"I've had to turn my back, because, you know, the big man is not supposed to cry": All the stories from behind the scenes at Kiss's emotional final blow-out at Madison Square Garden

Kiss onstage at Madison Square Garden
(Image credit: Kevin Mazur via Getty Images)

It started not with a bang, but with a whimper. As bassist Gene Simmons remembers it, there were “more people on stage than in the audience” on January 30, 1973 when Kiss played their first New York show, at a club called Coventry on Queens Boulevard and 47th Street in Queens. But, having initially bonded over a shared vision to be “the band we never saw on stage… The Beatles on steroids”, the four young musicians were determined to seize their moment, and had prepped accordingly. 

At the group’s Manhattan rehearsal space on 10 East 23rd Street – “a rat-infested fire trap”, an unsentimental Simmons remembers it – vocalist/guitarist Paul Stanley and drummer Peter Criss had sewn eye-catching ‘glitter pants’ stage costumes for the four band members, and Simmons and Stanley later ducked into a local ‘adult emporium’ to purchase studded BDSM collars to complete their glam-rock streetgang look. 

As a final touch, lead guitarist Ace Frehley, who had only recently, and somewhat reluctantly, accepted that his desire to name the band Fuck could potentially prove problematic down the line, sketched out a new logo for the group, later refined by Stanley. And then, says Simmons, “we were ready”. 

“We were four dysfunctional characters who had nothing in common,” he admitted to this writer in 2014, “but when we first made that joyful noise together, we knew this is Kiss, this is it. That first gig was special. It was an amazing moment to actually hear our songs, and see our whole creation take its first breaths. The fact that there was nobody in the room is a moot point. We were on our way."


On the opening weekend of December 2023, almost 51 years on from their band’s debut gig, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are back home, to finish what they started, and call time on their extraordinary shared adventures. Since the announcement in March that the current four-piece – completed by guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer – would wrap their epic and eventful End Of The Road tour in New York with a brace of shows at Madison Square Garden, the most iconic, storied venue in Gotham, anticipation had been building steadily for this climactic weekend. 

While Kiss’s debut bow in the five boroughs back in 1973 was met with the only emotional response worse than hatred – complete apathy – it’s fair to say that, five decades on, their 47th and 48th shows in their home town (if Paul Stanley’s maths skills are to be trusted), have officially been recognised as Kinda A Big Deal. 

Simmons may be many things, but he is seldom a liar, and his promise, on the weekend before Kiss were scheduled to kiss our world goodbye, that it would be impossible to escape Kiss on their hometown victory lap in NYC, is borne out from the moment that this writer exits Penn Station clutching one of the 50,000 Kiss-themed metro cards issued to commemorate their final hometown performances.

Twenty-four hours earlier, in recognition of their unique contribution to the city’s cultural tapestry, Mayor Eric Adams officially designated November 30 as Kiss Day, and that same evening the also iconic Empire State Building was illuminated with the Kiss logo, group photos, and a bespoke music-to-light show synced to the band’s 1975 single Rock And Roll All Nite. Foot soldiers from the mighty Kiss Army converging on the city over the course of the NYC Takeover weekend would also be given the opportunity to visit a Kiss pop-up merch store, to ride in Kiss-branded yellow taxis, to acquire free Kiss ‘flash’ tattoos, and to feast on Kiss-themed pizzas.

“Fabulous, right?” Simmons says with a smile. “To see this little band that you started in ten blocks away from Madison Square Garden suddenly own the city like this for a weekend is quite remarkable. But while that’s all great for our egos, all the bullshit stops and means nothing when it’s time to get up on stage. We sweat real sweat. We work real hard. And when we get up on stage, every time, we have a take-no-prisoners attitude, because the show and the fans are, after all, what this is really all about.” 

Talking to Classic Rock on what was supposed to be a day free from any band business a week out from their homecoming weekend, the 74-year-old bassist is as forthright, amusing and engaging as ever. At one point he cheerfully slips into the bullish persona for which he’s best known – “On stage he’s The Demon, he shits fire and eats kids; off stage he’s arrogant and self-absorbed, a businessman who only cares about money and fucking chicks,” he once told me with a wink, in a knowing, mocking reference to the reputation that precedes him – by shooting down the suggestion that this will be his final Classic Rock cover story interview, interrupting to say: “We’ll be back on the cover, whether for a retrospective or whatever, because you’re still going to want to sell copies, aren’t you?” 

