Heather Thomas and the Suburbanite Redemption

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I went through my posters while prepping for a move, and somehow that got me to thinking about all the posters I’ve ever owned. Nowadays they tend to have some connection to me personally, whether they be advertisement for things I’ve worked on or events I’ve attended. They’re more mementos than self-extensions. Gone are the Italian horror movie promos, Zappa on the shitter, and spliff-lidded Marley swathed in smoke. Pushpin pricks are history, smoothed and flattened by glass.

Then SHE came to me, a memory on the prowl. Heather fucking Thomas. Man. Crawling from a hot tub, thumb hooked into a pink-bikini bottom, flashing a hint of hip. She was my generation’s Farrah Fawcett, since Farrah was older than my mom, ew. Heather had maybe a decade on me (maybe more), a blonde goddess beyond the awkward teenage stage. Yet for the life of me I couldn’t understand what she was doing on my bedroom wall.

Who bought me that poster? I don’t think I asked for it. It seemed to just appear one day. Previously my walls were all about “Theatre of Pain”-garbed (manly pinks and purples) Motley Crue, their fists outstretched in metal unity, or a raygun-wielding Eddie advising me not to waste my time always searching for those wasted years. I also had a large “Rocky Horror Picture Show” checklist, should I find myself in simultaneous possession of fishnet stockings and toast.

And then there was Heather. I couldn’t get a girl in my Bioscience class to return my calls, and I once overheard a classmate describe me as “cute but weird,” but Heather, that SoCal beach-girl blueprint, wore everpresent adoration. She smiled beatifically while I read Mad magazine, unlocking Dick DeBartolo’s comic rhythms. She worked her sweet-naughty shtick as I tapped out novellas to “Red Barchetta.” I shared a room with the type of girl who did not, could not, would never, ever register in my universe.

Truthfully, I think what happens is that once you reach the age of 12, if you don’t have a girly poster on your wall, your parents freak out — even the mother who had to hide that rented copy of “Purple Rain,” lest you come home early from school to review the parts you “missed.” It’s unnatural. Relatives begin to worry: “Vickie, I passed your son’s bedroom and saw no sign of a supermodel in a porkpie hat and a clinging white shirt unbuttoned to her navel.” City councils debate your internal wiring. At some point the president gets involved. A letter arrives at your house with a check for ten dollars and instructions. “Iron Maiden’s cool and all, but what your boy needs is spank material,” it reads. “Kind regards, Ronald Reagan.”

And then suddenly, Heather, bronzed, gleaming Heather. The following year: swimsuit calendar. Someone named Kathy Smith entered my life — her I didn’t mind because she seemed so serious about exercise. Then: a model of undetermined age — she could have been 40, she could have been 25, a runaway from the House of Judith Light — kneeling in the Pacific Ocean, luring suckers to their watery dooms with Tecate. By the time you’re 15, you’re swimming in bursting décolletage, wondering what happened to that poster of the “Synchronicity”-era Police, before your life became the loneliest Bud Light commercial of all time.

It’s strange, in retrospect, to consider that space a canvas upon which to build the young You. Hey, I’m not just a pussy who cries when the once-blind flower girl recognizes the Tramp at the end of “City Lights”; I’m also a confident 13-year-old beer-swilling fuck machine. It felt so weird. Not that I minded being surrounded by gorgeous women frozen into semi-provocative positions, smiling nowhere forever. I just never felt like the kind of kid who lined creation with semi-centerfolds. Was it some peculiar subconscious need to broadcast my heterosexuality, to assure friends and family I was all right: “Oh, thank God he appreciates a killer set of tits”? That’s about as meaningful as me being left-handed, you know: how nice, ho hum, who cares. Or maybe I could assure myself I was less “weird” —more grown-up, maybe — for having cosmetically shunned the passions I felt made me inaccessible: the Mad magazines, the devotion to writing, the cartooning, the encyclopedias, the love for old or fucked-up flicks. Boys with girly posters can’t be all bad, right? Boys with girly posters were normal.

