It began with a dream. The dream involved me purchasing the Kiss album Music from “The Elder” (aka The Elder). I ran home, in this dream, and plugged the cassette tape into my Walkman, and I knew that my life would probably not get much better than the moment when I first heard this album. I woke with a peaceful and serene smile that my “not a morning person” personality didn’t often permit. For reasons I would only be able to properly collate later, as an adult, I became obsessed with the Music From The Elder.
“It ain’t no dream,” my friend said. His tones loaded with ridicule. “It’s real. Music From The Elder is a real album, and it’s out there, at stores, and on shelves, and it sucks. You just have to find it.” He then turned to another friend, to attempt to further my humiliation, saying, “He just had a dream about buying a Kiss album last night.”
It was a bizarre dream, no doubt, and I deserved the ridicule that I got, but it defined my desire for that album in ways that were otherwise hard for me to define as a teenager. I wasn’t so simple-minded that I thought The Elder would act as an elixir to all that ailed me, but this desire for something, somewhat out of my reach, said more about me, and that era, when juxtaposed with the modern era, than it did about the quality of music on The Elder. The Elder may have been a symbol for me, for all things somewhat out of reach, and the magical, almost mystical, qualities that we attach to those things as a result, but I am still locked in on this obsession, thirty-two years after its release, that Music From The Elder is not only a great album, but the best album the rock group Kiss ever released.
As that last paragraph suggests, this piece is not so much a review of the quality of music on The Elder, as it is that special quality that can only be attached to a product through inexplicable and irrational desire, the rebellion to group thought, and the influence scarcity can have on a product. This piece is also about how this current lack of scarcity —abridged in the modern “on demand” world of MP3, file sharing, YouTube, etc.— may eventually cause music to be so much less prominent in our lives than it was for an 80’s kid that loved music so much that he felt an almost unquenchable desire for it.
How many 70’s and 80’s kids called into radio stations to request that “their song” be played, only to have those annoying DJs wait about an hour to play it? How many of us grew excited when the DJ finally did play that song and happened to attach our names to it? “And now … as requested by Billy, in Millard, I give you Rhinestone Cowboy by Glenn Campbell.” How many of us felt a super secret affinity with Glenn Campbell as a result of our effort? How many of us felt a part of the success of Rhinestone Cowboy as a result of our continued requests? Is it just me, or did this association have a mystical magic attached to it, that bred an irrational, and inexplicable, brand of loyalty, that cannot be touched in today’s MP3 world of “on demand” listening experiences. How many penniless young ones dreamed of one day living in an “on demand” world where we had more control of the when, where, and how we could hear our music that didn’t require assistance from DJs? How many of us would’ve loved to have a YouTube source where we could punch a song title into their search engine and hear it in two seconds? We all did, but now that it’s here we have a “be careful what you wish for” warning for the world of music and music lovers.
There were no radio stations that I could call to get a fix for my Music From The Elder jones, and there weren’t any internet resources back then, so I just had to sit and stew in the bouillon of my desire. This scarcity was not intentional, and it was not a supply and demand tool put forth by Kiss, or any of its associates, to increase demand for their product, but for one kid in Omaha, Nebraska, that’s exactly what it did. The scarcity was a result of the almost worldwide condemnation of the project. The word “flop” has been almost universally attached to The Elder, and it was declared Kiss’s first commercial failure, after they had managed to achieve near unprecedented levels of commercial viability with their previous albums.
The Elder proved to be such an embarrassment to the remaining members of Kiss that guitarist Ace Frehley considered it emblematic of the new direction of Kiss, and he quit the band as a result. Some of those that were loosely involved in the project, adamantly refused to have their names listed in the liner notes of the album after hearing it. The remaining members of Kiss were so embarrassed by it, that they decided not to tour in support of it, and by the time I began searching retail outlets for it, five years after its completion, I learned, firsthand, the economic concept of scarcity.
This scarcity resulted in a whole lot of self-imposed hype. It resulted in me briefly befriending those fortunate few lucky enough to have heard it. “What did you think of it?” I asked them, panting with anticipation. “What was so different about it?” I asked. “Why is it considered so horrible?”
“It just sucked!” was the general consensus. When I would ask for greater, more intricate explanation, they would dismiss me with, “I don’t know, I didn’t listen to it more than once. I just know it sucked!”
For reasons native to my personality, I only found this universal rejection of the album more compelling. I would later display the same level of intoxication —purposefully erected against group thought— with the comedy of Andy Kaufman, the infamous Crispin Glover appearance on David Letterman, U2’s Zooropa, and the other music of Mike Patton (other than Faith No More). I needed to know why the music on The Elder was so much worse than all the other Kiss albums I adored, so it was almost inevitable that I was either going to love the music on the album, or that I would find that it was not as bad as my friends were telling me it was, for reasons native to my personality.
