Plaster casters

When the original members of KISS re-formed for a take-the-money-and-run tour in 1996, a persistent rumor followed their platform boots from city to city. According to this slice of gossip, guitarist Ace Frehley was occasionally in such fragile (read: drunk) condition that at some shows a look-alike had to fill in for him.

If you wanted to pin down the veracity of this rumor, you could do worse than to ask Scott McClusky. McClusky plays Frehley in Hotter Than Hell, widely viewed by people who care about such things as the ultimate KISS tribute band. He's made it his life's work to play, move, dress, and act more like Ace than Ace himself does. If anyone would have been asked to stand in for the KISS guitarist, you'd figure McClusky would be the ideal candidate.

When the subject comes up, McClusky laughs in a coy manner, and then assumes the mock-formal tone of a presidential press secretary. "I can neither confirm nor deny those rumors," he says, with an audible nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

It's understandable that McClusky has to be a bit careful when he speaks about KISS. After all, Gene Simmons is not only a big scary guy who pukes blood and breathes fire, but he and his bandmates have made it possible for McClusky to make a solid living as a musician simply by doing what all kids do instinctively: imitate their heroes.

These days, McClusky and his cohorts are on a roll. Hotter Than Hell recently wrapped the New Line Cinema feature film Detroit Rock City, where they spent 15 hours onstage doubling for the members of KISS. They also helped apply KISS makeup to scantily clad models for the cover of the current issue of Playboy. But more than anything else, these guys tour relentlessly, playing upward of 250 club gigs a year. Along those lines, they'll make their first Dallas stop Thursday, March 11, at the Gypsy Tea Room, a club better known as the y'all-ternative headquarters (though Hotter Than Hell's no more scary than, say, Tea Room regular Pat Green).

The tribute-band phenomenon has always been a bizarre one, but it has generally followed some kind of predictable pattern. It feeds nostalgia by re-creating what no longer exists. Tribute acts usually focus on artists who have died (Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia), bands that have broken up (The Beatles), or acts that people would prefer to see preserved as they once were rather than as they are now (Van Halen, the Rolling Stones). That's why Elvis impersonators started proliferating even while the King was still squeezing himself into those white jumpsuits. The public began to prefer fake, thin Elvises over the real, obese one. (Wait--shouldn't this show be at Club Dada?)

KISS has long been honored/hounded by more tribute bands than anyone else in rock. Even though the group has never stopped cranking out records and replacing band members, any true KISS fan remains fixated on the years from 1974 to 1979: the glory days of the original lineup, days of makeup and mind-numbing spectacle, when these guys seemed more like crime-fighting superheroes than rock musicians. The KISS tribute bands consciously focus on that era. Notice that the copycat bands have names such as Strutter, Cold Gin, Hotter Than Hell--all lifted from early KISS titles. You don't see any bands called Lick It Up or The Elder, do you?

When the original lineup re-formed and again donned its kabuki storm-trooper apparel, that should have squashed the KISS tribute-band business. After all, the real show was back, and it was time for the copycats to step aside. McClusky, who previously played in Strutter and Cold Gin before forming Hotter Than Hell, admits that things did slow down for a while.

"Before they reunited, I had huge attendance everywhere all the time," he says. "When they reunited, it was kind of a down time for me, but it might have been a down time for all tributes at that point. In 1995 and '96, tributes were kinda getting burned out, 'cause there were so many of them--tributes to Nirvana, tributes to Alice in Chains. And the clubs were getting burned on it.

"So I think we needed to take a rest, a little break. The fact that KISS has saturated the market so much in the last couple of years--with toys and the media and everything--has almost brought it back again for the younger generation, and you can see the numbers picking up again."

McClusky says he "got out of the KISS business for about a year" and settled in Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Before he knew it, he heard about Detroit Rock City, the story of a group of KISS fanatics who venture to Detroit in 1978 to see the band in concert. McClusky got the gig and suggested the other players--bassist Andy Patche, guitarist Gary Stevens, and drummer Andrew French--who were all approved by Gene Simmons.

After simulating the KISS concert experience for several years, McClusky has understandably acquired some of the canary-eating swagger that's always typified the members of KISS. When asked about the competitiveness of the copycat-band business, he dismissively retorts, "There's no competition with other bands, 'cause we smoke 'em all." He's unfailingly quick to separate himself from the pretenders in this genre of pretense.

"There are a lot of garage bands trying to do it," he says of other KISS copycats. "Half-assed bands, where one guy's short, one guy's fat, and they don't look anything like the band. Everyone in this band is the exact height and weight of KISS, within an inch or a couple of pounds."

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the members of Hotter Than Hell are within a couple of pounds of KISS, circa 1976. These days, with the expanding middles of Paul Stanley and Gene putting a strain on the most elastic of waistbands, Hotter Than Hell actually looks more like the KISS that we remember than the real band does.

Who knows, maybe one day Simmons and Stanley, like the savvy franchise owners that they are, will simply hand the car keys over to McClusky and tell him to keep the KISS machine going while they toddle off to play shuffleboard in Florida. In any event, McClusky has already lived out his childhood fantasies, albeit without the attendant fame, wealth, and bacchanalian groupie feasts. Come to think of it, that doesn't leave much, does it?

"I was 9, in fourth grade when I first saw KISS," he recalls. "I wanted to be Ace Frehley. Actually, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I realized Ace Frehley was a spaceman, and I really wanted to play guitar, so I put those two things together." A boy couldn't ask for anything more.

Hotter Than Hell performs March 11 at the Gypsy Tea Room.

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Gilbert Garcia