'We Wanted To Be Larger Than Life': Paul Stanley Of KISS On Almost 50 Years Of Rock

May 10, 2019
Originally published on May 10, 2019 7:03 am

After nearly 50 years, KISS is saying goodbye to touring. The over-the-top purveyors of heavy metal have embarked on a year-long finale tour titled "One Last KISS: End of the Road World Tour." The 105-stop tour spans North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and will encapsulate KISS' larger-than-life show for the last time.

Before his storied rock rise, KISS' lead singer Paul Stanley recalls being a New York cab driver and driving people to Madison Square Garden to see Elvis. He remembers telling himself that night, "One of these days, people are going to be driving here to see me."

Stanley formed KISS in 1973 along with bassist and back-up vocalist Gene Simmons. Inspired by glam rock, the band was determined to make its performances into an all-encompassing experience.

"As a rock fan I had gone to see bands who oftentimes made you think they were doing you a favor by showing up when I just paid them," Stanley says. "I think there was a lot of apathy onstage in a sense of complacency."

Even if you're not an avid fan of KISS, you can probably conjure up a mental picture of the group: Black and white face paint, performative alter-egos, space suits and platform boots performing on spectacular sets. "We wanted to create iconic images. We wanted to be larger than life." Stanley says.

Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS perform during the "End of the World Tour" in Jan. 2019.
Keith Leroux / Courtesy of the artists

As a withdrawn child who grew up with an ear condition called microtia, Stanley liked the idea of figures like Zorro or the Lone Ranger, who could be heroic but still keep a sense of anonymity by wearing masks. That idea, paired with his love of music helped transport Stanley to another place. "If you take a shy, chubby kid who is not very popular and put him behind makeup and give him a strong enough persona, that can get you pretty far," he says.

After decades of making music, breaking up, reuniting and yes, touring, at 67, Stanley says the guys are ready to say farewell to touring after this year. "There is a finite quality to life. The physical wear and tear of what we do is enormous," he explains. "If I was out there in a T-shirt and jeans I could do this into my 90s but I'm carrying around 30, 40 pounds of gear and making it look easy."

Stanley and his bandmates have celebrated more highs and lows than they could've imagined as kids when they were just starting out in their parents' apartments. "It's been a long road, and at times it hasn't been fun, but we've always understood the value of each other," he says.

Stanley spoke with NPR's David Greene about his childhood, gaining confidence as a performer and deciding to stop touring. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today we are marking what may be the end of a rock 'n' roll institution. The band KISS is saying goodbye to touring after nearly 50 years. You might know them from their face paint, space suits and those platform boots. One of them - The Starchild - white makeup, black star on his right eye, red lips, wavy, black hair. Beneath all of that - a guy named Paul Stanley. How did his journey begin? Well...

PAUL STANLEY: I was a cab driver in New York. And one day, I was driving some people to Madison Square Garden to see Elvis. And I went to myself very firmly, one of these days, people are going to be driving here to see me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AND ROLL ALL NITE")

KISS: (Singing) I want to rock and roll all night and party every day.

GREENE: By the mid-70s, Paul Stanley, along with KISS bandmate Gene Simmons, made it to Madison Square Garden. The band was selling out arenas all across the country with a show unlike any other.

How did you guys come up with the makeup and the characters?

STANLEY: Well, as a rock fan, I had gone to see bands who, oftentimes, made you think they were doing you a favor by showing up when I just paid them.

GREENE: (Laughter).

STANLEY: I think there was a lot of apathy on stage and a sense of complacency. So...

GREENE: Do you mean, like, you wanted to show your audiences that you were making this tremendous effort to perform for them?

STANLEY: We wanted to create iconic images. We wanted to be larger than life. The boots certainly helped make us larger than life.

GREENE: I think so. How much did your height change?

STANLEY: It's still changes about 8 inches.

GREENE: (Laughter).

