Excerpt of Eric Nuzum’s Memoir – Giving Up The Ghost – Part 3: KISS Junior

Eric Nuzum is a PoPville contributor and Petworth resident. You can catch Eric on Wednesday, August 15th for the launch party, reading, and Q&A at Wonderland Ballroom, 1101 Kenyon St NW. You can read the first excerpt here and the second excerpt here.

Eric writes:

So my new book, Giving Up The Ghost, is about being an outcast dorkified teen who just happened to be haunted by a ghost. Then the ghost went away, then my best friend became a ghost herself. When viewing the excerpt below, it wouldn’t surprise me if you asked: “What the hell does KISS have to do with ghosts?”

To be honest, not much. But it is my book, and my story, so I can include any story I want to. Actually it does have something to do with ghosts, but you’ll find out at the end.

This excerpt also reveals the biggest controversy surrounding my book: the proper grammar of band name “KISS.”

I, like almost every other person in the world, spells KISS in capital letters. Just like the band itself does. This, however, didn’t sit well with Random House’s copy editors, who insisted on “Kiss.”


KISS Junior

Kiss was the soundtrack to my life. Even though they sold millions of records, I kinda felt like they belonged to me exclusively. It may have been that not many other kids at my school had discovered Kiss, or perhaps it was because they seemed so excitingly foreign to the rest of the world I’d experienced so far, but it almost felt as if they had existed in obscurity until I became a fan—an obsessed fan. By that time, I already listened to a lot of pop music, but Kiss was different. Kiss was weird. I was weird. In my mind, we were a perfect match.

While I longed to play electric guitar or bass, my parents had decided that piano lessons were a better option. After practicing “Für Elise” for the nine thousandth time, I would peck out the melody lines of Kiss songs. Eventually, I came to see my keyboard skills as a potential asset. If, someday, Kiss decided to add a piano player, I would be ready to step in. I even had a character/persona picked out. I could be “the Viper” and stand behind my piano with a costume and makeup to morph me into something vaguely snakelike, in a Kiss kind of way. I had notebook pages filled with potential costume and makeup designs, complete with plans for how we could outfit our family’s baby grand piano with rhinestones, reptile-like leather demon heads, and claws (even though vipers don’t have claws). I also had a character/instrument-related gimmick ready to go. At the appropriate point in the song, I could press a button with my seven-inch leather heels and the top would explode off my piano in a mushroom cloud of smoke and fire, revealing a large mechanical snake. The viper would continue to rise up and up out of the piano, revealing itself, to the crowd’s amazement and cheers. Then, when it came time for my Big Piano Solo, I would drop a little “Für Elise” into the middle of “Hotter Than Hell” and blow people’s minds.

Kiss was something that adults hated, which was fantastic. But the real attraction to me was freedom. People expected Kiss to be outlandish, so they could pretty much get away with anything they wanted to do, say, and wear—as long as it was over-the-top. It would never be odd if Kiss wore black tights and codpieces—it would be odd if they didn’t. To a young boy just about to enter his teens, who was already beginning to feel like an outcast because of what he did, wore, and said, the idea that people would accept this kind of behavior, let alone encourage it, was an absolute magnet.

Along with a few other kids who drew Kiss-related art in notebooks and on our blue jeans, I decided to create the ultimate tribute to my heroes: a band.

After a significant amount of debate, we eventually decided on a name: Kiss Junior.

Continues after the jump.

The ensemble consisted of my friend Terry on guitar and vocals, his sister Tammy (who I had a terrible crush on) on tambourine, and me on electric organ. I had come into a small tabletop organ and—seeing that it was more portable than the family baby grand—took it to Terry and Tammy’s house for band practice. It had a half-sized keyboard and one four-inch speaker mounted on the side of the cabinet.

Terry had no idea how to play guitar; he didn’t even know how to tune it. He had received a cheap guitar-and-amp combo for Christmas. After noodling with it for about half an hour he’d figured out how to make it give feedback. That was where his guitar self-instruction ended. Further, Terry was completely tone-deaf, and even his feedback was arrhythmic. His playing and singing amounted to screaming lyrics and beating his guitar quickly during fast passages, then screaming lyrics and beating his guitar slowly during softer moments.

Our repertoire consisted entirely of Kiss songs. This complicated matters, because no Kiss songs contained arrangements for electric organ, tambourine, and untuned guitar. However, despite our handicaps, we fully intended to rock.

Whenever we’d get the chance, we’d gather in Terry and Tammy’s basement in front of an old bed sheet that Terry had decorated with a Kiss logo with a “Junior” slapped underneath it.

Terry would put one of the Kiss records on the turntable and drop the needle, and we’d flail away. We did this almost every afternoon for the entire summer. To us, Kiss Junior wasn’t just a salute to our favorite band—Kiss Junior was our preteen version of pure joy.