I’m proud to admit I’ve long since re-embraced the me that made me “me.” If Heather Thomas exists within reach of this piece, I hope she understands, and I hope she’s as happy as she seemed in that sauna.

 

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In passing

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GRANT HART (1961-2017): Lennon McCartney to Bob Mould’s John Paul in Hüsker Dü, the Beatles of SST Records. Grant had incredible command of a potentially wild voice, alternating between a molten bray and the loneliest boy in an abandoned room. He even looked brokenhearted sometimes, rattled in slept-in hair and yesterday’s clothes around a hopeful (if weary) smile. Labelmates the Minutemen gave punk its jazz-garde political fire; Hart and Mould, its volcanic emotion, with Hart on drums bashing its torment awake. A turbulent dynamic fueled a slew o’ albums between 1983 and 1987; although eventually swathed in major-label enhancements, plus an evolved sense of musicianship, their hooks penetrated flesh and their roar drew blood. Grant got the last word on the very last LP, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, a mantra of crashing relationships and fresh-won independence called “You Can Live at Home.” Both he and Mould became prolific solo artists, with varying degrees of success but no diminished sense of urgency and purpose. After all he endured, only illness from within could bring Grant Vernon Hart down. 56, St. Paul, MN.

 

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HARRY DEAN STANTON (1926-2017): Harry Dean, Main Man, built of life, powered by habit. His continued mobility was an amused defiance of mortality. On an episode of this season’s Twin Peaks, the horizon-centenarian remarked, “I been smokin’ 75 years, every fuckin’ day” and chuckled through breath his vices should have ended in the ’70s. He was a character actor in only that his characters had names, but they entered scenes as Harry Dean Stanton, sucking face with space beasts, piloting a glowing airborne car, outwitting a murderous 1957 Plymouth Fury, sacrificing himself for the greater good, or taking slugs at bar’s end, hangdog gaze reliving movies you missed. A vision I’ve had since I was a kid: the apocalypse hits— Rapture, whatever — last human croaks it. Harry Dean rises to his feet, stuffs his half-combed jungle into a nearby hat, then ambles away, too rare and real to die. 91, Los Angeles, CA.

Sophisticated Whoppers

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Last month my neighborhood Burger King underwent a cosmopolitan rhytidectomy, in accordance with mandates to transform such troughs into elegant gastronomy. McDonald’s has emerged in recent years from an extended postpsychedelic adolescence to embrace the Library of Alexandria aesthetic, while Jack in the Box, under direct orders from draconian CEO “Jack,” has jettisoned its staple blues and reds for a soothing Humidor Autumn. The desired effect, according to corporate literature, is contemplative chi, as opposed to “Holy God, this Applewood Bacon Cheese Fist is wrapping itself around my heart.”

Having never patronized a chic Burger King, I decided this morning to have it my way. On foot I passed the phantom of its children’s playset — the industry no longer caters to plebes. In its place stood a scale replica of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon complete with tanzanite wall, over which flowed a talkative Chianti stream. Occupying its drive-thru lane were sleek fleets of Google cars activated by smartphone apps. Four impeccably attired valets monitored the parking lot, sending any vehicle older than 2008 to a “VIP lane” seven blocks away.

The building’s exterior could best be described as futuristic neoclassical. Its sanctum, inspired by the parlor in Don and Betty Draper’s Ossining home, wallows resplendent in oaks and comfortable beiges. Posted advertisements no longer boast of “flame-broiled” or “flame-grilled” meats; they’re now “artisan-crowdsourced.” Six overhead flatscreens broadcast “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” with a corner space nearby to discuss the film with the shift manager, a former Harper’s editor-at-large. Wafting through the restaurant: Herb Alpert’s “Fandango,” on 180-gram vinyl.

I immediately recognized my counter garcon’s uniform as Yves St. Laurent. “Yes,” she confirmed. “They outfit us all.” “But what about grease stains?” I asked. “Those,” she said, “are flown in from Vienna.” She then apologized for the store’s wine steward, whose flight was delayed in Milan. “That’s fine,” I replied, and ordered the venison curly fries with a 32-ounce growler to go.

