Kiss always incites an extreme response from people -- they either love 'em or hate 'em. It's rare to find a casual fan. But with the group's painted faces, costumed personas and bombastic live shows, Kiss is still going strong after 40-plus years.
"The thing about Kiss is, it's unique. You have to take it or leave it," says bassist-vocalist Gene Simmons, who portrays the character of the Demon. "We ignore the pundits ... with regard to credibility. Who wins? We do."
When the band comes to play Long Island on Wednesday, Kiss will bring its 40th anniversary tour to Jones Beach with a stage that evokes a Transformer.
"I believe that this is the best stage we've ever had. We call it the spider stage because the lights are like legs dangling down," says vocalist-guitarist Paul Stanley, aka the Starchild. "We are out there doing a victory lap even though the race isn't over yet. It's a celebration of everything we've done."
Kiss is known as much for its live concerts as for its albums and hit singles. The group established a long-standing reputation in the music industry for putting on not just a rock show but a rock spectacle.
"We perform with a take-no-prisoners point of view. I'd like to think we earned it the old-fashioned way -- we work for it every night," says Simmons, 64, who is known for stage antics like spitting blood and breathing fire. "Our goal is for our fans to have the time of their lives."
Before the band hits the stage, an announcer hypes the crowd by shouting, "You wanted the best, you got the best. The hottest band in the world ... K-I-S-S!" Immediately, the bar is set quite high.
"We started building a legacy with our very first show. It's never veered from that," says Stanley, 62, who flies over the crowd to a small stage mid-orchestra to sing "Love Gun." "The reason people still buy tickets is because they know we still deliver the goods. We don't have a bunch of dancers jumping over each other and a microphone that isn't turned on. When you come to see Kiss, you are seeing the real deal."
Before Simmons and company were superstars, Kiss was a regular at The Daisy, formerly located at 124 Broadway in Amityville. The band's first show was held March 9, 1973, when the guys played two separate sets.
"The Daisy was really a second home for us," Stanley says. "From the first time we played there and nobody knew who we were to a few months later when people were breaking the windows trying to get in, it was all trial by fire."
"In those days, we did whatever had to be done. I started picking up the phone and making calls to clubs. Paul would design little posters," Simmons says. "I have no idea how we wound up on Long Island, but we just wanted to play our music."
By August 1975, the band moved up to the Calderone Theater in Hempstead before headlining its first Nassau Coliseum show on New Year's Eve the same year that launched the group into stardom.
ROCK HALL MIRACLE
This spring, Kiss finally made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after 15 years of eligibility -- a feat some fans never thought would come to pass.
"It was vindicating for our fans. This has been very important for them," Stanley says. "No small organization with a big name can call the shots or decide what is or isn't valid."
However, nothing goes down in Kiss without controversy. Although there have been 11 members of the band, only the original four -- Stanley, Simmons, drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley -- were inducted. Plus, Simmons and Stanley refused to play with the two at the induction ceremony.
"We are grateful and proud of the fact that Ace, Peter, Paul and myself put together the band that we never saw on stage. But that doesn't mean we want to play with Ace and Peter today," Simmons says. "We've done the reunion thing three different times. Ace and Peter were let go, walked out or fired -- take your pick -- three separate times. That's enough. We wish everybody the best, but not everyone is designed to run a marathon. Sometimes people just fall by the wayside because they have different DNA."
In yet another controversial move, Simmons and Stanley replaced Criss and Frehley with drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer using their original makeup designs instead of developing new characters.
"We tried doing another character with Eric Carr -- the Fox and we felt it was diluting Kiss. So been there, done that," Simmons says. "The four personas are bigger than anybody who is in it. How many different people have been Batman? Batman is bigger than whoever plays him."
On top of its music and stage show, Kiss is famous for having rabid fans affectionately called the Kiss Army. Fans religiously show their worship of the band by painting their faces in solidarity and tattooing the characters on their bodies.
"They are our tribe," Stanley says. "We have fans from 6 to 16 to 60. This tour is for them. It's just a way to restate who we are and let people know that the legend lives."
At Mr. Cheapo's record stores in Mineola and Commack, there are two customers who clamor for Kiss items -- Nassau Vinny and Suffolk Vinny.
Vinny Iadevaio, 42, of Franklin Square got into Kiss through his older brother and his cousins. He saw his first show at Madison Square Garden in 1985 and he's been hooked ever since.
"I'm a Kiss nut," he admits. "They are my all-time favorite band because they have their own unique sound and creative look."
His love of Kiss dates back to when he used to portray Gene Simmons for Halloween as a kid. Today he dresses his 17-month-old daughter in a Kiss Army onesie.
"I go see them every time they come. It's a tradition," says Iadevaio, who will be heading to Jones Beach Wednesday night for his 24th show. "As long as the music rocks and they put on a great show, I'm in heaven."
Vinny Gonzales of Brentwood saw his first Kiss show at the Academy of Music in Manhattan on New Year's Eve in 1973 by accident.
"I went to see Blue Öyster Cult, but when Kiss came on they blew me away," he says. "I was shocked when I saw Gene spitting blood. Forty years ago that stuff was really hairy."
Today, Gonzales has been to more than 500 shows, became a major collector and even befriended the band.
"I had everything -- over 46 gold and platinum albums, 20 guitars, costume pieces -- you name it," Gonzales says. "The bottom of my house was like a shrine."
After grappling with some medical issues, Gonzales, 57, sold most of his collection, which became legendary in the Kiss community.
His mother, Nancy Gonzales, 79, of Brentwood even makes the band homemade cookies and cream puffs, which she brings to them backstage. She's already preparing a batch for the Jones Beach gig.
"I do everything from scratch," she says. "They would be heartbroken if I didn't bring them."