Fandemonium

Idle Worship with KISS, Nancy Sinatra, Camille Paglia, and Chevy Chase

It's midway through the noon-midnight KISS convention this past June 18, and the "KISSteria" is at a lull. Shaggy-haired rockers amble through the half-empty S.F. Gift Center Pavilion, gazing blankly at the exhibit of old costumes and memorabilia, picking halfheartedly through beat-up eight-tracks and $600 jackets at the scanty vending booths, debating furiously which KISS tribute band has the best Gene Simmons. (Detroit Rock City, you fools.) A scantily-clad vixen with a black bat painted on her face buys a commemorative T-shirt that reads, "I was there/ Fuck you! You blew it!" Actually, we all blew it -- $100 each, to be exact. I may be bored stiff, but I have a little business to take care of.

Cut to fifth grade, when I, although not a tomboy and not particularly troubled yet, am a loyal soldier in the KISS Army. The solo albums are being released, and after hours of soul-searching and agonized deliberation, I decide that I must buy them all at the same time. Let the rabble pick up Paul or Ace first; I, Lady Justice, will not play favorites, scrimp and save if I must. Peter is just as important as Gene even if he can't breathe fire, I think haughtily as I shake down my family for change. In my fantasies, the band rewards me for my fairness and dedication: KISS storms into my Catholic school cafeteria and plucks me from the brown-bagger table where the KISSophiles sit in smug, self-imposed exile. As "Strutter" roars in the background, they slip a pair of glittering platform boots onto my feet and carry me away to Valhalla, where we play pinball and rock 'n' roll all night.

Finally, I'm only a couple bucks short and I can't take the torment any longer. I drag my father to Woolworth, where the individually wrapped Knights in Satan's Service have taunted me from the storefront window for months. Dad, my good man, be a sport and slip me a fiver for these here records. That's right, move it along now -- I've got hours of listening ahead of me. "No, I'm not going to let you waste your money on that crap," he says. When the tantrum subsides and the police car pulls away, I fix my father with a regal stare and hiss, "One day, I'm going to run away and meet KISS!"

KISS may be a cosmic joke in 1995, but I am a woman of my word. It's death-or-glory time.

Everyone has a favorite fandom story, and in most cases they're amusing, if also corny, self-indulgent, and borderline pathetic (see above). Now picture an entire volume of such essays written by rock critics and famous musicians themselves, and dub it Idle Worship (Faber and Faber). "The side splitting pun of the title ... attempts to raise the question of whether the growing pains involved in venerating rock gods and goddesses are worth the bother," writes editor Chris Roberts, a former Melody Maker critic.

The answer is in the subtitle: "How pop empowers the weak, rewards the faithful, and succours the needy." Idle Worship examines the myriad forms of stargazing, from the idealism of BBC host Caitlin Moran's "Suede or How I Stopped Worrying and Learnt to Love the Hype" to the cynicism of Robert Newman's "Stations of the Crass," in which the dear-old-mums of aggro-punkers Crass pick the lads up from jail, to the cynical idealism of Nick Hornby's hilarious "Sparing the Rod," an apologia for rockin' Rod Stewart. "It was, I guess, an ironic devotion -- Rod had become a post-punk figure of fun by that time, and you would have to have been particularly imbecilic not to get the joke -- but there was a glimmer of earnestness there too," Hornby writes.

What differentiates Idle Worship from similarly themed books like Starlust: The Secret Fantasies of Fans is the privileged position of the authors. An icon like Bono gets to meet an icon like Frank Sinatra as both a bowing-and-scraping fool and a colleague. Rock critics, though they allegedly eschew wide-eyed fandom for objectivity, engage in a bizarre dance of give-and-take with their subjects. In the hilarious "Tonight, Your Hair Is Beautiful," Chris Roberts indulges a lifelong obsession with Blondie, becoming a "low rent Mark Chapman" in the process. At one point, he has the chutzpah to ask Debbie Harry to dance, only to realize that he's got a cigarette in one hand and a can of Foster's in the other: "Brain to hand: lose the can! You are presently a flushed, sweaty and hopelessly pissed lout from the nether regions, so it's fascinating that you feel you will not be suitably chic and Gatsby like unless you lose the can."

Needless to say, this is not a book of profound revelations. Most of the essays make a simple point: In "Led Zeppelin and the Pixies," jaded thirtysomething (and former Zephead) Martin Millar gets dragged to see Black Francis and company and realizes that "There is always something good around, you just get past the stage of appreciating it properly." Kristen Hersh recounts the importance of having heard Patti Smith "out of context" and on a solely visceral level. With typical cryptic sarcasm, Pavement's Stephen Malkmus casts out false idols with the zeal of Moses in (Eddie) "Vedder as Merton: 2001." And Mark E. Smith of the Fall just rants and raves, as usual.

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