After 40 years, the great debate rocks on: KISS, or kiss-off?

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In the stinky-rotten TV movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” a mad scientist — lab coat, underground lair, sinister cackle, the works — sets out to destroy the world using the rock band Kiss as his unwitting agents.

That’s odd. I thought Kiss was doing a fairly good job of that all by themselves. Apparently the scientist hasn’t heard Gene Simmons’ solo album or seen Ace Frehley without makeup.

Kiss rules. Kiss reeks. You’re either on this side or that side. Being on the fence means you’ve checked out. It means you listen to Enya.

After 44 years festooned in grease paint, chains, platform boots and yards of what might very well be aluminum foil, Kiss remains a great pop-culture polarizer, an easy critical bull’s-eye and delicious guilty pleasure, the worst rock band ever and the greatest rock band ever. The Michael Bay and P.T. Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll showmanship — kabloom, suckers — Kiss is just a typo for kitsch. Kiss-up. Kiss-off.

A pair of shows spans this good/bad divide that Kiss has gleefully carved. The good is “Gene Simmons’ Rock School,” a droll and gimmicky reality show that aired in 2005 on VH1. The bad (wretched, ghastly, kill me) is “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.” The professional hecklers of the comedic Sinus Show present the movie in Austin, Texas, lambasting it until it cries. Expect nothing less than a massacre.

“Gene Simmons’ Rock School” is more proof Kiss will not die. Simmons — Kiss bassist, blood-spitter, boffo music mogul — crashes a classical music class of 13-year-olds at an English boarding school. Blustering and snarling with practiced disdain, a makeup-free Simmons arrives to tutor the rather stuffy kids in the ways of heavy-metal stardom. “To create little rock gods,” he says.

Simmons roars, folds his arms and appraises the children through affixed sunglasses. His scowly grimace suggests he has taken a whiff of the famous codpiece he dons on stage. “I wear more makeup and higher heels than your mommy does,” he taunts the crisply composed class.

The pupils at first recoil. “I think he’s really scary, because he’s really in your face and stuff,” says a girl. (Some of the children’s accents are so thick that subtitles appear.) Declares another: “I don’t like him at all.”

But of course they soon will. As in the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock” and the documentary “Rock School,” the show is about coming together for a collective purpose — in this case to open for Mötorhead — while learning how to cut loose and be yourself. Simmons even lets the kids in on a little secret: You can be a lousy musician and still rock hard and get preposterously rich.

He should know. Except for lead guitarist Frehley, a bona fide whiz, Kiss are flaccid musicians, lazy tunesmiths and appalling lyricists. Some Kiss poetry: “If you wanna be a singer, or play guitar/ Man, you gotta sweat or you won’t get far.” Sounds like a pop quiz out of Gene’s “Rock School.”

With “Kiss Meets the Phantom,” Kiss nearly courted the Kiss of death. Premiering on NBC in October 1978, the band’s first and last movie casts its members — Simmons, Frehley, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss — as rock stars with murky supernatural powers. The bandmates are sort of like superheroes, but the movie is so badly conceived you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. You have to be acquainted with the special edition Marvel comic books that star Kiss to make any sense of it.

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In the comics and the movie, bandmates are literal incarnations of their stage personas, going by the snickerable names Star Child (Stanley, who has a star over one eye), Demon (Simmons: lizard tongue, bat wings), Cat Man (Criss: painted whiskers) and Space Ace (Frehley: more silver sequins than a Bette Midler show).

The evil scientist (Anthony Zerbe, who was in “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Matrix Reloaded” and probably wishes this article would go away) kidnaps Kiss, builds robot replicas of the band and sends the imposters on stage to change the chorus of the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell” to “Rip, rip/Rip and destroy,” which is supposed to incite fans to riot and ruin everything. That could be the lamest scheme ever in the annals of mad scientists.

So disastrous is “Kiss Meets the Phantom” that even the bandmates, who are not known to criticize their splendiferous empire, disowned the movie. Fans reconsidered their allegiance. Critics drove in on bulldozers. And a camp masterwork was born.