STANLEY: And then when you add ego to that...

GREENE: (Laughter).

STANLEY: We're giants.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DETROIT ROCK CITY")

KISS: (Singing) Get up. Everybody's going to leave their seats. Get down.

GREENE: We sat down with Paul Stanley recently in the living room of his Beverly Hills home in between stops on the farewell tour. And as we talked, it became clear there's so much more to that mask. Behind the face paint is a man who grew up in New York City wanting to hide behind something.

How tortured was your childhood?

STANLEY: I don't want people to get out the violins, you know, and play melancholy music. I didn't have a happy childhood. I was withdrawn. And I had a condition called a microtia, where one of your ears isn't formed, basically. And my home life wasn't great, but I'm not the type of person who wallows in being a victim.

GREENE: You also dreamt of yourself in - behind masks like Zorro or The Lone Ranger. What was that about?

STANLEY: I think the idea of being a superhero or being somebody that people envied were all part of growing up with a ear abnormality, a physical - back then, you'd call them deformities. Now we call them differences. I think it all stemmed from there.

GREENE: What role did music play? Was - it sounded like it was an escape, in some ways.

STANLEY: Music affected me in a way that it kind of transported me to another place. I saw The Beatles as a kid. And it was one of those moments of - an epiphany. I was a chubby, little guy who was deaf in one ear. And yet, I looked at them on Ed Sullivan and went, I can do that. It didn't mean, I can be the Beatles. It meant, I can touch that nerve.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE")

KISS: (Singing) I can't wait a day. I don't care what you say. Oh, yeah, you got to pay when you hit rock bottom, and you're there to stay. Sometimes...

STANLEY: If you take a shy, chubby kid who is not very popular and put him behind makeup and give him a strong enough persona, that can get you pretty far. Ultimately, though, you have to deal with the reality that that may not be you. And if it's not you, you have to find you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE")

KISS: (Singing) Rock bottom.

GREENE: You've talked about that in the early days, you really became someone different and would leave the stage or be off of tour and be very alone, like, it sounded like back to that little boy. And then over the years, that seemed to change. And you - I mean, that confidence like stayed with you, even when you were off the stage.

STANLEY: I don't think the confidence stayed with me. The false confidence or the confidence I was portraying got replaced with comfort with who I am. And I think that when you can let down all those defenses and accept yourself and realize that you're not that different than other people, that's where you build a total person.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STANLEY: Cleveland, we love you. Never stop rocking.

GREENE: Paul Stanley, happily married with four kids, is 67 years old now. He and Gene Simmons have had their tough moments, but they have stuck together in one of the most enduring partnerships in rock. Now KISS did, do a farewell tour once before, so know that. But Stanley says the plan is for this to really be it.

STANLEY: At this point, we're 50 years on. We started out in our parents' apartments.

GREENE: (Laughter).

STANLEY: So it's been a long road. And at times, it hasn't been fun. But we've always understood the value of each other.

GREENE: Is this really goodbye, this farewell tour?

STANLEY: It's certainly goodbye to touring. There's a finite quality to life. The physical wear and tear of what we do is enormous.

GREENE: More enormous than most musical acts.

STANLEY: Well, sure. If I was out there in a T-shirt and jeans, I could do this into my 90s. But I'm carrying around 30, 40 pounds of gear and making it look easy.

GREENE: But it's still fun. I mean, you're having fun out there with...

STANLEY: Oh, it's - I go out on that stage every night and look to the rafters of people and think, my God, this is so beyond anything I could have imagined.

GREENE: It's going to be hard to say goodbye to you guys for a lot of your fans. But enjoy the farewell tour.

STANLEY: Doing so and, hopefully, I'll continue to smile.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AND ROLL ALL NITE")

KISS: (Singing) I want to rock and roll all night and party every day.

GREENE: Paul Stanley from KISS - we should say he's also an author. His most recent book is called "Backstage Pass." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.