"This is my 65th time tonight since 1977," Haberkorn says. "My first one was at Madison Square Garden in December '77 with the four original guys in makeup, and I took my son for his first one at the Garden in New York City, the same four guys with the makeup, and he's been coming to every show since then. He's at 29, I'm at 65."
Tickets in the 10,000-seat PPL Center went for prices starting at about $40. The Haberkorns and 15 other people, though, have paid extra for the "Ultimate KISS Army VIP Experience," which entitles them, among other things, to a pre-show bar and hors d'oeuvres; a chance to try on Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley's platform boots; a tour of the stage, including a chance to sit behind drummer Eric Singer's kit; a meet-and-greet with the band; and the opportunity to watch the thunderous two-hour, fireworks and flash-bomb extravaganza that is a KISS show from a private area immediately in front of the stage. Anyone down there will be so close that when the flame cannons fire, their faces will feel sunburned, and when the dry ice smoke billows over them they'll be momentarily fogbound. Simmons, Stanley and lead guitarist Tommy Thayer will shower them with guitar picks throughout the night. And to top it all off, after the show Gene Simmons will privately present Bob Haberkorn with the fake-blood spattered, battle-axe shaped bass guitar he played on stage.
"This is the biggie," Haberkorn says, "This is the holy grail. We've done VIPS, and we met for a bunch of times and also tonight I'm getting his bloody bass. A lot people have the basses, but the bloody ones are few and far between. I'm such a fan and this is getting close to the end. This is like my big souvenir."
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What is the price tag for all of that? Haberkorn says, "I think the total bill was 22." Thousand, that is.
Is that a lot of money for him? Haberkorn laughs and says, "It's a lot of money for anybody. At this point, it's half a car. Or a third of a car."
The paid backstage meet-and-greet has been a staple of live music for some time now, but KISS was among the first to do it, and they've stuck with it through the years with their characteristic gusto for merchandising. They sell a variety of packages at prices starting at $750 and running well into the thousands. Front man Paul Stanley, 68, thinks of it like this: "If you buy a ticket on an airplane, you can either be in coach or first class, and if you're willing to pay the difference there are amenities that you get. You get to the same destination." He says he's long ceased to care about any criticism about it, particularly as the practice has become standard throughout the music business. "When we first started doing this, like many things we've done, it hadn't been done before," he says. "When you lead the charge, you are going to be the target."
"I see KISS more as a tribe," Stanley adds, "in that most bands are very age-demographic specific. And with us, unlike other bands, you're not uncomfortable that your little brother is there or your grandfather may be there. It's a communal atmosphere of like-minded people, so it's a joyous atmosphere that I think is lacking in other events of a similar nature."
And if KISS charges a lot, they do take good care of their superfans. (While many acts charge significantly less, they also usually give their fans less access; a VIP ticket to see Janet Jackson this summer, for instance, will run you about $1,300 but you don't get to meet the star. Meanwhile, the Rolling Stones reportedly charged $17,000 for VIP meet-and-greets last summer, although part of the money went to charity.) Among the people getting the "Ultimate KISS Army VIP Experience" tonight are several repeat visitors, including the Haberkorns, an executive from a pharmaceutical company who is treating his wife and several members of his management team, and Solange Margery Bertoglia, 44, a Philadelphia psychiatrist, who says, "I've done it three times and one time I actually flew all the way from Costa Rica where I used to live."
The KISS backstage crew are cheerful, friendly and professional and the band members themselves are attentive, joking easily with fans and patiently posing for endless rounds of photos. The days of dressing-room mayhem and hot-and-cold running groupies and drug dealers are long gone; but for the makeup, you could be backstage at the Ice Capades.
Oddly for a band whose brand identity is nicely encapsulated by lyrics like "No place for hidin' baby, no place to run/You pull the trigger of my/love gun"; for much of their audience, a KISS concert these days is a return to childhood.
Take John Bartos, president of a Houston and Philadelphia machinery company, for instance. While waiting backstage with his wife Marci and younger sister Toni Shramko to meet Paul Stanley privately, he beams when he says, "I'm the 55-year-old president of a big company, and I'm a little kid," he says. The visit, which he says is mainly a treat for his sister, a KISS fan since the age of 5, will cost him $6,000 and includes a brand-new, black Ibanez Paul Stanley Signature PS-120 electric guitar, which he will ask Stanley to autograph. And then smash on stage at the end of the show.
Stanley comes out of his dressing room in full KISS regalia, dancing a little on his black platform boots to make the chains hanging off them jangle. He chats quietly with the Bartos for a few minutes. "How are you?" he asks, solicitously. They tell him they've met before at a show of his paintings at a gallery at an upscale mall in New Jersey and ask if he remembers. "Yes, yes, I do," he says. They ask him what kind of music he listens to at home when he's painting. "I listen to Motown and early soul," he says. Then he signs the guitar and the four prints of KISS album artwork Bartos has also brought with him, then withdraws to his dressing room before a group meet-and-greet, followed by an extended photo session with fans.