Two Naked Cowboys, one Spanish-speaking SpongeBob, a headless Hello Kitty, and an ersatz version of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” all vie for attention on a teeming, muggy, late-summer Times Square afternoon. Unbeknownst to the masses, though, the coolest cartoon character of all is dining on salmon sushi on the second floor of nearby Bluefin restaurant. Ace Frehley, Kiss’s onetime Spaceman, is still spacey after all these years: to wit, his just-released solo record, entitled Space Invader. It’s the 63-year-old guitar icon’s fifth solo outing since his self-titled effort back in 1978.
Frehley, in sunglasses and a striped button-down shirt, flashes back to that moment before the coordinated September 18, 1978, release of all four Kiss solo efforts. “We all had a big meeting sitting around the table prior to going our separate ways for those records, and the others were a little cynical to me, kind of hinting, ‘Hey, if you need any help, we’re here if you need us.’ As if I did need help, you know?” remembers Frehley with a slight hint of aggro. “It kind of just put fuel on the fire for me to work twice as hard on my solo record. We all know what happened.”
What happened was Frehley’s nine-song LP was both the critics’ favorite and best-selling of the solo discs (it went Platinum), thanks in part to a song that would become his hallmark, the Russ Ballard (Argent)-penned stomp-along anthem “New York Groove.” On August 12, some 37 years after he first recorded it, Frehley sat in with the Roots to play the song on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, the band laughingly following Frehley’s orders — “I think it’s just a cunt-hair faster,” he instructed between commercial breaks in his trademark nasal Noo Yawk drawl, as the tuba blatted out the tune’s signature riff.
Three or four times during the course of recording Space Invader, which took 10 months, Frehley “sat down and threw on my old ’78 solo album. I tried to take elements from that record and incorporate into this new record, because fans are always psyched that it’s their favorite Ace record.”
See also: Photos: Ace Frehley’s Space Invader Listening Party
One of those fans is Tom Morello, the revolutionary Rage Against the Machine guitarist who inducted Kiss into the Hall of Fame in 2014 with an elegant, on-the-money speech and was the band’s biggest champion in the behind-closed-doors nominating committee meetings. “I don’t think anyone, even the members of Kiss, would argue that Ace’s [’78 solo album] was the best one. It was fantastic,” Morello says. “His core sensibility was that he just wanted to rock, he had no artistic pretense, there was no aiming for hits, and it was just a great rock ‘n’ roll dude making a rock record.”
Frehley is inarguably the most down-to-earth and accessible of the original four. For casual rock fans, there’s often confusion when Kiss comes to town with the Spaceman on guitar. Make that a Spaceman, one Tommy Thayer, formerly Kiss’s tour manager. Frehley and Thayer were initially very friendly, though the time came when Frehley sensed Thayer might join the band — which he did, in February 2003, stepping into the boots Frehley had been occupying for the Kiss reunion that lasted from 1996 to 2002.
“I could sense he always wanted to be me. He used to be in a Kiss cover band [L.A.’s Cold Gin],” Frehley says. Any lingering ill will is in perspective: “He didn’t do anything; he was hired by Paul and Gene to put on my makeup and costume and play my guitar solos — a business deal.
“Look, if he wouldn’t have done it, they would have hired somebody else,” reasons Frehley. “I walked out on the band; I quit. What they really should have done is, if they wanted to dress up a guy to play lead guitar, they should have come up with different makeup like they did with [other Ace replacements] Eric Carr and Vinnie Vincent. That’s what the fans are upset about.”
Guitarist/singer and former Runaway Lita Ford concurs, though she observes, “I always thought that anyone could hide behind Kiss’s makeup. The band could grow old and no one could see through the makeup: a brilliant idea. Tommy Thayer is one hell of a nice guy but he is not Ace Frehley and shouldn’t be in Ace’s shoes. There is only one Ace!”
Well, technically, now there are two, and Thayer is currently pimping a guitar (created with Epiphone) called the “Space Man.” “I mean, how big are the balls on this guy?” snorts Frehley. “But I don’t really want to talk about Tommy Thayer,” he adds, half-apologetically. “Let’s talk about me.”
There’s plenty to talk about. Two days later Frehley is game for a tour of his old neighborhood in the Bronx, and in fact, is an eager participant in planning multiple stops. Leaving Manhattan via the Westside Highway on a light-traffic Friday, he’s a bit on edge. But as the old highway exits and landmarks spark memories, his spirits lift.
First stop is the campus of the 21-acre high school where a young Paul Daniel Frehley nursed his rock ‘n’ roll dreams, along with many an illicit beer at the park across the street. A man in a blue minivan pulls to a stop and starts singing “New York Groove” out his passenger-side window as he spots Frehley posing for photos outside DeWitt Clinton High. Frehley’s just one of dozens of notable alumni, including Ralph Lauren, comic legend Stan Lee, composer Richard Rodgers, and director Robert Altman.
As we drive around the Bedford Park section of his former Bronx ‘hood, he’s quick to give directions in his raspy voice, and to point out the numerous personal landmarks — the Lebanon Hospital where he was born; the now-funeral home where he used to get his “Easter suits”; Poe Park (as in Edgar Allan), site where a teenage Ace gave his first outdoor concert; and the girls school (Academy of Mount St. Ursula) where he and his buddies hoped for a windy day to lift Catholic-school skirts. We stop at the former Grace Lutheran Church, and he gestures toward a set of windows. “I was in this classroom, writing on the blackboard, when a guy walked in and said, ‘President Kennedy’s been shot,’ ” he says. “Right there. I was also in that school when we landed on the moon.”
