Once a month, IASPM-US brings you an exclusive piece from the vaults of Rock’s Backpages, the online library of music journalism and pop writing – as used by teachers and students at institutions from Harvard to Berklee College of Music. For info on group subscriptions and free trials, go tohttp://www.rocksbackpages.com/group.html or firstname.lastname@example.org
Well, not exactly my idea of the perfect fantasy, but I was curious about life on the other side of the foot-lights. Armed with an abundance of determination and a tight pair of Danskins (Danskins aren’t only for dancing), I approached Larry Harris, the vice president of Casablanca Records with my plan: “How about if I join KISS for a night?”
No answer, and then nervous laughter. Obviously, Larry thought I just wanted to know what it was like to mouth kiss a vampire. Sure, they were eager for a feature on the band but this scheme was just a little bizarre. I pushed the point and they told me disturbing tales of other fresh-faced females who were transformed into raging teenage nymphs after attending a KISS concert. “But I don’t want to see the show, I want to be in it!” I persisted. Reluctantly the Casablanca crowd conceded (only after making me promise not to call KISS a glitter band), assuring me I could join these contorted Kewpie Dolls on stage for one number or four minutes, whatever came first, on the following Saturday.
Thursday: I decided to drop in on the Detroit rehearsal to see what kind of atrocities I’d be in for. Soon after I arrived I found some of the band lounging on the side of the stage, so I walked up and asked what they thought of the idea of me being a KISS (Kissette?) for a night. They all looked at me vacantly, and I realized that NO ONE HAD TOLD THEM!! I felt like a Rockette who gets told thanks at the open call before she’s had a chance to do her dance; but undaunted I fumed at the executive-in-residence, and demanded he explain the plan.
I returned to an empty seat in the vacant hall and continued to watch the band rehearse, to “pick up some tips.” A stage hand divulged that bassist Gene Simmons had accidentally set his hair on fire while practicing the fire-breathing segment of the show, which I admit made me squirm and fear for my own charred remains. My visions of stardom were quickly evaporating like warm Jell-O. During their break Simmons came over and pulled out the few strands of his singed curls, assuring me that “it was nothing,” but I couldn’t prevent myself from biting the Lilac Frost off my nails. I was beginning to have misgivings. I think Ace Frehley did too, because he just stared over my left shoulder, but Peter raised a comradely drum stick when Paul Stanley stated as he pointed to the empty stage: “Saturday night, that’s you up there!”
What am I going to pack to become a KISS? I ponder over breakfast, wincing at the memory of last night’s show. What if that geekish bass player bites my neck, oozing red blood-goo on my unsuspecting shoulder? Anxiety knots my stomach so much that I can’t even force a single Sugar Crisp down my throat, so I return upstairs to case my closet. One leotard (black), one pair tights (black), and one pair six-inch platforms–also black. I zipped up my Samsonite and hurried out the door, Juniors warning still ringing in my ear
Stage manager Junior Smalling is a frightening and humorless man, who wears an oversized pair of blue plastic glasses and possesses the self-given nickname of “Black Oak.” Last night he demanded my presence at the Eastern Airlines desk at 10:45 am. (for an 11:20 flight), and although it was now after eleven and my ticket was in order I still dared not move until Junior arrived. 11:10 he strode in lugging a battered briefcase and an ugly scowl. He didn’t acknowledge me, but instead barked at the airline clerk. Finished, he whirled on the band like an angry parent. “What the fuck is wrong with you guys? We get you watches, and you still can’t get here on time. We coulda missed the plane and the gig, so hustle them asses to the plane!” Finally, he looks down at me and spits: “What are you waiting for? Get to gate 34!” Then almost kindly he adds, “Didn’t anybody ever tell you to wear tall shoes around these guys?”
Seated in 8A my fear of flying is mixing badly with my apprehension. After a round of Hail Mary’s I look up to see Gene Simmons seated next to me, sans makeup of course although he still makes a scene with his 7-inch platforms, cheese-colored scarf and black polish that he is presently chipping off his stubby nails. Of all the members of the band, his appearance is the most obscured by the paint: he might just as easily be Omar Sharif or Joe Namath for that matter. Instead he was a former lifeguard, then a Boy Friday at Vogue, has a BA in Education but secretly confesses a desire to be Bela Lugosi (and is lovingly dubbed Mr. Monster by the rest of his fellow inmates). Circulating around the plane is the current issue of one of CREEM‘s competitors, which has done a full feature on KISS. Eventually the copy drifts to our seat and Gene insists on reading the story aloud to me.
