Shout at the Devil and Rock & Roll All Nite: Chuck Klosterman & TNB Music’s J.M. Blaine Talk KISS & Mötley Crüe — Only!By J.M. Blaine
July 24, 2012
I just finished writing a book filled with suicide, psychosis and the elusive meaning of life. I turned it in and spent three solid weeks lying on my living floor, watching old metal videos and trying to untangle my brain.
My writer sort-of-mentor friend called while Judas Priest was ripping through “Diamonds & Rust”.
“Did you know that for at least one night in Memphis, K.K. Downing was the King of Rock and Roll?” I said when I picked up the phone.
“What?” she said.
“Never mind,” I told her, stabbing the TV mute.
“So you’re working on your next book, right?” she asked.
“Let’s hear it. What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking about the way it feels to watch a fifty-six year old Angus Young duckwalk strut and break into a run while scratching out the lick to “Girl’s Got Rhythm”. About Gene Simmons, forty years into the game, still breathing fire and screaming: “Get up!!! And get your grandma outta here….”
“Gene Simmons,” she said.
“And wondering what Lick It Up might have sounded like if Alex and Eddie Van Halen had joined KISS when Ace and Peter broke away.”
“Thinking about KISS,” she said.
“Well, mostly KISS,” I confessed. “But lately I’ve been concocting this theory of how Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt is a modern-day take on the Book of Ecclesiastes0.”
“Mötley Crüe’s life is like the Bible… OK.”
“Listen to this: I said in mine heart, I will test thee with pleasure and mirth and behold – dude — this also is vanity. Ecclesiastes 2:1. That’s like, the whole theme of The Dirt right there.”
There was static on the line then a pause. “Good luck selling that proposal,” she said. “Look, maybe you should just do one of your interviews or something first?”
As children we were told that rock and roll would rot our souls. My parents suggested my fascination with Ace Frehley and Skid Row was “just a phase”. But I grew up on a steady diet of Dio and Jesus, the philosophies of Nietzsche and Nikki Sixx, Paul Stanley raps running through my brain as I became, among other things, a licensed psychotherapist, college professor and outreach minister at the largest per-capita church in America. (Albeit, one with a picture of Lemmy at the Last Supper hanging over his office couch.)
As a therapist I quoted Axl Rose1, in the classroom I spoke of parallels between Poison lyrics and the great books of Wisdom. Even as a preacher I argued that Ozzy and Bon Scott just might be modern-day prophets… and here I am now, trying to find a way to work it all together for the good, somewhere between a little too deep and far too sixteen.
Lady Mentor was right. I need to talk to someöne who ünderstands. There’s this one metalhead writer whose books have been a great encouragement to me. An author who is well-respected even though he pens critical essays on topics like Bang Tango and Saved by the Bell. Who was once called:
“The only guy in the world able to make academic arguments for KISS and Mötley Crüe.”
And he said about himself:
“I probably thought about KISS and Mötley Crüe more than anyone else in America.”
I’ve worked with his publicist a time or two – so why not? I shoot her an email.
I want to do a piece where we talk about nothing but KISS and Mötley Crüe.
Within five minutes she replies. Chuck is excited!
Just after that a message comes back from Mr. Klosterman himself: When can we do this?
Chuck Klosterman: Wow. Where’s this going to run?
CK: Ohhh yeah.
CK: Cool, very cool.
JMB: But we can’t talk about Van Halen or G N’R today. Just KISS and Mötley Crüe.
CK: Ah, got it.
JMB: I was wondering how to prepare because you’re gonna be making all those witty insights and I’ll be like, Dude, Creatures of the Night was awwwesome….
CK: It is kind of nerve-racking because this is something I’m supposed to know everything about so the pressure is on me not to seem like a dilettante.
JMB: Well, I slept ‘til noon and ate two bowls of Captain Crunch2 while listening to Rock and Roll Over.
CK: You seem perfectly prepared. I just had some General TSO chicken and I’m pacing around my apartment. I’m ready.
JMB: How did you discover KISS?
CK: I got into KISS around second grade as a visually interesting, weird thing. I had seen Phantom of the Park 3 but didn’t have any of the records. Kids would play KISS at recess. I was from North Dakota so if you were wearing snow boots, they were Ace Frehley boots. Then I wasn’t interested in the band at all until about sixth grade when my brother-in-law gave me the cassette of Animalize. He was in the Columbia House Record Club and forgot to send the card back. I got Lick it Up next and then all the old albums.
JMB: How did the makeup-era hold up after “Heaven’s on Fire”?