Because of the restaurant’s new decibel regulation, I saw only one other “broseph,” as BK calls us nonemployees: an older gentleman pecking at a laptop while seducing a mimosa. Sans prompt, he told me, “It’s a Dogme-esque novel about a man who’s smarter than everyone else but is too humble to share his rare gift, so he hangs out at Burger King, tormented in self-imposed silence, until a beautiful cashier who recognizes his shyness as intellectual superiority offers him her soul. I liken its tone to a Ferrari 458 speeding recklessly past the intersection of Huxley and Terry Southern, and crashing into an abandoned storefront that once sold steampunk fetish wear.”

Alas, I left before the BK book club convened in the alcove, but I’ll be back for the Appalachian dulcimer jam this evening. If you’re not too busy with the Taco Bell barrel tour, feel free to bro by. Bring your Konghou — and plenty of antacids.

O Adele

 

 

 

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O Adele

Marketplace fatale

Painted empress

Contralto divine

Watchful gaze from Target endcaps

Assorted displays, strategically placed

Exclusive bounties everlasting

Observing commerce

Participating

Surrounding

Dominating

Squired home in plastic

Anticipation

 

O Adele

Rolling Stone

Countenance vexed

Neck, Winsletian

Face scrubbed mortal

Thou speakest in voices two:

One wrings tears from august pearls

Cushions midlife minivan misery

Comforts captives lost between teenage walls

The other brays hearty

In Tottenham strains

The language of dockworkers

And washwomen

Rutting in puddles of porter

Splashed with tobacco

Stained in the blood of sailors

 

O Adele

Butter-lunged siren tart

Crestfallen

Skyfallen

Thine cradled words envelop

An ever-present current

As we shop for poinsettias

Purchase petrol and cigarettes

Scroll numbly through clickbait

Go Macho on the Del Taco No. 4

Splash ourselves in fragrance

Chase smiles in fleeting symphonies

 

O Adele

You sing of love

But does love exist without you?

O Adele

You sing of dreams

But are we not your dream?

Did we ever know 21?

Or feel the depths of 25?

Had we ever said hello

‘Til you acknowledged us in kind?

 

O Adele

Thank goodness you’re here

Our world is in turmoil

Our goodwill shattered

All hope is gone

Lead us

Guide us

Bring us home

 

O Adele

Wait

Your album’s not on Spotify?

Huh

Hm

Well

Fuck you, then.

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The Beginning of the End (Seattle, 1990)

Whirlwind staff box, 1989-90.

Whirlwind staff box, 1989-90.

I’ve told this story before: It takes place in a metropolitan neutrality called SeaTac, shortly before spring break 1990. I was a high school senior with a quietly mischievous keystroke and a travel bag plump with cassettes and clothes.

We’d left Friday morning by activity bus from the West Albany High School parking lot. Street lamps yielded to daylight as we crossed from Queen to Pacific, slashed by waves of telephone lines. Depeche Mode had released “Violator” that week, and I cracked open the case, absorbed that minty new-album bouquet, and packed the tape into my Walkman, watching the town shrink beneath Dave Gahan’s lugubrious nocturne: Let me take you on a trip / around the world and back / and you won’t have to move / you just sit still …

If you knew me then, music and writing were my raison d’etre. I was the dude that found your tastes pedestrian and actively sought to refine them, stopping by your locker with unsolicited mixtapes, you’re welcome. You could also read me in the school paper, The Whirlwind, where I served that year as self-appointed critic, waxing preciously on everything from Bonham’s “The Disregard of Timekeeping” and the “Born on the Fourth of July” soundtrack to “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” and the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Groovies’ Greatest Grooves,” the latter of which I highly recommend even today (the others, not so much).

What I couldn’t have known then was how this role would define me for the next quarter-century, damn near trap and choke me. This was still the beginning. I was 17 years old, with a security one only knows in youth. I’d already plotted my course: After graduation, I’d move on, forgoing college for Rolling Stone, then a flurry of bestselling books, perhaps write for “Saturday Night Live” or work in radio. Nail a primo beachhouse in Southern California and hang with my buds on the lanai, drinks in hand, toasting the fortune that had blessed our lives. Journalism and Albany were never part of the equation; both were larks, stepping stones, necessary springboards into the prolific adventure of Me.

