WASHINGTON — I have a confession to make. I'm a member of the Kiss Army.
In 1976, I bought my first Kiss album. I loved the rock band's makeup and crazy characters, and quickly I was hooked. I had Kiss posters, Kiss action figures, a Kiss lunchbox, and on Halloween I dressed up in a Kiss costume to go trick-or-treating. Two decades later, I took my future wife out on our first date ... to a Kiss concert. (She married me anyway.) And now, a couple of decades after that, we just took our kids to Philadelphia to see Kiss on their farewell "End of the Road" tour. Some of us (yes, me) even wore Kiss makeup.
In a sense, Kiss prefigured today's age of populism. Just like a certain American president, they horrified the elites — but inspired a loyal, devoted following that reveled in their scorn and condescension. Being a Kiss fan was an act of rebellion against the establishment. The band was panned by the critics, never won a single Grammy, and were only reluctantly admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 — 15 years after they first became eligible. They got in by popular acclamation, despite the best efforts of the music industry establishment to keep them out. As lead singer Paul Stanley put it in the Philadelphia concert, "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hates us!" The crowd cheered.
Kiss is a uniquely American phenomenon. Co-founder Gene Simmons was born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel, the son of a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who saw her family killed in a concentration camp. His mother emigrated to Israel, where they lived in abject poverty. "We had nothing — torn sweaters and we never even saw toilet paper," he says. When Simmons was 8, they moved to New York, where he learned to speak English by reading comic books — which later inspired the costumes and makeup that made Kiss famous. Stanley (born Stanley Bert Eisen) also grew up in New York to a Jewish family that fled Nazi Germany. They seized the opportunities this country gave them, rising from nothing to sell more than 100 million albums, license more than 3,000 product categories, play more than 2,000 shows and earn more Gold Records than any American band. Kiss is arguably both the biggest rock band, and the biggest rock brand, in history. "I am a direct result of the capitalist system. I came to America and I had nothing," Simmons says. "We're blessed to be living in America, which is the land of opportunity." Simmons will turn 70 during the course of this tour, yet he is still breathing fire and selling out stadiums. What a country!
Kiss loves America because they have lived the American Dream. So, it's little wonder that they are unapologetic patriots. In 2016, when NFL players began taking a knee during the national anthem, Kiss responded by launching its "Freedom to Rock" tour. They offered discounted tickets for veterans, invited a member of the National Guard and the Reserves to be a roadie for a day and, at every stop, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for veterans' charities, such as Hiring our Heroes and the Wounded Warrior Project. At shows, they played the national anthem and led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. As Stanley told the crowd, "You should remember, patriotism is always cool. Loving your country is always cool. Standing up, respecting and honoring our military is always cool."
Today, as they reach the end of the road, Kiss is still cool. For their final tour, they delivered the biggest Kiss show ever. The band descended from the sky on platforms while exploding plumes of fire shot into the air that were so hot you could feel the heat in the upper deck. Simmons spit blood and fire. Stanley (at age 67) flew across the audience on a zip line. Tommy Thayer shot out the klieg lights above the stage with blasts of fire from his guitar. And in the grand finale, Simmons and Thayer boarded long-armed mechanical platforms that took them high above the audience to reach the upper level of the stadium, giving those of us in the cheap seats a front row experience for at least one song.
My kids were mesmerized by the spectacle. They'll never see anything like it again.