40 years on, people still relive the days of a Northern Michigan event when mega-band KISS visited Cadillac High School with a homecoming concert. Read on for the story originally featured in the October 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine by Lou Blouin.
This story sounds made up. But it isn’t.
There’s no doubt in Jim Neff’s mind that the Cadillac High School gym held only about 1,500 people in 1975. So the tens of thousands of people who claim they were there the night KISS played Cadillac are, frankly, inserting themselves into rock ’n’ roll history. As are the ones who say they partied all night with KISS after the concert. “I was with the band the whole night, and they slept maybe just three or four hours,” Neff says. “So if they were partying, I’m wondering why I wasn’t invited.”
But that’s the way it is with legends. When people want to put themselves in your story, that’s how you know you’ve really got one deserving of the word legend.
This is Jim Neff’s story. And there’s no dispute about that. In the fall of 1974, Neff was a 28-year-old English teacher and assistant football coach at Cadillac High School. The football team was coming off an undefeated season the previous year, which earned it a top-five statewide ranking among Class A teams. The 1974 team looked just as promising, but when the season started, the Vikings surprised everybody by dropping their first two games.
“It wasn’t a lack of talent,” Neff says. “The kids were just so tight trying to live up to the 1973 legacy that they just weren’t playing the game that they were capable of playing.”
So Neff, who’d grown up on rock ’n’ roll in Flint—who’d sung lead in his brother’s band alongside amps formerly owned by Iggy and the Stooges—came up with a plan to loosen the kids up. With a record player he borrowed from the high school library and his own vinyl, he decided he’d blast the nerves out of the locker room with a barrage of rock ’n’ roll during practices and before games. KISS—the face-painting, glam metal band famous for their circuslike stage shows—seemed to provide the right mix of absurdity and energy for busting the tension. Neff’s copy of Hotter Than Hell, the band’s second album, which had just been released that October, quickly became a pregame ritual.
“The other teams that we played thought we were crazy. Back then, you had to have your game face on and be all grim before the game. And coming from our locker room was ‘Hotter Than Hell’ and ‘Nothing to Lose.’”
Neff’s plan worked. The team rallied to win its next three games, after which he decided to drop a little fanmail KISS’s way to let them know how their music had gotten the team back on track. He never thought he might hear back. But one night, while sitting in his living room La-Z-Boy, watching TV, correcting papers, he got a phone call. It was KISS front men Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.
“They said, ‘Here’s the deal: We really want to know how this all plays out. So we’re going to give you the name of our road manager. And Al will keep you posted about where we’re going, and every time you have a game, give us a call and let us know how you’re doing.’”
After that, Neff says he started going to games with his pockets full of quarters so he’d always be ready once he found the nearest payphone. And the calls to the band always brought good news. The Vikings kept up their streak, winning every game on their schedule to finish 7-2. The band was so invested in the team’s story, they sent tickets for 10 upperclassmen to see KISS play at Cobo Hall in Detroit. For some of the kids, it was the first time they’d been out of Cadillac; for most, it was their first time riding an escalator, which Neff says they attacked like a ride at Cedar Point. It was definitely their first time seeing the face-painted, fire-spitting personification of the soundtrack that had inspired a winning streak.
Things started simply. Then snowballed.
Neff kept up the rock ’n’ roll formula the following year—and kept in touch with the band. In the spring, when KISS played Saginaw, the band sent tickets for the whole football team. Then, in the fall, when Neff found out that the band was playing at Western Michigan University just a few days ahead of Cadillac’s homecoming, he thought he’d ask their manager if Gene or Paul could slide up to Cadillac and just say a few words at the pep rally. Neff recalls he even had the audacity to suggest that one of the guys cruise up US131 from Kalamazoo to play a few tunes with those Stooges amps that his brother was still in proud possession of and willing to lend to the cause.
“Al said they wouldn’t want to play with someone else’s equipment. But we kept talking, and he said, ‘What if we brought the whole concert there?’”
Looking back, Neff says he probably should have checked with someone before agreeing to bring one of the most outrageous headliners of the era to Smalltown, USA.
“I mean, I’d seen the shows at Cobo Hall. But it was fairly obvious to me nobody knew what to expect. We had to tell school officials and met with the police and fire chief, but their frame of reference was back in the day when bands or performers would get in a car with a disc jockey and go from dance to dance on a Friday night and lip sync a few songs. So our city officials thought, Yeah, we can do this. It’s no problem at all. So one thing led to another, and that’s how we got ’em here.”
