Saturday, September 1, 2012

My First KISS Concert

Recently I was discussing the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Creatures of the Night album (you can find it here if you’re curious).  Maybe I was trying to block it out in a way, but this now reminds me that it is also coming up on thirty years since I first saw KISS live.  I thought I would dive into those memories for a few moments here, but be warned – this is just my experience as a fan going to the show; there’s no chance meeting with KISS members to be told here, no funny road-trips to be mentioned, just the kind of thing we all did as fans going to shows … certainly what we all did back in 1983 at least.
Back in October 1982 I was working at a bookstore in Yellow Springs, Ohio with a guy named Larry Blake.  He was the manager of the store and did his own self-published comic-book on the side.  He also was a big KISS fan; having first heard them on the radio back in 1974 and then seeing them live at the Agora in Columbus, Ohio that year.  One night he came in with a copy of the just-released Creatures album and played it on the cheap stereo we had hooked up in the store.  I remember his take on the album was that it wasn’t quite as good as Music from “The Elder” – that it sounded a bit too commercial after such an experimental album like the previous one – but overall he was pretty happy with the results.  My take at the time was more “Hey, those guys are still around?  Well, that’s nice.  Glad they can still get work.”
As you can see, I didn’t immediately jump on the bandwagon right there and then.  But Larry kept playing the album in the store and I was getting more accustomed to it as time went on.
A few weeks later, there was an announcement that KISS was to perform at U.D. Arena in early January.  U.D. Arena was and is the hall build namely for University of Dayton Basketball and I happened to know the area fairly well – not only was my brother going to college there at the time, but three vital record shops (The Forest, Renaissance and Second Time Around, of which only Second Time Around is still open today) and a brilliant comic-book shop (Bookie Parlor … man the stories one can tell about the old guy who ran the place …) in the area.  I also went to a lot of U.D. Basketball games, so I knew the arena well.  I mentioned to Larry that I could get tickets for a group of people, since I was going to be in the area when tickets went on sale anyway.
(Speaking of which, for some reason the show, which was on January 9, 1983, is typically listed as being at Hara Arena.  While KISS played a lot of shows at Hara before and after the Creatures tour, they did not play there on that particular tour.  Instead, they got the biggest arena in town – U.D.’s – which could accommodate a bigger stage and more ticketbuyers.  As you can guess, KISS was hopeful they could go into this tour with attendance in the realm of what they saw in the 1970s.  It didn’t turn out quite that way in the end, but they were thinking big at the time at least.  At least in the case of U.D., they were right as I recall it looking pretty much like a sold-out crowd at the time of the show.  Heck, even the local “famous” car-dealer in the area was there with his family.  Recently I’ve read that the show only sold a third of its possible seats, so maybe it’s just my memory of the event, but it certainly didn’t look to be that low at the show itself.)
Tickets, after taxes and all, were set at $12 each, so we pulled together $60 for five tickets and I was set to go to the arena the next day to buy them when the box office opened.  If I remember correctly, this would put it in early December, where the weather was getting colder and Christmas decorations were starting to go up.  I recall that simply because the day before the tickets went on sale I had this idiotic notion to call the box-office and ask, quite politely, “Say, you have a bunch of windows that you open in the morning to sell tickets … um … which one do you usually open first?”
To my amazement, the woman on the phone told me that they usually opened the one covered in Christmas lights first and then slowly opened the others a couple of minutes after that. 
For those of you too young to really grasp what this means, you have to remember that this was the early days of things like Ticketron (or Ticketmaster).  Sure, you could order tickets to a show through Ticketron and not at the box-office, but you didn’t do it by calling a number and giving a credit card and you certainly didn’t have anything like the Internet to do it for you (or foul it up for you … but enough about griping about Ticketmaster’s website).  You had to wait in line at a record or department store that had Ticketron and then order as if you were at the box-office anyway.  (I remember driving to a Sears in downtown Dayton just to wait in line for the store to open in order to run like blazes to wait in line at their Ticketron  counter at the other end of the building for tickets to a show.) Further, the practice, or at least the thought at the time was, “if you want front row seats, you better get them at the box-office, because by the time Ticketron is up and running on the computers at the store seats are going to be half-way back at best.” 
