It's hard to believe that KISS, the legendary rock band, will turn 37 in January. Harder still to believe that the band is currently riding the wave of a chart-topping album, Sonic Boom.
Much easier to believe, though, is the fact that Pittsburgh is a stop on the band's ongoing 44-city tour, rocking Mellon Arena on Dec. 13. Some of the band's most notable fans -- conscripts in the "KISS Army" -- hail from Western Pennsylvania.
Officially, the KISS Army is the band's longstanding fan-club, but the name informally applies to apply to KISS fans everywhere. At its peak, the official fan club claimed 100,000 members. Among the group's fans is former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. (After meeting the band in Stockholm in 2008, Rice told reporters "they seemed well informed about current events.")
But to KISS die-hards, a far more important figure may be a Johnstown native, 43-year-old Ira Bostian.
In August 2006, Bostian visited Cleveland to stage a protest at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. KISS had never been nominated for inclusion in the Hall, and an estimated 200 KISS fans demonstrated to protest the oversight. Bostian, who now lives in Portland, Me., recalls delivering a speech whose closing assertion -- "Thou shalt not delay the induction of KISS" -- is widely known as the "11th Commandment." T-shirts were printed to commemorate the speech, and Bostian claims 130 have sold.
"This year KISS has finally been nominated," Bostian wrote in an e-mail. "I am confident they will be inducted in the class of 2010."
The KISS Army was founded on such defiance. The lore goes like this: In 1975, Bill Starkey and Jay Evans, two adolescents from Terre Haute, Ind., lobbied the local radio station, WVTS, to play KISS songs. They called in constantly, referring to themselves as the "KISS Army." Even then, the true fans' enthusiasm was rabid.
In its heyday, the official KISS Army was a semi-serious club: The $5 dues bought members an ID card, a discography, a charter certificate, an iron-on patch, a poster, five concert photos and a quarterly newsletter. Today, membership is more existential: Fans can peruse the Web site, subscribe to an e-mail list for free, and share comments and photos as much as they want. It's less like the U.S. Army and more like the Salvation Army: If you care, you're in.
And people still do care. A lot.
"I want them to go on as long as they can and still make great music," says Chaz Keracher, a 34-year-old Greensburg native and local radio producer. "But I think they just don't want to give it up."
Keracher discovered the band late -- in 1992, while everybody else was going grunge. Since then, he has collected albums, posters and a KISS clock (featuring the album cover to Destroyer). After years of waiting, he has two volumes of the band's three-DVD set. He even owns a bootlegged VHS of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, a 1978 movie in which the band battles an evil inventor with its musical super-powers. Keracher describes this film as "the definition of 'so-bad-it's-good.'"
In his spare time, Keracher is associated with a MySpace page -- www.myspace.com/kissarmypa -- dedicated to the KISS Army of Pennsylvania. While the site is run by Matt Porter, a fan from Philadelphia, Keracher is among its most frequent posters. Keracher has two KISS-themed tattoos, whose photographs are featured on the official KISS Army Web site (www.kissonline.com). He's even met KISS frontman Gene Simmons, at an autograph session at Borders bookstore where Simmons was signing copies of his book, Kiss and Make-Up. Keracher says Simmons struck him as "a pretty cool guy."
To Keracher and fans like him, there is nothing ironic about loving a rock quartet dressed in big hair and black-and-white makeup. The spiked, studded, form-fitting, open-chest outfits are just as cool now as they were in 1973. And who cares if the youngest active member (Tommy Thayer) is 49 years old ... and was only 13 when the band formed? KISS may earn pot-shots from TV shows like Family Guy, but two of the original members are still rocking and rolling all night, and they're still attracting thousands of fans to concerts. Deep in the new millennium, the KISS Army still seems to party ev-er-y day.
Just how many people are enlisted in the KISS Army? Porter's MySpace page (KISS Army, Pennsylvania Chapter) lists 1,169 "friends," whose names include "Demon Bookers," "KissAddict," "Kiss Army Vixens" and "KISSTERIA." They come from across the country to share pictures, stories and announcements.
Some "friends" are actually KISS cover bands, such as Deuce ("The Ultimate KISS Tribute Band) and KISS Army ("The #1 KISS Tribute Phenomenon"). Love Gun, a Baltimore-based tribute band, promises "all the blood-spitting, fire-breathing and smoking guitar, you feel like it's 1978 all over again." Locally, Bridgeville has become an epicenter for KISS fandom, thanks to frequent appearances by such cover bands at RPMs Rock Club.
But perhaps the region's most ardent KISS fan is Pete Galvan, a 56-year-old Giant Eagle employee.
"I used to live a boring life, until about six years ago," Galvan says. At that time, Galvan was watching TV with a friend, when a commercial starring Simmons came on. Galvan's friend turned to him and said, "Dude, you look just like Gene Simmons!"
Galvan had never really followed KISS, but the realization began a new era for him. Today, Galvan plays bass with numerous tribute acts (and other bands), and he is routinely "spotted" by confused fans; pictures of Simmons "sightings" float all over the Internet, though many actually picture Galvan. Galvan's personality has a bit of Simmons' swagger as well.
"Gene and I are basically the same height," he says. "People say I look better than he does. I get any woman I want. The fights I've been in, in the parking lot, are unbelievable." Galvan boasts hundreds of YouTube videos, plus endless stories of mismatched identities and VIP treatment. To his credit, Galvan never claims to be Simmons, but few strangers believe his denials.
Keracher believes that most fans are drawn to KISS for their spirit of "individuality." There is a lot of fraternity among the KISS set, and Keracher expects the Mellon Arena concert to be well attended. (The band has sold out halls in many cities.) "A bunch of my friends are going to the show," he adds.
Will Keracher himself dress up in wig and makeup?
"No," he says flatly. "But I think it's cool that other people do."