The place was packed. If everyone stayed, or even more people came, this would be our biggest-ever show.
We were in a restaurant on East Lake Drive. It had opened that summer, owned by a laid-back, middle-aged surfer dude.
Surfboards were everywhere: on the walls, suspended from the ceiling, lining the entrance, by the bathrooms—they were all over the place. The bar was big on other tropical-themed stuff too—the owner almost always had a Mai Tai in his hand, and the place made a big deal of daiquiris, Blue Hawaiians and of course shots. I think if you ordered a Budweiser they’d have put pineapple juice in it.
But that was okay, because the place was jammed. Billy Joel, who was still out on the town every so often, was there with Christie Brinkley and about twenty other people, holding court at the head of a massive table that must have been three or four pushed together. Everyone was getting loaded and the conversation was very loud, often punctuated by uproarious laughter.
We were still carrying our equipment inside and setting it on the floor in a corner when a couple of locals, friends we’d known since we were kids, hurried toward us. Alan, a guy I’d known since kindergarten but hadn’t spoken to in years, threw his arm around me. “Ace Frehley is here, with Anton Fig from the David Letterman band.”
“Holy fucking shit!” I exclaimed. “Do you think they’ll want to play with us?”
“Anton is passed out, so maybe not,” Alan laughed. “Ace is fucking hammered, though. Go get ’em, rock star. Remember us little people when you’re playing the Garden.”
First Mick Jones from Foreigner, now Billy Joel, Ace Frehley and Anton Fig all in the same night. This has to be our time, I thought. It would surely be in the local papers and magazines, and if we were smart we could use this to great advantage. Never mind that Ace Frehley was a washed-up mess; I wasn’t sure if he was in KISS at that point, but it seemed like he had hit rock bottom a long time ago.
This kind of thing wasn’t happening to our peers—not the bands we were sharing stages with in the city, and none of the lousy bar bands out here, either, where celebrities were hanging out all summer. This was a damned good sign.
“Hey, you.” I turned around to face a tall, skinny guy with sunken cheeks and dark, slicked-back hair. He wore a wifebeater and Ray-Ban Wayfarers—it was eleven p.m. “Ace Frehley is here and he wants to sit in. Ace is gonna sit in.”
“How do you do,” I said. “I’ll have to talk with the others. I’ll let you know.”
“Ace wants to play with you guys. I’m gonna bring him up here.”
“I will speak with the others and get back to you.”
This was our goddamn show, for one thing, and for another, I hated KISS. I thought they were one of the worst bands in history, a novelty act with some of the stupidest songs and shittiest vocals ever committed to tape. I wondered if we were going to have to play “Detroit Rock City.”
Ace’s flunky walked off and Hank, Tommy and I got together to try to come up with a plan before he came back. With Ace.
Billy Joel and his entourage had probably left—the place was not only jam-packed, but now much louder and raucous. The entire crowd, at least six hundred people, was forming an ever-tighter half-circle around us, there in the corner with our guitars, amps, drums and PA speakers.
We leaned in toward one another and tried to talk over the cacophony. We had to decide, quickly, what we would play with Ace—and how we would get him out of there after one song. Before we could say much, though, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
Ace Frehley was one of the ugliest human beings I had ever laid eyes on. Still somewhat disfigured, I’d read a long time before, from getting hit with a bottle, his hair was long and stringy, his eyes like paper cuts on a bloated, sagging face. He had a beer gut, and his breath was disgusting.
His flunky did the talking. “This is Ace Frehley. He’s gonna sit in. Give him your guitar.” But he didn’t wait for me: the flunky pulled my butterscotch Telecaster—the only electric guitar I owned—out of its stand and clumsily handed it to Ace, who raised the strap over his head and onto his shoulder before moving toward my amplifier. I would just be singing, for the time being.
We looked at one another. This was one of the most exciting moments we’d experienced, but a moodiness, even gloom, was growing. A few minutes earlier we were kings of the jungle; now we were being pushed around by two lowlifes. I wanted them out of the way.
But it was too late. Ace was at my amplifier, turning every knob all the way up. He hit a few chords. It sounded like shit.
We looked at one another again. “Okay,” I said. “‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash.’” I turned to the crowd, inches away and pressed so tightly that I thought it might collectively fall forward, crushing us. “Oh yeah!” I screamed into the mic. “We’ve got a special guest tonight! Let’s go!”
Ace hit the opening chords, sort of, and the band joined in. Without a guitar, I felt sort of naked—I’d never performed without one, except for the night with Mick Jones at Stephen Talkhouse, and that was very late and I’d had a lot to drink—but decided to play it up, trying to pout and move like Mick Jagger. The crowd screamed and pressed forward.
Ace was absolutely terrible. He was wasted, playing the wrong chords, unsteady on his feet. The settings on my amp weren’t helping: it was full-on distortion, like a jackhammer punching through steel.
We made it through the second chorus, and I remembered something from KISS Alive!, which a friend had played incessantly when we were in seventh grade. “Ace Frehley, lead guitar!” I screamed, trying to sound like the record. The place went completely mad.
I looked straight ahead, dancing as Ace launched into the same licks he’d played a thousand times on that KISS Alive! album. There, inches in front of me, was that friend from seventh grade. His hair was very long and greasy; his hands, raised high over his head, formed that devil-horns sign as he howled like a damn werewolf. It seemed like everyone was doing the same devil-horns thing, and screaming just as loud.
We were laughing at it all, yet I could see that the others were trying desperately to hold the song together. Ace was oblivious, playing some of the worst, and loudest, lead guitar I’d ever heard.
After noodling away for another five minutes, we got his attention and brought the song to a ragged conclusion. The crowd roared, and I stood for a long moment basking in the attention. Ace was worse than awful, but the crowd was clearly thrilled by the spectacle.
I really wanted him to go away, though, and he wasn’t budging. We looked at each other as Ace began making horrible noises with my guitar again. “All right,” I yelled. “‘Sympathy For the Devil.’” We would have to play something very easy, something he couldn’t fuck up too badly. Another one I could be Jagger for—at least I was enjoying that part, a lot more than the fact that Ace Frehley had barged into our band, our show.
The crowd surged even closer, bottles and even—Jesus Christ—cigarette lighters held aloft, and Ace was off into a solo while I was still singing the first verse. Throughout all this, I had been standing on the left. Tommy was on the right, and Ace stood between us, directly in front of the drums. As we reached the second chorus of “Sympathy,” I was trying to amp it up, to bring the energy even higher as we’d launch into yet another long Ace Frehley solo.
“Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name!” Ace was inches to my right, slashing away at my guitar. “But what’s puzzling you is the / Nature of my game! Whoaaa yeah! Ace!”
I looked right. Ace was not there. Instead I saw Tommy, a few feet beyond, head tilted downward.
Ace, my Telecaster still in his hands, was on the floor, his head literally inside the bass drum. He’d fallen on his ass.
Furious, I snatched my guitar, strapped it on, set my amp to a more pleasing tone and began to play. Without a word, I picked up where he had left off, and pretended the lead guitarist of KISS wasn’t lying at my feet.
Ace struggled to his feet and wandered into the crowd. We didn’t see him again.