Audience with the Demon
or Mamas, Do Let Your Babies Grow up to be Metalheads
Gene Simmons' Book Signing
I arrived at this signing resolved. I was going to wait in line to meet a celebrity obsession for the fourth time and this time, dammit, I was going to speak. I would say more than "Thank you, Simon (Le Bon)." I would not stare at Gene's hairy knuckles the way I'd stared at Ozzy's O - Z - Z - Y tattooed knuckles. I was going to interact, even if it killed me.
I took off from work at 1:00 PM, using my half-day paid Christmas shopping time (you gotta love corporate perks) and headed for the Astor Place Barnes and Noble. Although Gene was not slated to appear until 6:00 PM, a queue had already begun to form along Lafayette Street, as directed by security. I bought my copy of Gene's autobiography, Kiss and Make Up, and took my place in line with about 75 people ahead of me.
Lucky for me, it was unseasonably warm for December and one of the dudes in front of me had brought a boom box and a supply of KISS CDs. We chatted amongst ourselves. I met a family of first and second generation KISS fans--mom who knew the words to every song, twenty-something son who had brought his original KISS school bag from first grade to be signed, and sullen Marilyn-Manson-esque teen daughter who seemed to be there as an excuse to get out of school. The interesting thing about these events--you feel obsessive for going, but then reassured because you're less obsessed than those around you. I know it's not normal to be 29 years old and wait in line for 5 hours to meet Gene Simmons. But a forty-something man behind me told me he had been to fifty KISS concerts. Others debated over which version of "Black Diamond" was the best--the demo on the new box set, Alive I, or Alive II. They actually knew about the current projects of Mark St. John, KISS guitarist for just one album in the mid 1980s. Those in the front of the line had arrived at 6:00 AM. These fans all had the box set and weren't amused by my jokes about Gene's greed as symbolized by the KISS casket. These were the green berets of the KISS Army reporting for active duty. Step aside, ma'am.
I noticed a homeless-looking man who looked familiar stopping to talk to someone further back in the line. He was clearly inquiring as to what everyone was waiting on line for. As the man walked closer, I realized it was Spalding Gray. I'd be having two celebrity sightings in one day--something special even for a New Yorker! I thought about asking those around me to verify that it was Spalding, but realized I was probably the only person on line who has seen Swimming to Cambodia and would be able to differentiate the shabbily-dressed Spalding from the average homeless person.
I realized while on line that I've been a KISS fan for 25 years. A neighbor kid who's probably in jail now introduced me to them. I was into horror movies and got hooked on the image, while having no clue about the music. Fearing back-masked Satanic messages, my parents forbade me to listen to the albums, yet they bought me the lunch box, trading cards, dolls, puzzles, etc. Peter Criss was my favorite, only because I wanted to be a drummer--a wish that remained unfulfilled because we lived in a condo with thin walls. Gene was my second favorite and once Peter left the band he took center stage for me.
Why Gene? Well, my celebrity obsessions tend to be debauched, sleazy, fat, ugly womanizers (cf, my life as a Jack Nicholson fan). Aesthetically, when it comes to KISS songs, I prefer Gene's throaty growl to Paul's shrill shrieks. I've always respected Gene for doing his own thing and standing up as one of the very few rock stars who's sober. I thought it was so sexy when he was chunky but still wore leather pants as if he weren't in those non-make up videos of the late 1980s "Heaven's on Fire" era. He's self-deprecating and smart. I admire his ingenuity, even if his relentless KISS marketing sometimes annoys me. And then there's that tongue. Lick it up, indeed.
Knowing that Gene collects fan art and homemade KISS memorabilia (some of which he reproduced in the KISStory collectible books, yours for only $150), I had brought a Polaroid of my 7th birthday KISS cake to give to him. My mom's friend, a wedding cake baker by trade, made the cake, and I'm fairly certain it's the only KISS cake she ever made and that my mom must have been embarrassed to ask for it. A lot of moms would have said, "You'll get a Holly Hobbie cake and like it!" But not mine.
