Tim McPhate | KissFAQ
New York Times bestselling author/KISS fan dissects “Music From The Elder,” spanning topics from the album’s packaging and the meaning of “Odyssey” to analyzing Paul Stanley’s disdain for all things “Elder”
In conjunction with KissFAQ’s month-long NovElder retrospective, New York Times bestselling author/KISS fan Chuck Klosterman has offered his insight into “Music From The Elder.” Among other topics, Klosterman shared why the album is a personal favorite, offered a viewpoint on why Paul Stanley has grown detached from the album, and why the album failed to resonate with fans, among other topics.
The following are excerpts from Klosterman’s interview with KissFAQ’s Tim McPhate:
First reaction listening to “The Elder”:
KF: When you first listened to “The Elder,” what was your immediate reaction to what you were hearing?
CK: My main memory of playing The Elder is that I just kept thinking to myself, “So this is it. I’m listening to The Elder.” I’d read so much about it that it seemed meaningful to simply possess the artifact. I knew (going in) that it was supposed to sound unlike any other KISS album, so I unconsciously exaggerated how much that difference would be. I probably thought it would sound like free jazz or something. But it still seemed like KISS to me. It didn’t sound anything like Pink Floyd or Jethro Tull, which is what I’d been told. I suppose the very beginning of the album is a little like “Locomotive Breath,” but that would have never occurred to me at the time. “I” seemed exactly like a good mid-period KISS song, except for the part where Gene directly criticizes people who get wasted. But that was a known thing about KISS. They were totally overt about their sobriety.
The fascination with “The Elder”:
KF: Chuck, what is it exactly about “The Elder” that fascinates you?
CK: If you like a band, you appreciate all the things they do well. But if you LOVE a band, the parts of their career that truly fascinate you are the aspects that go wrong. Artists are best understood through their reaction to failure. So if you love Black Sabbath, the record you want to think about is Technical Ecstasy. If you love Oasis, you want to think about Be Here Now. And if you love KISS, the record that’s most compelling is The Elder. It’s not even close. The Elder helps you see the psychopathy of KISS. You can still see how the experience of this album changed the way they look at themselves and how it galvanized some of their pre-existing opinions about the world.
The thing is, KISS always tries to convince themselves – and the rest of the world – that they don’t care how critics view their work. But this is clearly untrue, and especially during this period of their career. I think they thought releasing a critically appreciated album would re-invent their perception and cause people to re-think the meaning of their previous records, which might have a commercial benefit. It also seems like they came at the The Elder from a paradoxical artistic position: They assumed making a concept record would be relatively easy, despite having no idea how to actually do so. So they hired a cocaine addict (Bob Ezrin) to teach them, and they never said “no” to any of his insane ideas. When you listen to The Elder, you can hear that awkward combination of insecurity and arrogance that most interesting artists possess.
That said, I do think Paul and Gene were extremely proud of this record, at least initially. But when the response was so unilaterally negative, they were forced to re-imagine how they felt about it. The reviews were slightly better than they’d been for the previous albums, but not significantly so. In fact, the marginally positive reviews were worse, because it made them seem desperate. To KISS, this became proof that trying to please anyone except your core fan base was idiotic and wrongheaded. It galvanized the fictional persona they had once tried to project and turned it into their actual worldview.
Paul Stanley’s disdain for the album:
KF: Speaking of Paul, whenever “The Elder” is brought up in interviews nowadays, he doesn’t have much good to say about the project. Going back a few years, he’s also been quoted as saying it was “a good album but not a good KISS album.” As a fan, why do you think Paul has grown to seemingly despise the album?
CK: I think it represents a terrible time in his life – a period where he was publicly experiencing an existential crisis about who he was as an artist and a celebrity. I think he’s embarrassed that he overreached and tried something that didn’t work the way he imagined, and I suspect he hates how certain people (like me) always want him to talk about projects that failed commercially and critically. It’s the same situation with KISS Meets the Phantom.
On the prism people view KISS through and how it affected “The Elder”:
KF: Not to my knowledge. Chuck, in a recent interview, you mentioned that it “wouldn’t have mattered if ‘The Elder’ had been ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ and that “people viewed that music through the prism of how they understood KISS.” In other words, are you saying that KISS fans and the general public are generally close-minded when it comes to KISS?
CK: Well, yes. That’s certainly true. But that wasn’t my point. My point was that KISS had incredible success creating an image for itself that had a highly specific meaning. In many ways, this is their supreme achievement: The band itself has a higher profile than the totality of their music, and that facade informs everything they do. It turns KISS into an idea, in and of itself. When people played (Music From) The Elder, they were not hearing a collection of art-rock songs in a vacuum; they were always hearing art-rock songs that were specifically made by KISS. It’s impossible to think about anything KISS creates outside of the context of who they are. So when people first heard The Elder, they did not ask themselves, “Is this good?” They asked themselves, “Why is KISS doing this? What is their motive?” And that immediately changed the meaning. Lou Reed singing “Dark Light” signals something different than Ace singing “Dark Light.” The song is interpretative, but the singer is not. One clear example of this process is the Hootie and the Blowfish song “I Don’t Believe in Time”: Coming from Hootie and the Blowfish, the idea of time not existing seems facile and meaningless. It makes them sound like college students trying to be deep. But if Jerry Garcia had written a song called “I Don’t Believe in Time,” that title would have become a bumper sticker.
You can’t have everything you want, and you can’t force people to think about your own work on whatever arbitrary terms you demand. You can’t perform “Cold Gin” in front of an electric 40-foot sign that says “KISS” and also have intellectuals view your mythic fantasy as a serious piece of art, and you can’t expect the kind of kid who loves “Cold Gin” to automatically engage with music that was consciously made to impress the type of person who usually listens to Kate Bush. That’s not how public life works. Now, things might have gone a different way if audiences had believed KISS had been compelled to make this album for artistic motives that they could not repress. But KISS had spent the last 10 years convincing the world that they never thought like that, about anything.
Full Chuck Klosterman interview:
KissFAQ also published a feature outlining the bloodline of the concept album art form and an interview with “Elder”-era photographer Waring Abbott.
The Bloodline Of The Concept Album
Waring Abbott interview:
Through a series of brand-new KissFAQ interviews, original features and related special content, NovElder will shine a spotlight on “Music From The Elder” like never before throughout the month of November. More than 10 hours of interviews were conducted with various individuals who either worked on the project or have a connection of sorts, including professionals who have never told their “Elder story.” These interviews will provide interesting insights and unique perspectives regarding the album’s creative process and this fascinating period in KISStory, in addition to fun anecdotes and personal recollections. A series of topical features will shed more light on KISS’ activity in 1981 and early 1982 and dissect the album further with in-depth musical analysis, biographical information on the album’s participants, a revised KissFAQ Album Focus, and much more. NovElder will also take a look at the climate of the rock genre in 1981 and look at the bloodline of rock concept albums.
The odyssey continues this November at http://www.kissfaq.com/novelder/