Spaceman Ace Frehley offers his bland version of Kiss’ story in No Regrets
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One cherished bit of Kiss lore holds that the writers of the cinematic experience that became KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park spent some time with the band members to get a sense of how they spoke and behaved. When scripts were circulated, Kiss’ members were amused to discover that the only line of dialogue the scribes had composed for The Spaceman, the character played by Ace Frehley, was a constant cartoon cry of, depending on the source, “ACK!” or “AWK!”
The writers couldn’t begin to fathom the inner workings or true personality of the enigmatic rock guitarist. So they decided that for the film’s purposes, Frehley was, in the words of an early draft of the script, “monosyllabic and super-friendly… Communicating largely through gestures and sounds, Ace might be best described as an other-galactic Harpo Marx.” The scriptwriter’s fanciful conviction that Frehley communicated largely through sub-verbal noises, meanwhile, was a side product of Frehley’s curious habit of imitating agitated parrot-squawking when facing someone he didn’t want to talk to.
Though Frehley was ambivalent at best about the project, he was insulted by this slight, and dialogue was eventually written for his character, even though he was so unprofessional that the production finally conceded defeat and replaced him in many takes with a strikingly dissimilar black body double, who can be seen standing in for Frehley throughout the film.
As these anecdotes attest, Ace Frehley isn’t just a little eccentric; he’s damn near the gold standard for rock ’n’ roll craziness and rock-star self-destruction. In his 1970s prime/nadir, Frehley’s behavior deviated so wildly from even the fuzziest, most generous conception of acceptable human behavior that he might as well have been an other-galactic Harpo Marx, communicating largely through gestures and sounds.
Throughout the decades, rock-star hedonists have been able to assure themselves that while they might be pretty drugged-up and fucked-up at any given time, at least they weren’t Ace Frehley-level drugged-up and fucked-up. They similarly could take comfort in the knowledge that even if they were losing their minds, they weren’t Ace Frehley-level crazy.
For better or worse, No Regrets, Frehley’s curiously underwhelming 2011 memoir, is the product of an author who can also now assure himself that no matter how debauched or crazy he might get, at least he isn’t Ace Frehley-in-the-’70s-level debauched or crazy.
Frehley became a legend as Space Ace, a dick-swinging, booze-swilling madman notorious for being insane even for a rock star, but No Regrets was written by Sober Ace, a sane, reflective chap in a tweed jacket who is nowhere near as interesting as Space Ace. No Regrets consequently has the curious quality of trying to make its author’s life seem less unusual and compelling than it actually is.
In previous Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club entries, Peter Criss and Gene Simmons wrote about Space Ace with a fascinating combination of bewilderment, anger, fascination, and open-mouthed awe, as a figure more myth than man. They wrote about him as a folk hero, a lunatic, and an eccentric genius whose charisma and dazzling magnetism were apparent no matter how deplorably or incomprehensibly he behaved.
Frehley, in sharp contrast, presents himself as a moderately eccentric veteran rock guitarist who struggled to realize his creative vision in the face of strong resistance from his iron-willed colleagues and his own mounting problems with drugs and alcohol. Is there an element of truth to this portrayal? Of course, but Ace the neighborhood guy struggling in the glare of the media spotlight and the pressures of the industry isn’t anywhere near as fascinating as the mythic figure from Simmons’ and Criss’ books, as well as the public imagination.
Unlike Gene Simmons, Frehley wants to be taken seriously as a musician, and in No Regrets, he takes music seriously. His palpable affection for music, both as an artist and as a fan, is one of the book’s most endearing qualities. For Frehley, it was never just a business; he gets more out of meeting the lead singer of Steppenwolf twice back when he was a music-fan-turned-roadie than Simmons does out of writing a song with Bob Dylan for the 2004 solo album Asshole.
From the beginning, Frehley did things differently than his future Kiss bandmates. Simmons, in his lust to make everything as mercenary as possible, had people who were auditioning for the band fill out applications. Frehley made a big show of discarding the application, then made an even bolder impression by warming up before the previous applicant finished his audition.
Kiss was as impressed by the young man’s chutzpah as by his musical chops. He looked like a star and carried himself like one. And if he was self-destructive, lazy, and difficult to deal with, what rock star wasn’t? As a kid who grew up worshiping Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend, Frehley loved the gothic theatricality of the band’s emerging persona, even as it increasingly threatened to overshadow the band’s music.
Frehley and Simmons had very different visions for Kiss. Simmons saw the band as merely the cornerstone for a family-friendly multimedia extravaganza combining elements of Disney, Universal horror movies, and comic books. Frehley wanted Kiss to be a theatrical but kick-ass rock group like The Who. The big difference is that Simmons had the focus, determination, and will to ensure that his vision of the band dominated, while Frehley sulked but eventually acquiesced to Simmons’ plans.
Frehley lacked the courage of his halfhearted convictions: He didn’t like it when the performances of Kiss band members were overdubbed by studio musicians on early albums, but he shrugged and went along with it. He thought making a television movie with the people who made Scooby-Doo was a dumb idea, but he shrugged and went along with it. He thought disco was a stupid, counterproductive direction for Kiss to take, but he shrugged and went along with it. He thought it was wrong to kick his buddy Peter Criss out of the band, but he shrugged and went along with it. There reached a point, however, where Frehley couldn’t swallow any more compromises or insults to his voluminous ego, and he and the band split ways. One did a little better than the other, commercially and otherwise. I’ll let you figure out which.
Like Criss’, Frehley directs much of his bitterness toward Simmons and Stanley, accusing them of providing insufficient positive encouragement in the early years, and nothing but icy coldness in the intervening time. Though for Frehley, the crowning insult was when Simmons requested that Frehley’s daughter appear in a cameo role for the 1999 film Detroit Rock City, then had her scene maliciously cut with the sole purpose of wounding Frehley.
