Lots of the show-business books I receive are packaged as series—written by numerous hands and covering a variety of topics, but sharing a distinctive format and trade dress. To date, I’ve been loath to revisit subsequent volumes in any series I’ve already covered. It’s not that if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all—Dave Thompson’s analysis of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the Music on Film imprint is rather a different sort of book than Ray Morton’s earlier entry on A Hard Day’s Night, for example. But the same branding that constitutes such a strong conceptual hook for the books cannot help but inform the review. Quite bluntly, I don’t feel that I’m entirely earning my paycheck if I’m just repeating myself.
I will break my own rule for Dale Sherman’s new KISS FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Hottest Band in the Land, because it is far and away the most entertaining book to come across my desk in recent weeks.
Read what 70 musicians have to say about 'My First Guitar' in the latest Popdose.
Hardly surprising, this. From the days of the band’s inception in 1972—when founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons drafted drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley to bring their nonstop rock ‘n’ roll thrill machine to life—entertainment has been Job One for KISS, with artistic expression running a distant second. From the beginning, KISS has relentlessly pursued their vision of a larger-than-life, over-the-top, non-stop rock ‘n’ roll thrill machine, straight out of a young boy’s heavy metal fantasies. They’ve incorporated a slew of adolescent male touchstones: comic book imagery, science fiction, code names and mysterious pasts, the hard gloss of a Playboy shoot over a tacky circus-sideshow heart. (Simmons mentions seeing an ad for a Black Sabbath record touting themselves “Louder than Led Zeppelin”—not better, mind you, just louder—that helped inspire their more-is-more approach.) Somehow, it all worked.
To dispense with the bleedin’ obvious: KISS FAQ is in no way an actual list of Frequently Asked Questions—so if you’re wondering why KISS is always capitalized even though it’s not an acronym for anything, look elsewhere. It’s an odds-and-sods collection of factoids and anecdotes that got left out of the many official biographies. There are the standard biographical sketches and occasional attempts to sort the band’s tangled history. But the events that would be the most dramatic in a standard rock biography—the descent into addiction of Frehley and Criss, the contentious departure of Vinnie Vincent, Eric Carr’s tragic death—are mentioned only in passing. Stranger still, Sherman barely addresses the music at all.
Instead, the KISS FAQ devotes healthy chunk of its page count to a fan poll of best and worst KISS album covers. There’s a chapter on music videos, and another on the KISS action figures. Surely, we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for items of interest. There are, however, some interesting omissions: Gene’s infamous appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Ace Frehley’s commercials for Dunkin’ Donuts. (There’s also no mention of Frehley’s involvement with the 1981 novelty song “Eugene,” credited to Crazy Joe and the Variable Speed Band, but maybe that’s for the best.)
But in a funny way, the superficiality of these topics makes the book fun and accessible for non-fans. KISS was a huge cultural force in the 1970s, and for kids like me—tuned in to pop culture but not fans per se—our major exposure to the band was through things like their appearance on a 1976 Paul Lynde comedy special, or the toys and lunchboxes and Halloween costumes. A dramatic narrative like the meteoric rise and fall of Mark St. John—the heavily-hyped lead guitarist who cut only one record with KISS before being sidelined by an autoimmune disorder—might have more dramatic appeal, but the focus on badges, posters, stickers and T-shirts made me sit up and say, “I remember that!”
I was never a full-on member of the KISS Army like the other boys in Mrs. Caldwell’s fifth-grade classroom, but I was not immune to the mystique. The personas on display in those costumes-and-makeup days—the Demon, the Starchild, the Catman, the Space Ace—seemed rife with storytelling possibilities only haltingly explored by the KISS-branded Marvel comics (which rate a chapter of their own) or the ill-fated Phantom of the Park TV movie (ditto). But it occurs to me now that KISS’s greatest storyline is their own career.
KISS now exists primarily as a management and licensing firm for a set of intellectual property rights, and its primary product is the band itself—its music and the images of the individual members. Criss and Frehley ceded all rights to the KISS Corporation years ago, and other performers have been playing their parts, in the makeup and costumes they created, for more than a decade. KISS has become a franchise (or, more properly, an institution), comprised not so much of the musicians as the characters. Simmons has hinted that even he and Stanley might be replaceable. It’s a distinctly postmodern twist, but at the same time it harkens back to ancient folklore, or the swords-and-sorcery pulp that inspired them. Legends never die, after all; other hands may take up the tale, but the story of KISS continues on.
Jack Feerick is Critic at Large for Popdose. You know he’s working hard, and he’s worth a deuce.