We had one fan, a slightly retarded boy who lived next door, Brian, who always smelled like pee and had an obsession with blowing up fruit and vegetables with firecrackers. Brian would come by whenever he heard us practicing and sit watching on the stairs with his mouth wide open.

We only performed for others once, at Tammy’s birthday party. Tammy had about eight girls from school over for cake, presents, screaming, and giggling. Banned from the house, Terry and I hung out in the backyard with a few friends, pretending not to care yet desperate to know what was going on inside.

At one point we were allowed in to get some leftover pizza and Terry saw an opportunity to impress the gaggle.

“You know, we have a rock band,” he offered. “And Tammy is in it.”

They stared at Terry, then at Tammy.

“You have to play for us,” one girl suggested.

Bait taken.

Tammy wanted nothing to do with it and tried to talk us and her friends out of it. But Terry was already corraling everyone into the basement and ordered me to set up our equipment. Before I knew what was happening, he dropped the needle during the crowd roar before the live version of “God of Thunder,” and we were off.

The hi-fi started belching out thumpy noise, Terry started screaming and banging his guitar, I hit tiny organ keys, and Tammy just stood there with her eyes fixed on the floor. Our assembled audience seemed somewhat frozen, occasionally wincing at the noise and wondering what they were supposed to make of this. After a minute or so, someone giggled, then a few others started laughing.

Tammy threw down her tambourine and ran upstairs crying. I stood there unsure if I was supposed to go comfort one bandmate or stay and perform with the other. My first thought was to run after Tammy. In my mind, just as I’d catch up with her, the next song would start, I’d belt out an impassioned rendition of “Beth,” and Tammy would fall into my arms.

But, as much as I ached to comfort Tammy, I knew Terry would either kick my ass for leaving or make fun of me for eternity because I had the hots for his sister. So I stayed. The show had to go on, I rationalized. Despite missing one-third of our band, Terry had no intention of stopping. After each song, he’d make his guitar feed back, throw his hands in the air, repeatedly yell, “Thank you” to the assembled children, and then get ready for the next song. No one applauded. No one did anything.

One by one, the kids quietly left the basement and went upstairs. By the end of the album side, it was down to just Terry and me, plus Brian.

Terry and I were not deterred; we were hell-bent on rocking, ferociously.

A few days later, Terry observed that while we had played Kiss music, we lacked any Kiss-related costumes or makeup. Since painting our faces would be a lot easier than finding seven-inch leather boots with skulls on them (especially in a size four), we decided to invest in some cheap Halloween makeup. We found our opportunity one evening while Terry’s family had gone out to a movie.

We were about halfway finished with Kiss-inspired makeup when we heard his family pull in the driveway. We panicked. Terry started to run water in the bathtub and told me to scrub my face. Of course, the cheap greasepaint wouldn’t come off and our efforts to clean it off just spread it further over our faces.

Eventually, we were discovered.

“What are you two doing in there?” Terry’s mother asked.

“We’re taking a bath,” Terry quickly offered.

“Together?” she asked.

“Yeah, we’re almost finished,” Terry said, hoping that it would placate his mother long enough for him to clean off the makeup.

As soon as we stepped out of the bathroom, Terry’s parents called us downstairs. We sat nonchalantly on the couch with a look of confused-yet-politely-inquisitive wonder on our faces, as if we worried what possibly could be wrong.

“What were you doing taking a bath together?” Terry’s mother asked.

“When no one else is home,” his father added.

In the middle of Terry’s rambling answer, Terry’s father looked at me and squinted.

“What’s that around your eyes?” he asked.

I paused for a moment, then answered: “Makeup.”

Terry placed his head in his hands and sighed.

I could see Terry’s father starting to boil.

“Are you guys gay?” he asked, containing his obvious anger and trying to maintain an air of sincere concern.

I was sent home and Terry was grounded for being so mouthy to his parents.

The incident drove a permanent wedge in Kiss Junior— the band broke up the next day.

[The following paragraphs were added shortly before publication.]

Afterward, Terry and I grew apart, as young kids do. Terry was two years older than me, which started to make a difference as we became teens. I lost track of him after high school, though I knew he was playing in a heavy-metal band and was pretty serious about it (and, obviously, he had finally learned to play his guitar). One evening I was lazily scrolling through Facebook when I saw a link an old classmate had shared. It was an article about a guitarist who had been killed by a punch from one of his own bandmates. The dead guitarist was Terry.

He had gone on to live a pretty extraordinary life. He played in a number of metal bands, cut two albums, and started a business focused on bringing rock bands to play for overseas troops. With his own band, he played USO shows in more than thirty countries. He even taught guitar to troops stationed in Korea for a few years.

Following a gig in his adopted hometown of Colorado Springs, two of his bandmates got into a fight over carrying equipment out of the club. Terry stepped in to break it up and took a punch to the back of the head. He spent twelve days in a coma, then died.

He left behind a young daughter.

Kiss Junior was not listed on his resume.