He then shares a rather sweet human story which, to him, illustrates perfectly the strength of the connection between Kiss and their fans. 

“I tend to exaggerate, often, as you know, but this is a true story,” he says by way of an introduction. “So, the context is that I have these handmade, high-end, very expensive instruments that I sell – like, say, a bass costing twenty-five thousand dollars – and fans gobble them up, so I’ll sign them too. So there was a couple that drove in today from, I believe, Kansas City via Nashville, all the way to Indianapolis, to collect the bass the guy had bought. And he came in and he was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and sweatpants, and his girlfriend was dressed exactly the same. "So, joking around, I said: ‘Hey, thanks for dressing up!’” 

“Then he told me the whole story, which was that he had blacked out at the wheel of their car after driving for eight hours, and the car was completely totalled, and they had come here directly from the hospital. The doctors wanted them to stay in the hospital because they’d been in this very bad car wreck. But they refused and said: ‘No, we gotta get out of here.’ 

"And they got an Uber to where I was meeting the fans to sign their basses. He had some credit cards, and some cash on him, and that was it. No clothing, no personal belongings, not even their toothbrushes. But he didn’t want to miss out on meeting me, even though he’d passed out on the way here. The least I could do was put them up in this hotel, and get them some nice food, because they had nowhere to stay. 

"That was kind? I mean, come on. They risked their lives just to come over and meet me, so what am I going to say? ‘Hey, thanks a lot, have a nice eight-hour drive back home?’ We’re blessed to have the fans we have, and we never forget that, for without them, my interactions with people could be reduced to: ‘Do you want fries with that?’”

Kiss fans at Madison Square Garden

Young, middle-aged and old turned up to experience the end of an era. (Image credit: Kevin Mazur via Getty Images)

When talk turns to the emotional impact that the conclusion of The End Of The Road tour might levy on Simmons, not least because those lifelong bonds will likely weaken, he starts to reel off a stock, super-sized Demon soundbite about the physical effort required to perform nightly in his seven-inch dragon boots and “forty pounds of armour”, and then pauses, and begins again, offering a more human, emotional reply. 

“You know, sitting here on my bed in my fancy hotel room, with all the trappings that go along with fame and fortune, it’s easy to be glib, but that’s not the same as actually feeling it,” he admits. “I know that I’ll be proud and excited standing on that stage for that very last time, but I’m also reasonably sure I’m gonna cry on stage like a twelve-year-old girl who’s been dumped by her first boyfriend. They used to call me Mr. Spock when I was a kid, because I didn’t get as emotional as others, I was always pretty buttoned-up and straightforward in matters of the heart. 

"But in the past weeks, when I’ve caught sight of a five-year-old child dressed like me, in my make-up, sitting on the shoulders of their father, who’s also dressed like me, and I see that kid stick his tongue out at me, copying me? More than once recently, I’ll admit, I’ve had to turn my back, because, you know, the big man is not supposed to cry. How am I going to react on December two? You’ll be there, you can see for yourself when the time comes." 

“But, you know, this isn’t just about me, or Paul, or Tommy and Eric,” he adds. “We’ve always said that Kiss is bigger than us, that this is a world we’ve created in partnership with our fans. When you go to that last concert, you’re gonna see people of all ages, all nationalities, all races, kids, models, rock stars, business people. Because who doesn’t want to go out on the fourth of July? Who doesn’t want to go to the circus? So don’t you worry too much about the Big Bad Wolf here shedding a tear. Come see the big picture, because this doesn’t end when we walk off the Madison Square Garden stage on night two.”

Gene Simmons backstage at Madison Square Garden

The Demon stalks the corridors of Madison Square Garden (Image credit: Kevin Mazur via Getty Images)

Walking around Madison Square Garden on the afternoon of December 2, the truth of Simmons’s words is all too evident, as the Kiss Army annex Manhattan in a bloodless, good-natured coup. There are literally hundreds of face-painted cosplay Demons and Starchildren of all ages roaming the streets, posing for tourist photos, throwing ‘the horns’ and waggling their tongue enthusiastically at passing pedestrians, to the bemusement and amusement of all but the most stone-hearted sulks. 

