruse the rock music selections, and I left the store with a copy of Love Gun, Kiss' latest effort.

I was entering a whole new world, a world of Circus magazine and loud guitars, a world where parents refused to enter and we didn't want them there anyway. I wasn't a teen yet, but I was on the fast track. And the 10 questions on my entrance exam concerned Plaster Casters and Love Guns, bass guitar players who were Almost Human and had Love For Sale, Hooligans and sixteen-year-old girls named Christine. I had just become a buck private in the Kiss Army.

Love Gun may have been my entrance exam, but Kiss Alive! became my graduate thesis. Alive was my second Kiss album and to this day is my favorite. The combination of the costumes, grease paint and sheer energy of the music made me a fan for life. I memorized the lyrics, copied the signatures from the bands' notes on the inside, and knew all of Paul Stanley's stage raps. I didn't know what partying e-vah-ree day meant, I didn't know why Gene's baby was worth the Deuce, but I knew I had Nothing To Lose. What a fantastic album.

As I entered junior high school, I quickly discovered that not everyone shared my appreciation for the hottest band in the world. "Kiss sucks!" became a battle cry. I was belittled for my music choices, but I didn't care. I may have been desperate for the approval of my peers, but in the matter of who reigned supreme in the music world I granted no quarter. Kiss taught me non-conformity at an age when being accepted meant the world.

One day on the schoolbus I got into a conversation with a red-haired kid named Billy Bowen. Why we started talking I have no idea. I just remember that the conversation turned to music. He asked me what my favorite bands were and I can remember thinking that I had a choice: either be honest and tell him that I like Kiss, or throw the name of Kiss in with a few other bands and hope he didn't notice. Not feeling like engaging in fisticuffs, I chose the latter.

"I like Kiss and REO Speedwagon," I replied.

"Cool. I like Kiss too." And a friendship was born.

Billy Bowen and I became fast friends. This was unusual, as military brats such as ourselves usually had a couple of years before our dads got the orders and we were shipped elsewhere. But the two of us bonded. We liked Kiss and girls, girls and Kiss. He made Anchor Bay Junior High School a little more bearable for me.

Early in 1979 I was perusing the newspaper when four familiar letters caught my eye. KISS, Pontiac Silverdome, July 13, 1979. My heart skipped a beat. Kiss! In Detroit! I have to go! How I would get there never crossed my mind. I just knew that I was going. When I got to the bus stop the next day Billy already knew. Kiss was coming! And his father was going to drive us there!

For the next few months I could think of nothing else except July 13th and the Kiss Dynasty tour. I gave Billy the money, his dad bought the tickets, and I counted the days. Finally the day came. Billy's dad dropped us off at the Silverdome and left us there. Think about that for a minute. Two twelve-year-old kids alone at a Kiss concert? How in the world did that even happen?

We had packed up our tape recorders and cassette tapes, innocently thinking that we could just waltz in with recording equipment and tape the concert. Rude awakening number two. The security guards stopped us at the gate and would not let us in. Once we convinced them that we were just two stupid kids, they confiscated our tapes and sent us through. We had entered the promised land!

If you have read this far then you know that I thought the show was fantastic. Fire breathing! Blood spitting! Bass guitarists flying and lead guitars smoking! King of the Nighttime World! 2,000 Man! Rock and Roll All Night! I was in heaven.

Flash-forward 17 years. The makeup came, the makeup went, and the makeup came again. The boys were getting the original lineup back together and July 20, 1996 was my date with infamy. When it was go-time I knew all the words to every song and sang them all with reckless abandon. About three songs in I realized I was crying. Crying? There's no crying at Kiss concerts! But I was happy. I realized that I was finally doing something for the pure sake of doing it, not to prove I was Christian enough, not for some higher lofty motive, but just because it gave me joy.

36 years after that first album I am now a 46-year-old father of two children with autism. I am no longer in the mood for anyone's crap. If you want to try and convince me that KISS stands for Knights In Satan's Service, if you as a forty-something adult want to relive your junior-high years and tell me that "Kiss sucks!"- well, you just keep on walking, jack.

I am still listening to Kiss.

Kiss taught me to stand up for what I believe in when all around me were (and are) marching like lemmings into the pit. Kiss taught me that there is such a thing as taking joy in something for the mere sake of the joy itself.

36 years from my first album, 34 years from my first concert, 21 years from my second concert, 17 years from my third concert, 6 years from the first time I printed this blog essay, and 4 years from the second time I printed it and the fourth time I saw them in concert, it all still holds meaning. You wanted the best, and you got the best- the hottest band in the world.

It's a living comic book, folks. Nothing more, nothing less. When the Starchild, the Demon, the Spaceman and the Cat take the stage, they are not there to convert, they are not there to subvert- they are there to entertain.

I know, it's only rock and roll, but I like it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

To my father on the occasion of his 70th birthday

It took me a long time to figure it out, but I finally got it.

You have often said that you weren't the best father, and when I was younger I would have agreed with you. As I got older, I tended to not think about it one way or the other. It wasn't until Matthew was born that I finally had the revelation. It's not like they give new dads a brochure or a pamphlet. They hand you this screaming ball of blood and poop and say "Here you go. Good luck!" as they laugh maniacally and run away.

Sometimes you just do your best with what you have.

You did that, of course, whether we realized it at the time or not. Puzzle magazines? Books? Pythagorean theorem? Antidisestablishmentarianism? You may have thought you were being funny, but all of your children turned out pretty intelligent, and it had its roots in those puzzle magazines. They taught us how to think. And antidisestablishmentarianism taught me how to spell. Not my fault that the elementary school geniuses couldn't spell genius :)

Every day I stop a fit, I wipe a butt, I interpret facial gestures without a verbal accompaniment, and a dozen other things that a father of a 13-year-old and a ten-year-old should be far beyond. And I do it, not because it's easy, not because I like wiping butts, but because I can't not do it. It isn't in my genetic code to not take care of Matthew and Rebecca.

After Ma's brain surgery you went to see her every day, whether it was convenient or not. And to me, that was as heroic as any firefighter or soldier has ever been. You do what you need to do sometimes, not because it's easy, not even because it's hard, but because it's what you have to do. You can do no less. And in the same way, when you were in the hospital and Ma couldn't drive, I took her there every day that she was physically able to be there. Because I couldn't not do it. She needed me, you needed me, and I love you. End of story. Wasn't always easy, but I would do it again. And again.

My Christmas gift to you was being able to serve you this year. Your Christmas gift to me? Being able to serve you this year.

Love, Sean