And here I was, on a pill-colored bus, headed with the Whirlwind staff to our Waterloo: a two-day national journalism conference at the Red Lion Inn between Seattle and Tacoma. It was an honor to be invited. Apparently. We arrived to swarms of school colors and clashing conversations, marveling at the scope of the event. The organizers booked some marquee talent, too: According to the program, CBS’ Harry Smith was the keynote speaker; we helpfully scribbled some hair onto his bald pate and skimmed a list of seminars none of us planned to attend. Then Harry himself, sans Bic-wig, commandeered a podium, lavished us with hosannas, yammered a spell, and became as one with the cream-colored walls. I don’t think we ever saw him again, and we didn’t care. We were THIS CLOSE to SEATTLE!

But before our carousals, we checked into our rooms: boys on one side, girls on the other, though we never stayed put for long. The Whirlwind’s editor and I introduced ourselves to the girl upstairs by grabbing the tanned legs she’d dangled over the balcony and yanking them until she began screaming. The stems then disappeared and a blonde head peeked over. “Who are YOU?” it asked with a smile. Although she didn’t join our tour of the city, she’d call our room to say hello and, later, goodbye. (Only in high school is such behavior endearing.)

Now, Seattle 1990 is a far cry from Seattle ’15. At some point during that stretch, God took a hose to the place, gutted whole blocks and swapped its more colorful denizens for guerrilla theater troupes. That night, for the very first time, I watched steam seep from sewer lids (a phenomenon I didn’t know existed beyond the “Night Court” opening credits) and saw two tall cops with batons, walking, and tapping the occasional foot: “Hey. Wake up.” We devoured these experiences, hopping over bodies onto buses and connecting with sad-eyed commuters, some of whom lit up quite expectantly at the sight of teenage girls. Seats were jammed with them, fresh, young faces from all over the country. I happened to sit behind two who were subsequently joined by a pair of curious older men. “Where’re YOU from? Wyoming? Hell, me and my buddy here were just thinking about going to Wyoming this summer. What are your names? How old are you?” Others were just pleased to have a captive audience: “You’re too young to know this, see, but it’s all politics, and the game is rigged.”

Our journey ended at the Seattle Fun Center, then a Jurassic shadow of an amusement park whose showcase was “Flight to Mars,” a combination horror/space-themed ride that was the thrill o’ ’62 but an ancient-if-popular curio by 1990. We tooled around that a bit, yelping at the rusted freaks, but my favorite remains the roller coaster.

While standing in line, I confided to my colleague and dear friend Katina Rothleutner that I hated roller coasters. I’d hated them since the betrayal of ’77, when my parents conned me onto Disneyland’s Space Mountain by connecting it to “Star Wars.” “You’ll see Darth Vader at the end,” my evil mother promised. Of course, I saw nothing but the end of days while physics throttled my guts. All that dipping, twisting and spinning made me sick. I didn’t throw up, but I wanted nothing more than to spackle my makers in buckets of evacuation. Katina — sainted Katina — listened sympathetically, then beamed under sparkling eyes and said, “I’m riding with YOU!” She grabbed my arm and maneuvered us to a car, and I’ll take the malevolence on her face to my grave. “Throw up that way,” she advised, pointing to my left.

So there we were, guy and girl, one working overtime to keep his cool as the beast moaned to life and our car began to stir. I could feel Katina watching me, but I couldn’t turn to look; instead I studied the protective bar that would surely impale us later. Then we lurched forward. “Uhhh,” I implored. Silence from my right as we began climbing, to “touch the face of God,” as former president Ronald Reagan said of the Challenger crew. At the top I felt a hand clutch my arm and my eyes instantly fused shut as the track ceased clicking beneath us, holding us momentarily, curiously, as if contemplating our fate. My knuckles flashed white and threatened to explode. I sucked all the air in Seattle past my gritted teeth. The grip on arm pressed tighter at the last possible second when we were pushed, shoved, kicked, coaxed, propelled into oblivion, no longer in control, at the hellish mercy of masochists long dead, banged, punched, thrashed at corners then pulled free, whipped toward impossible turns, yanked into pits then booted to the stars, Katina still hanging on and screaming with delight as the rest of me burned like a thousand needles exploding in my bones, and oh, my God, did I feel ALIVE.