In a city which, for better or worse, has been sanitised and ‘Disney-fied’ to an extent which makes it utterly unrecognisable to the environment that spawned Kiss – in the summer of 1975, tourists arriving at New York’s airports were met by off-duty police officers handing out ‘Survival Guide’ pamphlets featuring a hooded skull beneath the words ‘WELCOME TO FEAR CITY’ – the carnival atmosphere feels both anarchic and wholesome all at once. 

In their midst of all this goodnatured chaos stands a lone dissenting voice, a middle-aged man sporting rudimentary Kiss-style face paint, holding a homemade placard with the message: ‘Turn to Jesus or Burn in Hell’. Whether the gentleman in question is buying into the age-old myth that Kiss are indeed Knights In Satan’s Service, or simply considers their stated aim to rock’n’roll all night and party every day irresponsible and an affront to the puritan work ethic that helped shape modern America, is not clear. But if his intention showing up here today is to steer Simmons and Stanley out of the darkness, we fear he may have got here approximately 50 years and 10 months too late. Still, they say God loves a trier.

Paul Stanley backstage at Madison Square Garden

Paul Stanley: "To say our final, final goodbye here is a true privilege" (Image credit: Kevin Mazur via Getty Images)

As Paul Stanley is ferried discreetly from the luxurious five-star midtown hotel in which Kiss and their nearest and dearest have taken temporary residence, into the bowels of Madison Square Garden, his proximity to thousands of fans sporting his likeness on T-shirts and jackets goes completely unnoticed. But the energy and excitement radiating from those soaking in the pre-gig atmosphere is not lost on Kiss’s 71-year-old vocalist/guitarist, evoking warm memories of his own teenage music fandom. 

“I slept outside a department store here so that I could get tickets to see George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh here,” he says, smiling as he mentally revisits the summer of 1971. “I saw the Rolling Stones here, with the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. The Garden, to me, was the palace of greatness. And so for us to be ending everything here, in New York City, is incredible, such a milestone, and a magical full-circle experience. 

“I told the story before, but as a cab driver I once drove a couple to Madison Square Garden to see Elvis Presley, and all I could think about was that some day people will come here to see me and my band. So to return one last time, to where we made our first giant step into real-world prominence, is incredible. We’ve gone on to play bigger places, sure. But in the same way that our first Gold album meant more to me than our first Platinum album, this was the touchstone that I aspired to, and the band aspired to. So to say our final, final goodbye here is a true privilege.”

A more sensitive, emotional character than Simmons, on a surface reading at least – “Paul is the soul of Kiss, and I’m the cock,” Simmons once informed me – Stanley freely admits today that, as The End Of The Road tour has inched ever closer to its conclusion, it has stirred up a wealth of conflicting emotions. “To talk about the end conceptually is one thing, to see the end imminent is another,” he told me in February 2023, adding: “The emotional impact is not lost on me.”

Kiss technicians at the side of the stage

It’s all over – this time for good – for the Kiss crew. (Image credit: Keith Leroux)

With the intensity of the day ratcheting ever higher as the hours and minutes to show time ebb away, he’s impressively Zen, but obviously not immune to the heightened, if controlled, tensions around this climactic day. 

“Look, there’s no getting around the fact that there’s a huge amount of emotion involved,” he acknowledges. “In the past week, having so many people personally come over to me to thank me for what we’ve given them honestly made me teary-eyed. Not least because it works both ways: Itell everybody that whatever we did for them, they did for us too, with the incredible lives they’ve made possible for us, and the experiences that we’ve had. It’s humbling, and very touching to think of the journey we’ve all shared across the decades. 