Pulling up to his old apartment house on Marion Avenue near 201st Street, Frehley, even behind the sunglasses and cracking-wise demeanor, is clearly moved. From the sidewalk, he points up to the second floor. “I used to put my amp in that window,” he recalls, as we sneak into the six-story brick building for a look-see when two kids emerge.
We stop by the Bronx Park, headquarters for the long-gone Ducky Gang Ace used to be part of in his youth. The heels of Frehley’s python boots click as he walks to a circle overlooking baseball diamonds and French Charley’s Playground. He stops. “This is where the Ducky Gang would hang out, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and as the evening got later … if you had had a buzz on, take a little walk with a chick and a blanket into the park … and I’ll leave it up to your imagination. Or from here we’d leave to go to a rumble, end up in some sort of schoolyard fighting another gang.”
If his youth was like a scene from American Graffiti or Grease, by his later teens Frehley had left his pals (one of whom “stabbed a guy and did five years up the river — Sing Sing”) for the lure of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But namely rock, the young Frehley meeting James Brown and Jimi Hendrix in his formative years. (Opening for the former, roadie-ing for the latter at a Randall’s Island show.)
Frehley remembers the “nod” he got from Hendrix and how it put him on “cloud nine.” Now he’s the one giving the nod to younger players. “Yeah, I have to remember that,” he says. “I have to remember the impact I have had on other guitar players. I have to sometimes pay attention a little more, because I am always running around like a maniac.”
Indeed. Four busy days after his nostalgia trip, Space Invader launches. It’s Frehley’s second album done sober — the last time he fell off the wagon was with Slash, in Las Vegas. “We were drinking Red Bulls and vodka at the VH1 Rock Gods [May 2006] and Kiss was getting awarded. I got the ring and Tommy [Thayer] performed, and I had to leave and ended up hooking up with four broads from Canada. There you go.”
Frehley delivers a “bada bing bada boom” before continuing: “Maybe subconsciously I was looking for an excuse — my mother had just passed away — so people that have addiction problems look to excuses and try to blame their relapses on other people,” he says. “Over the years I’ve come to the realization that’s just a scapegoat. You relapse because you want to get high and you want to feel that feeling again. Luckily, I’m past that point now. I haven’t felt that urge in many years.”
Of course, band leader and tough-love enthusiast Gene Simmons has always painted Frehley as the type of fall-down drunk who couldn’t get his act together long enough to do his job consistently. He’s leveraged that narrative to push the guitarist out over the years to suit his own needs. Their relationship is complicated, painful, and — perhaps most surprisingly — ongoing.
Kiss fans take sides, and when you’ve got the usually politically incorrect Gene Simmons babbling on about everything from suicide to immigrants, it’s an easy job to be anti-Simmons. Frehley, however, wants to lay a common misconception to rest. He doesn’t hate Simmons. “The press made out that we hated each other, which wasn’t true. I called Gene just a few months ago when I was mixing my record. I was driving up to L.A., and after five minutes of talking, he started bringing up stuff that happened in the ’70s, when we used to drive around in station wagons. We were on the phone for almost half an hour,” he recalls. “He wouldn’t let me off the phone. There’s all this rivalry that the press tries to draw out of us, to have a dialogue going on.”
With total worldwide sales of more than 100 million records, it’s small wonder that there’s eternal curiosity about the band’s Kiss-story. Though he’s no longer a cog in the Kiss machine, the everyman aspect Ace embodies is revered by musicians and fans alike. In taking over the Kiss guitar role, but not the Spaceman character, ex-Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick (1984–1996) joined when the band took off the makeup. Of playing songs that Frehley originated, Kulick says, “I always look for ‘signature riffs’ of a solo that must be there. I wasn’t asked to copy Ace, but again, solo parts that define a song melodically I always respect.”
Kiss toured for many years sans Ace — 1983 to 1995, and now again since 2002 — and Frehley has never seen a Kiss show he didn’t play. But his guitar playing, with and without Kiss, remains the signature same.
Frehley, who uses a two-handed tapping technique employing his guitar pick to tap, doesn’t know if he or Eddie Van Halen did it first. He does remember, though, that “Gene discovered Van Halen. He wanted to produce their first album, and we told him no. Gene was always going off half-cocked, trying to do more things … like he still does today.” Unable to resist a little dig, he adds, “If Kiss would stop fooling around with football teams and restaurants, they might put out a better record next time.” Despite a few barbs, it’s clear Frehley, the lovable street-smart boor, still retains a fondness for Simmons — if akin to the true brotherly love-hate you might find in the Kinks or Oasis.
The Kiss shadow may loom large, but it’s not a darkness. Frehley is amenable to glancing back at the boy he was before the man in makeup, and revisiting his 17(ish) albums with Kiss, which began with demos at the legendary Electric Lady Studios, where we stop for more reminiscing. Then it’s to the corner (23rd Street and Eighth Avenue), where Frehley, amid the afternoon crush, strikes the same pose as on the 1975 Dressed to Kill album.
Frehley is handed a printout of the original Village Voice ad that brought him to the members of Kiss, then going by Wicked Lester, at a studio on 23rd Street near Madison. He studies it closely, silently. “Lead guitarist wanted with flash and ability,” it reads.
“Yep, that’s it,” he finally says. And 41 years later, it’s still him too.
Space Invader is out now.