Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kiss Convention

On Kondoms and Kaskets
The Kiss nostalgia machine will eat you alive.
By Adam Bulger
New York Press, 2003

Marketing professionals must look at Kiss with abject envy. Every American under the age of 70 has at least passing knowledge of the Kabuki-theater rock quartet. Kiss is the most recognizable high-concept act in rock: They’re the band that wears make-up and breathes fire, a combination hard-rock band and pyrotechnic circus. They’ve got a hipster-friendly 70s kitsch, comic book/action figure tweeker appeal and a metal/classic rock crossover combo rivaled only by AC/DC and Led Zeppelin.

But the ultimate testament to the breadth of their appeal may have been their appearance at the 1996 Grammys. They were joined onstage by Tupac Shukar, and the patron saint of gangsta rap was uncharacteristically giddy standing alongside the costumed avengers of rock.

The mass awareness of Kiss coexists with a rabid fan base that matches the Shatner cult of Trekkies in its consumption of merchandise and detailed knowledge of the source material. The thousands of conscripts in the Kiss Army act as a built-in sales base for Kiss products, like the recently launched Kiss Kondoms (advertised as "tongue lubricated") and 2001’s infamous Kiss Kasket, an airbrushed coffin embossed with the words "Kiss Forever."

The Army’s devotion to its leaders, however, is far from absolute, and coexists with a pronounced contempt. According to a Gene Simmons-authored press release on, the original official Kiss website was shut down due to a flood of negative comments on the message boards. Kiss fans compartmentalize their enjoyment of the band, isolating the aspects of the band they like (Ace Frehley, the comic books, the live shows) and enthusiastically trashing everything else. One of them joked that Kiss is an anagram for "we Know It Sucks So what."
For almost two decades, the faithful followers of the schlock rockers have congregated in New York at annual events called Kiss Expos. Kiss Expos are a combination rock ’n’ roll flea market, celebrity meet-and-greet, and performance showcase. There you can buy action figures, matchbox cars, plush cushion slippers shaped after Gene Simmons’ onstage platforms, bobble heads and LEGO toys, comic books, dolls, lunchboxes, garbage cans, teddy bears and even a board game.

The 2003 New York Kiss Expo took place May 3rd and 4th in New Jersey. It was held three months before Kiss is set to embark on a national tour with fellow 70s icons Aerosmith.
The Expo took place at the Meadowlands Sheraton, a 21-story glass monolith that towers over the surrounding wetlands and professional sports facilities. The festivities were spread across three beige banquet halls, spaces usually reserved for corporate events and civic awards ceremonies. Sheraton banquet staff wore black tuxedos and served fried food, hot dogs and $7 dollar mix drinks to the 1200 fans in attendance. The crowd ranged in age from high-schoolers to AARP members.

The Kiss Expo is a family-friendly event, crowded with baby strollers and small children. One infant wore a "Kiss baby" bib, and a married couple in full stage outfits chaperoned their 10-year-old nephew, also in make-up. For civilians: straight-leg jeans and sneakers, rock t-shirts and denim jackets. There was a lot of long hair, but few mullets, suggesting that the old-school rockers have finally wised up. Youngsters leaned toward goth, but were soundly outnumbered by the over-30s, who were too old to rock but hadn’t yet figured out what else to do.

At a typical Expo, the vendors rent table space and provide their own inventory. Some are hardcore Kiss fans unloading their collections, others hawk homemade Kiss goods like mouse pads, blankets and Cub Scout soap-box derby cars. Some are speculators who buy Kiss stuff on eBay with hopes of turning a profit.

The Kiss collectible market is similar to the late-80s baseball card and comic book scene. One older gentleman criticized another fan’s purchase by saying, "I can’t believe that guy paid 40 for that beat-up tour book. Did you see it? I got it from a guy over there for 10 bucks and it was in perfect condition."