“When I was driving a cab, and we were rehearsing five nights a week at 10 East 23rd Street, I had a faith and a belief that these would be days that one day we could look back upon as magical and special. It was important to have something to romanticise about when we were spending Thanksgiving eating turkey sandwiches in a loft. But what’s grown out of that is a man – and a band – who has accomplished and experienced so much more than I ever knew existed. You can only dream of what you can comprehend, of what you know exists. It’s not until you reach certain heights that you realise there’s actually more to aspire to.”

Without doubt, Kiss’s first headline appearance at this iconic, history-laden arena was ‘a moment’, a huge marker in signifying how far they had come. Asked to cast his mind back to the night of February 18, 1977, and share his memories, Stanley laughs and replies instantly: “I remember I took a half a Valium. I was nervous,” he admits. “But in the best way. I had faith in what we could do, but we still have to go out there and do it, to prove ourselves worthy of the crowd that came to see us. That was the challenge. For me, nerves always come from a lack of experience. Once you succeed at doing something time and time again, there’s no need for nerves. 

"People ask me today if I’m nervous before I go on stage, and my answer is no. I know what we’re going to give the audience, and I’m confident and excited. But playing New York is different. To look out into the audience and see your family touches a lot of emotional buttons. Playing the Garden for the first time, it was almost overwhelming to look out and see my parents and see Gene’s mom. It’s funny, no matter how old we are, or who you are, we’re all always reduced in some way to being children who want our parents’ acknowledgement and approval. But I think we did okay then, and I think we’ll do okay now."

Paul Stanley’s son Evan (from support act Amber Wild) with the final show’s set-lists.

Paul Stanley’s son Evan (right, from support act Amber Wild) with the final show’s set-lists (Image credit: Keith Leroux)

“So much has happened during this tour that has really just reaffirmed for me that our decision to pull the plug now is a good one,” Stanley adds quietly. “Making the right decision doesn’t mean that it’s easy, or less painful. To see people I cared about and love die [Stanley doesn’t specifically name Fran Stueber, his guitar tech of 20 years, who tragically passed away after contracting covid in October ’21, but that loss is surely on his mind] only points out once again how precarious life is and how finite it is. And I want to be able to walk away while we’re at our peak. I know that everyone has their own special memories but, honestly, I’ve never seen this band play better night after night, and the response we’ve had on this tour is everything I ever hoped for, and more.”

As show time nears, all performers need time and space to focus, and knowing when to get the fuck out of their way is an important and often undervalued gift for anyone working on the periphery of creative industries. Given that there are literally hundreds of people involved in bringing the final show of Kiss’s final tour to not only the 19,500 people seated in the venue tonight, but tens of thousands more watching worldwide via a pay-per-view livestream, the mood backstage is surprisingly chilled. 

Blessed with a rather snazzy die-cut pass, I’m allowed to roam freely around the arena, realising, with mild horror at one point, that I’m actually standing almost directly beneath the stage. Before access privileges are rescinded, I slope off to the ‘Nashville’ hospitality room, where former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach is loudly holding court, and the presence of superstar illusionist Criss Angel is pointed out. E Street band guitarist ‘Little’ Steven Van Zandt is also in the house, as is Mötley Crüe guitarist John 5, but beyond that, your correspondent must admit to failing miserably at identifying scores of familiar-looking faces. Apologies, anonymous A-Listers, my bad. 

While earwigging on industry conversations, I do, however, note that more than one stakeholder in the brand makes reference to a mysterious ‘Phoenix Project’, a coded secret surprise that will only make sense later.

Kiss ride their platforms while pyro explodes

Looks like somebody left the oven on (Image credit: Kevin Mazur via Gettu Images)

And so to the business end of the evening: the loudest, most dazzling, retina-scorching, synapse-frying retirement party one could ever wish to attend. 

“Alright New York! You wanted the best. You got the best… The Hottest Band In The World… KISSSSSSSSSSSSSS!” 

“So this is the end of the road,” Paul Stanley muses aloud after Shout It Out Loud follows a thrillingly bombastic Detroit Rock City, his words met by gently disapproving boos. “I know, I know,” he responds sympathetically. “It seems sad, but tonight’s a night for joy, tonight’s a night to celebrate what we’ve done together. We couldn’t have done it without you, New York!” 

