25 August, 2008

Under the (musical) influence

The people who know me know that I've been a KISS fan for a long, long time. Some of my earliest memories are of seeing the cover from KISS's first album. I remember my brother, Chris, showing me that album cover and telling me who was who in the band and what instrument they played. That was probably late 1975 or early 1976. What allows me to pinpoint that point in time is remembering seeing the ALIVE album around the house. I remember hearing ALIVE being played on the small record players my siblings had and was totally mesmerized by KISS. I literally grew up with KISS. Like so many boys from the 1970s, I had a favorite band member (Peter Criss) and wanted to be just like him. My best friend at the time, Kevin, and I would pretend to be KISS. Tennis racket guitars and all. In those days, kids like me had no idea of the sex, drugs and band disputes. To the kids of the 1970s KISS was, and still is, the definition of rock-n-roll. I can't remember who said this, but it went like this "If I met someone who had no idea what rock-n-roll was, I'd hand them the ALIVE album and tell them 'This is rock-n-roll'." Let's hop in the time machine...

In the early 1980s, I decided I was going to be like my hero and be a drummer. After years of lessons and practice I got my first drum kit and started to practice daily. I'd put on a mix tape of my favorite KISS songs and play for hours on end day after day. In the late 1980s I was in high school and in band. Now, I'm the youngest of my siblings. The next youngest being Chris, who's eight years older than me. By the time I got to high school the whole phenomenon of "KISS-mania" had passed into the rock-n-roll history books. Consequently, when I played in pep band and jazz band, my musical influence came out. Simply put, I sounded like Peter Criss. In the debates of what drummer is "the best" nobody can ever agree. I think it's crazy to think that just one drummer can be proclaimed as "the best." Peter Criss always gets cut down because he's not as complicated as other drummers. It doesn't matter to me, Peter Criss played with a lot of feeling. He also played some pretty crazy stuff. Trust me on that one. When I was learning to play there were some unspoken "rules" to follow and you weren't supposed to deviate from them. Listening to Peter Criss changed that for me and I started to color outside of the lines. One of the other drummers in band was one of the drummers who could play anything. I was impressed with his ability and asked him for help often. But, he was a bit of a snob. Anyway, the kids I went to school with got used to hearing his drum solos and always went nuts when he showed off. Rightly so, he was an outstanding player. He took care of the soloing to get people riled up during basketball games, pep rallies and the like. However, there were rare occasions where he wasn't around and the second string drummer had to fill in. Can you guess who that was? Yep, me. I loved playing in band, but I suffer from stage fright. I was one of those kids who just blended into the crowd and never drew attention to myself. So, suddenly having the band director pointing at me and telling me to whip out two minutes of drum solo terrified me. I was (and still am) horrible at improvising solos, so I did what any musician would do. I drew on my influences. I would whip out riffs that were either direct rips from Peter Criss or, at the very least, in the style of Peter Criss. Since I wasn't playing as fast or as complicated as the snob, I didn't get the same reaction he did. I didn't care. My classmates had forgotten KISS and, for the most part, didn't recognize anything I played. But, I played what I knew how to play and loved every stage-fright-filled minute of it. My senior year, one of the first things I did was to get transferred out of a study hall into the band room helping the director with the freshmen band. A few older band members did this. It was a nice escape from a boring study hall and I got to spend an hour in the band room. For most of the year, I sat either in the band director's office or a practice room talking with a girl whose name was April. She had some problems, but was still a good person. In the last days of my Senior year April thanked me for being non-judgmental and for just simply listening. She still had two more years to go and she said she was going to miss me "... and those crazy drum solos." I still get a good laugh out of that. OK, back into the time machine.

In the mid 1990s KISS had done a session for MTV's "Unplugged" series and the band invited Ace Frehley and Peter Criss to join them for a few songs. My girlfriend at the time was kind enough to tape it for me and even teased me by calling me at work to tell me how good the show was. I couldn't get to her house fast enough. I watched that tape over and over, smiling from ear to ear the whole time. Later on, I was at a friend's farm, working on a car in their garage, when I heard an announcement on the radio. The DJ said that the original members of KISS were reuniting and were going to do a tour. Make up, platform boots, levitating drum risers, pyrotechnics and all. It was one of the few times in my life that I actually yelled out without thinking. Chris and I went to see them in Chicago and it was a dream come true. I was in that arena screaming, shouting and pumping my fists in the air. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be able to hear Peter Criss play a solo. In person. I lost my voice from shouting so much. I had been thinking of getting a tattoo for years and could never make up my mind of what to get. I knew it had to be something that was meaningful to me and it had to be something I wouldn't regret forty years down the road. Then, while at that concert in 1996, I made up (pun intended) my mind. It was going to be Peter Criss. Being at a KISS concert, obviously, allowed me to see tons of KISS related tattoos and I realized something. No matter how good the artist, a tattoo of a persons face never looks "right." So I decided it was just going to be Peter Criss's makeup that was going onto my arm. I drew up what I wanted because I wasn't going to "hope the artist gets it right." The reason I got into music, the reason I listen to what I like and not just what's fed to me via Top 40 radio, is Peter Criss. I've had strange looks from people, but I don't care. The black ink on my arm isn't just for show, it's important to me and I'm proud to show it.

Now, in 2008, I'm still influenced by KISS. The reunion tour was awesome and I saw them another three times with my brother. Peter Criss and Ace Frehley were out of the band again and the whole thing became very clownish. Still, I'm proud of the tattoo on my arm and what it represents. I haven't sat down at a drum kit in years and probably wouldn't sound good if I did, but that KISS influence is still there. I have what I call a "mental jukebox" and when things happen to me, certain songs start playing in my head. When I'm with a certain female I know, what plays on the "mental jukebox" is predominantly KISS. I see her and all of a sudden I hear those drum riffs start playing. I'm still under the (musical) influence...

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