I would not say that the almost universal reaction to The Elder was my first experience with group thought. I knew about it, and I think I explored it on certain levels, but whenever you’re face to face with it, it almost always feels like the first time. I’m also not going to pretend —as so many others do— that I’m impervious to group thought. I hear what other’s think, I read what critics think, but I’m more apt to force myself through such a hole if everyone dislikes something I decide I might like. In other words, I’m so intrigued by having an opinion that differs from group thought that I tend to find myself trying to have a converse relationship with it. Some believe that I do this to be difficult, or complicated, or artificially different, and that may be the case, but if it is, I’ve convinced myself of this lie so well that I now believe it. It’s sort of a game that I play with myself, until I can consume the product in question enough times that I arrive at my own answer. In the case of The Elder, however, my initial allure was such that I either never recovered my senses on it, or it wasn’t as bad as group thought suggested it was. I leave the open the possibilities for either in the case of The Elder.
In the space of the thirty-two years since its release, The Elder has spawned two camps: those that further their initial proclamation that it’s one of the worst albums ever made, and those that suggest that it now has a campy quality, similar to the movie Return of the Killer Tomatoes. Very few will suggest that it’s simply a good album with quality music on it. Q Magazine has ranked Music From “The Elder” 44th in their list of The 50 Worst Albums Ever. The same magazine ranked the album 6th in their list of 15 Albums Where Great Rock Acts Lost the Plot. On the website Ultimate Classic Rock, Paul Stanley is quoted as saying that the Music from “The Elder” “Was pompous, contrived, self-important and fat.” “Critics pounced on the record and fans stayed away in droves.” The website Kiss Elder Book states that Gene Simmons is said to have attached zero stars to it, and Stanley and Simmons have both admitted that they were “delusional” with the Bob Ezrin project. Ace Frehley is also quoted as saying stated that he thought the idea of a concept album “wasn’t a good idea to begin with.”
The natural reaction, when even the band attempts to disassociate themselves from a project, is to begin the inevitable distancing from it. When almost everyone, including the band, crushes a brutha with group thought, the notions that they still like the album usually implode with “I don’t like it either” statements, or “I like all of their albums, except The Elder” qualifiers that send shrapnel throughout the mind, until that person has fully convinced themselves that their initial stance can no longer be maintained.
It begins to feel like you’re uselessly holding a flag in the middle of a battlefield, where even friendly fire is penetrating your belief, and you begin to believe you have no allies on either side, especially when you cross the feared four oh (forty years of age), and admitting that you enjoy any Kiss music begins to be a little embarrassing. At that point, you usually have to qualify your affinity with words, sentences, and sometimes paragraphs, that lead your friends and family to believe that you simply love the kitschy campiness of their act. By doing that, you may gather some like-minded allies that say, “Well, I still like Duran Duran, Leo Sayer, or Michael Jackson, so I understand what you’re saying.” Saying you still like The Elder, however, will even cause like-minded Kiss fans to strive for a little distance from you. “Sorry brotha, you’re on your own here,” they basically say to suggest that you’re probably in too deep even for them.
What makes defending The Music From The Elder so difficult is that I still don’t know why I love this album so much. I’m not sure if the reasons lie in those aspects of my personality that loves things other people don’t, or if I romanticized the album so much in my youth that I can’t defeat the feelings of nostalgia I feel for that time and place where I desired it to the degree that it invaded my dreams one night. I also can’t determine if the music on the album simply appeals to me in that intangible manner that some music appeals to us more than others, or if it’s simply great music that people “won’t” like, based on the fact that their group will dissociate them as uninformed music fans.
What I do know, or guess based upon my interactions with current, young music fans, is that this relationship with music may never happen again. It’s the human condition to want what you want, when you want it, but to actually get it “on demand” as many times as you want it, usually results in little satisfaction and no loyalty. When you can get it when you want it, you don’t have the time, or the space, necessary to imbue it with those silly, irrational magical, or mystical properties that only you can attach to it. It’s just a song, at that point, and it’s just music. One song may be more creative than another, and that may be why we like it, but we lose all personal attachments to it when we can listen to it hundreds of times, on our own schedule. It’s the want, the chase, and the desire, that ultimately defines the love of anything.
This isn’t to say there isn’t demand for music anymore, but it pales in comparison to the youth-driven demand that caused young girls to swoon at Frank Sinatra, scream at Elvis and The Beatles, or fire up radio station phone lines for the latest Hall and Oates song. That relatively unquenchable demand spawned loyalty for these artists that may never happen again due to the ubiquitous availability of music on the internet today. I’m sure there are still “some” albums that are hard to find, but for the most part the “on demand ‘if you want it, you got it’” era of music that those of us once dreamed of, is now here in the form of MP3’s, and if you can’t find it in the MP3 universe, you can go to file sharing sites, or YouTube. There’s no more want, there’s no such thing as scarcity anymore, and as a result there’s no such thing as hyping something up to the degree that you’re so consumed by it, that you dream about it one night, and you’re still somewhat embarrassingly obsessed with it thirty-two years later.