Behind the Curtain: Expectations vs. Reality in Ace Frehley Interviews, a Few Decades Apart

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

Back in late 1978 when I first interviewed Ace Frehley and found out I would be talking to him on the phone and not in person, I was relieved. I had no burning desire to meet him, and in fact I didn’t have much of a desire to talk to him at all. I didn’t much care for the music of KISS and in all honesty, I thought Ace was a mediocre guitarist at best and the rest of the band little more than marginal players. Not that technique alone was the only measure I used to quantify a player’s worth.

I loved Paul Kossoff and Keith Richards, cats with modest techniques but who possess a feel and emotion in their playing like eagles flying and lightning bolts crackling. At that time, I didn’t think Ace had any of that.

My opinions would change drastically almost 40 years later when I finally did have the golden opportunity to sit down with the Spaceman himself … but back then there were any number of things I would have rather been doing, including:

  1. Washing my car [this is actually a lie because I never washed my car].
  2. Sorting my albums [conspicuously absent of all things KISS].
  3. Playing with my cat.

I did end up interviewing Ace, and that story would become the cover of Guitar Player’s January 1979 issue. This is where our adventure begins with what I like to describe as the Great Rock and Roll Lie #1.

One of the great myths about rock writers and the musicians they interview is that every person they talk to is someone they want to talk to. Hardly. Just because I’m in the same room with a person and I’m sitting across the table from him and we happen to be talking to each other doesn’t mean I care about what he has to say or am interested in his music. I may not even like him. Well, maybe not liking him is a bit harsh. I have never sat down at an interview predisposed to not liking the person to whom I was speaking to, though several times by the end of an interview, I walked out of the room feeling like I wanted to put an axe in the dude’s skull.

The reason a writer would be interviewing someone he didn’t necessarily want to be talking to is that politics sometimes crept into the relationship between a journalist and a record label or management company or publicist. When I first started writing back around 1973, I didn’t know anyone or anything. I didn’t know how to set up an interview or who you spoke to in order to arrange an interview. Seemingly, there was this space, this chasm, between me, the musicians, and the magazines. I had no real idea about how to get from point A to point B. I didn’t know how to connect the dots.

I asked myself, “How do I make the leap from reading somebody else’s story in Guitar Player Magazine to reading one of my own?”

I knew on some level I had to contact the magazine and start some kind of dialogue and let them know I was a writer, though I had never really written anything at that point. In fact, the only stuff I’d had published early on were some stories I’d done for a soft-porn newsprint tabloid called the Los Angeles Star, a dismal and pathetic publication sold out of vending machines. The only reason you bought the Los Angeles Star was to check out the massage ads on the back pages, and by massage I mean, well, you know.

So, making the jump from the Los Angeles Star to Guitar Player was like breaking the sound barrier or jumping through a black hole or time traveling. It seemed like an impossibility where reaching the other side was never going to happen. In one of my early attempts at bridging the gap, I had sent Guitar Player a live review. This borders on the really stupid because GP didn’t run live reviews and I was an idiot for sending it and should have done my homework. In my defense, I hadn’t done any actual interviews at that point and had to send them something. Jim Crockett, the editor, wrote back to me and said the writing was good — which made me feel invincible — but that they didn’t use live reviews. Duh.

I was kind of stuck because I had opened the door but I didn’t know how to walk through it. I didn’t know how to arrange an interview that might be appropriate for Guitar Player. This was when Gibson & Stromberg entered my life and changed the trajectory of my career. Gibson & Stromberg were one of the first rock and roll PR companies. They handled everybody from the Rolling Stones to Jeff Beck. I cannot remember how I first met them, but for some strange and inexplicable reason they liked me. They took me under their wing and opened all those doors I could never open for myself. They arranged an interview with Jeff Beck and as if that wasn’t enough, they actually called Jim Crockett at Guitar Player and told him I was doing an interview with Beck and would he be interested in seeing it when it was completed?

I was there in the office when Lydia Woltag, one of the senior publicists at Gibson & Stromberg, made the call and don’t you know that was one of the greatest days of my life. There I was, a 20-year-old wannabe rock writer who had never interviewed anybody nor written anything of value, listening to this publicist talk about me like I was some young John Steinbeck or something. I was so filled with joy I could have floated.

