Better to burn out than to fade away__By Alan Sculley

"The kind of high you get by getting up on stage and having, you know, 10...20,000 people call out your name and you take a look at the look on their faces and they're having the time of their lives, you can't get that anywhere. On the very last day when somebody's going to me and saying 'OK Simmons, this is your very last concert, I'm not going to go peacefully. Are you kidding me? You're going to have to drag me kicking and screaming.

-Gene Simmons, 1992

Gene Simmons may still leave the stage for the last time kicking and screaming. But it will be his choice.

After nearly 30 years as a band, the original members of KISS - bassist Simmons, guitarist/singer Paul Stanley, guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss - are launching a lengthy farewell tour and say they'll be hanging up their costumes and removing their makeup for good.

As long-time fans know, Frehley and Criss, who had left the band in the early 1980s, came back into the picture with KISS in 1995. That's when they sat in on an MTV Unplugged special with Simmons, Stanley and the two other two musicians who were in KISS at the time, guitarist Bruce Kulick and drummer Eric Singer.

At the time, Simmons and Stanley expected nothing more to come from this one-off performance. Instead, they found the chemistry of the original band was still intact, and soon the idea of a full-fledged reunion took hold.

The reunion tour of the original KISS became one of rock's big stories of 1996 and 1997. It was the highest grossing tour of the year and put KISS back in the media spotlight. The tour also paved the way for the foursome to carry the reunion into the studio, where they recorded the 1998 CD, Psycho Circus, followed by another successful round of touring.

With the original KISS once again selling out concerts from coast to coast, it seems like an odd time to bring an end to the band. Clearly Simmons, Stanley, Frehley, and Criss could profit greatly by staying together and touring well into the next decade. So why kill the proverbial cash cow now?

"I'm a big believer that it's better to leave early than to stay late. Better to leave on top and in top form than overstay your welcome," Stanley said.

"After coming back from a 17-year absence of the original lineup and being the number one concert attraction for the year, we really climbed the mountain," Stanley said. "We came back and regained the heavyweight championship. Then after that we did the Psycho Circus tour, which again was a huge success, we really had to look at each other after that and we thought maybe the smartest thing to do now would be to call it quits. We figured there's nothing [left to accomplish]. Our thought was that to leave without saying goodbye, leave without people knowing that it's goodbye isn't fair. We've all been in that position where we just wish we had known something was going to end before it did maybe we would have treated it a little differently. So we just felt let's go out one more time and really give the fans the thank you they deserve.

"This is a band that without makeup sold 15 million albums. And for the last few years we very consciously, but strangely, avoided that [period]. And that band was also called KISS. We want to celebrate, all four of us, not only the beginning of the band, but the period that got the original lineup, back together. And the stage is phenomenal. I'm really excited that we're going out with guns blazing."

When the farewell tour ends, it will close the book on what has certainly been one of the most colorful bands in rock history.

The KISS story began in 1970 when Stanley was introduced to Simmons. Ironically, first impressions weren't good. In fact, Stanley thought Simmons was pretentious and arrogant.

"That hasn't changed," Stanley laughs.

But he also saw some personal and musical virtues that made him believe he and Simmons would make a good team.

"I think what we both realized was first and foremost, we had the same work ethic," Stanley said. "We believed in working hard. We believed in being honest. We didn't waste time getting high and abusing ourselves and we were serious about wanting to succeed. And to be serious about succeeding meant being committed to hard work."

The makeup that became KISS's visual signature happened on a whim in an attempt to make an impression on the New York club scene. Simmons took on the character of a demon, Stanley the star child, Criss the cat, and Frehley the spaceman.

A record deal happened quickly, but national recognition was more gradual, as three studio albums - KISS, Hotter Than Hell and Dressed To Kill - came and went before the arrival in 1975 of the two-record concert set Alive. Spurred by the hit single "Rock 'n' Roll All Night," the album vaulted KISS onto the top of the charts and made the band - with their makeup, special-effects, and Simmons' famous fire-breathing and blood-spitting stage antics -legitimate arena headliners.

Hit albums such as Destroyer, Love Gun and Rock And Roll Over followed, before internal problems - fueled in part by the substance abuse problems of Frehley and Criss - set in. By 1981, both were replaced.

In 1983, the group decided it was time to do away with the makeup and debut an unmasked edition of KISS.

"We took off the makeup because in essence what we were seeing was that the makeup belonged in a sense, identity wise, to the original lineup because it was something we created," Stanley said. "Once we started changing members, it became too much of a formula of bringing in some great talent and then having to come up with a persona ... It became clear to us that to be honest to ourselves and to our fans we had to take off the makeup and either sink or swim, live by the sword, die by the sword.

"But what happened was our album sales literally quadrupled," he said. "And that was because people wanted KISS, but they didn't want a version of the original band that wasn't the true original band."

Indeed, the unmasked edition of KISS had considerable success. Still, that version of the group never achieved the phenomenal heights enjoyed by the original lineup.

To be sure, KISS will be remembered first and foremost for bringing a new level of theatrics to rock and roll. The spectacle of KISS, particularly during the makeup years, overshadowed the band's music. Still Stanley thinks KISS brought something unique to heavy metal on a musical level.

"Our music is a hybrid, and it's a combination of all of the influences that we love," he said. "We've always been very big believers in good songs and song structure and great melodies and great hooks. Because you're playing loud rock and roll doesn't mean that you just have to scream. Melody is essential, and I think that's what set us apart from a lot of bands for a long time was the idea that we wanted songs that were memorable. Just because they were rock and roll or metal didn't mean they couldn't be memorable or singable. Our philosophy has always been don't bore us. Get to the chorus."

KISS will play with Ted Nugent and Skid Row at 7 pm, September 8 at Rupp Arena. Tickets are $62, $47, and $37.