Twenty-five years later, it’s my favorite memory of journalism. I have favorite STORIES, absolutely. But it’s the people around me who’ve mattered. The stolen moments beyond the office that made me feel less alone.

I ain’t a smart dude. You wouldn’t ask me to plan a party or fix your sink. I became a writer because I had no choice. The desire, then as now, was too overwhelming, too vital to my existence. Without writing, I’d have no voice whatsoever. And that’s the thing: For many of us, this was never a career. I wouldn’t even be so pretentious as to call it a “calling.” It was just nature. If you’re a writer, you go where the writers are.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with journalism. As a practice, I didn’t like it much. I never understood the point of churning guff for immediate publication, pile after pile in manic rolls, feeding something insatiable and hateful, though I always admired it as a talent. Three stories a week were enough for me. Since I became an editor, that output’s dropped to an even more insignificant number. Cutlines, headlines and dropheads are my primary currency, a miserable fate for a word guy. I’ve produced a single story over the last year, and after emerging from under an avalanche of research, it took me about that long to write.

It can be a thankless job. We strive for audience connection, yet it’s hard to imagine a relationship more adversarial. You think we’re arrogant, with our audacity to determine what constitutes “news” and our delusions of self-importance. We think you’re stuck-up, too, with your revenge-porn theories regarding our struggles and your unflagging belief in your own perfection, or, at the very least, your linguistic, intellectual and cultural superiority to anyone with a byline. Dig the futility: You’re trying to please people who will always hate you.

One of the first cruel lessons you learn in this biz is the Inconsistency of Humankind. An audience will tell us what it wants, but its actual reading habits, which we can measure, tell us it’s LYING. An audience will accuse you of sensationalism, yet never acknowledge its own complicity and appetite for same. It’ll demand compassion for acquaintances, yet deny it of strangers in similar straits. The general public, of which we’re all a part, can be nakedly duplicitous, and we all have to pretend it isn’t.

So as journalists, we develop both a thick skin — gallows humor — and an equally dense layer of bitterness. Socially, I dance past questions about my job, because when people find out, they tend to get hostile. At last they can tell off a much-loathed institution by berating a stranger. It’s about as civil as dragging the Domino’s guy out of his car, kicking him to the ground and shouting, “Your pizzas are shit, and fuck you for contributing to obesity and heart disease.”

But sometimes even I need a break from this highly narcotic anger. So I return to that weekend, when youth ran wild in brief resistance to adulthood, when two kids shared a thrill on the exhilarating ride of a lifetime. It’s a reminder that things were good. Pure and new. Before passion became an albatross. Before aspiration became a career. Before a career became a sentence with an execution date, all but assuring that your life’s work becomes yellowed newsprint growing cold from neglect. And everyone will say you deserved it, by succeeding at something you loved until it stopped loving you back.

I was a writer then. By the graces of whatever, I’m a writer now. That kid is still here, hungry and hopeful. Maybe it’s time we met again.

See? It really happened!

See? It really happened!

The Righteous Brothers: Mysti-Bliss at 2:55

Reportedly, Phil Spector, his hand-picked marksmen, and the two Righteous Brothers hammered through “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” from August to November 1964, and you know who was alive then? Not me.

I tried to coax some context from my parents, lowly adolescents at the time, albeit to no avail. They were woefully unaware in their microcosmic dioramas that Heartbreak History was going down in Los Angeles as summer tripped toward fall, which then slid into blizzards of promenades where they and other agog-orbed everybodies heard this song for the very first time, the paint still fresh and sweet. (I cursed their luck as I begrudgingly twirled partners to the pizza-box whimper of Bon Jovi, whose “I’ll Be There for You” nevertheless crowds my senses with the nectar of Doublemint gum, Aqua Net, and post-clutch expectations.)

