KISS Army Founder Bill Starkey On The Truth About His Story, True KISS Fans, His Experiences 38 Years Ago and Much More
Bill Starkey founded the KISS Army 38 years ago today. Bill is now a school teacher for inner city kids in Indianapolis and his life is a success with or without his KISS experience, but it was absolutely an experience. Can you imagine going onstage with the band? Or being able to make a phone call and pretty much get any piece (or twenty) of KISS Army merch you wanted? Pretty cool stuff but before KISS, Bill was truly a normal Indiana kid in the 1970s. His dad worked at the Columbia House Music Club (a pretty cool story in of itself) and brought home some KISS records, proceeding to set forth this chain of events that led to Bill becoming the most famous KISS fan ever. 38 years after he and his friends started the KISS Army, people still recognize Bill and remember the story (in various formats, more on that…) and I wanted to talk with him about it all, read on…
Legendary Rock Interviews: Hi Bill, thanks for talking to us. I, like everyone else, know you as the original KISS Army guy and you’re well versed on that classic era but I wanted to start by asking you about the band’s most recent work. What did you think of Monster, for instance?
Bill: I really like it, I do and I don’t have a dog in the fight so to speak, KISS isn’t going to leave me backstage passes or tickets but I liked the album. I also bought the remastered Destroyer and thought that was just amazing, I heard things on there that I’ve never heard before so if you haven’t picked that up I suggest you do. I’m not one of those people who goes out and buys everything the band puts their name on, god bless those people who can do that and afford it and their house is swamped with that stuff. I’m pretty discrete about my KISS collection, it’s modest and a lot of it is music but I do enjoy those Monster and Destroyer CD’s.
LRI: I had to have the vinyl.
Bill: Really….well, you know vinyl really does sound better. You know it’s funny, KISS and other bands have talked about how they’re against fans stealing music and mp3s and all of that. I had a lot of MP3 stuff but I found that most of it sounded horrible, just horrible. There’s something about that process of compression and making the mp3 that it is almost like a bootleg to me, I was never into bootlegs either. I applaud you picking up the vinyl, I don’t have a turntable or a cartridge but I would imagine it probably sounds pretty shocking how good the new stuff sounds on vinyl. It took me a while but what I have found is that “Monster” sounds best played REALLY loud, which is funny to hear from a man in his fifties (laughs). I wish they would tour and play the whole album start to finish.
LRI: At this point one of the things KISS fans complain about is the setlist so you make a really valid point. I know Gene and Paul feel they have this down to a working science and the box office reflects that so is it just a “KISS nerd” thing for us to bitch about the set?
Bill: I don’t know that it’s a nerd thing. I think KISS’s decisions these days are based mostly on the bottom line and things like that. They do what they can get by with doing while still keeping their fanbase content which….hey, they seem mostly content. I always laugh about KISS fans who complain about stuff whether it’s 4 thousand dollar books or 3 thousand dollar Kruises or Meet N Greets or what have you. You know guys….you don’t HAVE to buy those things (laughs).
LRI: It’s the hard truth that while I have been lucky as a writer to have interviewed some of the guys over the years, as a fan I just can’t afford tickets to many shows unless I get a review comp, I can’t afford to buy all the merch or do the Kruise, etc. That doesn’t make me NOT a fan…..
Bill: You know you’re right, it’s unfortunate, maybe sometimes people think the “true” KISS fans are the ones who can do that but as for myself, I disagree. You know why? I know some pretty big, pretty amazing KISS fans who have never even been on a KISS KRUISE yet. There’s just reasons, it’s not always a logical expense in life but that doesn’t mean they don’t love the band to death or in my case, work kind of takes priority over something like that with my schedule. I have talked to others who couldn’t make the cruise for whatever reason who said if they did a big weekend convention or something similar on land they would absolutely make it but sometimes with travel and all that goes with a cruise it can be difficult. Also, if I went down there and didn’t get to meet the band or anything like that after going to all the trouble, it would be a big disappointment for me because I too am used to being spoiled so..(laughs)
LRI: You wrote the intro for Dale Sherman’s great KISS book, KISS FAQ and have also been interviewed tons of times, including now. Does that ever get to be a drag or get old doing this?
Bill: No. It’s an honor to be able to talk about the band or to do Dale’s book or do anything relating to KISS. It’s a privilege to do that and to be a part of that history. I was also interviewed for Ken Sharp’s KISS book “Nothin To Lose”.
LRI: I have an interview coming up with Ken. One of the cool things in Dale’s FAQ book is that he talks about all the stuff that isn’t mentioned in other KISS books, including variations and alterations to the KISS story over the years, which is something not unique to KISS of course bands and publicists tweak their story all the time. There’s the “flash and balls” ad to find Ace and other things but the biggest one that stands out to me is actually your story. For YEARS I bought the whole story Gene told about “the fans surrounding the radio station” like a mob in KISSTORY and all that. It was such a cool story I can see why Gene would like it but the truth is a little different isn’t it?
