Kiss and Tell



Steve Smith
Photo by Andrew Kochera

Peter Criss taught me to love Haydn.

That remark deserves explanation, of course. To begin with, Peter Criss—neé Peter Crisscoula—was the original drummer for the loud, lewd, and garishly painted rock band Kiss. And it was my adolescent discovery of that band that started my long, ongoing relationship with music. Not rock music, not classical music—music, period.

I did not grow up in a musical household. Neither of my parents were particularly musically inclined, although my mother did enroll me in piano lessons, presumably because that was still expected in middle class households during the ’70s. I dutifully slogged through beginner’s arrangements of timeless ditties: Chicago‘s “Color My World,” Mancini‘s “Baby Elephant Walk,” Beethoven‘s “Ode to Joy.” If I felt any sense of elevation in the latter, it was more likely honed by exposure to Schroeder in Peanuts than due to any intrinsic appreciation of Beethoven’s inherent superiority. (Truth be told, I vaguely remember the Mancini piece actually being a better arrangement.)

I quit lessons after a year. Coincidentally, or so I tell myself, my piano teacher retired at the same time. My mother was briefly inconsolable: How else was I going to emulate my idol, Donnie Osmond? Little did she realize that I had long ago given up any fealty to that childhood passion—I had moved on to comic books and fantasy adventures, next to which my formerly cherished Barry Manilow LPs were beginning to seem like decidedly thin instant oatmeal. It was entirely possible at that moment that I might never have paid serious attention to music ever again. A career in paleontology beckoned.

And then I discovered Kiss. The band fired my imagination in such a way that mere weeks after requesting and receiving its second live set—imaginatively titled Alive II—for Christmas in 1977, I had enterprisingly assembled a complete collection of the band’s vinyl oeuvre.

Today, I can look back on Kiss’s music as simplistic and crude, not especially distinguished in any musicological sense. But to an isolated, sheltered, fledgling teenager, the band offered fire and fantasy, brimstone and escape. (Papering all four walls and the ceiling of my bedroom with posters and pin-ups of their faces also proved a surefire deterrent to maternal intrusion—but that’s another issue altogether.) Naturally, as with any intoxicant, my dabbling with Kiss led to escalation; inside of a year, I was mainlining the hard stuff—increasingly sophisticated music by Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy, Rush.

But a funny thing happened on my road to juvenile delinquency: In my overly literal-minded way, I took Kiss seriously as musicians. If the feline-painted Criss was my idol, I would transform myself in his likeness not by painting my face, but by replicating his path to becoming a Great Artist.

(Surely, discernment could not have been expected from an 11-year-old.)

To become Peter Criss, therefore, I would have to study music. Much to my mother’s chagrin—she would have preferred the oboe, even the French horn—I entered the school band program as a percussionist and began private lessons in sixth grade. In my heart, I knew that I wanted to be a rock drummer; still, I rationalized that formal training was the way to achieve that goal.

In the process, I was introduced to the great literature for wind band. And by this point, I could surely discern the difference in quality between medleys of the Carpenters’ greatest hits and the finale of Shostakovich‘s Fifth Symphony. So-called “bridge” composers like Alfred Reed and Jared Spears led the way to the great classics of the genre: works by Schuman, Giannini and above all Persichetti.

I began to acquire inexpensive cassettes of the classical pieces I’d played in arrangements, then moved on to other similar pieces. The approach was haphazard, to be sure; sans guidance, I happily listened to Stokowski’s Pictures at an Exhibition for years before discovering Ravel’s version. Because I was a percussionist, my tastes naturally gravitated towards the more aggressive, bombastic end of the spectrum: I wore out tapes of The Firebird and Billy the Kid, and admired Beethoven from a comfortable distance. I had no patience whatsoever for the simplistic, repetitious patterns of Mozart, Haydn and their ilk. (That would come later, through repeat exposure, increased maturity and refinement of taste—requirements, incidentally, that can’t be taught.)

 

Nor did Peter Criss’s lessons end there. At some point during his rough-and-tumble youth, as he once recalled in an interview, Criss had studied with the great swing drummer, Gene Krupa. I promptly enlisted my mother’s aid in a no-holds-barred search for Krupa recordings, so that I might absorb secondhand what Criss had acquired at his mentor’s side. Finding those recordings proved nearly impossible in the Texas suburbs, but a kindly record-store owner gave me an LP by another swing-era drummer, Louis Bellson. Newly discovered doors continued to swing open.

The power of influence cannot be underestimated. Lacking a formal instructor, I turned to my pop-music idols for guidance. Progressive rock drummer Bill Bruford recommended John Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme. Alternative-rock upstart Sting turned sophisticated fans toward Miles Davis‘s In a Silent Way. Frank Zappa championed Edgard Varèse, while King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp made reference to Béla Bartók. Emerson, Lake and Palmer went further still, performing arrangements of Pictures at an Exhibition and pieces by Janácek, Copland and Ginastera. (If those arrangements seem quaint or even vaguely embarassing today, that was certainly not the case at that time.)