My first “Lovin’” rush came through the pocket-comb prism of Hall & Oates, soaped down and hollowed out, a Xerox of a Xerox of pale-faced blue-eyed soul. A few years later it tumbled into the mitts of Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards, et al; their “Top Gun” barroom mayhem inspired scores of off-key parrots shit-deep in cheap beer and Cupid-drunk on cheaper love. Does no one respect the classics?

O’ to’ve been a stealth intruder during Spector’s grandiose construction. To have witnessed the impatient Bobby Hatfield, the Brothers’ honey-toned half, demanding to know what he was supposed to do while partner Bill Medley sopped up all the tape, only to have Spector, that bargain-carpeted pipsqueak custom-fitted over a tyrant scumbag, allegedly riposte, “You can go straight to the fuckin’ bank.”

Phil was sure an asshole, but he was an asshole with ears. His techniques and omniscience were once beyond reproach. After all, the dude had been moving units with alarming ease since he was a 19-year-old nobody leading his Teddy Bears to No. 1 (“To Know Him Is to Love Him,” 1958).

And he was right about “Lovin’” too: Hatfield is strictly support for the first two minutes — a chorus-bolster — then his tenor breaks free at exactly the right moment, when his Brother can no longer carry the burden alone. “Baby, baby, I get down on my knees for you,” Medley sighs, weary, lonesome, defeated. Into the breach steps Hatfield with the save: “If you would only love me / like you used to do,” pleaded with every last-ditch pine a pain can articulate. Spector’s Wall of Sound surge falls back to a light pulse and lets the duo do its thing.

The song plays well to both men’s strengths: Bill could testify, Bobby could beg. Who the hell with a heartbeat could resist such a combo of honest regret? When the two then rise in a back-and-forth call/response —“baby” to “baby,” “please” to “please,” trading “I need your loves” and “bring it on backs” — it’s just not fair.

But that’s not even the best part, oh, no. Spector & Co. reserve the goosebump payload for the 2-minute, 55-minute mark, after the voices have spent themselves and left an open gasp for a downpour of strings and a crash of drums, an airborne soul touching terra firma following a hopeful glance that became a yes that became a freeze-frame kiss. The same DNA comprised “Be My Baby,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” and any number of play-’em-agains bearing crescendos that carried crushes through many a suburban daydream. It was a Spector specialty, that heavy, narcotic pain, creating a lovelorn beauty unachievable in life, the musical embodiment of teenaged yearning. If only she could see me. If only she ever knew. If only I could ever express myself, she’d see that it was true.

The Righteous Brothers at 2:55 is that moment: a cocktail of heartache and hope. Bring back that lovin’ feelin’. It still hurts even now, despite the fact that I know it’s coming, as I’ve known since the song and I first became acquainted, back when I pretended sentiment was beneath me. I saw every girl then. I’ve seen every girl since. That tiny sonic hiccup and they’re all fucking there, a cruel parade of vanished futures. And then they’re gone, gone, gone. Dust, glimpses, ghosts.

Songs like this don’t grow old. They age with you, their import intact. You can hear them ’til they’re empty — examine their structures, plumb their mysteries, dismiss their formulas — but when you set them loose, they find you. They hit you where you’ve always lived.

As heard on The Essential Phil Spector (2011)

Selected Excerpts from Ken Burns’ 7-Part “KISS Army”

MICHAEL GAMBON (VO): “If I should fall in the heat of war, bury me not in the cold, grey earth. Let me go, rock and roll.” — Lieut. Francis L. Scurvy, KISS Army, 1979

KISS (1975 recording): “Baby gets tired, everybody knows / Your mother has to tell you, baby has to show / Yeah, yeah / Let me go…”

MARK STRONG (narrator): The Wabash River covers 490 square miles, carving a vein from Fort Recovery, Ohio, to Shawneetown, Illinois. Nestled between those points is Terre Haute — or “Higher Ground” — Indiana, so christened by 18th century French explorers for the way the land crested above yet simultaneously embraced the tributary. Their geological synchronicity was once both legendary and picturesque; authors and composers have quaffed of its inspiration. Gripped by the memory of a childhood along its flow, 40-year-old songwriter Paul Dresser, in October of 1897, published a paean, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” from the more bustling climes of New York’s Tin Pan Alley.