I wasn’t sure whether Mr. Crockett remembered me as the same writer who’d sent in a live review but in any case, I interviewed Jeff, sent the story to GP and they printed it as the December 1973 cover. With one phone call, Gibson & Stromberg had advanced my career a thousand light years and for that I was forever indebted and this is where the politics came into play.

The eventual ‘Guitar Player’ cover

Besides working with the Stones and Jeff Beck, the company also did press for Dr. Hook, the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver, Hurricane Smith and a lot of other bands who really had no appeal for me. But I interviewed all of them, and why? Because Lydia believed in me enough to reach out personally on my behalf to set up that interview with Beck and what would become my first cover in GP. Singlehandedly, she established the relationship with GP that would continue for the next six years and for that, I would have done anything for her. Slay dragons? Give me a sword. Sell her my soul? Tell me where to sign. So, if all she wanted in exchange was for me to interview Dr. Hook or Black Kangaroo or any of the other miscellaneous bands she was working with, I didn’t even blink an eye.

(Note: Lydia was living in Laurel Canyon — Hollywood Hills — at the time and when she moved out, she made her place available to me. So she not only got me my first story in GP but also hooked me up with my first rental in Laurel Canyon. Additionally, Coby Atlas, another publicist at Gibson & Stromberg actually gave me a car. Gave me her freaking car, man. It was a Triumph Herald, an English import that never did well over here. The car had been sitting in Coby’s garage for a long time and didn’t run. My friend Chris Kinderman [if you’ve read any of my other Behind the Curtain stories, you might recognize his name as my traveling companion in Europe] put a battery in the car and it started. At the time, I didn’t even know how to drive a manual and Chris taught me.]

Lastly, Lydia passed away recently and it tore my heart out when I heard about it. You hear talk about people believing in you and having your back? How many times in a life do you meet those individuals who truly impact who you are? One? Two? To me, Lydia Woltag was an angel — and not all angels have wings, right? — and making that phone call for me had an utterly profound impact on my literary life).

So, back to our tale. That sort of give-and-take between publicists and writers also existed between magazines and journalists. In late 1978, Guitar Player editor Jim Crockett wanted me to interview the members of KISS and an unpleasant bile came rushing up my throat. “KISS?” I groaned to myself. “I don’t want to interview KISS.” Here, I must confess again: I was not a fan. No, that’s the sugar-coated version: I hated Kiss, man. I could never for the life of me understand their popularity. So when someone like Eddie Van Halen would tell me that Ace Frehley had been a monster influence on him, I could only sit there in wonderment and confusion and think, “What the fuck is he talking about?”

When Crockett first asked me to interview KISS, my initial response was, “Are you insane? They can’t play. They can’t write. They’re cartoon characters.” Of course, I never uttered those words out loud, but I was thinking them. However, having written for GP for about five years at this point, I understood how the machinery worked. I had previously been assigned the most incredibly prestigious stories with Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, Ronnie Wood and many others. If Jim Crockett wanted me to do a story on KISS then I would do a story on KISS. I didn’t like the band and didn’t want to do the story, but if the magazine was willing to give me extraordinary opportunities to interview the greatest guitar players in the world and this is all they wanted in return then I could bite the bullet and spend an afternoon with the various members.

The interview was set and as I mentioned earlier, my conversation with Ace was via phone. What I remember most about the voice on the other end of the line was how excited it sounded. He was friendly and funny. I could tell instantly that he loved playing the guitar and the idea of talking to a writer from Guitar Player Magazine was thrilling for him. He talked about his early bands and joining KISS and more than once asked me, “So am I gonna get the cover? Are they gonna give me the cover?”

Back then, being on the cover of GP was like hitting the long ball. The big score.  If you managed a cover in Guitar Player, you were considered amongst the elite, the very best. Previously, I’d done covers with Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Ron Wood, John Entwistle and some other pretty good guitar players [cue: facetious tone] so finding your photo on the cover of GP put you in a rare fraternity. I didn’t know at the time I was doing the interview if Ace was getting the cover, but when I finally saw the January 1979 issue, I was happy for him.

