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KISS puts away its makeup, hangs up its platform shoes and says farewell to 27 years of rock 'n' roll stardom.

Goodbye KISS

What do you think of when you hear KISS come up in conversation? A combination of makeup, fire, burning hair, loud guitars, lunchboxes and dolls probably comes to mind. Perhaps you think of the term "aging has-beens." What you may not know, however, is that KISS is second only to the Beatles in number of gold records. They were the top-grossing touring act from 1996 to 1998. And KISS' most successful album to date, 1998's "Psycho Circus" debuted at No. 3 on the charts and includes a title track that was their first No. 1 radio hit.

From the highly successful made-for-TV movie "KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park," to KISS condoms, comic books, a Visa card and deal with World Championship Wrestling, to the soon-to-be-christened KISS constellation, the band has mastered the art of rock merchandising like no others before or since. KISS has become one of the most successful rock bands of all times by making themselves as ubiquitous as toilet paper and performing an unparalleled live show.

As kids of the '70s are likely to know, KISS sprouted from the sometimes acrimonious friendship between Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley after the failure of their first musical collaboration, Wicked Lester, a short-lived band that borrowed heavily from the Beatles. The two decided to put together a more visual-based group that incorporated all of the elements that make their live show irresistible, and soon hooked up with drummer Peter Criss, after reading his rather prescient ad in "Rolling Stone": " … willing to do anything to make it." To complete the puzzle, after seeing more than 50 musicians, the band was dazzled by the "spaced-out" appearance of Ace Frehley.

KISS comes to Richmond June 6 to play at the Richmond Coliseum for a stop on their farewell tour. Yes it's true: This will be your last chance to catch the extraordinary, unforgettable live performance that has made them the stars they are. Don't expect the usual slowed-down version we have come to expect from bands that have hung around as long as KISS. Simmons and Stanley still have the exuberance of children, and an unbridled energy that explodes with as much vigor as the awesome light and laser show that is their signature.

So why, after 27 years in show business together — with the makeup, without the makeup, with the makeup again, and through all the lineup changes — has KISS, upon reaching the apex yet again, decided to call it quits? The band's most recognizable figure, Simmons, is ready, as always, with his quick-witted, acerbic, and of course prolix, tongue to explain.

"The bottom line is you've got to just follow your heart," he says. "It's not always a business decision, because past a certain amount of time and money, there is other stuff you want to do. Once we've done everything that I can imagine … including the first 3D tour in history — we just decided to hang up our platform heels and say thank you very much, bowing our heads to the people who put us here in the first place."

While critics have derided them from the start, KISS has continued to incite an army of fans of all ages to pay homage in many, often bizarre, ways, with 40- and 50-year-old fans still attending shows in full KISS garb and makeup.

KISS is proud of this mainstream support. "The fact that we've been fearless in simply doing whatever we want to do, whether media gets it or not, has been precisely the idea behind rock 'n' roll all along," Simmons says. "We have a lot in common with cockroaches — not everyone likes us, but it's too f——— bad, because we're going to outlive you all."

It is their live show that has truly defined KISS: the fire-breathing, the blood-spitting and the dry-ice haze, together with the outrageous silver and black costumes and the four cartoon characters the members take on once they put on their makeup (Demon, Cat, Spaceman, and Star Child). "Rock 'n' roll has always been about making a complete spectacle out of yourself, whether it's Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard jumping up and down on their pianos, or Elvis shaking his hips, it has always been about show," Simmons says. "And KISS has always been about making a complete spectacle of ourselves."

Simmons is proud of the solid rock 'n' roll foundation of the band, and feels its over-the-top blood-sweat-and-tears style with screaming guitars is sorely lacking in today's artists. "We outlived all of these guys that were in fashion: new romance, old romance, new wave, alternative, thrash, punk, I don't care what you want to call it, it is all going to go away because this is rock 'n' roll," he says. He even goes a step further in attributing the death of rock to the grunge movement of the early '90s.

"That whole early-'90s thing that came out of Seattle, though it contributed a lot of very good music, was the biggest slap in the face to the spirit of rock 'n' roll that I can imagine," he says. "These bands that get up on stage and look like librarians or Pizza Hut delivery boys, to me are the biggest insult to the idea of the stage. When everybody started looking like Paul Bunyan, it was over, and then millions of white kids turned to rap."

For those who have questioned KISS' artistic quality — as they prepare to go less than quietly into the night — Simmons has a ready answer that seems as apropos now as it was when the band began. "The idea of art always struck me as bizarre, because Art should be the name of a guy," he says. "The rest of it should be decided by people, which is why KISS is the quintessential … American band. Of the people, for the people, by the people. Hamburger and rock 'n' roll, that's what we're all

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