When the movie aired, Kiss was at the peak of their popularity, knocking out hit records like “Destroyer,” “Love Gun” and “Alive II” and peddling mountains of Kiss paraphernalia, from trading cards and dolls to belt buckles and bed sheets. (Today you can even get yourself the $5,000-plus Kiss Kasket. Right. A coffin.)

 

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I’ll take the KISS urn instead.

The band has always targeted young boys, exploiting their fascination with science fiction and horror movies, comic books and fire. Forget childhood sports. Some of us were mesmerized by books and movies, the wide-open realm of the imagination, which happily accommodated the dual fantasy force of Kiss and “Star Wars.” It’s a few paces from a fire-breathing Demon to a growling Wookiee.

In 1978, my best friend brought “Kiss Alive II” to a sleepover. I knew Kiss only from “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” an utterly weird exhibition that aired on ABC in 1976. I liked their kabuki makeup, spandex meets armor costumes and the clouds of smoke. But the loud music and exciting photos of “Alive II” — “Calling Dr. Love,” Simmons drenched in stage blood — hooked me. I dressed up as Simmons and Stanley, collected the trading cards, smothered my walls with Kiss posters, bought every issue of 16 Magazine featuring Kiss gossip, owned the dolls and ordered all of the group’s vinyl albums from the Columbia House Record Club. I was 9.

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“KISS Alive II” centerfold.

And then came “Kiss Meets the Phantom.” This was huge. My excitement was uncontained. Finally, my friends and I would see our favorite band in the whole world actually move and speak. We were too young for Kiss concerts, and this was way before MTV, so bad TV had to do.

Produced by kiddie-show kings Hanna-Barbera, the movie plays like a discarded “Scooby-Doo” episode. Robot werewolves kung fu fight the Kiss guys, who strike back with animated laser beams that shoot from Stanley’s eye and cartoon fire that buzzes from Simmons’ mouth. Stuntmen who look nothing like Kiss stand in for the band during the “action” sequences. There is mild genius behind this kind of ineptitude.

While the movie was a ratings hit for NBC, it was a calamity for Kiss. The group’s “street credibility, which had taken four years of nonstop work to develop, was undone frame by frame in just under 100 minutes,” writes Kiss connoisseur Ron Albanese.

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This budding Kiss freak didn’t care. Still, I think I knew the movie had failed us, that it was merely grotesque advertisements for the group and Magic Mountain, the California amusement park where it was filmed.

Today, the music of Kiss is hardly more than a cheap nostalgia trip for an older, wiser me. It sounds tinny and slapped together. And the band has changed. Frehley and Criss have been booted from Kiss (again), while Simmons’ voracious greed metastasizes unchecked. (His latest reality show, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” is nothing if not a showcase for his slavering cupidity.)

Yet something appealing remains. With an atavistic charge, Kiss blew me away live in 2000 and 2009. Kiss photos and concert footage pump my blood. My brain can’t shake ancient Kiss trivia. I still have my Kiss dolls.

Straddling the great Kiss chasm, I fend off mockery with the shield of original-fan pride. My arrogance wears a wink, my devotion is full of holes. I am not torn, but at peace with the contradictions. And if you ask me if Kiss rules or reeks, the answer is easy: both.

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Unsung culture: a reclamation

The headline above says “a reclamation,” by which I mean a reclaiming of bits of culture that have been acknowledged or acclaimed yet buried beneath indifference, ignorance or more accessible cultural detritus.

unsung |ˌənˈsəNG|not celebrated or praised; unacknowledged.

From food to film, I’m highlighting the forgotten, the forsaken and the downright dissed, retaining due respect to exceptional cultural finds.

These are the unsung. Some of them are the merely undersung — things that either had their day in the sun and were left for dead, or never got the plaudits they deserved.

