It’s not often you get to meet one of your heroes, never mind act as his personal shreeve for a weekend and introduce him to the delights of the Balti. But that’s what happened when I met a total hero of mine in 1996.
I was working at Musical Exchanges in B’ham at the time – Europe’s largest guitar shop that had not long undergone a HUGE refit. I’d been there for 4 years up to that point and was being paid about as well as could be expected from a job in music retail (i.e. not much but enough to live on) but the perks were obvious as a semi-pro muso. Any gear you wanted to buy was yours at pretty much trade price, and the sales reps that came in to flog their wares were forever bringing in T-shirts and jogging bottoms displaying their logo that we’d get for free on the condition that we wore them in store. I don’t think I bought a single item of clothing for about 3 years – pants & socks aside, of course.
1996 had been a big year for the business already. The refit was seeing a massive upturn in customers. Folk were coming to see the shop from all over the UK (and buy stuff) and Garry the general manager soon joined forces with a promoter friend to announce a Birmingham Guitar Trade Show to be held at Brum’s NIA in June of that year.
All the big guitar & amp companies were straight on board booking space for their own stands at the show, but there was also to be a live stage where famous players could show off their endorsed products and add value to the event. It was going to be a gargantuan hit.
All the staff were excited about the show, but my excitement went up to fever pitch when Clive the promoter rang me one day at the shop a month prior to the event. “Ian” he said, “I need you to do something for me at the show – and I KNOW you’ll want to do it”
“Go on then” I replied “You have my attention” and I half expected him to say that my band could play on the live stage. I was way wrong.
“I need you to look after one of the special guests we’re bringing over from the States – you know, pick him up from the airport, look after him whilst he’s in town, take him wherever he wants to go on the Saturday and then roadie for him during his guest spot on Sunday”
This sounded intruiging “So who am I to chaperone then, Clive?” I ventured.
“Bruce Kulick from KISS” Clive replied.
I may have dropped the receiver or just dropped my guts, I can’t quite remember, but this was a BIG deal. I’d met Gene & Paul from KISS 2 years before in a London hotel and that chat lasted for nearly an hour, but this was 36 hours in the company of a bloke who’d played on at least 4 KISS LP’s up to that point and was, so I’d been told, a real gent.
I stuttered (or should that be Struttered?) my sincere thanks to Clive and went back to work – fairly quickly I realised that Bruce Kulick was going to be driven about in my car. That’s my knackered old rust-coloured Vauxhall Cavalier Estate which my then singer from Sons Of God Mikey had christened ‘The Bush’ due to its likeness to a hedgerow, filled with empty crisp packets, sandwich wrappers and general evidence of Ginsters addiction. An urgent valet was required therefore.
Around that time, a couple of other things came up – a gig on the Sunday night after the Guitar Show was done with Ian The Goat sings Black Sabbath in Stoke was manageable, but as fate would have it, my girlfriend & I were told we could move in to our new house on the Saturday of the show, when I was on Kulick watch! Bad timing - and somewhere I still have a picture of Jacqui and some friends holding up individual cardboard placards on that moving day with the words “Ian, where the f**k are you?” emblazoned on them. All in good humour I hasten to add…
I left our old flat by the Yew Tree in Yardley for the last time 1st thing on the Saturday morning to head for Birmingham Airport to collect Bruce and his P.A. Victoria – I wore a KISS t-shirt featuring him naturally, but there was one slightly sour note that accompanied his impending arrival – namely that he wasn’t in KISS anymore.
The announcement of a full blown reunion of the original KISS line-up had been announced earlier in the year, putting Bruce and then drummer Eric Singer on kind of ‘paid leave’ from the band. However just before his arrival for our trade show, a press release was issued saying that in effect, Bruce & Eric were no longer full members - it seems that Gene & Paul had been hedging their bets about how well the reunion tour would go and, satisfied that Ace & Peter would survive the rigours of the road, gave Bruce & Eric their P45’s.
Didn’t make any difference to how I was going to treat him – but I did wonder what his state of mind would be on the back of such news.
Have to admit I must have been smiling to myself about what was happening as I waited for his arrival off his Swiss Air flight at the gate. The car was clean(ish) too which was a start. I did consider holding up a sign saying ‘Brice Koolick’ ‘Brace Kuhlmint’ or ‘Ace Frehley’ for him to spot as he emerged but I chickened out spectacularly, fearing getting off on the wrong foot.
