To be fair, Kiss are one of the biggest-selling rock acts ever (more than 80 million records to date), they practically invented the power ballad (with 1976's "Beth"), and they certainly set the standard for grown men in makeup banging out sex-drenched metal pop, although whether that should be considered an accomplishment is debatable. But still, three unauthorized biographies published in 1997 alone seems a tad excessive. At least they all have their own approach to the band -- Dale Sherman's Black Diamond (Collector's Guide Press) is strictly for completists and fans of Kiss' various late-'80s incarnations. Kiss & Tell (Pitbull Press), authored by two self-described former best friends of inebriated lead guitarist Ace Frehley, is little more than a chintzy, slapped-together bitchfest.
Which leaves C.K. Lendt's Kiss and Sell (Billboard Books). Subtitled "The Making of a Supergroup," the book seems to have the most potentially interesting angle of the current rash of titles: Lendt is the group's former business manager. If anyone is in a position to put the overblown Kiss phenomenon in its place with an insider's cynical eye, it's him. Too bad he's such a dope.
Lendt traveled with the band as an on-the-road liaison/financial baby-sitter from 1976 to 1988, and while this stuff may be "the behind-the-scenes story," that doesn't make the accounts of lengthy legal meetings, negotiations with promoters, and scouting tour locations any less yawn-inducing. Maybe the dirt-dishing of a financial insider just isn't as fascinating as that of, say, a personal assistant (have we all heard the urban legend about the guy who was hired expressly to blow cocaine up the butt of a certain Fleetwood Mac vocalist?), but Lendt's polite tone never even tries to get beyond that of a trusty employee who's always sniffing out a big bonus.
Admittedly, the role of the unauthorized rock biography has probably diminished with the advent of the World Wide Web. A spot-check of some of the Web's more prominent sites revealed that real Kiss fans are more likely to be online exchanging tour stories and debating whether to spring for the Kiss beach towel or the collectible series of phone cards than reading a book like Lendt's; the only place I even saw the book mentioned was on Billboard Books' own page.
Which works out fine, since Lendt doesn't seem to have written Kiss and Sell for the fans -- his consistent references to the "seediness" of the audiences at Kiss shows make it apparent that he's slumming. While he evidently had no problem adapting to the 24-7 party of road life -- even hinting with aren't-I-a-bad-boy breeziness that he helped himself to the buffet of groupies and call girls -- Lendt feels the need to assert that he was, you know, different from his employers, by virtue of being financially savvy and, in his own mind, higher-class. A conversation with Gene Simmons in which the bassist suggests, to Lendt's horror, that the bourgeois suit find "a real woman with a big ass" is one of the book's few funny moments. Unfortunately more common are smug asides like, "Having already earned the reputation as the tour's traveling gourmet ...," and, "I was now the Kiss travel expert ...," which make Lendt's view of himself abundantly clear.
Of course, all of Lendt's taste and refinement couldn't help the band once it became clear it was sinking under the weight of the monster stadium tours, expensive special effects, and outrageous living expenses of the late-'70s heyday. And despite the fact that Lendt often mistakes Kiss and Sell for his own autobiography (do we really need to hear the entire menu -- in French, no less -- of a meal he had when the band toured Europe in 1980?), the book is, above all, structured as a story of financial and personal excess, complete with numbers meant to be as titillating (Simmons' thousands of conquests, each preserved on Polaroid) as they are mind-boggling (Kiss' $15 million contract with Polygram).
The underlying theme of a successful rock act as nothing more than a cash cow for its handlers, of artistic growth stunted in favor of profits, could be read as a cautionary tale inveighing against Big Rock Industry. It could also be a denouncement of fame-addled musicians who completely mishandle their own success and then blame it on others. But it never becomes either of these things. Lendt's job on the road with Kiss was to dole out cash to cover the members' every whim -- whether it be vintage guitars or a trashed hotel room -- and his retelling of the band's power years displays a similar no-questions-asked attitude. Reluctant to take anyone to task for their actions, the most he can say is this, after his company has been fired by the band: "I knew that when it finally sank in that Kiss's cupboard was bare, we would undoubtedly end up as the scapegoats. ... It was a shabby way to end things, especially since Kiss's money troubles were never concealed from them and they were regularly provided with financial information." You'd think a little more bile would be in order, especially given the promises of the back-cover blurb. But maybe Lendt himself is aware that the story of a band that started out with the full intention of attaining gargantuan levels of recognition and adulation -- and did -- just isn't very interesting. If Kiss had started out playing in a basement with no aim of making a career out of it, then maybe a tale of ascension and loss, of big money and big egos, would be more compelling. Slightly. But even if Lendt had made a better effort to get pissed about the way he was treated in those waning years, Kiss still would have come out ahead -- 1996's reunion tour made them once again both multimillionaires and superstars, and Lendt now has to charge his call girls to his own credit cards instead of the company's.
One question that Kiss and Sell does bring up, though, is why one of the least complex bands in rock history is also one of the most mythologized. Led Zeppelin, at least, had a mystique fueled by rumors of black magic, ancient bluesmen, and pacts with the devil, which made that band's unauthorized biography, Hammer of the Gods, a bathroom-reading favorite of heshers nationwide, not to mention the standard-bearer for rock tell-alls. Whatever nominal mystique Kiss began with was gone by the time lunch boxes with the band's logo were being toted around by 6-year-olds, and a rock biography as bloodless as Lendt's hardly seems destined for the pantheon. So maybe the fact that reading Kiss and Sell is more like eavesdropping on a pack of record executives than learning about the "real story" behind a notorious band is Lendt's inadvertent success. Though it completely lacks the cynicism needed for its subject, Kiss and Sell does emphasize the point that there's not a whole lot of difference between excess and execs.