Any culture buff worth his “House of Thrones” or “Game of Cards” knows where the good stuff is. So accept this as Quality Unsung Stuff 101, a nudge, some tips, a torch alighting on the unjustly obscure.

Film

Quick: Have you seen “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “At Close Range” (1986), “Naked” (1993), “The Dead Zone” (1983) or “Tangerine” (2015) ? If not, then you have some serious, very pleasurable, movie viewing in store.

But I’m not here to discuss those under-sung films, which are largely known and well-regarded. From a sea of ignored or lost titles, I’ve tapped three under-appreciated, fairly unseen movies, the minimalist masterworks “Locke” (2014), “Chop Shop” (2007) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2009).

 * “Locke” — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates by smart phone the personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, squirmily static. It’s not. It’s gripping, utterly.

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* “Chop Shop” — A small-scale drama about an orphan boy in Queens who works for an auto chop shop and how he deals with suspicions that his teenage sister is dabbling in prostitution. The writer-director, minimalist maestro Ramin Bahrani, is, like the neo-realists before him, a steadfast humanist, and this fascinating slice of grubby life brims with heart — and heartache.

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* “Wendy and Lucy” —  A girl and her dog. There you have it in Kelly Reichardt’s grim but soulful tale of a homeless woman (Michelle Williams) and her faithful hound Lucy as they get by as best they can. Lucy gets lost. Drama unfurls. It’s sad, funny, and inexorably stirring. The dog, a natural, is something special. (See my full review here.)

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Pop Music

Alt-rock’s embarrassment of riches in the ‘90s — Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Breeders, Soundgarden, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Beck — birthed its share of one-hit/no-hit wonders, from Spin Doctors to Blind Melon.

Somewhere in between it all was Jellyfish, a Bay Area power-pop band that tossed the harmonic velcro hooks of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Queen, ELO, Supertramp, Cheap Trick and even, gulp, the Partridge Family into a bottle, shook it up and let it fizz all over the place. It was poppy, heady psychedelic bliss, both dreamy and driving. It sounded like Skittles.

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Jellyfish

On only two albums, “Bellybutton” and “Spilt Milk,” the woolly quartet confected soaring, careening, crashing four-part harmonies over surgical melodies and thwumping beats. The songs were so catchy and joyous that each one sounded like a hit from a bygone time. Band members looked like a Haight Street circus and their shows, like their music, were carnivalesque.

“Is Jellyfish the great lost band of the 90s?” a music site recently wondered. Decidedly, yes. The band was soon elbowed out by the grunge assault, eclipsed by angst, drugs and scratchy flannel — and some of the best music of the past 25 years.

An obvious Jellyfish forebear, Supertramp is hardly an unsung pop group. It sold millions of its 1979 album “Breakfast in America,” a masterpiece of jangly, sophisticated, hyper-harmonic rock that spawned four chart-topping hits like “The Logical Song” and “Take the Long Way Home.”

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Supertramp’s 1979 smash “Breakfast in America,” which seems all but forgotten.

But where’s that record now? FM radio and the general public seem to have forgotten it, paying excessive deference to the Billy Joels and Led Zeppelins. If not unsung, “Breakfast in America” is an example of the under-sung, a victim of cultural amnesia. Stream it sometime. The pop perfection you’ll hear is kind of overwhelming.

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Food

For food tourists and inveterate foodies, it’s by now hackneyed to actively consult career food adventurer Anthony Bourdain on where to go and what to eat when you get there. But that’s just what I did before a recent London trip. Watching one of his shows in which he prowls London for the tastiest, highest quality dishes, I took notes and underlined what he called his favorite plate — his “death row” meal — the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John in the East End.

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My bone marrow feast, London.

Though you can find it on many fine-dining menus — it was rather trendy a few years ago — bone marrow remains an unsung specialty that repels the squeamish and excites daredevil palates. At St. John the bone segments were hot, the oily, meaty marrow even hotter. There’s a special way to eat marrow, and the server carefully tells you how. With a thin scooper, you scrape out the marrow and, like brown-pink butter, spread it on crusty bread, top with chunky salt granules and parsley sprigs. Excavating the marrow isn’t always easy. Eating the delicious protein is.