He soon came through the arrivals gate and smiled broadly at the long-haired goon sporting a KISS t-shirt and offered his hand – he was well over 6 foot and rather imposing, but not in the least bit overbearing “You must be Ian, right? Hi I’m Bruce and this is Victoria.”
“Flipping heck mate, I know who you are!” I joked and helped carry his bags out to the car as we made small talk. As we drove back into Brum to get to his hotel accommodation he asked whether I was detailed to look after him, as Victoria would be busy doing other stuff during the trip. I replied in the affirmative and asked what he fancied doing.
Rather than demand entry into the Peppermint Hippo lap-dancing emporium or find the nearest opium den in Balsall Heath, THIS rock star had simpler, more down-to-earth wishes. “I’d love to take a look at your store first. I’ve heard so much about it” he enthused. “After that, I guess I could come back to the hotel, get a little sleep and then you could take me & Victoria somewhere good to eat and then maybe onto a club that plays good rock music, something like that?”
Piece of piss, I thought, and we drove on to the hotel.
This was the first point at which Bruce’s ego (or lack of it) came rushing to the fore. The Hagley Court Hotel was one of a slew of places within a mile of the City Centre that offered accommodation for the world-weary traveller. But the Hyatt Regency it was not. More like your standard B&B with rooms that redefined the word ‘compact’. I would’ve completely understood if Bruce had opened the door to said room and simply gone “You gotta be f*****g kidding me, right?” and turned tail to head back for L.A. that instant. But he just said “Ok, this is cool – kinda small, but I’m only sleeping here so who cares? Oh, and by the way” he went on “that cassette player in your car – does it work ok? I mean, it doesn’t chew tapes up, right?”
“Not once!” I lied, recalling the Rush mixtape that died a horrible death somewhere between Ross-On-Wye and Monmouth “It’s in top nick – why, what do you want to listen to?”
“It might be more a case of what YOU would want to listen to” said Bruce – I just got the mastered version of the album Eric & I did with Gene & Paul before the reunion happened – you wanna hear it?”
I must’ve been slobbering like a St Bernard. I must’ve been. This was KISS porn – an album no-one had heard and I was going to get a private listening party????? Good grief.
“Of course, mate” I mumbled trying to regain what was left of my composure “Whenever you want!”
“Ok, maybe later then” mused Bruce “Anyway let’s check out your guitars, man – you got any Fuzzfaces there?” That wasn’t a euphemism, by the way.
It was a gloriously hot sunny day in Birmingham, and with the Trade Show underway at the NIA, the shop was twice as busy as normal with customers who were either coming by on their way to the trade show or who had popped in afterwards. Either way you could barely move in there. My bosses had hired loads of extra staff to cover for those working at the show and the likes of me on special duties, and my first duty was to lead Bruce through the throng to our Vintage Room, where I knew there’d be some olde worlde stuff to excite him.
Stu Clarke (RIP) ran the Vintage Guitar section and, although he probably couldn’t have cared less who Bruce was, still took care of him from the moment he walked into his little haven of nostalgia. Satisfied that I wouldn’t be needed for the next hour I went back to serving regular customers at the counter and glancing regularly up at the TV showing Gazza score THAT goal as England beat Scotland in Euro ’96 at Wembley.
Soon enough, Bruce emerged from the Vintage room clutching several effects pedals that had taken his fancy (including an original Fuzzface pedal – see, that’s what it is!!) and paid for them at the counter before asking me to run him back to the hotel so that he could first try the pedals out with the practice rig he took with him and then have a sleep ahead of going out for the evening.
I had no such luxury of forty winks, and I spent the last hour of the working day back at the shop and then drove home to my new house to meet up with Jacqui, my parents and others who were busy organising where everything went. 2 hours of mucking in later and I was off out again to collect Bruce & Victoria to take them for a meal. Only, I didn’t know where to go…and it had to be a table for 4.
That was because my singer Mikey had asked – nay, pleaded – to come up from Wales and spend some time in Bruce’s company as a fellow KISS freak like myself. He’s a persuasive bugger at the best of times and I relented all too quickly.