Now think of what I had just been told in those terms: this is like someone today at Ticketmaster telling you, “Oh, yeah, you can call the regular number at 10:01 AM … or you can call this number at 9:59 AM and get your tickets first.”  It is really that simple of a definition.
So I got it in my head, “KISS or no KISS, I’ve never gotten front row seats for anything, so this may be my chance.”  With that in mind, I drove to U.D. Arena, getting there about 5 AM.  There were about six cars in the parking lot and the weather was cold and windy, making it about twenty-degrees outside.  Because of this, everyone waiting to get in line for tickets sat in their cars, trying to keep warm.  I, however, thinking myself so smart, decided to plant my spot outside that window with the Christmas lights in order to be ready, reading a book I had with me.
And I froze.  Man, it was cold.  People slowly began venturing out of their cars and forming their own lines here and there – some behind me; some at other windows; others at the door (where you could order tickets from a booth inside once they opened).  Yet, determined, I stayed there and hopped around, trying to keep warm.
If there was a movie, something disastrous would have happened at this point, but that wasn’t the case here.  At 9:59 that morning the panel on the window with the Christmas lights slowly opened and I was asked what tickets I wanted to buy.  As the crowd began to creep up towards the window I was at and others – not to mention people pounding on the door to get into the place to buy tickets – I made my order and came out with the first five tickets sold:  Row A, Seats 1 – 5.  Front row.
I then went home and covered myself in as many blankets as I could find in order to get warm before going back to sleep.
Later that day I surprised Larry with the tickets.  He thought I may get close seats, but nothing as good as these.  Since he had ponied up the money for four of the tickets, those were his to give to others.  Thus, he invited a friend of his, Carlyn (who would later co-create the Strange Ways fanzine with me and Larry) and someone else.  The other person offered to bring his cousin along and Larry thought it would be great to make this young female cousin a blind-date for me at the show.  He told me about this later and I was a bit hesitant, but after seeing a picture of the cousin decided it was a dandy idea.
Day of the show, we get together to get ready.  Larry and Carlyn decided to put on KISS makeup for the show and I was with them when we got a call from his other friend. 
“Bad news, Dale,” Larry told me as he got off the phone.  “Looks like my friend’s cousin won’t be able to go to the show.”
I jokingly replied, “Why?  Is something wrong with me?  Does she not want to go out with me?  She better have a good reason to turn me down.”
“She just found out she’s pregnant,” Larry responded.
“… okay, that’s a good excuse.”
With a free ticket dangling there, we started searching for someone who would be interested in going.  It finally came down to a co-worker from the comic-book shop, and I have to say it was a disappointment.  Namely because Russ wasn’t my idea of a blind-date.
The makeup took longer than expected and we ended up missing most of the first opening act, which was Night Ranger.  Arriving we found a couple sitting in our front rows seats, with the guy throwing quite a theatrical fit … until security over to get him out of our seats.  He then got very friendly indeed and rapidly moved himself and his disappointed date elsewhere.
After watching the remainder of Night Ranger’s set (staged with  their drummer off to Stage-Right instead of behind the other musicians, due to the amount of equipment on-stage for KISS … which actually made the drummer a focal point in their set), the lights went up in order to get the stage ready for KISS and I went back to look at the merchandise, of which there was very little.  A tourbook and a couple of t-shirts was what I recall for the most part.  I bought a tenth anniversary t-shirt, which featured Vinnie Vincent on the front (so much for those rumors of Ace maybe coming back for the tour if Vinnie was dead-center in the merchandising) and went back up-front in time for the show.