Bill: You can’t imagine how uncomfortable I was revealing that. I mean, right now, as I’m sitting here I am probably still uncomfortable because I feel like Gene doesn’t like me revealing the truth about that story, at least I don’t think he does. He and I, we’ve never, face to face talked about the truth about that. I know that when the KISS Convention was here in Indianapolis Gene had wanted a copy of the photo of the kids surrounding the radio station and I didn’t know what to say. I was thinking “Um Gene, the kids didn’t surround the radio station” (laughs). Paul brought me up onstage at the convention and kind of set it up for me to tell the story but I sort of danced around it and told my version of how we came to the station’s attention and the band’s attention. I don’t know what to think about it or if it is that big of a deal today but I still have friends in Terre Haute that I have to be true to in terms of telling the truth. As a matter of fact, a few years ago when I did the 35th Anniversary thing TV/Radio thing there in Terre Haute I actually had one of the guys who was in the KISS Army whose daughter was now in her 30s calling the radio station complaining saying that I lied about the KISS Army and that her dad was in the original army and she could verify her story. The producers asked me what I thought about it and I just laughed and said that I would put my story up against that any day of the week. I’m not saying that for any reason other than the fact that I know that when I wrote those letters to the radio station I signed my name to them (laughs) and that when KISS called the radio station to ask who they should contact about the “KISS ARMY” the radio station told the band, “You need to contact Bill Starkey, 446-4479” and that’s exactly what they did. I never said I was the only one who called the station or wrote letters, I have NEVER said that and I wish sometimes that some of these producers would actually call other members of the original army, guys like Jay Evans, so they could get their take on it, I think it makes for a better story and not only that it JUSTIFIES the story. I didn’t ask to be the center of attention but that’s kind of what happened because the station mentioned my name to the band. I’m not the only part of the KISS Army story but I am obviously a part of it. I mean, let’s face it, they didn’t have to use the KISS Army, they didn’t have to contact me. They came to Terre Haute to play which was amazing and then it just became a madhouse.
LRI: Well, whether it’s the story as Gene imagined it or the real story of the fans forming a grass roots campaign to break their favorite band, it’s still a good story with a human element that would make for a nice book or movie, maybe better than “Detroit Rock City”….
Bill: I don’t know about a book, but I think the KISS ARMY story would make a great movie, I don’t think it will ever happen until I’m dead and gone but I do think it would be a great movie and there’s no reason to embellish on the truth. I could be wrong but I don’t think the band has mentioned the “fans surrounding the radio station” thing much in the past ten years or so. In the KISSTORY II book, in the KISS FANZINE book, I have told my version of the story so I think by this point it’s pretty common knowledge.
LRI: When you first had that moment onstage with the band, you were standing in front of a hometown crowd, including some kids that had given you shit about the band and so on. It had to be the ultimate moment and obviously memorable but what other moments were there that weren’t as well publicized? Back then were you also given backstage access to Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter?
Bill: Oh yeah, quite a few times. I had access, all during the 1976 Destroyer Tour pretty much, all I had to do was get to the shows. Then what was even cooler was I would get to the hotels where they were staying and get to hang out with some of them. It was usually Gene who was the one who “put up” with me. I don’t think Paul was really into it but Gene was very much more like a fan.
LRI: That’s always been one of the more endearing things about Gene is that you do sometimes see that fan side of him. It’s like he and Eric and Tommy are basically huge fans of the band….
Bill: They are. I used to take my scrapbooks up to Gene’s room and we would go through them sitting on the back of his bed. The only bad thing was he would always ask for them and I would always tell him no.
LRI: (laughs) That’s cute but how could he be doing that while he was having sex with 20,000 women every night?
Bill: Well, by god, and I am proud to say this, there were some nights where he didn’t. I can say that because there were some nights when I was in there and they were beating on the door and he didn’t open it. You know what was bizarre about Gene, and this was really odd, even in the 70s, but he always registered under his real name at the hotel, everybody else didn’t but you could call the hotel and ask for Gene Simmons (laughs). Many times, I just would. You could call up the Holiday Inn and ask for Gene Simmons and do you know how he would answer the phone? He would growl “GRRRR” and i would just start laughing because I knew that he was expecting the women, I was sure. I mean, these guys screwed their brains out, they both did and it’s amazing they got anything else done. I mean they screwed their brains out and I saw these girls. I read some of the rumors and nonsense about Paul being gay and immediately laughed because I remembered these guys in the 70s and they were just surrounded by women. Paul was a little more selective but they were everywhere for all of those guys and you didn’t have the STDs to worry about, it was a simpler time. I remember the time Gene showed me his polaroids. I was sitting on the bed and Gene always took great delight in and always wanted to embarrass me just because I was such a naive, midwestern kid.
LRI: Oh man. How old were you again??