Japanese ramen, that soupy, slurpy noodle bowl, is a longtime favorite, but lately I’ve been almost exclusively forgoing the broth, opting for liquid-free ramen called mazeman, which still, despite growing popularity, hovers in the sphere of the unsung yummy. I rarely see people ordering it at my go-to ramen spot, safely sticking to the traditional hot soup.

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Without broth, ramen is like a bowl of zesty, hearty pasta, thick, seasoned noodles topped by a medley of meats, veggies and a shiny soft-boiled egg. You mix it all up and an umami tsunami emerges, dangling between chopsticks.

The dish is lionized in season two of the fine Netflix comedy “Master of None,” when Dev (Aziz Ansari) has it for the first time. After his second bite, he exclaims, “You know what? Fuck broth!” I must concur.

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Books

“Stoner” is a stunner. John Williams’ 1965 novel, tracing the wearied footsteps of professor William Stoner, was reissued in 2006, and, despite a surge of attention, remains, alas, relegated below the unsung heading.

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A shame, because the writing is surpassingly exquisite, the characters and place crackling with verisimilitude, the emotional dividends reverberant. Though Stoner is quite the sad sack, locked in an unsatisfying job, fissured marriage and the shackles of a deep existential malaise, the book is too splendid to be depressing.

Also unsung: Nicholson Baker’s ridiculously cerebral satire of the everyday “The Mezzanine” — something of a cult item — and Richard Yates’ devastating marital drama “Revolutionary Road, which, despite being a Leonardo DiCaprio film, seems woefully overlooked as literature.

And, as I’ve mentioned a few times here, seek out Eve Babitz, especially her zesty ’70s novels, freshly reissued, “Eve’s Hollywood” and “Sex and Rage.”

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Cities

It seems only elite travel scribes and savvy globe-trekkers talk much about the resplendence of Istanbul, one of my very top cities, a paradisiacal world of ancient mosques and prayer-swirling minarets, exotic eats, riotous bazaars, deep-dyed tradition, and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

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My Istanbul, 2008.

Straddling the best of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s distinctly Middle Eastern tang and cobblestoney Old Europe patina is singular. It has seas and waterways and tall hills cluttered with colorful buildings, both old and breathtakingly modern. The whole city braids the new and the historic, and the result is the exhilarating essence of truly transporting travel.

If you can blot out the hypothetical perils and hypocritical politics, Jerusalem is a delirious fount of history and culture. Nudge aside the vexing fanaticism infesting the Old City — actually, spectacles of devotion, like a Christian pilgrim hauling a giant cross down the Via Dolorosa, are pretty enthralling — and suddenly you’re in a Disneyland of the devoted.

The Western Wall, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem — it’s all utmost fascination, even for this unbudging agnostic. Short bus rides away are Masada, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. The volume of history, religion and culture is gobsmacking. I’m going back.

For unhinged nightlife, try suave, seaside Beirut, where taxis cram narrow, bar-riddled streets and well-attired revelers roar and carouse. During the seven nights I was there, I hit both bustling, elbow-jostling bars and cozy cafes. The partiers were friendly, the drinks strong and the troubled city’s old sobriquet, “Paris of the Middle East,” seemed fitting again.

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TV

Many of you will think I’m nuts for this one, but I really do believe Chris Elliot’s wacko ’90s sitcom “Get a Life” was underrated, unloved, misunderstood and, of course, completely unsung. I also believe it was a giddy Dadaist exhibition of minor genius. All right — full-on genius.

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Elliot — balding, tubby, irretrievably nerdy and awkward (and weird as hell) — played Chris Peterson, a 30-year-old paperboy who lived above his parents’ house. He had a best friend, went on the occasional, entirely improbable date, took his first driver’s test, built a submarine in his bathtub and nurtured a mordant enmity with his best friend’s wife founded on hilarious fusillades of sarcasm.