CK: I immediately loved them. Destroyer. Love Gun. The first record. I really liked the live version of “Ladies Room” from Alive II. The studio version sounded thin to me although now I probably like it more. I mean, yeah, I first noticed KISS because they looked like superheroes but the reason I got obsessed was musical. Which my rock critic friends don’t seem to believe. They are constantly accusing me of pretending to like the music of KISS more than I do. But I really do! I like how they play behind the beat a little bit. The straightforward melodic action. I like the stylized lyrics, the way they almost seem like — in a good way — caricatures of what rock songs are about.
JMB: First time I saw KISS was around second or third grade too. I went to a K-12 school out in the sticks and there was this senior named Tony Gillot who had a full mustache and Greg Allman hair. He wore a purple FFA jacket and used to work on his Monte Carlo in the school auto shop during lunch. One day he pulled Alive II from under the seat and handed it to me like, Check this out, little man but smudge or bend it and I’ll beat your ass…. I sat against the shade tree and stared at that gatefold for forty-five minutes. Nothing in life was ever the same after that.
CK: That guy must have been bad-ass because a Monte Carlo was by far the coolest car of that era.
JMB: Not long after, my aunt took me to the TG&Y and I bought my first KISS record and they sounded exactly like they looked. Like black and silver and bombs and blood and comic book rock and roll. That’s still brilliance to me.
CK: Comic books are one of the few geeky things I have no relationship with. I know KISS is closely associated with comic books4 and I own all the KISS comics even though I don’t really look at them. Along with Phantom of the Park, the other formative exposure I had was this episode of 20/20, the one with Hugh Downs?
JMB: I think I saw that on a bootleg comp…
CK: I remember it so vividly I can tell you the first two stories were about the grain embargo due to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan and the other was on the MX tank. Which was like the first really fast tank. The third was KISS. What stands out is Paul Stanley opening a suitcase full of money. Which I assumed was staged for the show. I can’t believe KISS was regularly paid with suitcases full of cash. I was also confused by Paul’s interview where he basically says: This is my dream. My whole life. To have long hair, to wear makeup and be a rock star. It had never occurred to me that anyone would have that as a career dream. I was still young enough not to think anyone would aspire to be KISS. KISS is a self-created entity, an extension of what these guys wanted to live like. I’m sure I didn’t think about it that way when I was seven years old but I think about it a lot now.
(From ABC’s 20/20, 1979)
“If you listen closely to their music, it’s all dissonance, explosions and moaning. (rolls eyes) Which perfectly surmises the adolescent experience.” — Charles M. Young, associate editor, Rolling Stone
“I never wanted to be a cab driver. Never wanted to be an accountant. I wanted to be beautiful. Have long hair. (pucker, floofs curls) Be eternally young. That’s me.” – Paul Stanley
JMB: I remember hearing Gene say, You can be whoever you want to be. Don’t let anyone tell you who you are or what you can’t do. For a kid with a young single mother, living in a one-horse town — where the best you could hope for was a high school diploma and a job at the mill — that message combined with the music and the look, was incredibly empowering. If I saw Gene today, I’d have to say, “Whatever else you did or didn’t achieve, your message helped me.” Then we’d hug and I’d say, “So please stop making KISS toilet paper.”
CK: I don’t know what impact KISS had on how I view life. It’s probably either much more or much less that I think. Over and over, particularly in the 80s, they are forwarding the idea that KISS fans are being persecuted and that people are trying to stop us from liking KISS. And that’s a brilliant aesthetic vision for the band. It’s something that never technically happens – and yet as one moves into the world of pop music and becomes more intelligent – I have to say that it’s true. People are often trying to convince me that KISS is terrible. Or that when I say I love KISS — I’m actually pretending. Or that if you like KISS, somehow you are only trying to rediscover your childhood. I just believe that of all the bands to think about, KISS is by far the most fun.
JMB: That’s a good point. Fun is a perfectly sound defense. KISS may not be as musically astute as Genesis but they sure are a lot more fun to think about.
CK: I came in after the makeup years so for me, discovering the Love Gun Tour was like learning about the moon landing. Extremely cool and super-interesting and I wanted to know everything about it. I’ve bought every cassette, CD, LP, the box sets… I think I have purchased “Rock and Roll All Night” something like – nineteen times so far. That being said, I enjoy buying KISS stuff. If I heard that all of the records were being remastered by some sort of new sound technique — like these new Neil Young LPs – I would be excited about purchasing them again. They give fans a lot to do without actually doing anything. I can enjoy KISS even when I’m sitting in a totally quiet room.
JMB: In my early twenties I was in grad school for Behavioral Psych and would sit in the back of class drawing band logos on my notebook and weaving personality theories into the rise and fall of KISS.