“How come after everything I say, they always add ‘Gene expounds?'” He pouts.
“Probably because you went to college,” I explain.
We exit the plane without incident, except that most of us are over six-foot-something. Me, I feel a lot like Lewis Carroll’s Alice after drinking the small potion, until I notice that Paul Stanley isn’t that much loftier than me. As I remember, yesterday I came about eye level to his Keith Richard button.
“What did you do, shrink overnight?” I asked
“No, didn’t you know I gave up platforms? I wanted a new look,” he says coquettishly, tossing back his head of perfect curls, but he blows the cool by dropping his screaming yellow zonker sunglasses.
“Hollywood?” I venture.
“No, I wear ’em because I don’t like to see people looking at me all the time,” he confesses. Stanley is a confident young man, bordering on almost arrogant. With or without makeup he possesses and intense magnetism: Paul is the throb of the teenage heart, luring them away from their Barbie Dolls and into the backroom.
Believe it or not, the Gorgeous George of the group was once an ugly duckling, never getting any of the girls he wanted. “You know, I was an ugly kid. I looked like I was put together with spare parts. ‘Okay Mac, here’s a set of legs, stick ’em on Stanley.’ I used to be fat and had the funkiest hair. In fact, I even used to iron it, or use this Puerto Rican product called Perma Straight that had directions in both English and Spanish. Back in 1966, the only thing I wanted to be was John Sebastian.
We enter Johnston, PA, in a rented Limo driven by a freckle-faced strawberry blonde. “You know, whenever we have a female limo driver I feel like saying, ‘You get in the back seat, and let me drive,'” says Paul. “Or just get in the back seat…” he jokes. The driver titters, throws a toothpaste smile, and continuously sneaks glances at him in her rear view mirror.
“Is this your regular job?” he asks.
“What is your irregular job?” he jives. As we get out of the car she anxiously waits for Paul to beckon her, and when he doesn’t she reluctantly pulls away.
“Paul, you’re just a tease,” I admonish.
“Yeah, I know, that’s all the fun. Getting it is nothing.”
“Room 421, Miss.” Key in hand, I rejoin the gang and anxiously ask, like an old hand, “When’s the sound-check?”
“What sound-check? ” Gene blankly answers.
“You mean I don’t get to rehearse?” I ask nervously.
“Nah, you’ll catch on, just follow us,” says Paul.
“Yeah, but I’ve got nothing to wear…” I say with a trace of panic.
“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you kid, your name in lights…” jokes Bill Aucoin, their manager.
It’s 4:00 p.m., and all I have between me and showtime is Saturday afternoon TV. I’m watching Soul Train without having the slightest idea what I’m seeing, when the phone rings.
“Uhelszki?” (By this time I was one of the boys, and either called Uhelszki or Kid.)
“What size shoe do you wear?”
“8 ½… Why?”
“Too bad. I thought we could snazz you up in a pair of silver boots.”
“Well, maybe I could stuff ’em with Kleenex?”
No, won’t work. Don’t worry, I’ll rummage around some more.”
I felt like I was getting ready for that Big Date – you know, the prom or Homecoming – when actually I was going to be on stage for a total of four minutes in an Ice Arena in Nowhere, Pennsylvania. But still fidgety, I kept trying on my leotard over and over, checking the image in the mirror, and feeling a lot like motorcycle mole in Naked Under Leather. Drawing the drapes, I practiced a few classic KISS kicks in the bathroom mirror without much success. My practice was cut short by a knock at the door, and an ominous voice: “Be in the lobby in one hour!” The Voice commanded; mine, as a mere member of the shock troops, was but to obey.
The dressing room, in all of its filthy linoleum splendor, wasn’t the worst of its lot. Once inside, I’m afflicted with a bad case of modesty, and become obsessed, like a cat searching for a spot to drop her kitten, with finding a secluded corner to change into my clothes. Would a phone booth do? Clutching my costume, I spot an empty stall and dart in relieved, bolting the door. Like a quick-change artist, I tear off my tee shirt, tug at my Landlubbers and don my basic black, feeling more like a naked seal than part of KISS. Timidly, I sneak out of the stall and approach Ace: “Hey, do you have another pair of tights I can wear? I am freezing,” I lie.
“Yeah, but they’re size D,” says Ace.