Bill: I was 19 and Gene was like 22 or 23. One time one of the radio stations was kind of mad about the other radio station getting attention for KISS and started telling a story about how KISS wasn’t playing Terre Haute because they felt they were “too big” for Terre Haute. So I had started getting a big head from all of this and felt it was my duty so I told Gene, “Gene, do you know what they’re saying about you, they’re telling all these lies”. So we arranged to do an interview to clear the air and I will never forget, it was me, Gene, the disc jockey and the disc jockey’s wife and Gene was eating club sandwiches and drinking Fresca. We were watching “The Midnight Special” and watching Gene do the stupidest interview, he was being really funny and it was just amazing. The Gene back then was so funny and so playful, in so many ways it’s totally night and day from how he is now. Gene now is so much like a pro wrestling guy cutting a promo bit but back in the 70s he was hilarious and witty; kind of like Robin Williams in a way. He would fly from one tangent to the other and was always cutting jokes and being a smartass rather than just boasting about being the biggest, baddest whatever. So in the middle of this interview, Gene goes “Bill, go over there and look in that suitcase”, so I go over and look in the suitcase and there are these polaroid camera pictures of all of these women. His whole damn suitcase was FILLED with these pictures. Now, there were twins, mothers and daughters, girls tied to bedposts and they were all in rather unflattering poses on his bed but you know, back then, that’s what they did and he had their names and address on the back of them all. I was just red-faced and floored, I didn’t know what to say. Those were his pictures….and he did it to embarrass me, which was fine but that was the truth. There were so many women and I don’t know why they were there but they were. They could have gone through 5 or 10 a night if they wanted to or had the stamina. I also got to hang out with them without their makeup on which was cool but the bad thing was you couldn’t take pictures of them or with them. If you were hanging with the band at a party or a function that was strictly forbidden.
LRI: Flash forward. You get a job, go to college, lose touch with KISS and get into other music during the 80s. Then in the 90s the reunion happens on Unplugged. Were you super excited and did you attend the Alive Worldwide tour?
Bill: Of course. I was a little disappointed in Ace and Peter though.
LRI: So you weren’t really surprised when the band went with Tommy and Eric?
Bill: No, when I first saw it I was all for it and I’m still all for it to be honest with you. Tommy and Eric do a better job with it and, to be fair, I guess I maybe feel that way because I was always pretty friendly with Tommy and I never knew Ace. Honest to god, I have never met Ace Frehley. To this day, I have still never met him. When I was with the band he was always, always intoxicated and he just kinda went off and did his own thing. When I was with Peter and Lydia (Criss, Peter’s ex wife) was there, he was great, the sweetest guy in the world but when Lydia wasn’t there he was not the nicest person. To me, I have no sympathy for the guys because they had a chance, multiple chances with the band and they could still be with the band had they been able to stay in shape and stay straight. So you kinda tend to lean towards people you’re friendly with. I’m not saying by any means that Tommy and I are best friends but of all the guys in the band, he’s the most likely to contact me so I can appreciate Tommy. The one thing I can say about Tommy is; whether he was the road manager or in the band, he never made promises for things he couldn’t do and he never made promises he couldn’t keep. He is a reliable guy, which I’ve always appreciated. If I asked for tickets to a show it was either yes or no and that’s it, he’s a real cut and dry guy. I get upset with people who get mad at Tommy and Eric like it’s somehow their choice to play those roles and not Gene and Paul’s. I think back to before I met the band, back then I couldn’t identify with Gene or Paul, my favorite member was Ace. I was a guitar player and I thought he was really flashy and liked his persona until I actually got close to the band and saw him for what he was.
LRI: Of all the tours you saw, which was your favorite? Bill: Probably the KISS Alive tour in 1975. That was unreal. To me, they were the tightest then and you have to remember they played that same setlist, they played almost every single night. So even though some people would say they were only marginal musicians, if you play every single night, every single set like that you are gonna sound pretty damn amazing. Plus, I think just the audience reaction at that point really fed them. When I saw KISS back then there was something magical, something macabre or dark about them, fights would break out and they would have to stop the show, they were a more dangerous band at that point. I remember one rock writer they had with them who incidentally hated the band telling me that the audience was just insane. The band could have told them to go out and burn the city down and they would have done it happily, that was the kind of mesmerizing power the band held in those days.
LRI: Before I let you go….What’s the coolest party or hang instance you haven’t told me yet and did you see Gene or Paul drink at either of them (laughs)??
Bill: No, never. Probably one of the coolest invites was the New Year’s Eve concert/pool party which had a bummer twist for me. I have the invitation on my facebook page. Paul was the only one who ended up swimming and Gene was sitting at this table with like six of us and, this was the first time I was crushed by the band but Gene asked who I was. I was dumbfounded that he didn’t remember me, not thinking about or realizing that KISS probably meets fifty new people every single day. I was at parties all the time with them all the time back in those days though and I never saw those guys on substances but I could tell you stories about the road crew. That was the first time I had ever seen cocaine and on top of that those guys back then were armed, so it was like, wow! Can you imagine. It was a circus and that road crew were personalities just like the guys in the band were personalities. It was a once in a lifetime situation.