Growing up immersed in a musical world of my own shaping, inspired only by peers and icons, I only gradually learned of cultural distinctions between different genres. This was particularly easy absent any significant exposure to live performances and their behavioral and societal connotations (aside from the rock concerts I increasingly attended). In a very real way, music was just music, out there to be discovered and absorbed in whatever way I saw fit.

Only in college, surrounded by professors and serious music students, did I finally begin to understand the depth of the schism between so-called classical music and, well, everything else. Earlier on, encountering peers who had no appreciation for classical music seemed reasonable, somehow. I had begun to appreciate the depth of my own mania; perhaps others simply weren’t as deeply involved in music as I was, and hadn’t chosen to avail themselves of a music as readily accessible to me as any other. But discovering that there were people my age who hadn’t the slightest understanding of or sympathy for more popular forms of music—that seemed well nigh unfathomable.

 

Today, college-educated and with more than a decade of work experience in various music-related endeavors under my belt, I fully appreciate the cultural baggage with which classical music has been weighted down during the past century-and-a-bit. A deep perceptual divide exists between “high” and “low” culture, in part because it is in the vested interest of an increasingly marginalized art form to promulgate its innate superiority as a plea for survival, if not relevance. Furthermore, many passionate classical music aficionados seem to perpetuate a sense of exalted status for their chosen milieu as a sort of moral vindication of their rarefied tastes.

Additionally, the typical classical music performance has increasingly taken on the aspect of a church service, one in which hallowed deities from bygone days are held up for humbled genuflection—followed by a mad rush for the aisles as soon as the service is over. Judging from body language alone, a large portion of any given audience seems to view taking in a concert or opera as some sort of obligation appropriate to societal station, rather than an act of joyous communion with the innermost artistic urges of an impassioned artist and his or her interpreters.

Given my largely autodidactic background, it should come as little surprise that I have to fight an instinctive distrust of my critical colleagues who not only have no sympathy for popular music, but actually hold it in disregard. The elevation of classical music over other art forms tends to cultivate an aura of hostile insularity and snobbishness: If you aren’t capable of learning the secret handshake, in other words, forget about being invited into the clubhouse. Is it any wonder that ensembles and presenters have trouble drawing and retaining new audiences, and are willing to stoop to increasingly desperate and unseemly means to do so?

I thought about this issue of trust long and hard when I found myself taking on the role of classical music journalist and critic not so many years ago. I’m not entirely immune from the attraction of being an insider. I secretly envy reviewers who can effortlessly draw upon memories of a dozen past recordings of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony when confronted by a new version, and nod in appreciation when an opera reviewer slings jargon like slancio, even as I reach for my lexicon.

That degree of engagement and absorption is admirable within the context of talking about music of the past. When it comes to contemporary music, however, it can have a decidedly deleterious effect. Virtually without exception, composers throughout the ages have considered, absorbed, and made use of material taken from popular musical forms—from folk song and courtly dances to jazz rhythms and rock timbres. Anyone who seeks to evaluate the work those composers produce, it stands to reason, ought to be equipped with a working knowledge of the source material from which they drew—and to take that source material as seriously as the composer did.

 

I don’t mean for a moment, however, to suggest that all music is the same, nor that all musical expression is of equivalent value. Once, when I explained my background and initial inspiration to a culture reporter for a major metropolitan daily, the look on her face suggested that I had suddenly begun to emit an unpleasant odor. Surely you don’t mean to suggest that classical music and Kiss are on the same level of artistry, she asked, ashen.

Well, no. Different forms of music serve different intents, perform different functions and engage different responses—many of which are completely individual and subjective, and shouldn’t be applied as universal verities. Some people grow up with Schubert and respond to that music as surely and instinctively as I do “Detroit Rock City,” after all.

And in one sense, my boundaries are as strict as were my interrogator’s: I surely do not view all music as equal. That way lies madness: the argument that Frank Zappa created significant classical works, the notion that Paul McCartney has a viable oratorio in him, the apotheosis of Elvis Costello as our greatest living composer. Clearly, some canonizations are promulgated for specious reasons, usually of a commercial nature.

On the other hand, I firmly reject the notion that all popular music is ephemeral, disposable entertainment. The Beatles and Brian Wilson may have been the first to suggest that a pop recording could achieve the level of a serious musical statement, but they were far from the last. Performers and bands as far flung as Public Enemy and Radiohead have issued recordings of comparable cumulative weight and impact. Bob Dylan and Tim Kasher‘s Cursive have recorded albums as integrated and emotionally devastating as any Schubert song cycle; Billy Bragg and American Music Club‘s Mark Eitzel have written individual songs of blinding brilliance.

Should these examples be held up as today’s symphonies and lieder? Certainly not—even though to be perfectly honest, they hold a far more direct and palpable emotional charge for me than does Die schöne Müllerin. One does not negate the other; both are deserving of the utmost respect. The happiest part of my current professional existence is that I have the liberty to discuss—and demonstrate my genuine passion—for both sides of the spectrum. In so doing, my preconceptions are constantly shaken, my faith and passion continually renewed.