“But Jaan, yours look better. They’re much hotter, because you can see through them. Doncha wanna look good in pictures?”
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
Hey, hey, if you don’t watch those legs they’re gonna get grabbed,” leers Simmons.
Embarassed, I turn on Junior and shout: “Hey, how long until we go on!”
“Lookit her, give her a black outfit, and make her a KISS and already she’s hard core,” he laughs.
THE FIRST BAND is on and the crowd is a stiff. No encore. Bill Aucoin sticks his head into the dressing room, shoves five backstage passes towards us, and tells us we’ve got 45 minutes until show time. My palms have started to sweat so much that they’re beginning to obliterate the lettering on my pass, so I stick it on my right shoe, figuring the local goon squad would never believe that I was “KISS For A Night” and give me the shove, figuring me to be just another fanatical KISS groupie who had painted her face like her heroes, which seems to be the current fashion among fans. In keeping with the code of concealing the real identity of KISS, my photographer can’t start shooting until the guys have sufficiently obscured their features. Tired of pacing, I take a spin around the backstage area, which is littered with underage glitter queens of varying age and brilliance. A fourteen-year-old Patty Play Pal accosts me.
“You know Gene Simmons?” she drools.
“Yeah,” I reply matter-of-factly.
“Does he really do those things with his tongue?” she asks excitedly.
“I guess so,” I reply.
“Gee, I wish he’d use that tongue on me, ” she says wistfully.
I return, and KISS are in the final stages of completion, and ready to give me tips on cosmetology. I’m hesitant to let them know that the last time I put on face make-up was in 10th grade, in the girls’ john at Southfield High School, and all my technique consisted of was smearing Touch and Glow over my adolescent visage.
“Yeah, Uhelszki, you gotta get rid of those bangs!” barks Simmons, yanking two clumps of my hair and wrapping elastic bands around them, so my carefully blow-dried hair is imprisoned in two sprouts on the top of my head.
“Ouch,” I complain.
“Shuddup, kid!” kids Simmons.
“You’re the one who asked for this.” Suddenly Paul looks at Gene, and the two of them grin, nod their heads, and attack my hair with a rat-tail comb and a can of hairspray. “Ah, perfect,” sighs Paul, as he admires my new fright-wig concoction.
By general consensus, KISS have decided to make me up as a composite of all of them, just like the back cover of the Hotter Than Hell album. Now for the actual transformation: Side straddling the bench, I face Simmons in his black satin prize fighter robe with Otto Heindel emblazoned on the back, trying not to giggle as English comes out of this Halloween-monster thing. “It’s time to make a little monster. Now watch, so you can do this,” he instructs as if he were a counselor for the Elizabeth Arden School of Beauty. “First rub Stein’s clown white all over your face. Smooth it very lightly, only using a little around the eyes.”
Gene etches Maybelline black on my dry to normal skin, sketching in his bat insignia. “Hey! Don’t make her up just like you,” yells Stanley.
“I’m not. I told you, we each get a crack at her.” Ace splotches a silver dot on my nose, and Peter adds his own feline touch in messy black crayon. Paul pauses over the conglomeration, and draws a smaller version of his star. Funny, somehow, I feel some kind of immunity behind the paint, a little more confidence. Maybe this rock ‘n’ roll business won’t be so bad after all. Gene holds up a mirror and stands back, telling me to look at my reflection. “Don’t you feel special?” he inquires.
“No, silly,” I admit.
“Come on, you look very groupie.”
“I do not!” I argue.
“No, that’s great! Get off on it tonight, while you got it,” he said.
“So then you think I look okay?” I ask.
“Yeah, but I look better!” he laughs.
Now the presentation of my plugless wonder. Junior shoves a red guitar in my hands and I fumble with it. “You mean you don’t even know how to hold a guitar?” he asks incredulously.
“No, do you know how to change a typewriter ribbon?” I retort. Paul comes to my rescue and shows me how to handle the Fender. “Here, hold it like this, off to one side. Now wear it low and slinky, so it looks sexy.”
My last touch is the freak paraphernalia, and I go from person to person collecting their junk jewelry and brutish decorations. Finally I was outfitted in a studded collar, a menagerie of plastic eyeballs (and other unidentified organs), rings, a metal cuff, and a studded belt whose buckle encased a tarantula named Freddy. Unfortunately Freddy kept slipping off my 35-inch hips, and finally had to be taped to my tights with gaffer’s tape. Readying for a gig with KISS fell short of my expectations and their reputations. I expected some gruesome ordeal, but instead we took turns mugging in the mirrors, exchanging gossip (“Did you see the set of tits on that 15-year-old broad?”) and advice. I felt more like I was at a Tupperware party than in a rock ‘n’ roll dressing room, but then the “worst” was yet to come. Stage fright. “I got a run in my rights.” I whined.
