When I told Ace Frehley that I initially found out about his show in Missoula via a guy at a pawn shop telling my 14 year-old son, who, clad in the ratty old denim vest I’d worn in high school with KISS patches on the chest, was prowling around looking for a used leather jacket, the man that inspired a million guitar players laughed. “Really?” he said. “I used to go to pawn shops all the time! Back in the 70s when I was on tour with KISS, I’d go to pawn shops everywhere we went. That was the best place to find good guitars!” We commiserated on how different it is now, when eBay makes those dusty backroom finds more rare, but Ace concluded, “Yeah, but sometimes you can still find the good stuff.”
Moments later, the conversation was over. “I’ll see you in Missoula, Chris,” he said, and that was it. I held my phone in one hand, the mini cassette recorder I’d captured the conversation with in the other, and took a couple deep breaths. There was a brief moment where tears threatened, but I forced them down. I mean, I’m 40 years-old, for crissakes! But for me, a guy who tries to seek out “big deal” life experiences wherever I can, this was a very Big Deal.
Me and Ace Go Way Back
Ace Frehley was the original guitar player in KISS, the band that introduced me to rock n’ roll. In 1977 I was 10, and I bought my first album: Love Gun. I bought it at Musicland in Southgate Mall. I remember being torn between it and the double album, Alive. Ultimately I settled on Love Gun because its lower cost left enough money in my grubby pocket to wander a couple stores down the mall and get a slab of pizza at the Slice o’ Pizza shop.
Ace was my favorite member of KISS at the time; I liked his Space Man persona, and his song “Shock Me” was my first favorite song on the record. It can’t be understated how huge of an influence KISS was on me. The riffs, the attitude, the larger than life aspects of their personalities, everything. Certainly their image was a big part of what drew me to them, but ultimately it was all about the music. I probably would have fallen in love with rock music, all music really, eventually, but they were the guys that came down from the mountain and delivered Rock to me, and I have carried my piece of it ever since. To this day, anyone who asks me who my favorite band is, who my biggest influence is, it’s KISS. I may not like what the band has become as a marketing machine comprised of new guys masquerading as original members, but that is a different story. I know the foundation my musical evolution was built on, and it will never change.
The Interview and the Article
Which brings us back to Ace Frehley in Missoula. When I learned in January of his March tour stop at the Wilma Theater, I set events in motion to somehow create an opportunity to meet the guy. The first thing that fell into place is that I convinced Skylar Browning, Arts Editor at The Independent, that I would be up to the task of writing a feature on Ace (it’s weirdly appropriate that my first paid gig as a writer would be somehow KISS related). That led to the interview over the phone with Ace, something Skylar and I were both surprised we were able to land. The Missoulian’s Joe Nickell said it best in the piece he did on Ace for The Entertainer when he wrote, “In a turn-of-events that I couldn’t have possibly imagined when I was in third grade,” I found myself on the phone with my hero.
At the appointed hour I was nervous as a rat hiding under a porch full of lounging jack russell terriers. Luckily, Ace being Ace, he didn’t call until two hours later. By then I was relaxed, and the odds of coming off like Chris Farley in a Saturday Night Live skit (“Remember when you were in that band? KISS? . . . . . . . . That was awesome!”) were much reduced. I was supposed to only have 10 minutes, but we ended up chatting for nearly 30. Ace didn’t seem all that into it at first; how could he be? He was very polite, though, and warmed up quickly. I didn’t really want to talk about the stuff that he’s probably sick of talking about, like, in a word, KISS. I realize you can’t talk about Ace Frehley and not talk about the band that launched his career, but it was clear there were aspects of that story he just didn’t want to discuss. I got what I felt I needed to for the sake of the article, but then got to talk about the things that I, as a fan, wanted to know about. We talked about his health, his daughter, his art. It was when discussing these other things that he really opened up, and I felt like we connected.
I could have been satisfied at that point. Hell, I had just spoken for 30 minutes with Ace Frehley! But if I could get more, I was going for it. I mentioned to Ace that I hoped to meet him when he came to Missoula, and he told me to contact Carol, his publicist, for tickets and passes. I already had the tickets, but I was all over contacting Carol, and she made the arrangements. She cautioned that it ultimately depended on the venue as to whether it would actually happen or not. I remained hopeful.
I wrote my story, and it appeared in the March 13th edition of The Independent. You can check it out here online. A transcript of most of my interview with Ace is also on my friend Patrick’s website, The Cultureshock (Pat also writes for the Great Falls Tribune), along with an interview he also conducted with Ace (this aspect of the story was actually picked up by the music news site Blabbermouth and has since gone on to be Pat’s most widely-read piece ever), right here.
The Rocket Ride Tour, 2008
Show day arrived. My son, Sid, and I were stoked. Sid is also a big KISS fan, has been ever since I replaced some Disney flick he’d been watching over and over as a toddler with the made-for-television movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. Some of the highlights of Sid’s career as a KISS fan include a picture he drew when he was in kindergarten; his teacher was puzzled when she said, “I don’t really know what this means, but Sidney says it is ‘a picture of Gene Simmons fixing his car’.” When he was about 5 or 6, he actually dressed up as Ace Frehley for Halloween. He also was planted in the 6th row of KISS’s Farewell Tour at the Gorge in Washington a few years ago. So while he didn’t have the bulk of history under his stinky high-tops that I did, he was as enthusiastic as any 14 year-old can be about anything. Sid’s friend Will accompanied us, and my mom rounded out the crew. As she says, she “grew up” on KISS as well, since her musical life really went hand-in-hand with those of me and my two sisters. We were all very excited.