JOSH GROBAN (singing): “Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash / From the fields there comes the breadth of new-mown hay / Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming / On the banks of the Wabash, far away…”

MARK STRONG (narrator): In January of 1975, music and culture would clash anew, just as water once caressed soil then joined the rush toward history. It was here in Terre Haute, long after Paul Dresser’s beloved sycamores were razed for empires of industry and suburbia, where young William Starkey and Jay Evans launched a tiny voice that would one day speak for many.

BILL MOYERS (journalist): It’s difficult to comprehend now, but in 1975, nobody who mattered knew KISS. Radio stations didn’t play them — wouldn’t play them, in fact — and only a small but dedicated fan base bought their albums. They’d had only two up to that point, anyway: KISS and Hotter Than Hell, which had come out the previous October and made barely an ripple on what Billboard calls the “Hot 100.” One can imagine the frustration these boys felt that their heroes were being ignored.

SHIA LaBEOUF (VO): “Gentlemen: It has come to our attention that your station, WVTS-FM, has yet to feature KISS in its rotation. We ask that you address this oversight at your earliest convenience.” — William Starkey, Jay Evans, 1975

FRANK LANGELLA (VO): “Kind sirs: Thank you for your recent letter. I hope that my reply finds you both in good health. However, we have no plans to add KISS at this time, for it is felt among our staff that these ‘musicians,’ such as they are, fail to meet our exacting standards as regards rock and roll.” — Rich Dickerson, program director, WVTS-FM

SHIA LaBEOUF (VO): “Gentlemen: We are disheartened by your refusal to honor our request, for we do not ask much. Admittedly, we are young, still clutched in idealism’s thrall, and perhaps men of your experience find our passions trivial and banal. However, we assure you that our dedication to this cause wavers not, and our ranks number far more than ourselves. We are, in fact, an army — a KISS Army, if you like — and through sheer stubborn strength and will, we shall prevail.” — William Starkey, Jay Evans

JACK BLACK (VO): “The first shot is fired. The first blood is drawn. A brainchild is sired: a new dawn is born. This summer is bound to be hotter than hell.” — Henry Oliphant, Poet Laureate, KISS Army, 1975

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN (historian; reading from her diary): “On denim-bound binder, in fine ball-point, Doris etches the names of giants. Her devotion is such that she even knows their birth names. Chaim Witz. Stanley Eisen. Paul Daniel Frehley. George Peter John Criscuola. Their phantoms invade her chamber at night, a hot swarm of tongues, glitter, and tangles of hair. She imagines her Jiminy Cricket flashlight is the blinding supernova of a Polaroid Instamatic. ‘Take me, Space Ace,’ she gasps. ‘Enter my feminine galaxy. Baby wants it fast, baby wants a blast. She wants a rocket ride. She wants a rocket ride.’ ” Oh, my land and the infant Jesus, stop the camera…OHHHH

MARK STRONG (narrator): The tale of KISS is widely known, from Kabuki rise to Kabuki fall to Kabuki rebirth and triumph. To relay it even in passing is unnecessary. What of those legions in the dark, their numbers vast, their faith steadfast? This is the story of the not-so-silent millions, who would follow four men across four decades over all four corners of the earth.

