My California school pal reminded me of a story I had forgotten. I suppose it must’ve been around ’76 or ’77, one of those shitty years, when he and another mutual pal were the kings of the school when they spray-painted the KISS logo on their gym shorts, in silver I believe, and comically on the ass of the shorts. It was a great teenage mutate-your-clothes move. My thing at that time was to add silver and gold star studs to my clothes and shoes. They scratched my legs, but I did not care. Anything for self-expression.

When my friend relocated to California and wore his KISS shorts to school, he was laughed out of O.C. KISS were not cool there. It must’ve been a tough moment -- clothes + band derision from teenagers is not fun. I know, because I hated KISS. Just hated them. I remember first seeing a picture of them in 16 Magazine a year or two before they hit the big time, and I thought, oh great, more turds riding the glam scene into the ground. I don’t remember when I first heard them, but I knew that they were Not Good. And of course, they knew it and have admitted it. They were undistinguished musicians, of no particular talent, playing plain bar rock. But even though they were Not Good, they were completely Brilliant. Why? Because they figured out exactly, to the tiniest detail, what niche needed to be filled in music at the time and they exploited it and rode it to prillionaire-dom.

The mid-‘70s music scene was primarily made up of heavy and ponderous arena rockers like Styx and Kansas and Led Zeppelin and Marillion or some such shit, superlite pop garbage like “Afternoon Delight” or “Muskrat Love” or almost anything Paul McCartney was doing at the time, and soul/R&B remnants that turned to soulless disco. There was really nothing there for young teens, many of whom were just now just getting into music, to claim as their own. The bubblegum pop scene was over, the generation-crossing Beatles were split, there were no Monkees or even the damn Banana Splits. Kids needed something more accessible than a 12-minute version of “Nights In White Satin” or “You’re Havin’ My Baby.” They needed their own rock heroes.

So whether by design or accident, KISS happened upon the scene at the perfect time, and gave kids a combination of simple anthemic rock n’ roll, a circus-like spectacle of a stage show with spitting flames, dripping stage blood, and thigh high 18” platform boots, secret identity clown makeup, and utter confidence in what they were doing. They were like cartoons come to life, bigger-than-life action figures, dangerous without being dangerous at all. The fervor of their fans became legendary; the KISS ARMY was born and continues to this day.

I was not a member. KISS irritated me, and I would throw their songs off the radio the second they came on. I didn’t care about their show or their image; I wanted to hear, was desperate to hear, GOOD SONGS. Oh, the pain of hearing the transformation of the word “party” into a verb in the song “Rock n” Roll All Night.” Was that really necessary to foist on the world, KISS? Ah, well.

Later on, I managed to talk my way into getting high school credit for walking over to the junior high to teach kids how to play guitar. Keep in mind that I had only been playing for a year or two myself, and really had no idea what I was doing. But it beat calculus or something. I knew from teaching myself to play that it is so much better and easier to learn if you like the song you are trying to figure out. No teenage kid wants to sit with a Mel Bay book playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” So my first teaching period I had the kids grab the beat-up nylon string acoustics the school had and took them out on the grass, because it was sunny and nice out, and I thought maybe I could grab a smoke if there were no junior narcs in my group. I asked them what groups they liked.

“KISS! KISS! KISS!” they yelled.

I looked at them, all excited, and I am sure my pain was completely visible. Well, OK. This class wasn’t Learn Marianne’s Clearly Superior Taste In Music, it was to teach them how to play something on the guitar in a few weeks. I said, alright alright alright, what is their hit now?


God. God. I was so embarrassed when I went into the record shop later that day, and actually purchased the single and the sheet music to “Calling Dr. Love.” I felt like a charlatan, and hoped I would not burn in eternal hell. I got home and put it on my stereo, and the shitty midrange mix made the needle practically jump off the 45. SIGH. ANYTHING FOR MY KIDS. Who were maybe three years younger than me.

The next week at class time, I showed them the 45 and the music and they practically glowed with excitement. They could not believe that they were going to actually be able to play a real KISS song. I looked at them and thought, jeez, it’s KISS and all, but this enthusiasm, this love for music, this is what it is really all about, Charlie Brown. I smiled, and I started teaching them the chords to the song. Over the weeks, I was impressed by their dedication to learning this silly simple song, despite sore fingers and the crappy guitars that buzzed and sounded no better than rubber bands across a cigar box.

They learned it and were happy, I got my school credit, and moved on to the next thing. Punk and New Wave were beginning to filter into the Midwest at last so I finally had some new stuff to listen to. I am sure some of the guitar kids stuck with KISS, screamed for them at the Milwaukee Arena while their moms waited in the lobby, and when the band played “Calling Dr. Love,” played furious and accurate air guitar right along to the beat.

KISS -- "Calling Dr. Love"