The View from the KISS stage
Sharing a sweltering parking lot with River Downs was Riverbend Music Center, an outdoor amphitheater that hosted concerts and performances throughout the summer. My senior year of high school, my pal Charlie and I saw Rush and Mr. Big play at Riverbend, sitting on the grass in the lawn section. I hadn’t been back to the venue in twenty-five years.
I had an appointment with Tommy Thayer of KISS, the last of the Elders that I had any possibility of reaching. The band was bringing their Hottest Show on Earth tour to Riverbend and I arrived at the venue extremely early. A few folks milled about the parking lot since the amphitheater was not yet admit- ting the public. A tour bus wrapped with huge advertisements for Gene Simmons’s show on A&E was parked out front, so that fans could take their picture in front of the vehicle.
Power Chord Book
I slipped through a gap in the fence and walked around River Downs, thinking of our horses, our family visits, and I remembered my dad buying me a T-shirt from the gift shop one day. I thought about all the musicians I had met, the lessons that I learned.
All the guitar players—god or mortal, genius or journeyman— were dedicated to their craft, regardless of the challenges or dreariness that faced them. They went out every night and performed to a handful of people or to an arena of fans. It was the act of plugging in and playing that kept them going.
The Riverbend security guard led me down a steep driveway to a restricted area behind the facility. He passed me off to a KISS roadie who took me inside the building. We stood in a busy hallway that smelled like onions from the food service concessions cranking up their operations.
Tommy Thayer walked up and said hello. We were led to a small office where we could chat. The guitar player wore a white button-down shirt and jeans. His black hair was long, but styled. He wore a nice watch and a silver necklace around his throat. He would turn fifty in a couple of months but he looked young and cool—like a rock star who wasn’t trying too hard to look like a rock star.
He’s a journeyman musician, hardworking and lacking an ego, smart enough to know where the next paycheck is coming from and humble enough to not let pride get in the way. There are plenty of Thayer critics in the music world, and more than a few within the KISS army of fans, but he doesn’t take it person- ally. And that quality is why he’s onstage with the band every night while all the complainers type away in Internet chat rooms.
Just as we started to talk, a roadie came in and mentioned something about the placement of a special effect.
“Come on,” Thayer motioned to me. “Want to see the stage?”
Equipment was piled high on all sides and for a few steps it was like walking in a cluttered warehouse. And then a cool breeze hit my face and I was facing the empty amphitheater. Thayer’s gear was set up on stage left in a sort of cubicle formed by road cases. To the right were the massive banks of amplifiers and video screens that KISS used as a backdrop.
He started pulling guitars out of the road case.
“This is my main one,” he said while holding a sunburst Les Paul. “It’s a reissue of the 1960 model.” He put it back in the stand and withdrew a black model. “This is the rocket guitar with firing system mounted on the headstock.”
I had a hard time focusing on any single detail. I just couldn’t accept the fact that I was looking at KISS’s guitars on the side of their stage.
Thayer grew up in the Portland suburb of Beaverton, where his father had the largest independent office products and furniture company on the West Coast. Jim Thayer Sr. was a retired army bigwig and philanthropic force in the Pacific Northwest. The elder Thayer’s business acumen was passed on to his son, which drove his later work with KISS.
Thayer’s first memories of guitars echoed Vai’s sentiments about how cool they looked. “Even before I played guitar, I just thought it was a very cool-looking thing, a guy with long hair playing an electric guitar up onstage with a bunch of screaming people,” he said.
He played musical instruments throughout school, spending time with the saxophone in marching band and jazz ensembles. But he was more drawn toward rock and roll and by the time he was thirteen, he was messing around with his brother’s Stella acoustic guitar. His mother eventually took Thayer to a store called American Music to purchase his first electric.
“I picked out a Fender Mustang, which was $135 brand new,” he said. “This is a 1974 and it was blue with a light-blue racing stripe. I couldn’t believe that I had a Fender guitar.”
Thayer’s history with the guitar wasn’t marked by obsession or compulsive practicing. He didn’t use the instrument as an escape. He was popular in school and active in sports.