Others are regulars on the metal scene. The Grimoire of Exalted Deeds publisher Bill Zebub was on hand behind an assembly of death metal CDs, DVDs and his magazine. Long, straw-like blond hair and White-out skin give the impression that he’s been living on a diet of Twinkies and Pabst for years, but he’s a glowingly nice guy and gave me an issue of his magazine and a documentary about the history of death metal.

Zebub was having a rough time of it, however. "I think death metal fans listen to Kiss," he told me, "but Kiss fans don’t really listen to death metal." He seemed to regret renting the table, as he’d only sold one CD so far.
The man behind him had better luck selling 80s merchandise from the Christian glam-rock group Stryper. His table was covered in black and yellow t-shirts and stacks of the 2001 Stryper Expo videos. When asked how his Stryper-exclusive angle was working, he revealed a billfold packed fat with 100s and 50s. He’d arrived with ten dollars in his pocket.

Away from the center of the merchandise tables, the featured guests earn their fees. Bruce Kulick, Kiss lead guitar player from 1984 to 1995, was on hand to sign autographs and promote his solo album and current gig as the axe-man for the reconstituted Grand Funk Railroad. Kulick is tall, thin and played the role of rock star in his leather jacket and rock boots. A tightly compacted, Jeri Curlish hairstyle failed to fully hide his bald spot.

Michael Kelly Smith, the lead guitar player for 80s hair-metal band Britny Fox was seated next to Kulick’s autograph station. His locks still flow down to his shoulders, but they lack the spiky afro from the days when his band enjoyed one-hitter success with "Girlschool." Britny Fox recently released its first studio album in 12 years, but Kelly wasn’t sure if the band would tour, as his full-time guitar-teaching gig would be jeopardized.

And in the back corner of the larger banquet room: adult film starlet Jasmine St. Claire, signing autographed pictures and talking to fans. St. Claire–most famous for having sex with 300 men in World’s Biggest Gang Bang 2–looked haggard and acted unfocused and flighty. Her skin was taut and leathery; her hair was tangled, almost in dreadlocks. When asked why she was at the Expo, she rattled off six favorite songs. She also had every Iron Maiden album on vinyl, and remains a huge fan of Dio and Dokken. She also told several fans that she was keen on offering her professional expertise to Kulick. When informed of Jasmine’s intentions, Kulick was flattered but terrified.

The Expo’s organizer is Richie Ranno. He’s a thin guy with curly gray hair who on the day of the event was eager to blow me off. The next day, on the phone, he was gracious and polite.
Ranno’s been organizing the New York Kiss fan events for 17 years, a gig that grew from his relationship with Kiss in the 70s when he played guitar for the forgotten pop-metal band Starz that shared management with Kiss. They put out four records on Capitol before breaking up in the early eighties.

He says his transition from rock star to convention organizer was an accident.

"I did it with a partner. We had some Kiss stuff that people seemed to want, and we thought, ‘How are we going to sell it?’ The idea was that the stuff we had was 70s stuff, and Kiss with make-up was [then] a nostalgia thing because Kiss was running around with no make-up."
Their first convention, held in Cranford, NJ, was a success. Ranno soon formed Starz Productions and became the Johnny Appleseed of Kiss conventions–Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and Poughkeepsie soon followed. Ranno also plays with his "all-star" band every Sunday night at the Orange Lantern bar in Paramus, NJ, and hopes for a Starz reunion and tour this summer.
Depending on which original members come on board, this summer’s manifestation of Kiss will either headline or support Aerosmith. Word at the Expo was that original guitarist and fan favorite Ace Frehley was unlikely to join. He is, however, slated to appear at Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy camp on June 18 in New York City. (The five-day camp gives fans the chance to fulfill lifelong dreams of playing alongside members of Kiss, the Who, Mountain and the Hall & Oates’ back-up band.)

For those not inclined or employed enough to attend Fantasy camp, the band is offering backstage passes for their upcoming shows for $1000. Through the official website,, fans can purchase a Platinum Ticket that guarantees a seat in the first five rows of the show and backstage access. Once backstage, these superfans can have their pictures taken with the band by the tour photographer. But buyer beware: Fan cameras are prohibited and autographs, though possible, are not guaranteed.