During the last years of the '60s and start of the '70s, I went to the famous High School of Music & Art in Harlem, USA. It was way the heck uptown in the middle of CCNY's campus. Music & Art was a specialized school that catered to kids with aptitude in one or the other from all of New York City's five boroughs. I would travel 45 minutes on the rush-hour IRT subway from Brooklyn Heights each morning.
On my third day there, the no-kidding-around actual Black Panthers, looking fabulous in their black leather "car coat" jackets, berets and Ray-Bans, took over the entire CCNY campus and held it hostage for two weeks. We Music & Art pee wee middle-class Jewish, Italian, Polish, Irish, baby-Che Guevara wannabes were thrilled and would happily throw them our little white-bread power-fists every morning and afternoon as we came and went. For awhile, various Panthers power-fisted us back from the barricades they'd thrown together of desks, chairs, garbage cans, etc. behind the gates of the campus and we'd yell generic "Power To The People" slogans of encouragement. But, by the beginning of the second week, the Black Panthers, hungry, dirty, fed up, on the verge of being arrested, were in no mood for our play-acting. Their reality-sinking-in listlessness was instructive.
This event was almost immediately followed by a teachers' strike that was perceived by progressive parents to be an outright act of racism. My Dad, a long-time staunch union man, came to Music & Art and taught English for a week, he was so disgusted. "The only picket line I ever crossed, Binky. I want you to know that." Interesting times for a "gifted underachiever" sophomore.
Anyway, a few months later in the early Spring of 1969, I met Stan Eisen from Queens. He wore a slightly odd Prince Valiant hairdo and was a grade ahead of me. We became fast friends when we passed each other in the hallway carrying guitar cases and discovered that we were two of only three guys in Music & Art who owned a Gibson guitar. Murray Dabby, the third Gibson owner, who we befriended a few weeks later, was a ridiculously better guitarist than either me or Stan, and he's now a shrink in Atlanta! Also the smartest of us three as well, obviously. After we graduated, Stan and I stayed in touch.
A year or so after high school, in the Spring of 1972, I bumped into Stan, who introduced me to this imposing giant of a guy with a huge halo of hair outside a Jeff Beck show at the Academy of Music on East 14th St. --later, the world-famous disco, Palladium, and now, NYU dorms.
"Binky, this is Gene Simmons, the bassist in my band, Wicked Lester. Gene, this is the guy I was telling you about who owns the Hiwatt amp." Gene visibly flinched!
Hiwatts were The Who's amp of choice back then and were also completely and totally unavailable in the USA. I'd lucked into literally the ONLY ONE IN AMERICA when I bought it off of Blodwyn Pig, a British Blues band featuring the original and fabulous guitarist of Jethro Tull, Mick Abrahams. From that moment on, Gene, an extremely cocky guy even then, always treated me with respect simply because of that amp, and later, as we became actual friends, because he liked my guitar playing, too. In fact, I wound up his guitarist-of-choice for several of his demos when KISS had become gods (why Gene has never released "Rotten To The Core", I'll never know!). And I'm very proud to report that, years later, Gene's only directive to Ace, according to their engineer, Corky Stasiak, when Mr. Frehley was about to record the solo for "Doctor Love" was, "Do a Binky solo!" and Ace knew exactly what Gene meant and proceeded to cut one of his wildest and best solos ever.
Back to 1972, several months after I met Gene, I got a call from Stan. He announced that I needed to start calling him Paul, please, ("Oh... Okay, Stan") and asked me to come down to a rehearsal of his and Gene's new still-unnamed band. They'd just found a lead guitarist a month earlier and he wanted me to check the whole thing out. Stan, I mean, er, Paul respected my opinion and seemed to be seeking my lead-guitarist stamp of approval.
So, one Saturday afternoon, I made it over to 10 East 23rd St., a narrow, grimy 6-floor building across from Madison Park, (long gone for a towering apartment building opposite the Flatiron Building), where Paul and Gene's band had a very dingy and very dirty loft/room, crudely soundproofed with blankets and quilts and egg cartons.
When I arrived that day, the new lead guitarist was already over an hour late. The mood in the room was bleak. Still, their pal Binky had shown up, so, after introducing me to Peter Criss, the drummer, Paul, Gene and Peter ran through three songs for my pleasure without the now very late new lead guitar guy. I listened to the trio play "Deuce," "Firehouse", and "Strutter," all three now classics from the debut KISS album. It was interesting and surprising. As a band, they weren't all that good, technically, better than the rock deities of the scene at the time, The New York Dolls, but really, all three players were plain old average. But, that opening riff of "Deuce" was just undeniably cool, and both the other two songs were, well, damn, they were pretty good. With a member missing, the three were in no mood to continue, and took a break.
While we sat around in the gloom, I complimented them on the tunes and arrangements. But, by now, all three of them were just fuming about how late this been-in-the-band-three-weeks new guy was and... Hey... We suddenly heard the elevator door open. We heard some cursing and banging and in came this disheveled and strangely lumpy-faced guy who looked like he'd been awake less than 3 minutes and seemed to be tilting about 20 degrees to the left as he walked.
And this odd guy, introduced to me as Ace, was wearing one red Converse and one orange Converse sneaker. In 1972, five years before Punk, this was actually weird! He barely said hello to me or anyone else in the room, pulled out a beat-up Les Paul Jr. (back then a guitar considered junk; of course, they now go for almost $10,000), plugged into his amp, turned to the other three, and crankily and somewhat groggily demanded "What're we doin'?" as if he'd been waiting on them for over an hour. Gene, very very not happy at all, growled "Let's run through the first three..." and so, I got to hear the same songs with lead guitar.
It was kinda remarkable how much better they sounded. As a lead guitarist, not to sound cocky, I could run circles around Ace. But his sparse, strangled, blues-inspired notes just kicked ass. The perfect complement to the songs.
As soon as the three songs were finished, Stan/Paul quickly took off his guitar and led me out of the dark, dank, 15x15 sweatbox of a room. While we stood in the dingy corridor he said that he was hoping I didn't mind, but he and Gene were gonna have to have a talk with this new guitarist.
"90 minutes late is totally unacceptable and we can't properly rip into him about this with you here, Binky." I said, "Uh, yes, Stan, I mean, Paul, I understand. That would be true. Well, good luck, man... The songs are great and if you can straighten the guy out, I do like your new lead guitarist's playing."
Paul, Gene, Peter, and Ace, soon decided to call themselves KISS and did their first-ever gig out on Long Island on my 20th birthday, January 30, 1973. About six months later, my band, The Planets, were invited by Paul and Gene to open for them and another New York band called The Brats at the Hotel Diplomat's ballroom, an absolute dump on West 43rd St. just off of Times Square (another long-torn-down Rock'n'Roll monument). This was July 13th, 1973. That night, a visionary guy named Bill Aucoin (who, sadly, passed away just last week) came to the show. If you know your KISStory, very soon after, Bill became their manager, got them their record deal as the very first signing with Neil Bogart's Casablanca label, Alice Cooper retired, KISS filled the void, and became wildly, insanely, inter-galactically, famous. Yes, I shared a stage with KISS, the night it all began!