The show started with the band seemingly rising up from the floor; an effect that would have looked great if not for the local television station camera-crew with their bright lights filming the beginning of the show for the news that night.  Beyond that slight hitch – and one where Paul slipped and fell on his butt while, remarkably, still managing to continue to play the guitar – everything else seemed to go well.  Most interesting to the group with me was watching the new lead guitarist, Vinnie, as he was having to prove himself under fire with an audience that now knew it wasn’t Ace on stage (of course, with what appeared to be a near sold-out crowd of families in attendance, they may not have really cared as long as it was a guy in clownwhite).  One could tell up-close that Vinnie was nervous (this was still very early in the tour) and Gene was going out of his way at the side of the stage to try to direct people’s attention to Vinnie during his various solos.  I distinctly recall Gene going off to the side of the stage and reaching the tip of the stage in order to get people to clap and then directing the audience’s applause to Vinnie as Vinnie did a solo (proving that Gene was wanting to make sure Vinnie got a warmhearted reception from the crowd).  As Vinnie neared the end of his solo (and this was short and very tightly-controlled, featuring his take on the “Looney Tunes” theme) he looked up to see Larry giving him a thumb’s up and Vinnie returned it at the same time.  At least for the moment it appeared that Vinnie was going to fit right in with the KISS fans.
Not that everyone in our group was getting into the show, however.  Russ spent most of the show making fun of the concert (hey, his ticket was free, he had not inclination to try to reason his $12 there) and insisting that Vinnie was a girl, and nothing could convince him otherwise.
“He has hair on his chest, Russ.”
“It’s a wig.”
Couldn’t really get past that argument.
Soon enough the drum-riser/tank came forward, blowing up the speakers above us and showering us all with confetti as the show came to a close.  The rest of the night was spent driving everyone back to their homes, while having no close if people were speaking to me or not due to the ringing in my ear.
It was over.  My first KISS show.  I was impressed.  Although attending as a first-timer, I was reminded how many songs of theirs I had heard over the years (and after hearing the then-new album many times, I had no problems picking up on the new songs introduced on-stage).  I could readily keep up with what was being played and didn’t get bored as you sometimes do when you go see a band of which you do not know their catalog of songs.
More importantly, I was intrigued by the band because I could see how hard each member was working to keep the audience entertained.  Perhaps I had already spent too much time reading historical studies about concerts and performances, with my eyes tending to wander behind-the-scenes at shows if I can see there, but it didn’t matter.  What they were doing at the side of the stage was just as entertaining in a way, because it was clear that these guys were taking their few minutes off-stage to get themselves ready for the next part of the show.  Nothing appeared to show them larking about or taking it easy; it was always a “blow-dry my hair a little and touch up the makeup … give me my torch to blow fire with …” kind of thing.  When Gene was off-stage and still visible to the audience, he wasn’t just trying to get applause for himself, he was trying to drum it up for Vinnie, and that shows a consideration for the act as a whole instead of just one part of it.  To see that dedication and to see KISS pull it off while performing a full musical concert – especially after going to shows where I’ve been band members walk off-stage in a huff and give up on songs just because of minor mishaps – was impressive.   
So, there it was:  I liked the music, I liked the professionalism, I liked the effects, and I thought it all pulled together into an entertaining 90 minutes of rock music.  Of course, being front row certainly helped to get that point across in a big way, but I can see now that I had become a fan by the end of the night.  After that, there were many, many more shows; definitely every major tour from 1983 through 2000 that went through the area.  Several times where I’ve run into the guys before or after a show (running into Bruce the night he found out he had become a permanent members of the band; sitting in a Dayton bar, having drinks with Peter Criss while fans sat nearby wondering who “Peter’s friends” were; trying to convince a friend not to bother Eric Carr while he was hitting on a girl in a bar; Paul’s reaction to seeing the Lyn Christopher album; Gene giving me passes for friends to a show, and many other times too numerous to mention).  A lot of fun going with friends to see shows and doing the fanzines with them.  And of course, the books I have written about the band over the years.
It’s been a fun ride, and it all goes back to that moment when I decided I was going to get front-row seats to a concert.  Nearly thirty years on now, but still a lot of great memories and more to come.  Hopefully, KISS has worked that same magic on most of you reading as well.