Bruce was hungry and eager to try out something different to what he was used to. A gamble as he was due onstage the next day and were he to eat something that disagreed with him, then his bowels might curtail his performance for him. That meant a trip somewhere reputable at least. “What’s a Balti?” he asked as we drove into the city from his broom cupboard…sorry, room at the hotel.
“That’s Birmingham’s speciality!” I stated proudly. “This is the home of proper Bangladeshi cuisine you see…”
“Well let’s try it then, whaddaya reckon Victoria?” Bruce turned to his P.A.
Within minutes the four of us – myself, Bruce, Victoria and Mikey were sat in the Koh-I-Noor restaurant just a stone’s throw from New Street Station, tucking into poppadoms with that mint yoghurt dip, mango chutney and indoctrinating two willing Americans into the ways of the curry house. And to be fair to Bruce, he went down the Balti route without hesitation – brave and possibly foolhardy, but brave all the same.
As we ate, Mikey and I peppered Bruce with questions about his time in the band and his plans for the future, now that the cat was out of the bad with regard to KISS. He had nothing but glowing things to say about Gene & Paul, tinged with a little sadness that his time had come to an end in the band. He didn’t need us to tell him that he’d rescued the band at a vital time in the mid 80’s, when Ace’s first replacement axeman Vinnie Vincent had gone all hatstand and Mark St John had replaced him only to get Reiter’s Syndrome and exit stage left – well not even that, as he barely made it onto the stage with them in 84.
Bruce cam in for the Animalize UK tour that year and by the next Spring was a fully fledged member. His lead work on Asylum in 85 was very much ‘of the moment’ for rock guitarists at that time – finger tapping, whammy bars and so on – but he did always retain a sense of melody and phrasing that Mark lacked, and a grasp of dynamics that Vinnie clearly lacked!!
He spoke of Eric Carr who had so tragically lost his life in 1991 and the awful feeling that the other band members wrestled with as his health deteriorated…how to carry on, when to carry on, how to tell Eric his health was more important than him contributing to the band – all that jazz. There have been so many theories surrounding health insurance policies and a supposed callous approach to Eric’s passing by other band members, but as Bruce pointed out, whichever way the band had dealt with what became a tragedy in Nov 1991 would be criticised. And let’s face it, KISS had had more rumours surrounding its history as a group than all of their peers put together.
The Balti was a rip-roaring success, in every sense ;o) and Bruce was ready for some entertainment – Victoria was dropped off back at her hotel, leaving myself Bruce & Mikey to head for XL’s Rock Club on Five Ways in the city centre. I’d frequented the place more times than I care to remember, but this was the first and only time I was welcomed by the clubs owners like a long-lost son, waived past the bouncers and the lady on the door and practically given the freedom of the nightclub – all because I happened to have company that wasn’t connected to Shotgun Wedding or Sons Of God. This, indeed, is the way of the world.
Bruce didn’t drink anything other than water during the hour or two we spent inside. He was gracious & friendly to Jacqui who had arrived a bit tiddly and proceeded to tell Bruce how much she disliked KISS. Charming. A whole host of more supportive types came up and asked for pictures, autographs and stories – and everyone got what they wanted from Bruce, who was a total gent to all and sundry.
It can’t have been long after midnight that Bruce beckoned me over and said quietly “Ok, I’ve had a nice time – now can we get out of here, do you think?”
“Absolutely” I replied, thinking he was needing to catch up on jet lag and so we left (with Mikey still very much in tow) to drive him the short distance back to the hotel. But he wasn’t jet-lagged – as we turned into the car park, he reached inside his jacket pocket to produce a cassette with no discernable writing on it anywhere.
“Soooo…I’m guessing you guys wanna hear the album, right?” he offered with a slight smirk on his face.
And once we’d parked up, he stuck the tape into my car stereo, I offered up a little prayer to nobody in particular to preserve the tape in my machine and we started listening to ‘Carnival Of Souls’ – the album KISS were meant to release in 1995 and had been ‘shelved’ due to the impending reunion after the success of the Unplugged get-together.
COS is an album that divides KISS fans almost as much as ‘Music From The Elder’, the ill-fated concept album they’d released in 1981 which almost destroyed the band. After the ‘Revenge’ album of 1992 had been such a return to form (including one of the best KISS UK tours I ever saw that year) the next album was meant to pick up where Revenge left off.
