KISS: Behind The Mask (10/2003)

Everyone in "KISS Land" should know who Ken Sharp is. And if you don't you'll be in for a Hell of an introduction when reading "KISS: Behind the Mask". Few people will know who David Leaf is, especially in the context of KISS. Ken is probably the most respected KISS journalist for much of the past decade, while David's interaction with the band took place in 1979. Ken's credits include several incredible Goldmine interviews with the band, always with deep probing questions diehards love (usually eliciting responses in some form or another), and most recently involvement in the VH1 special "Ultimate Albums: KISS Alive!".

Anticipation. Fans have known that this authorized biography has been in the works for quite a while, and in conjunction with Ken's name power it is really somewhat sad and disappointing that the hype and fervor has been somewhat muted on the publication of the book. The fact that the book essentially slipped into bookstores with little fanfare should not be taken as a valuation of worth of the product. Hopefully someone will start tooting a horn soon! The book's quality speaks volumes for itself, not only as a labor of love, but as a work by someone with direct access to the band and an obviously good rapport with the members and associated "cast of characters". Pleasing "diehard" KISS fans is another matter, and something which few writers will relish knowing beforehand, and caring about, the madness which grips us! One should basically apply the following premise: If you learn something new in a KISS book, then it should be considered a success. "Behind The Mask" delivers repeatedly from this perspective not only with the "facts", but some pretty off the wall quotes. From the more casual fan point of view is readability. Does the text flow in a concise manner rather bombarding you with too much information? Is the work well structured and presented? From that point of view the book is also a success. It's got depth, but it doesn't bludgeon you like a sledge-hammer, like this review writers own work!

Destruction of myths, validation of others: The history of KISS is complex, and there are often three sides to every story. The history of KISS is long, and memories change about the events which have occurred. To present the information the memories of many of those involved in the writing and recording of songs, and the relevant time periods. KISStory is always about perspective, not only of the cast of four main characters, but those working with, for, and around them. Addressing that Ken conducted hundreds of interviews from label suits to song-writers to producers, engineers, and the band members themselves. Just about everyone except Bob the Electric Lady Studio janitor at the time gets in on the action. From the differing perspectives a better tapestry is woven.

The book is essentially split into three parts: David Leaf's previously unpublished biography from 1980; Ken's concise history of the band 1981-1996; and a song-by-song breakdown which covers Wicked Lester to Psycho Circus. While the third section is the most in-depth, with everyone under the sun interviewed, the David Leaf work is incredible and stands out as a fantastic piece of work in its own right. The openness and candor with which the band spoke about their childhoods, families, dreams, and hopes is incredible. The insight into all the original members is fantastic. It's also very well written and gripping. Ken's concise history is a nice "breather" before one heads into the main section of the book, a piece of written time-warp which speeds you on to the primary part of the book.

That main section will lead the reader either scratching their head or saying "I knew it". Hero worship can be dangerous when you find out that certain things are not what they seemed. In their own speak many rumors are validated, like Gene reading the news intro at the beginning of "Detroit Rock City" (which has long been known, but many refuse to believe). The discussion of song-writing and performance brings a whole new cast of extras into the KISS recording sessions, few of whom have been mentioned before. Even from a diehard perspective that is refreshing and the writing of the history of Rainbow/Wicked Lester is fantastic. Dick Wagner's session work with the band on two Ezrin produced albums has long been known, but it's nice to get him to comment on the experience, especially "Revenge". Same goes for Alan Schwartzberg. This reviewer doesn't want to spoil anything, so I'll not mention much else. Another standout, naturally, is the "Creatures of the Night" section. It really was as insane as it seemed, and in some ways will blow you away. I do take issue at some of Gene's comments about the material, but it's his perspective, not mine or the people I've interviewed about the era. And that's the thing to remember. There are known factual errors within the work, but since it is the band members "speaking" about what they remember they can't be expected to have remembered everything exactly.

Photographically there are pictures included which have either never been seen previously or seen by very few. Notable are those performance shots of Ace pre-KISS. As a package the book was well worth the wait, even for this diehard. Is it perfect? No. Is any KISS book perfect? No. Will any KISS book ever be perfect? No. I return to the earlier premise: Did I learn something new in "Behind the Mask"? HELL yes! But from my perspective the clarifications were possibly more valuable.