(FADE IN, OPENING CREDITS)

KISS (1976 recording): “You’ve got something aboutcha / You got something I need / Daughter of Aphrodite / Hear my words and take heed / I was born on Olympus / To my father a son / I was raised by the demons / Trained to reign as the one / God of thunder / and rock ’n’ roll / The spell you’re under / will slowly rob you of your virgin soul…”

STEPHEN AMBROSE (historian): You’ve got to understand: 1975 was a very fraught period in American history. Vietnam was just ending. Patty Hearst was on the loose. At least two people tried to kill Gerald Ford, and they couldn’t do it. Gas and oil were sky high. Looming over all of this is the specter of the ’60s. Woodstock. Altamont. Cynicism. Then Nixon. Watergate. Darkness. The hippie dream had failed, and its carcass was beginning to smell. America was months from her Bicentennial, the celebration of a garish, tarnished lie. It was time to medicate. It was time for KISS.

KISS (1976 recording): “I feel uptight on a Saturday night / Nine o’clock, the radio’s the only light / I hear my song and it pulls me through / Comes on strong, tells me what I got to do / I got to / Get up / Everybody’s gonna move their feet / Get down / Everybody’s gonna leave their seat / You gotta lose your mind in Detroit Rock City…”


JACK WHITE (narrator): It was in the city of Cadillac, Michigan, that KISS’ propensity for publicity reached full flourish. For one week in October of 1975, this quiet community of 10,000, located 179 miles from the cacophonous nerve center of Detroit, became the universe’s envied pulse, besieged by press, overwhelmed by madness, drowned in rock ’n’ roll.

JON HAMM (VO): “Dear Sir: As you know, we here at Cadillac High School have been big fans of KISS for a long time. Last year our football team’s defensive unit was nicknamed the ‘KISS Defense,’ and we went on to finish with a seven and two record. Since that time KISS has been the rock group in Cadillac. … I can assure you that we will do everything in our power to make a KISS visit a worthwhile experience for you. … Hopefully, we can work together and make these plans a reality. Our Homecoming will be ‘super’ just because of the KISS theme. KISS in person would make it an extravaganza.” — Jim Neff, teacher-coach, Cadillac High School, 1975

PERRY SUSKIND (Cadillac High School historian): The Vikings carried the KISS defense into the 1975-76 season and ended with a 6-3 record. The highlight that year, of course, was when KISS came to visit. They completely took over the whole city from Oct. 8-10, 1975, beginning with an Oct. 7 telephone interview for WATT-AM and ending that Friday with a helicopter departure from the football field. It was nothing short of spectacular: kids in KISS makeup, city officials in KISS makeup — I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a cat or two dressed to look like Peter Criss. The fellows received a silver key to the city and showered it in fliers: “Cadillac High — KISS Loves You!” Historic, just historic.

ED HARRIS (VO): “For years we have been trying to unite the student body and the faculty … KISS accomplished this in one night.” — John Laurent, principal, Cadillac High School, 1975

JACK WHITE (narrator): The growing KISS Army was on the march.

KISS (1977 recording): “I remember the day that we met / I needed someone, you needed someone too, yeah / Spent time takin’ all you could get / Givin’ yourself was one thing you never could do / You played with my heart, played with my head / I’ve got to laugh when I think of the things you said / ’Cause I stole your love / stole your love / Ain’t never gonna let you go…”

CASEY AFFLECK (VO): “Dearest Helena: My will to live is gone, my darling. The winter has been most brutal upon my body and conscience. I cannot bear its savagery much longer. The others are freezing, huddled against its cruelty. Morale has evaporated, along with what remains of our hopes. The size of our desires, I fear, shall not bear fruit when the time has come. I was plagued last night by visions of the inevitable, that this godforsaken line is for naught: that Cobo Hall has, indeed, sold out.” — Pvt. Steven Guernin, KISS Army, July 7, 1977

NATALIE PORTMAN (VO): “Dearest: I discovered your letter this morning. Although your woe pains me to my soul, I am confident that you will return to me, tickets in hand to a kick-ass show. And even if it’s not meant to be, we can take comfort, you and I, in life’s little pleasures: your Mustang, my lucky hat, our records, and a sofa built for two. Bear up, my love. This too shall pass. Remember to buy cigarettes and bubblegum on your way home.” — Nancy LaRose, July 7, 1977

KISS (1976 recording): “Beth, I know you’re lonely / And I hope you’ll be all right / ’Cause me and the boys will be playin’ / all night…”