Suspicious Minds

Sisters and brothers, brothers and sisters, let us pray. Dear Lord, there walks among us a danger. A danger to all we believe, a force so dark and evil we cannot comprehend it. And yet we must not run away. For this evil has grabbed our American children and coaxed them with the devil's voice. And this evil has a name: Kiss. Kiss, a word that's meant to stand for love, for good. But we know what these letters really stand for: Knights in Satan's Service. Well, devil, we rebuke thee! And we rebuke thy servants! Oh Lord, deliver us from evil, the evil that is Kiss.

It went something like that. Brother Richard delivered many such prayers. I heard them all, three times a week, sitting on those cold, hard pews of the Braggs Pentecostal Holiness Church in Braggs, Okla. It seemed as if we were always imploring that the world be rid of this menace. Usually, we prayed for someone, with the understanding that no one, even the most dark-hearted, was beyond God's grace, that if we just kept pleading with heaven, somehow the ne'er-do-well could be redeemed. But when we spoke of Kiss, we prayed against them, because (just look at 'em!) they were not human, and thus ineligible for salvation.

I saw their posters and the album covers at the store on our weekly trips into Muskogee. Sometimes, my sister and I were allowed to buy country records by the likes of Loretta Lynn or Merle Haggard. Ever since John Lennon made that "more popular than Jesus Christ" comment, the church (and even my ex-Beatlemaniac mother) declared war on rock 'n' roll. Except, of course, for Elvis; he was OK because he was Pentecostal, too. Rock 'n' roll was always referred to as the thing that "made your cousin Marty into a drug addict and you don't want to turn out like him now do you?" Never mind that Loretta was singing about whooping it up and putting on hot pants because she just got birth control, or that Merle was an alcoholic ex-con. Never mind that Elvis was divorced, living in sin, and all hopped up on the pills that killed him. Everyone (church people included) learned to overlook these little flaws because deep down he was one of us and we loved him so. Besides, he sang "How Great Thou Art" so beautifully, what more proof did you need that his heart was with the Lord?

But I could see the albums and the posters out of the corners of my eyes. There they were -- Satan's little helpers. Merely glancing at their makeup gave me the shivers. But I was careful not to look too long in fear of falling under their wicked spell. Maybe the one thing I carry with me from these horrific childhood teachings (beyond recurring nightmares about the Rapture) is a belief in the power of evil.

A few years after my own adolescent fall from grace, I wound up with a die-hard Kiss kid for a college roommate. He was one of the damned we used to pray for, dressing up as various Kissers for Halloween something like four years in a row, mooning over the one time he saw them in concert like it was a religious experience. Even though I had already begun to chuckle over our communal indictment of what boiled down to doomy-looking clowns (considering the real musical demon of the '70s was probably John Denver), I had still never really listened to the band itself. He played their records, and I remember thinking, "This was the work of Sa-tan? This candy rock? These all-American hetero backbeats were a threat to the most powerful deity dreamed up in the history of the world?"

It all came back to me the other day when I got to "Beth" on the new Kiss collection You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best!, a release culled mostly from Kiss Alive! and Kiss Alive II, and meant to coincide with the band's summer reunion tour. What a pretty song: lovely little piano chords backing Peter Criss' reassurances to Beth (not Bathsheba, or Jezebel, or any temptress of hell, mind you, but a girl called Beth, which is just about the nicest, most polite name possible) that he'll be home soon and he'll try to make things right.

This summer, these makeup-wearing, high-heel-stomping, Beth-loving demons return to sell out arenas around the country thanks to a combination of serious press hype and fan jubilation. My old roommate has been foaming at the mouth for weeks, hoping to relive the big, stupid fun of his formative years; I have no plans to relive the big, stupid torment of mine. Considering that, like Kiss, the Pentecostals have not changed their act in the last two decades, I'm surprised my old Sunday school mates aren't staging their own retro prayer breakfasts against the band. But now that Kiss' second coming seems so universally revered, they're probably praying for tickets.

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

 
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