My Obsession with “The Elder”

[Editor’s Note: Those seeking a review of the actual KISS album Music from “The Elder” will be disappointed. This is not a review of the album, as much as it is a review of the time and place when one kid loved music more than anything else in the world, and how the current world of music may make it impossible to return to that time.] 

It all began with a dream, an actual dream that involved me finally purchasing the KISS album Music from “The Elder” (aka The Elder). In this dream, I ran home and plugged the cassette tape into my Walkman, and I knew that my life would probably not get much better than that moment. 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 were loaded with ridicule. “It’s real. The Music from The Elder is a real album, it’s out there, in stores, and on actual shelves, and it sucks. You just have to find it, or if you can’t find it, have a store clerk order it for you.” He then turned to a third party to drill down on my humiliation, “He just had a dream about buying a KISS album last night.”

I deserved the ridicule that followed. Dreaming of buying an album was an odd, bizarre dream, 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 might have been a symbol for all things out of reach. The magical, almost mystical qualities that I attached to it might have been similar to all things that appreciate the qualities we attach to a product of limited supply. Yet, I am still so obsessed with this album, decades after its release, that I think The Elder is not only a great album, but also 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 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 the 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 who 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 they play “my song”, only to have those annoying DJs wait about an hour to play it? How many of us grew excited when the DJ finally played that song and 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 special affinity with Glenn Campbell in the course of that effort? How many of us thought that a part of the success of Rhinestone Cowboy was a result of our continued requests? Is it just me, or did this association have a mystical attachment 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 a 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.

No radio stations would play a song from The Elder, and there weren’t internet resources back then. I 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. Critics and fans attached the word “flop” to The Elder, and they declared it KISS’s first commercial failure, after the near unprecedented levels of commercial viability they achieved 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 involved in the project, adamantly refused to have their names listed in the liner notes of the album after hearing it. It embarrassed the remaining members of KISS so much 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 consensus of those I knew who heard the album. When I would ask for a greater, more detailed 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. It was almost inevitable that I was either going to love the music on the album, or 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 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. I find intrigue in having an opinion that differs from group thought. 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. In the case of The Elder, however, my initial allure was such that I either never recovered from my desire to rebel against group thought, or the album wasn’t as bad as group thought suggested it was. I leave open the possibility for either in the case of The Elder.

In the space of the decades since its release, The Elder has spawned two camps: those who further their initial proclamation that it’s one of the worst albums ever made, and those who 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. The website Ultimate Classic Rock, quotes Paul Stanley 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 attached zero stars to it, and Stanley and Simmons have both admitted that they were “delusional” with the Bob Ezrin project. [Note the attempt to distance themselves from The Elder, by saying it was a Bob Ezrin project. A practice those who know their KISStory know all four members engage in when a project wasn’t well received. The album Destroyer was also a “Bob Ezrin project, but the four members climb all over each other to claim credit for it.] Ace Frehley said that he thought the idea of a Ezrin’s idea of concept album with The Elder “wasn’t a good idea to begin with.”

When almost everyone, including the band, crushes a brutha with group thought, the notions that we still like the album usually implode with “I don’t like it either” or “I like all of their albums, except The Elder” qualifiers that send shrapnel throughout the mind, until that person convinces themselves that their initial stance can no longer be maintained.

Maintaining such a stance can lead one to believe they are in the middle of a battlefield with friendly fire penetrating their belief. This lone soldier begins to believe they have no allies, especially when they cross the big four oh (forty years of age), and the idea that they still enjoy any KISS music proves to be a little embarrassing. At that point, a person has to qualify their affinity with words, sentences, and sometimes paragraphs that lead their friends and family to believe that they simply love the kitschy campiness of the act. By doing that, the soldier may gather some like-minded allies that say, “Well, I still like Duran Duran, Leo Sayer, or Michael Jackson, so I understand the attachment.” Saying that one still likes The Elder, however, will even cause like-minded KISS fans to strive for distance. “Sorry brotha, you’re on your own here,” they say to suggest that some loyalists are in too deep 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 the album 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 one person more than others, or if the album contains great music that people “won’t” like, because they fear the counter arguments (see ridicule) from their peers.

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 the reality of actually getting it “on demand” as many times as one wants it, often results in little satisfaction, no irrational, magical qualities that they can’t explain attached to it, and no loyalty. At some point in the process, songs become nothing more 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 time. It’s the want, the chase, and the desire, that ultimately defines the irrational love of the intangible.

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. We later experienced the magic of albums like, Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Is that magic still there for young music lovers? It may be, brilliant music is still brilliant music, but that relatively unquenchable demand for songs that spawned loyalty 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. If you can’t find it in the MP3 universe, you can go to file sharing sites, or YouTube. There’s no more want any more for a young kid who loves music, because the idea of scarcity is almost nonexistent, 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 embarrassed to be obsessed with it decades later.


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