What follows is two hours of joyously uninhibited, unself-conscious rock’n’roll thrills… and some extended instrumental solo spots that we don’t have the heart to criticise today. From the perspective afforded from an aisle seat on Section 108, Row 7 – close enough that the heat generated by the walls of ceiling-scorching flames causes perspiration to slide down one’s face – I am delighted to report that the self-professed Hottest Band In The World’s last stand in the city that never sleeps looked and sounded pretty fucking spectacular. 

Hamming it up to the home support, Stanley elicits roars of approval for pointing out: “We don’t have to go to the Bronx to see a zoo” ahead of Psycho Circus, and re-tells, perhaps for the very last time, his well-worn anecdote about driving gig-goers to this very room to see Elvis in 1972: “They looked at me like I was crazy when I said: ‘One of these days, people are going to come here to see me and my band…’ And here we are!” 

Tommy Thayer nearly loses his cool at one point after spotting Sebastian Bach bawling his eyes out in row 10, but only he noticed. Bach isn’t the only one sobbing as louder-than-life anthems Black Diamond, Deuce and God Of Thunder shake the foundations, Simmons at his blood-spurting, tongue-wagging best while delivering his signature tune. Ahead of the night’s second encore, Do You Love Me, there’s a moment that speaks rather beautifully to the love and trust shared across five decades by Simmons and Stanley. 

With the dynamic duo sharing a stage-right podium not 20 feet from me, Stanley urges the faithful to show their appreciation for his Demonic bestie. With perfect comic timing, Simmons then shuts down this sweet bromantic gesture by pretending to cup Stanley’s testicles. Classic Gene, timeless bants. 

And then… that phoenix [project] from the flames. “The end of this road is the beginning of another road,” Stanley says, somewhat cryptically. “We’re not going anywhere… You’ll see us in all different things, all the time. See you in your dreams.” 

As 19,500 human brains whirr into action trying to decode that message, Kiss cede the stage to four youthful, instantly recognisable digital avatars on side-stage screens.

“Kiss Army, your love, your power has made us immortal!” Digi-Paul Stanley boldly proclaims, as Kiss 2.0 strike up a suitably bombastic God Gave Rock ’N’ Roll To You. “A new Kiss era starts now!” 

Well, well, well. It’s a curve ball that leaves the entire audience gawping in wonder and awe long after the flesh-and-blood Kiss have kicked off their stack heels and disappeared under a tsunami of hugs from tearful, elated and proud family members. 

“What we’ve accomplished has been amazing, but it’s not enough,” Stanley says in a post-gig statement shared on the band’s website. “The band deserves to live on because the band is bigger than we are. It’s exciting for us to go the next step and see Kiss immortalised.” 

“We can be forever young and forever iconic by taking us to places we’ve never dreamed of before,” Simmons adds. 

While Madison Square Garden empties, pay-per-view viewers are treated to a ‘post-match’ interview from an unusually subdued and understandably emotional Simmons reflecting on what he calls the band’s “crazy journey”. He then decides to tell the world that, pre-show, he attempted, and failed, to pass a huge kidney stone. 

“I was being in the bathroom,” he over-shares, “and I felt it burning on the tip of my cock, but it could not come out.” As the interviewer attempts to absorb this insider information, a crew member jokes that the offending object could provide an unanticipated income source from the event, as and when it emerges. “Put it on eBay?” Simmons muses, then looks down the camera lens, rubs his fingers together and sings: “Money, money, money, money” in a high-pitched voice. 

Never change, Gene Simmons, never change. 

As the morning after the night before dawns in New York City, at first glance a Kiss-free world looks not entirely dissimilar to the one the band just vacated. Wandering through Manhattan in search of a hangover-absorbing breakfast, I happen upon the Kiss pop-up store at 248 West 37th Street, easily identified by its shop window displaying Bob Gruen’s iconic image of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss atop the Empire State Building in the summer of 1976. 

The shop is closed, and an inlaid clock that had been counting down the hours and minutes to the Garden shows is no longer in motion. Instead it now displays a simple message: ‘KISS4EVR’. 

The game is over. Kiss won.

Kiss take a bow onstage at Madison Square Garden

(Image credit: Kevin Mazur via Getty Images)
Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.