In truth, COS was wildly different – not so much a nod of the head to the Seattle Grunge movement of the early 90’s but really a vigourous Muttley-style “Yeahyeahyeahyeahyeah!!!!” to such a genre. Some tracks like opener ‘Hate’ could well have made it onto Revenge and not looked out of place, but the mood and dark lyrical content of Paul’s songs such as ‘Master and Slave|’ ‘It Never Goes Away’ and ‘Rain’ were light years away from ‘Take It Off’ and ‘I Just Wanna’ from 3 years before.
That said, it was still powerful and impressive stuff as it came powering out of my tinpot speakers in the Vauxhall that Saturday night into Sunday morning. Bruce offered the occasional commentary and asked the odd opinion of Mikey and I, but mostly we all sat in silence – Bruce because (as it turned out) he wanted to hear what it sounded like on a common or garden car stereo rather than posh studio speakers, and Mikey & I because we were just too dumbfounded to say anything as we listened to KISS stuff that almost no KISS fans had heard properly!
Bruce was especially proud of the album closer ‘I Walk Alone’ where he took lead vocals for the first and only time on a KISS release and as the final strains floated away in The Bush, Bruce simply smiled at us, turned the stereo off, said “Well, there you go guys – listen I’m beat – I’ll see you in the morning Ian, say around 11 to head for the show?” and headed back to his room.
I don’t think Mikey & I moved or said anything once he’d gone inside for about 2 minutes, before the realisation sunk in of what we’d just heard. The word ‘unbelievable’ was somewhat overused in the ensuing drive back to my new house…
The next day was show day for Bruce, and I collected him from his hotel mid-morning as he had an early afternoon slot on the performance stage. Packing up his ESP guitars and his all important DAT tapes (remember them?) with his backing music on, we set off for the NIA half a mile away.
The trade show was simply huge. Birmingham had never seen anything like it before. Pretty much every guitar and amp manufacturer that mattered had a stand displaying their wares – and naturally Exchanges had a prime spot to do a bit of extra retail sales of our own, which worked like a charm.
Bruce had a half hour spot to perform in the early afternoon and I was to act as roadie for him – my tasks were very simple, though. No need to restring guitars or tweak effects pedals - he did all of that himself – I just had to start and stop the DAT machine as requested and hand him a fresh towel in between tracks.
Now, if you’ve read my first Rock n Roll War Stories blog (where I roadied for Shotgun Wedding and ended up prone to the ground with a face full of drumstick shavings and general grit, all for the sake of keeping a cowbell upright on a 3 quid music stand) you’ll understand that such duties from Bruce were akin to twiddling my thumbs with a cigar on.
But I don’t smoke of course, so I just sat side stage and watched as Bruce calmly strode onto the stage in front of a packed auditorium and spent the next half an hour dazzling all and sundry that led you to believe that, despite now being ex-KISS, he wouldn’t be claiming benefit for long. He absolutely NAILED his parts on ‘Unholy’, which remains one of his best pieces of work from the KISS catalogue and showed his versatility on other solo tracks he’d written. Apart from the odd towel chucking and catching exercise, I just relaxed and enjoyed as much as everyone else. And his bowels didn’t let him down once…good old Koh I Noor…
Before you knew it, he was done thanking everyone for coming. but more thrillingly for me, thanking yours truly for being at his beck and call for the weekend. That naturally meant loads to a wannabe pro-muso like me, but coming from a KISS guitarist???? Bloody hell…
And half an hour later, he was offering his profuse thanks and saying his goodbyes to me personally before heading off to Guildford for a performance in front of guitar academy students later that day. Before I knew it, I was on the M6 heading for Stoke to play a gig with Ian The Goat Sings Black Sabbath. What a weekend, what a gig (and it was) but, more than anything, what a top bloke Bruce Kulick was.
And still is. He’s gone on to release 2 excellent albums with Union, alongside ex-Crue frontman John Corabi, and nowadays he’s touring extensively with Grand Funk Railroad in the States. I’ve seen him once or twice on subsequent visits he’s made to the UK (with Union & ESP) and he’s always remembered me and taken time out for a chat.
That doesn’t mean I can call Bruce Kulick a mate. I’m not that bloody daft. But not many folk have ordered him a garlic & coriander naan with some mushroom pilau have they? Something to be proud of I reckon :o)