JMB: I figured the downfall of KISS was two events. First, Peter’s “Beth” is the band’s only number one smash. Second, Ace Frehley smokes Paul and Gene with his solo LP. Not even close. When you empower the underdog, good things can happen if the alpha dog’s ego is secure. If the underdog is supported and encouraged with good boundaries the team as a whole can rise to new heights because everybody is at their best. Theoretically, Dynasty should have been KISS’s strongest release. But it wasn’t. Because I don’t think Paul and Gene could handle humility and apparently Peter and Ace couldn’t handle success.
CK: So wait — when we talk about the downfall of KISS – what are we talking about? When the original four splintered or when they hit a low point creatively?
JMB: For conversation’s sake let’s say towards the end of Dynasty tour when nobody’s talking to each other, they’re telling elaborate lies to the fans and straying into this sort of almost Dr. Hook-ish5 disco-y music that today we might call Yacht Rock.
CK: I kinda like all the KISS records and the ones that are perceived as the worst are often the most interesting to me. I think this happens a lot to people who are obsessive about groups. I really like The Elder and Unmasked. Crazy Nights. Records that most people would say were failures.
JMB: Maybe the Dynasty through Creatures era was a downfall and saving grace. It was a low point creatively and financially but those same egos were damned and determined to rise again. If it wasn’t for that period, I think KISS may not still be around today. That time is interesting to me because you grow up and think, how do you go from “I Stole Your Love” to “Sure Know Something”? And from there to “Odyssey” to “War Machine”?
CK: If we’re talking objectively, I think the downfall of KISS was the realization of their goals. Most bands want to be The Beatles but KISS wanted to be Coca-Cola. Early in their career, the records aren’t selling but they portray themselves as being super-successful. Then it actually happens. They become obsessed with holding on to the market share and too conscious of what else was happening in music. Whether it’s disco or… I don’t know how we describe Unmasked, this sort of pre-cursor to 80s synth music? So they start overcompensating in order to be as successful as they had always claimed.
CK: That’s very true. Even the cover wasn’t cohesive. It’s like a Frankenstein image of different shots. I think they even Frankenstein-ed some of the faces.
JMB: So what was the peak of your obsession? As a kid or an adult?
CK: Hmmm. I’d say the height was 1995. I was working as a newspaper reporter and hanging out with this cool girl who didn’t know anything about KISS so I got to explain it all to her. Then the reunion rumors started. I like thinking about KISS as an adult. About the interpersonal relationship between Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. I’ve been a fan all these years and still have no sense of their real relationship. When I listen to Paul’s last solo record6 I feel like many of the songs are about Gene. To work with someone you might not be that close to – for thirty years? That’s crazy. Thinking about Music from the Elder fascinates me. The band realized the critical acclaim they said they didn’t care about was actually very important. They would never be satisfied until they were loved by the intellectual elite so they consciously tried to accomplish that goal. The record is actually not as terrible as it’s made out to be.
JMB: “I” and “The Oath” were killer live. They actually sounded more like KISS than anything on Dynasty or Unmasked. “Mr. Blackwell” was Simmons enough to spit blood to. The Elder’s not so bad.
CK: But it proved that people can not get over their pre-existing knowledge of a given entity. In other words, it wouldn’t have mattered if The Elder had been Sgt. Pepper’s. It was coming from KISS. So people viewed that music through the prism of how they understood KISS. It must have been very weird for the band to experience that in the present tense. To realize that your history puts a limit on how people will understand your work. I sometimes have the same experience as an author. I’d like to try something totally different and yet I understand that if I do it will be viewed through my pre-existing image of success. So KISS are locked in to the idea of appealing to people who don’t give a shit about music. It’s just part of their fan base.
JMB: Actually, I think it was The Elder that led me to Mötley Crüe….
(Part II: The mind-blowing package that was Shout at the Devil, the Crüe’s transformation from glitter glam to sleazy bikers to polished radio rockers to some sad Vince-less version of a metal Soundgarden… and The Dirt as penned by Chuck Klosterman. Read it now!)
(Part III : What KISS might look like a hundred and fifty years from now, the makeup-era album most conducive to making out, Ace = George Harrison and the Vinnie-tastic value of widdly widdly WHOOoooo…. Read it now!)
CHUCK KLOSTERMAN is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs; Eating the Dinosaur; and The Visible Man. His debut book, Fargo Rock City, was the winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. He has written for GQ, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Spin, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Believer, A.V. Club, and ESPN, and he now writes about sports and pop culture for Grantland.com.