The show, which didn’t last long on Fox (surprise!), operated on an alien wavelength that either annoyed or enraged viewers who didn’t get it. There was a pinch of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic DNA in the show’s ambient absurdism. But mostly it was Elliot’s screwily non-sequitur sense of humor that shaped “Get a Life.” Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” etc.) was a contributing writer on the program, if that helps explain things.

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And because it was so good, it was naturally cancelled after 12 episodes, in 2000, only to mushroom into a cherished cult darling that reliably makes magazines’ “best TV shows ever” lists. Unsung? This one’s pretty sung.

 

Metallic memories

I was 14 the first time I saw Metallica in concert. It was 1983 in a tiny nightclub called the Keystone Berkeley, in Berkeley, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Metallica was formed and where its members still reside. The club, a bona fide hole, was famous for showcasing the Grateful Dead in its heyday. I won’t mention that again.

Metallica was plumping its debut album, the indie-label thrash classic “Kill ‘Em All,” and was sandwiched on a bill between locals Exodus and headliner Raven, a so-so British metal act with a singer that shrieked like a banshee, screeching songs like “Hell Patrol” on an album called (sigh) “Rock Until You Drop.” (After Metallica’s epic, local-heroes set, Raven finally hit the stage at 1 a.m., well past my bedtime. We split.)

Before they went on, the four members of Metallica hung out in the clammy, smoke-swirled venue, drinking beer and flirting with female fans. I snapped a few pictures of the band, using a now-obsolete Vivitar pocket camera with a 110 film cartridge and a mighty flash. I’m sure they were thrilled.

Here’s singer-guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich:

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James Hetfield and friend.

 

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Drummer Lars Ulrich, making silly to the kid with the camera.

What’s nuts is how young they were, how young we all were. Hetfield and Ulrich are five years older than me, making them 19 or 20 at this show. Hetfield still had zits. Ulrich, at 5-feet-6-inches, looked like a little kid. And yet, though we didn’t know it then, despite the universal excitement over their first record (and we’re talking vinyl record), these guys were about to break big, over the decades becoming one of the most significant arena rock bands of its time. (Hetfield’s reported net worth today: $300 million. Back then: $21.50 and a scuffed skateboard.)

I have more of a visual than aural memory of the concert, but it’s safe to say Metallica mostly played songs from the 10-track “Kill ‘Em All” — “The Four Horsemen,” “Seek & Destroy,” “Whiplash” — plus their usual encore of Diamond Head’s catchy “Am I Evil?,” which was a huge influence on Ulrich.

It was, of course, a sweaty, head-banging affair, the lip of the micro stage a crush of raging, testosteronic catharsis. The band matched the fury, hair-lash for hair-lash, so much so that teeth-gnashing bassist Cliff Burton was taken off stage for a lengthy breather. The rumor was that he almost passed out. It was that kind of show.

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Cliff Burton in one of his better moods.

 

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A mid-set break backstage. Hetfield gives me the peace sign up his nostril and Burton relaxes as best he can. Burton was killed three years later in a tour-bus accident.

In a six degrees of Metallica trip, I eventually learned that Ulrich and I shared the same drum teacher, an affable, infinitely tolerant 25-year-old named Jeff Campitelli, who also happens to be a spectacular musician. (In 2008, Rolling Stone named him one of the 50 best drummers.) To Jeff’s dismay, neither Ulrich or I knew the drum rudiments, which, says one pro, “are the building blocks for every drum beat, fill, or pattern that you could ever play.” We were not highly evolved drummers.

At the time, Jeff was in a Bay Area pop trio called The Squares, whose guitarist was none other than Joe Satriani, who has, of course, gone on to guitar-hero megastardom. Among other big-time gigs, Campitelli still plays with Satriani, whose former guitar pupils include Charlie Hunter, Steve Vai and a fellow named Kirk Hammett. 

Hammett, you may know, plays the axe for a little band called … Metallica.