Arriving at the venue we learned, as I had expected, that the box office had no knowledge of the two backstage passes I had been promised. I am nothing if not resourceful, though. I had Ace’s publicist’s phone number so I called and left a message. I also had the phone number Ace had called me from, so I left a message there as well. Finally, knowing how tours work, I knew the guy I really needed to reach was Ace’s tour manager. I wrote a note about the situation, referencing various names (never underestimate the power of a key name drop!), organizations, and dates, and hand-delivered it to the head of security with a request to have him deliver it to the tour manager. Sure enough, 10 minutes later Sid and I had our passes.
The only downside of the entire event was the turnout. The Wilma was maybe 2/3 full, and the balcony was closed. For whatever reason, maybe price, there weren’t as many bodies there as I’d hoped there to be. I also blame the promoters. If not for the enthusiasm of fans like myself and Joe at the Missoulian to cover the story, there would have been essentially nothing – I never saw a single poster about the show in Missoula, anywhere. Once the lights went down it didn’t matter.
The first band, some 4-piece from Spokane whose name I don’t remember, weren’t particularly memorable. To me they looked scared. I was disappointed in their failure to attack the stage, and the audience, the way a rock band should. They sounded okay, just lacked the fire. People were just sitting in their seats and the space immediately before the barrier in front of the stage was wide open. I grabbed Sid and Will and we took posts on the rail front and center. Shortly others followed our lead. By the time the first band finished and the second band, Canada’s The Trews went on, it was starting to feel like a rock show. The Trews were great, and really got the crowd lit up. They sounded for the most part kind of Black Crowsish to me, and they weren’t afraid to unleash some rock on us. I enjoyed their set.
Then they were wrapped up, and it was time for Ace Frehley.
He took a long time to go on. The stage was set, the wall of black, logoless amplifiers had glowing lights. A roadie would wander out periodically to adjust a mic stand or open a couple bottles of water on the drum riser, then stroll off again. A huge smoke machine was belching fog over the stage and theater; ZZ Top was playing over the PA. The crowd was chanting, “Ace, Ace, Ace!” and it seemed to take forever. Finally the lights dimmed, and it was on.
What can I say about the show? It was friggin’ great. Definitely better than I’d expected, even better than I’d hoped. Ace was in great form on the guitar, ripping through classic song after classic song, songs I’d grown up with that I never expected to hear played live by the guy who wrote them. Songs from his solo albums, songs he’d done in KISS, even a couple KISS classics that he didn’t write. He missed a chord here and there. He blew some lyrics here and there. He stumbled around. But he and his band flat freakin’ rocked. It reaffirmed my love for the kind of straight ahead, four-on-the-floor hard rock that I grew up with. It has been so long since I heard anyone play that kind of music that it sounded fresh again. In the way that AC/DC coming on the radio after something modern and awful finishes, this show reminded me what inspired me about rock n’ roll in the first place, 30 long years ago. As the show concluded with Ace’s signature tune “Cold Gin” from KISS’s first album, I was sweaty, tired, and feeling pretty emotional. But it wasn’t all over, not quite yet.
The Handshake and the Autograph
As the house lights came up Sid and I made our way over to where the head of security had told us to meet him after the show to go backstage for the meet and greet. We waited about 5 minutes, then were ushered into the depths of the Wilma. As we waited backstage I got to chat a little with members of The Trews. More people were lining up, waiting for their chance to meet Ace. All in all I’m guessing about 15 people or so were queued up when Ace’s tour manager appeared and said, “Whoa, who are all these people, I can’t have this many people here! All I know about is the radio station guys and the guy and his son!” There were a number of voices raised in protest, but Sid and I were the first people ushered into a little room where Ace and his band waited. Sid told me later that he was scared as they were leading us forward, and I admit I was plenty nervous myself.
Then I met Ace Frehley. I shook his hand, got some things signed, and had a photo taken of Sid, me, and Ace. He didn’t talk much; he was clearly tired from the show. I didn’t really even try to engage him in much conversation – hell, I know how I am after a show. Sometimes the last thing you want is “that guy” in your face telling you how awesome you are. He’s Ace fucking Frehley, for crying out loud; he knows how awesome he is, and I didn’t want to be “that guy.” But we met and exchanged a few words and that was good enough for me. It was surreal, when I think about it. One of the biggest rock stars ever, sitting on a little couch drinking a coke and munching on some tortilla chips.
His band is a great bunch of guys. We talked quite a bit, and they were beyond cool to Sid. “Hey, you’re that dude that was on the rail headbanging for the whole show!” one of them said to him, and they all shook his hand, asked after the patches on his jacket, asked if he was in a band, etc. Sid loved it. “I bet you are the coolest guy at school, aren’t you?” another said, and Sid blushed.
After 10 or 15 minutes it was over. We left the room, climbed the stairs, met my mom and Will, and went home. I don’t know if those other people got to meet Ace or not, but I doubt it. We were lucky. A lot of things went our way that if one single one hadn’t we would have been screwed. Thankfully everyone involved was cool, and Sid and I got to have our moment. It may sound silly or immature to some people, but I don’t care. It is something I will never forget, and Sid won’t either.
Thanks, Ace, for everything.
Want to see the set list? Maybe a couple more pictures? Head over to Stumbling the Walk and have a look!