You might want to raise your lighters for this part of the story as if it were an encore of "Beth", because I'm going to bring the room down. My mom passed away earlier this year after a long illness. I had moved home in 1996 to be near her, and one of the only bright spots of that year was that I finally got to see KISS live on their reunion tour. My mom never questioned my rock obsessions--in fact, after reading last year that Gene was penning his autobiography, she dispatched my dad to bookstores to look for it, hoping to surprise me with it for Christmas. Unfortunately, the book wouldn't be out for another year. Because my mom had a stroke, I left Australia a month earlier than I was supposed to, leaving behind tickets to 3 KISS concerts--2 in Sydney and 1 on the Gold Coast, the final show KISS has performed (so far). I was thinking about these things in line, turning the Polaroid over in my hands. You think about a lot when you're waiting in line for 5 hours. I thought about how the mother in line behind me had raised her kids on KISS, and about how my mother had given me the KISS cake and let me know that it was okay to be me, however weird that me might be.
I found myself still getting support from non-KISS fans. My friend Lindsay came by on her way to school and brought me a coffee. My friend Alyssa came by to hang out and get a glimpse of the man. Before I knew it, I was being whisked inside the back door and up a staircase to the second floor to another winding line. It was only 4:00 PM, so we still had to wait, but at least now we were indoors and could sit on the floor. I took my sweater off to reveal my KISS "Hot in the Shade" tour T-shirt, circa 1990.
Around 5:30 PM, Gene made his entrance and we all sprang to our feet to snap photos. I had a good vantage point for the pre-signing radio interview, as Gene sat with a DJ about 20 feet away from me. I was struck by how tall he was, even without the platform boots and by his grin which seemed more game show host than demon. Five chicks in leather and full KISS makeup (even an Eric Carr!) followed behind Gene and he posed for pictures with them. I supposed they were part of his entourage, as they looked too bored to be fans.
Then Gene took his place on the altar-like signing platform. Slowly the line began to move and I wound through the childcare books to the kids books. I found myself with the usual symptoms of nervous stomach and cotton mouth. Would I really have the guts to give Gene the Polaroid? I peeked through the aisles and noticed he was really interacting with fans and, despite the warning on the flyer that he would only sign his book, I saw him sign an electric guitar and a KISS doll. As I approached the head of the line, various staffers laid down the law--there would be a bag check, we could bring nothing to the podium other than the book, if we brought something else for Gene to sign they would confiscate it, they would take our picture with our own camera but it would be an action shot not a posed photo, and, above all, keep the line moving. I could feel a stress headache coming on.
How would I spend my 15 seconds with Gene? Before I could think about it any more, I was headed up the steps. A Gene Handler took my camera. Another Gene Handler took my book, which I'd opened to the appropriate page. I was in front of Gene. Should I turn and smile for the photo? Should I analyze that thing on Gene's head--toupee? extensions? transplant? dead animal? Should I take off my shirt and offer my boobs for his signature? No, I would stick to my plan. Here's the action shot and play-by-play.
Julie (handing Gene the Polaroid): Gene,
I wanted to give you this picture. It's my birthday cake from when I was
Gene (still pondering the Polaroid): You know what's great about this picture? The Superman plates. Our next KISS comic book is going to be KISS Meets Superman.
Julie: No way. Really?
Gene starts to give the photo back along with my signed book.
Julie: No, you keep it.
Gene (with game show host grin): For me? Thanks.
Gene handler: Move along, ma'am. We have 1000 people to get through here.
Dazed, I stumbled down the platform, nearly forgetting my camera and bag. I left the store exclaiming to Alyssa that I'd had a conversation with Gene. A real conversation! He'd actually used the word "sweet" in a serious way. He was incredibly gracious--not a bit demonic. A tireless business man, Gene even seized this opportunity to sell KISS to me one-on-one, plugging the comic book.
On his official website, Gene claims that he signed for 1,000 people in 4 hours and that he stayed until the last person had a signature. I'm sure he did. Of course I'm not blind to the fact that he's no martyr and that he sold a lot of books by doing this, but I do want to assert that he was very gracious and truly does appreciate the fans and made an effort to interact with everyone.
Thanks, Gene. And thanks, Mom. You can bet if I ever reproduce, my kids will be playing with KISS dolls.
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