“Playing guitar wasn’t my avenue to getting laid or something, because I got laid anyway. I just loved it because I loved rock-and-roll music. I loved performance. That was particularly true when I first saw KISS. I was bowled over before I even heard them because of the way they looked. The guitars they played, what they wore, what their hair looked like, the makeup, the boots, the platforms.”
An early goal of Thayer’s was to master barre chords. These are moveable shapes the musician can slide up and down the fingerboard. They’re tough to handle for the beginner because your index finger has to apply constant pressure across five or even all six strings.
“Back then, you wanted to know how to play a barre chord,” Thayer said. “If you could play a barre chord, then somehow you could play songs like ‘Smoke on the Water,’ even though that’s not the way he plays it. We thought that was the way, but it’s not.”
Soon enough, some of Ace Frehley’s famous licks were troubling the young Thayer.
“The one solo I really struggled with for a long time was Ace’s solo in ‘Firehouse’ because it’s got this danka, danka, dank,” Thayer said. “I didn’t understand how he did that be- cause to my ear it sounded like he was just going down the frets. I sat there for hours trying to figure out how he does that. I struggled with that. Riding home from school on the bus, sit- ting in the back, captivated with that solo.”
After finishing high school, Thayer performed in a handful of bands before forming Black ’N Blue with singer Jaime St. James in 1981. Within a couple of years, the Los Angeles music scene exploded and the band relocated there from the Pacific Northwest. Within six months of moving to Southern California, Black ‘N Blue had a deal with Geffen Records. In 1985, the group opened for KISS on the Asylum tour, which made the initial connection between Thayer and Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.
Black ’N Blue’s 1986 album, Nasty Nasty, was my first exposure to the band because I read that Gene Simmons was the producer. The record featured a poppy single called “I’ll Be There for You” that was foisted on the group by the label. Written by Jonathan Cain from Journey, the song wasn’t any worse than any other hair metal radio singles of the day. Although the video does feature the singer Jaime St. James prancing around a soundstage in a humiliating full-body spandex outfit splashed with yellows, purples, and reds paired with what appear to be white dance shoes. Thayer, for his part, has a curly mop of permed blond hair and plays a black-and-blue (naturally) Hamer guitar. “You couldn’t get arrested with a Les Paul in 1986, 1987,” Thayer laughed.
After Black ’N Blue ran its course, the guitarist took stock of his possibilities.
“I was smart enough to know that you don’t get many other shots,” Thayer said. “You don’t get to roll the dice more than once, maybe twice, at that level. I was always interested in the music business and behind-the-scenes work. So I was thinking along those lines, producing, managing.”
His connection with Simmons and Stanley led to a part-time gig with the KISS organization, doing all sorts of odd jobs, sometimes writing songs, sometimes recording demos. Internet detractors claimed that Thayer retrieved Simmons’s coffee and painted Paul Stanley’s house. Thayer ultimately assumed major responsibilities with the group, managing the KISS Convention tour.
“My ego didn’t get in the way of doing things and working my way up the ladder, so to speak,” he said. “You know, doing different jobs that I thought I was too good for . . . I never had that problem. If you’re in a band twenty years ago that had a record deal like we did and made several records and toured on a pretty high level, and you have to start over and do things that some people might consider menial, I never had a problem doing that. I knew what I was capable of doing and I knew that I had to take certain steps and do certain things and work different jobs for a period of time to get where I wanted to go next. I’m just the kind of person that’s always really wanted to work hard and do well and persevere. When I do something, I just don’t stop. I don’t give up. I keep going, and even if I get discouraged or [have a] set back or somebody says it’s not happening, I don’t believe them.”
During this time period, Thayer also performed as the extraterrestrial guitarist in a KISS tribute act called Cold Gin. He learned the band’s classic tunes and figured out how to honor Ace Frehley’s parts while still injecting his own personality. In an almost unbelievable turnabout of fate, he was soon asked to tutor his hero.
As KISS prepared to launch their massive reunion tour in 1996, Thayer tutored Ace Frehley, helping the Spaceman to relearn his signature solos from the seventies. It was like when you put two mirrors across from each and that infinity of reflections appears.