“Don’t worry,” comforted Bill, “who’s going to notice fifty rows back?” Like a rock ‘n’ roll Casey Stengle, Bill gave me an impromptu pep talk about standing up straight, not watching the audience, and looking “like you belong there.” As he finished we were out the door, and believe it or not I was raring to go, running down the hallway. Without realizing it, I was halfway up the stairs to the stage when Junior grabbed me. “Hey sweetheart, where you going?” he laughed.
What he didn’t realize was I was getting a little trigger happy, and maybe even stage struck, but just in case I motioned him over to me. “I have every intent on going through with this, but when it’s time for me to go onstage, don’t give me a hand sign, just shove.”
The set seemed to take forever; I felt like I was sitting through the rock version of Gone with the Wind. I had already shredded four Kleenexes, I had to go to the bathroom, and the makeup was beginning to itch unbearably. As I raised one fingernail to scratch, Bill Aucoin was at my side, like a trained pro, grabbing my hand. “That’s a no-no,” he said, and fanned my face to relieve the irritation. “Did you know you’re on next?” he inquired.
I didn’t. Visions of graduation day floated through my head, that fear of slipping before the entire school before you got your hands on the diploma. Only difference was that if I slipped on stage, KISS would use it as part of the act. So in this sense I couldn’t make a mistake. Just a damn fool of my self.
Countdown. Then the shove and I’m on stage, moving like I’m unremotely controlled. Forgetting completely that I ‘m in front of 5,000 people participating as one fifth of this sadistic cheerleading squad, bobbing and gyrating in instinctively, I no longer hear the music, just a noise and a beat. On cue I strut over to Simmons’ mike and lean into it and sing. Singing loud without hearing myself, oblivious to everything but those four other beings onstage. Gene whispers for me to “shake it” and I loosen up a little more, until I feel like a Vegas showgirl going to a go go. Suddenly it strikes me: I like this. And I venture a look at the crowd, that clamoring, hungry throng of bodies below me. All I can think at that moment is how much all those kids resemble an unleashed pit of snakes, their outstretched arms bobbin and nodding, as if charmed by the music. I wonder if they will pick up on the hoax? But they keep screaming and cheering, so I might just as well be Peter Criss, unleashed from his drum kit, as anyone. The only difference is, I am the only KISS with tits.
I slide over to Stanley’s mike, sneaking up behind him, and mimic his calisthenics. He whirls around and catches me, emitting a huge red crimson laugh from his painted lips. I push my unplugged guitar to one side and do an aborted version of the bump and the bossa nova, singing into Paul’s mike this time.
“I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day! Oh, yeah! I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day!”
And right on cue, to add that last dash of drama, Junior’s beefy arms ceremoniously lift me and the guitar three feet off the stage, and I look like a furious fan who’s almost managed to fulfill her fantasy, but was foiled at the end. But you know something? I felt foiled: I wanted to finish the song. My song!
We trekked back to the dressing room and now, after the ordeal, my legs went marshmallow. Wanting to appear blasé after my big debut, I grabbed a wooden chair and draped myself over it.
“It was hysterical!” laughed Paul. “I knew you were gonna be on stage, but then I forgot about you, then all of a sudden I look and see you dancing, looking like Minnie Mouse.”
“You’re a perfect stage personality,” said Gene. “All of a sudden you were hogging the mike. You took over, stealing scenes like a pro. You know, the kids thought you were part of the show.”
The party was over, the fans dispersed, but the five of us were armed with five boxes of Kleenex and four bottles of cold cream. “You know, if we don’t get rich, I’m gonna need a padded cell,” confesses Peter.
The next morning, as we sleepily wandered to the coffee shop to await the limousines, each member of the group greeted me, not with a “Good morning,” but with a mimic of my stage shimmy. “You deserve it, Jaan. You told us you were shy. I never thought you could be such a ham,” explained Bill.
As we said our good-byes, Gene Simmons said over his shoulder: “Whenever you feel like putting on that make-up again, give us a call.”
© Jaan Uhelszki, 1975