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.
Looking back on even the tawdriest pop obsessions, the authors underscore the profound impact teen-age fandom had in shaping their later lives, whether it led to artistic achievement, bitter disillusionment, or just helped them make it through the night. “How music saved my life” stories are usually cringe-inducing, but Idle Worship ends on a heartbreaking one by novelist Joseph O'Connor (Sinead's brother).
In “Banana Republic: Memories of a Suburban Irish Childhood,” O'Connor is a terribly depressed adolescent living with a mentally ill mother while his brother and sisters stay with the father he can only see on the sly. The Boomtown Rats, pissing in the pot of “conservative, hypocritical” Ireland, become a symbol of hope, with frontman Bob Geldof “a paradigm of survival, toughness, and courage.” Joseph plays “I Can Make It If You Can” every morning before he drags himself out of bed; when his mom is hospitalized in an asylum, he and his siblings move all their mattresses into one bedroom, sleeping with the door locked and the Rats booming on the stereo, intoxicated with “fear and freedom.”
O'Connor marks every major event of his youth — divorce, custody trials, breakups, and deaths — with a Boomtown Rats song. “[G]reat pop music sometimes heals us in ways that we don't understand, or in ways that seem unbelievably trite or trivial when we look back,” he writes. “Great pop music is about the people who listen to it, and circumstances in which they do so, and not really, in the end, about the people who make it.” Fate works in mysterious ways, and O'Connor meets Geldof one day — as peers on a television talk show.
Aside from Thurston Moore's Bukowski-lite short story about a rock star who fucks a genteelly indie-cool groupie, one perspective is missing: that of rock stars who encounter their own fans. Who better to provide insight than Nancy Sinatra, daughter of the most famous musician in America, former golden-girl recording star, and recent comeback kid-cum-Playboy centerfold? Besides, inquiring minds want to know: Did Frank really think Bono is “effeminate”?
When “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” — the Lee Hazlewood number that Nancy Sinatra turned into the Go-Go Manifesto — hit the charts, fans inundated Sinatra with footwear, turning her closets into a veritable boot shop.
“I had so many pairs that I used to donate them to auctions and charity,” Sinatra says from her L.A. office. “But the most adorable thing that a fan ever did happened recently at a signing. A man, probably in his late 30s, came up to me, took my hand in his, looked deep into my eyes, and sang the whole first part of 'Nancy With the Laughing Face.' I had tears in my eyes. That's what keeps me going.
“Of course, I have a freak file too. Letters from lunatics, threats — stuff like that you gotta keep track of.”
After marketing consultant Hal Lifson convinced Sinatra to make a comeback, she recorded the country-tinged One More Time for Cougar, and celebrated the re-release of her phenomenal Reprise backlist, pop gems like Sugar, How Does That Grab You?, and, of course, Boots. With her soft-focus Playboy spread creating a media buzz, she hit the clubs again, reeling in everyone from alternative rockers to middle-aged housewives to Vietnam vets and senior citizens in golfing clothes. “I don't quite understand it,” Sinatra muses.
Nancy recounts stories of her own fandemonium, like her adolescent love of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Bridgette Bardot. Thanks to Ol' Blue Eyes, her idols were never out of reach. “When I was a little girl, I thought Jerry Lewis was the funniest person in the world. I fell all over myself when I met him. I met Chevy Chase at a charity thing a couple of years ago, and I made such a fool out of myself. He was so tall, and I'm so short, and I looked up at him and blurted, 'I love you.' He looked down at me and said, 'I love you too,'” she laughs.
To Sinatra's delight, most of the Playboy-inspired fan mail came from females thanking her for proving that women are still sexy in middle age. But her oddest encounter evolved from the magazine's inspired editorial planning: The Nancy Sinatra issue featured an interview with anti-feminazi nazi Camille Paglia. “We met afterwards,” Sinatra says, “and she told me that she played my music in college and that it meant a lot to her.” Was Paglia nervous? “No, but I was.”
Back at the KISS convention, the tribute band Cold Gin takes the stage as the harsh afternoon sun streams through the skylights. “There is only one real rock and rrrrrOLL party in town today,” screams the Paul Stanley impersonator. “And it's RIGHT HERE!” Fists pump the air; lighters wave. My friend Mark, “the world's biggest KISS fan,” he who saw them play the Cow Palace with Cheap Trick the day Elvis died, turns to me during “She”: “All the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up,” he laughs, showing me the goose bumps on his arm. No matter how pathetic the circumstances, he says, the slightest stench of KISS produces an uncontrollable physical reaction.
“Watching someone else imitate their youth is somehow better than seeing KISS imitate their youth,” he remarks sagely, and takes off before the real KISS's “unplugged” set. Thinking about my upcoming interview with Gene and Paul, KISS's sole original members, I remember past disillusionment: Bob Mould blathering about “pushing units”; Adam Ant, the King of the Wild Frontier, slumped over a mineral water; Liz Phair compulsively fingering a blemish on her cheek; Samuel L. Jackson getting his foot caught in an elevator door. So I did what any true-blue KISS fan would do: I left.
The next day, Mark faxes me a letter he found from a KISS lover in Porterville: “This is my story and yours …,” it begins. The correspondent claims that a bootleg video of Detroit '76 cured the debilitating back pain and dizziness that doctors couldn't explain. KISS “basically brought me back to life again,” he writes; all he asks is to “jam one song” with the band. Request denied: After the convention, Mark “just happened” to discover the note in KISS's dressing room trash can.
Nancy Sinatra plays Wed, June 28, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000.