Frehley seems to think that had Simmons and Stanley simply patted him on the back once in a while and said, “Righteous solo, Spaceman! You’re a true star in every sense!” he never would have felt the need to destroy himself with booze and cocaine. By all accounts, Gene Simmons is a terrible human being, but is it ever possible to give enough positive encouragement and approval to an insecure young musician?
Simmons and Stanley are never going to give Frehley the respect he desperately desires, so I have taken it upon myself to realize the author’s most frenzied and intense fantasies by composing the very first Rock ’N’ Roll Appreciation Porn. For rock stars like Frehley, sex is everywhere: It’s respect from professional colleagues that’s hard to come by, and consequently the source of intense desire and longing. So I imagine that what actually gets Frehley’s rocks off these days is imagining a scenario like the following:
Frehley is awakened late at night by a familiar, regretful voice on the phone.
“Ace, is this you? This is Paul. Gene is with me. He came over because he hasn’t been able to sleep, he’s so overcome with guilt and shame over the way Kiss treated you during the 1970s, and then again with the comeback tour,” Paul says, voice quivering with genuine concern.
“Ace, this is Gene. I’ve spent the last few years in intense therapy trying to figure out why I behaved so abhorrently. Part of it is attributable to the ugliness of my own soul. As you undoubtedly know, there is something broken and empty inside me that leads me to value money and power above all else, especially loyalty, friendship, and commitment. But I’m also extremely intimidated by your showmanship and charisma, even if my enormous ego would never allow me to concede as much, even to myself.”
“I’m intimidated by your showmanship and charisma too, Ace,” Paul said, taking the phone back. “That’s why we deliberately attempted to hold you back and sabotage you throughout the years; we worried that if we allowed you to reach your full potential, we would lose power within the band. We were scared of you, Ace. And jealous. And resentful.”
“Ace, this is Gene again. We should have listened to you. When producers pushed for session musicians, we should have held our ground and said, ‘No, Ace is our friend and we believe deeply in his instinctive, edgy, balls-out approach to guitar, however erratic or even amateurish it might seem to an outsider. Besides, if we undercut his confidence now, who knows what kind of lingering resentments might ensue throughout the decades?’ You were right about that, Ace, and you were right about everything else, too: the movie, “I Was Made For Loving You,” the goddamned concept album, all the marketing hoopla.”
“Ace, this is Paul begging you to rejoin Kiss as a full partner. I want you to steer the direction of our new album as its producer and help us become the somewhat respectable, albeit theatrical hard-rock outfit we always had the potential to become if we hadn’t wasted our time doing things to become world-famous multi-millionaires.”
A phone call like that might have saved the original incarnation of Kiss, but Simmons and Stanley were too proud to make it. Frehley finally got a chance to make his kind of music with 1987’s Frehley’s Comet, the debut album from the guitarist’s post-Kiss group of the same name.
Frehley was so proud of the autobiographical lyrics he penned for “Rock Soldiers,” a song about one of the many near-fatal accidents he endured over the course of his career, that he had them faithfully reproduced for No Regrets. They are:
“It was back in the summer of ’83
There’s a reason I remember it well
I was slippin’ and slidin’, drinkin’ and drivin’
And bringing me closer to hell
And the devil sat in the passenger’s side
Of DeLorean’s automobile
He said: Hey Frehley, Frehley let’s not be silly
There’s a life out there to steal
Rock Soldiers come
Rock Soldiers go
And some hear the drum
And some never know
Rock Soldiers! How do we know?
ACE is back and he told you so
With a trooper in the mirror
And Satan on my right
We went wrong way down a one-way road
Hittin’ everything in sight
I cried “I am invincible”
Said I was high above the law
But my only high was just a lie
And now I’m glad I saw
Calling Rock Soldiers
You! Rock Soldiers
Calling Rock Soldiers
Hard Rock Soldiers
Hup! Two three four
Rock! Two three four
Hup! Two three four
Rock! Two three four
Friends say they’ll stay with you
Right through the danger zone
But the closer you get to that fiery hole
You’ll have to make it alone
When I think about how my life was spared
From that near-fatal wreck
If the devil wants to play this card game now
He’s gonna play without an ACE in his deck!”
Bear in mind that I am not the one singling out these lyrics. Frehley himself was so fucking proud of these unintentionally hilarious words that he had the lyrics for the single included in their entirety in the text of No Regrets.
Earnest schlock like “Rock Soldiers” is a big part of the reason I tend to view seemingly hopeless solo projects from veteran acts with the benign condescension an adult might show small children proudly showing off toys they’re especially proud of. I want to go back in time and squeeze Frehley’s fat little cheek and pat his head while I lovingly assure him:
“Who’s got a solo album? Yes, you do! Yes, you do! Better practice all your big guitar solos for the big solo album, huh, Slugger?! Can’t disappoint all the fans at all the big solo concerts, now can you? No, you can’t, you special little guitar-god, you! Everybody’s gotta hear what you’re coming up with for the big solo show!”
No Regrets would have been far more fun if the entire book was as unintentionally hilarious, surreally unself-conscious, and full of dumbass rock-star bravado as the lyrics to “Rock Soldiers.” No Regrets has more than its share of sex, drugs, and unconscionable bad behavior, but unlike Criss’ gloriously trashy tell-all, the irresistible elements fail to coalesce into a satisfying, entertaining whole. Frehley was kicked out of Kiss for being too crazy. Hell, he nearly died time and time again for being too crazy. Yet near the end of a wildly eventful life, he has somehow written an account of his strange journey that’s nowhere near crazy enough.