I wouldn’t meet Ace in person for another 37 years or so until Guitar World contacted me and said they were doing a dual cover with Ace and Slash, and asked if I’d be interested in writing the story. Of course, I jumped at it.

Southern California had been in the grip of a hellish drought that had gone on for over four years on that day I met Ace. The City of Angels was burning. Wildfires raged uncontrollably as once-verdant lawns transformed into Martian-like landscapes. But all of that changed on a Saturday afternoon the moment Ace Frehley stepped out of his car and headed towards the entrance of the West Hollywood photography studio for the Guitar World cover shoot. I had arrived early and watched his entrance. By the time he maneuvered his 64-year old frame onto the sidewalk, a gathering gloom overhead turned the sky dark. An ominous clap-and-rumble in the distance like a brutal double bassdrum fill sucked the air from my lungs. Ace was five steps from the doorway when the first, fat raindrops began to fall. His handler followed several steps behind him and scurried to reach cover so that the guitar case he was carrying — and what else could be in there but one of his Signature Les Paul Customs? — didn’t get wet.

This was an auspicious start to the day, and though the Bronx street kid-turned KISS icon was an hour late, he had brought heavy metal thunder with him and all was forgiven. Dressed entirely in black, Ace entered the Studio 1444 photography complex and saw that Slash was already in the house. They embraced warmly, exuding the kind of comfortable familiarity engendered whenever the alpha species gather together. In this case, it was the meeting of two bigger than life, balls to the walls guitar giants. Rockin’ his trademark top hat, tennis shoes and tattoos, Slash was here today because he engaged in Les Paul-verizing call-and-response guitar battles with Frehley on “Emerald,” one of the tracks from Origins, a solo covers album Ace had released at the time.

I watched as Ace and Slash endured the photo shoot — neither of them seemed particularly happy having their pictures taken — and when it was over, I accompanied Ace upstairs to the lounge area. The first thing I said was, “Do you remember your GP cover?” He smiled and nodded. I brought out the issue and handed it to him. I don’t think he realized until that moment that I was the writer who did the story. He held it and I asked him to sign it. I said him, “Do you remember how badly you wanted the cover?” I thought he would have responded with something like, “Oh, man. I wanted that cover so badly. That was so important,” but he didn’t.

Instead he acted kind of nonchalant about it, as if being on the cover of GP all those years ago wasn’t such a big thing. I was shocked, disappointed and honestly kind of pissed off by his reaction. I had listened to the cassette recording I made back in ‘78 before our interview that day in Hollywood and he was almost begging me to put him on the cover. He was fixated on it.  I’m not sure why he reacted in such a casual fashion when I mentioned the magazine cover. He had obviously forgotten that conversation or maybe the feelings just simply vanished.

Thinking about it now, maybe nostalgia isn’t such a terrific thing. Every memory we have is just that — a memory. It is colored by the passing of years and fades and changes shape and can take on more meaning in hindsight than it may have originally possessed. I wanted Ace to kind of geek out when I handed him the issue of Guitar Player to sign. I wanted him to gush over it and tell me how fucking cool it was because it was fucking cool to me. It meant a lot to me and I wanted it to mean a lot to him. It didn’t.

At the end of the day, whenever we look towards someone else to justify our own feelings — to feel happy or proud or fulfilled — there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be disappointed. Still, nobody can take the memory away from you and maybe that’s all that really matters.

Anyway, I had listened to a lot of Ace’s playing on various KISS songs before I met him that day and as I said earlier, I gained a new respect for him. He combined a bluesy rock approach to soloing with this sort of sloppy, haphazard Keith Richards-meets-Jimmy Page style of loose rhythm guitar playing that would become the textbook for a generation of guitar players to follow.

We talked about that and his influence on everyone from Slash and Van Halen to Dimebag and Alex Skolnick. He was affable and lighthearted and spoke about his admiration for Cream and the Who. We finished our conversation and Ace walked downstairs and out the front door to his awaiting car. The rain was still falling.

Before entering the car, he turned around to look at me where I was standing in the doorway and said, “That Guitar Player cover was the greatest interview I ever did. Thank you.”

That didn’t happen. I made that up. I’m going to call that the Great Rock and Roll Lie #2.

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