“It’s interesting how things just come full circle sometimes,” Thayer said. “I remember when I was fourteen years old taking the school bus home, trying to figure out the solo in ‘Firehouse.’ Fast forward to here in the mid-nineties and I’m sitting here showing him what he did. It’s one of those surreal moments in life where it puts a smile on your face and you think, ‘God, this is crazy.’ ”
The band’s reunion tour was initially supposed to be a one- time thing. However, it was so successful that Simmons, Stanley, and management decided to continue the effort with records and more tours. But tensions within the group arose and both Peter Criss and Ace Frehley balked. In fact, Tommy Thayer was dressed as Ace Frehley for the band’s performance at the 2002 Winter Olympics closing ceremony because there were fears that the genuine article wouldn’t appear. A month later, Thayer stepped in for real during a private show in Jamaica. By the time the year was finished, he had the gig full-time.
At this point, KISS was a well-tuned machine. In spite of performing for almost thirty-five years, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley still worked hard to give a tremendous show each night. Thayer and drummer Eric Singer were as regular as clockwork and also skilled musicians. And the group got along tremendously well with everyone comfortable in their role.
“There is no secret that this is Gene and Paul’s band,” Thayer said. “We do work for the band. But it’s not an employer- employee situation because these guys are smart enough to not overemphasize that type of dynamic. It is a band and they make it that way. On the business end it’s a certain thing. But for the band to be real, you need to treat it that way. There are no side- men here. I’m very happy about that.”
Makeup artists need not apply for KISS. The group handles their own face paint, part of a routine that stretches back over decades. Like a sports team huddling before each game, the band kicks everyone out of the room and gets down to the business of assuming their stage personas.
“Putting on makeup and preparing before the show are a real part to the ritual that is so unique to KISS,” he said. “It’s unlike any other band. We start two or three hours before we go onstage. We all get together in the same room, listen to music, talk about the show. It’s really a great time for every- body to bond. It makes us one. It makes us unified.”
During my childhood years, I imagined that KISS really looked that way, that they were born with white-and-black faces. But now as an adult, I prefer the image of them putting the gunk on each and every evening.
As the concert was about to start, I made my way down to the photography pit behind the barricade, one of the most challenging I had encountered during my adventures. It was incredibly narrow, just a couple of feet wide, with massive coils of wire and other gear creating a dangerous obstacle course. It was a great place to break an ankle as KISS attracted a number of photographers and everyone scrambled for position.
The show started with a short video and then the band thundered into “Modern Day Delilah,” a song off their new album Sonic Boom. They were on a sort of cherry picker plat- form that lifted them up and over the massive banks of gear I had seen onstage. It was a contemporary allusion to one of their seventies-era stage sets when the band descended from the rafters. The second song was “Cold Gin,” the Ace Frehley– penned tune about cheap booze. Fourth in the set was “Firehouse,” the song that bedeviled a young Tommy Thayer and that he later retaught to the person who wrote it.
In concert, Thayer stuck to the classic renditions of the KISS tunes I had heard for decades.
“It’s important to be faithful to the way the songs and solos were written and recorded,” he told me earlier in the evening. “Guys that get off track and improvise and make up their own stuff, I don’t enjoy that as much when I go see a band. Some- times I’ll have to adapt a tune from the eighties when they used Charvels and Jacksons with whammy bars. I’ll change things slightly and adapt it to playing it on a Les Paul, but still be faithful to the recordings.”
After the photographers clambered out from behind the hellish barricade, I could have stayed down near the stage. My pass was good pretty much anywhere. But I walked out of the covered seating area of the amphitheater and climbed the hill to the very top. I sat on the grass, near where my friend and I had crashed in high school, and took in the entire scene: the stage, the lights, the band, the multigenerational audience. The heat of the afternoon had broken and a cool breeze came in off the river. I laid back and closed my eyes. Those KISS guitar parts had been there for most of my life and I knew them by heart.
From Power Chord: One Man’s Ear-Splitting Quest to Find His Guitar Heroes by Thomas Scott McKenzie, published by It Books, July 31, 2012