Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ace unmasks in Scranton
Ace Frehley performs in Scranton, Pa. March 3, 1985

March 3, 2010

A great rock concert can stand out in your mind for various reasons. I've been to quite a few of them, and though some were utterly forgettable, some are still burned deep in the heart. Seeing Paul McCartney live can actually leave you awestruck, and artists like U2 and Bruce Springsteen seem to take you to another place during their live shows. In some ways, it's almost spiritual.

I love those artists. Always have. And it's no secret to some of our readers that I'm also a pretty big KISS fan. I've seen them about 30 times in concert and can honestly say that when it comes to live bands, they remain among the best. Ace Frehley, the group's original guitarist, is also still an all-time favorite. And it was exactly 25 years ago this week that Frehley gave one of the most memorable shows I've ever seen. And it was right here in Northeast Pennsylvania — in Scranton — at the old West Side Theater.

I was 17 years old and it was the spring of my senior year in high school. Myself and a group of good friends all loved Ace, but since he had left KISS a few years prior — right around the time we were finally old enough to start going to their shows — we'd never seen him play live. I can still remember the day the show was announced, and how we were all calling one another and were absolutely over-the-top excited. Within minutes, we were all running off to our little part-time high school jobs, making sure we put in for the night off from work. I called one friend who lived quite a few miles away and said I was on my way over to pick him up. He still jokes to this day that right after I called, he threw on Frehley's 1978 solo album, and before he'd heard even one song, I was already out in front of his house laying on the horn.

Did I mention we were excited?

A few weeks later, it was time for the big show. March 3, 1985. The concert venue was about a 30 minute ride from my house. We left about 12 hours early. There were so many of us that we had to take two cars. Even though Ace wasn't going to come on until around 9 p.m., we were there by late morning. Of course, we spent most of the day on a zany quest trying to meet him. After learning that he was still nowhere near the venue, we decided to scope out a few nearby hotels, and though we did eventually find the right one and had a pretty close encounter with the great guitarist, we had no luck in our attempt to hang out with the Spaceman.

And that, in retrospect, is OK. The hunt to find Ace was a lot of fun in itself, and since that time, I've been fortunate enough to have met him and interviewed him several times. But that first attempt back in '85, when we were still just kids, was something we all still laugh about. In fact some of us, 25 years later, still meet for lunch every year on March 3 to reminiscence and celebrate our love for Ace. At one point, we walked into a hotel lobby with Frehley's solo album and asked a woman at the desk, "Have you seen this man?" She smiled at the album cover — a painting of Frehley in his full KISS makeup — and said, "No, but I wish I had."

And THAT was another thing that made this particular concert so memorable. That type of picture — Ace in his KISS makeup — was all we had to go by. What some younger KISS fans might not even realize is that for a full decade, from 1973-1983, no one knew what the band members looked like. It was a huge part of their persona that offered a unique element to their mystique. Finally, in '83, when they felt that aspect of their career had run its course, they unmasked for the album "Lick It Up" and continued to enjoy great commercial success. Frehley, however, had left the band in '82. And though he was on tour in the spring of '85, he had not yet released a post-KISS solo album.

Ace had not yet "unmasked."

We were all going to see a show by one of our all-time favorite musicians, yet we had NO IDEA WHAT HE LOOKED LIKE.

Thinking back on it, it's pretty wild, and I can honestly say that Ace Frehley's 1985 mini-tour of the East Coast was one of the most unusual rock tours of all-time. I can't think of any other tour, ever, where you knew that when the artist walked on the stage, you were literally going to see what they looked like for the first time. It was incredibly cool, and since he was already a superstar, and since we had already loved his music so much for so many years, it only added to the fun.

Of course, Ace came out and totally rocked. For us, it was pretty much the same as it was with KISS a few years earlier, when we saw them sans makeup for the first time. We were never fans because of the makeup and costumes. Sure, maybe it helped get our attention when we were kids, but we stayed fans because we liked the songs. We loved the music. Again though, most KISS fans had seen the band unmask live on MTV in '83. Or they'd seen their photo on the "Lick It Up" album cover, or they'd seen them in music videos. By the time their tours for "Lick It Up" and later "Animalize" came around, you at least knew how they appeared in person.

Not so with Ace.

Frehley played lots of great songs that night, some old and some new. And he continued to come back to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area from time to time. He played the old Autographs nightclub in Old Forge in '87, and both The Woodlands and Tink's in '95. They're all part of KISSTORY here in NEPA. A history that includes KISS shows at The Paramount Theater (now The Kirby) in 1974 and King's College in 1975, Paul Stanley's solo show at Market Street Square in '89, Peter Criss' show at Market Street in '92 and The Woodlands in '94, and KISS' more recent stops at Montage in 2000 (with Ace back in the band) and 2004.

Except for those first few shows in '74 and '75, I was at all of them. And though I loved them all, there will always be something very special about March 3, 1985 — the day my friends and I saw Ace Frehley for the first time, both figuratively, and literally. It was a day that, when you really think about it, helped reinforce what what KISS had first proved in 1983. Despite their larger-than-life persona, lavish stage shows and now iconic makeup and costumes, it's really the music and nothing but the music that matters most.

Ace proved it, once again, in Scranton.

And his fans proved it simply by being there.

(Alan K. Stout has covered rock and pop music in NEPA since 1992. His weekly radio show, “Music On The Menu,” airs every Sunday from 9-10 p.m. on 105 The River.)