KISS would show up on Thursday night, but the semi-trucks started rolling into the Cadillac High School parking lot on Wednesday. There was plenty of work to be done—most importantly, figuring out how to squeeze the arena-sized show into a 1,500-seat gymnasium. Neff says somehow they got everything in—the speakers, fog machines, Gene’s fire-breathing accessories—but drew the line when he caught a roadie trying to saw down the post that separated the gym’s double-wide doors in order to bring in the band’s enormous KISS logo backdrop.
Getting power to fuel the enormous stage set-up was a whole other matter.
“You can’t just plug KISS into a wall socket. So we went down into the transformer room. And one of the KISS guys had a set of things that looked like mammoth jumper cables. And he had one pair of rubber boots and one pair of rubber gloves. And he looks at me and says: ‘You take the gloves; I’ll take the boots. I think I know where to clamp onto this thing, but if I’m wrong, you pull me off, because I could die. And maybe you’ll die too. But let’s give it a shot.’ So he clamps on to this thing and luckily he gets it right.”
The cable wrapping down the hall and into the gym was the size of a python. And if the people of Cadillac didn’t know what to expect before, they might have started to get an idea by the time setup wrapped on Wednesday night.
Neff says only about 20 or so people even knew that KISS was coming until two days before the event. “If we told everyone, it would have been beyond what Cadillac could handle. We only had small mom-and-pop motels. And we didn’t want to get into a situation where you had people coming from all around. We wanted it just to be for the kids in the school and the people in our community.”
When the band rolled into town on Thursday afternoon, it became pretty clear they had the same idea. The photos from that day tell the story: Gene Simmons kicking through the halls of the high school, fully leathered and painted, pausing only for
yearbook-destined shots with cheerleaders and the football team; Paul Stanley crouched down on the floor, surrounded by elementary school students, including Neff’s daughter, Amy, all covered in KISS face paint. The town gave them an equally warm reception, bringing limos up from Detroit and repainting street signs to say “KISS Boulevard.” The marching band even learned “Rock and Roll All Nite”—in two days.
“When they arrived, it was just crazy. Suddenly, they were here. And all the kids, with all the face paint—Gene said it was like he was walking on Planet KISS.
Perhaps the biggest show of respect was the fact that, despite the smaller venue, the band gave Cadillac the full KISS stage show. Neff got a student to drive 45 miles to Clare to get a car full of dry ice for the fog machines. “His car was like 80 below, and he had to drive with his head leaning out the window just so he could see.” They got all the pyrotechnics too—directed by a guy who had done special effects on Broadway. Legend has it, KISS even christened their famous barrage of confetti (known as a KISS “Snowstorm”) using compressed oxygen tanks borrowed from local paramedics. The only change from the usual show: Gene voluntarily cut the blood-spitting part of the act so he wouldn’t scare the younger kids—or freak out their parents.
The sound was the most intense of all. Luckily, the gym had louvered windows at the top of one wall, which allowed them to vent some of the sound. People in neighborhoods sat in their backyard lawn chairs and listened to the concert from a mile away. One teacher described the experience inside the gym as almost like swimming. The atmosphere of sound was so dense you could feel it.
The next day was arguably just as memorable. The morning after the concert happened to coincide with Cadillac’s monthly civic breakfast, which the band attended as last-minute guests. The mayor, the mayor’s wife, the school superintendent—all donned the signature KISS facepaint for the occasion, bestowing the band with a key to the city. KISS returned the favor with plaques making them honorary members of the band. Later in the day, KISS piled onto the roofs of cars and rode in the homecoming parade, which ended at the football field, where they marched with the marching band and played catch with the football team. Gene playfully flirted with one of the cheerleaders before her dad, a local police officer, chased him off.
The finale was grand. When it came time for the band to make their exit, the entire school gathered at the football field to say their goodbyes. Neff expected the limos that had brought the band into town to pull up and take them away. Instead a giant, Army-style helicopter appeared out of nowhere, cruised out over the horizon of Lake Cadillac and landed at the 50-yard line. KISS piled in, waving goodbye from the air, while tossing leaflets to the crowd below.
Printed on the fliers: Cadillac, KISS loves you.
“It’s my 15 seconds of fame that’s lasted 40 years,” Neff says, laughing. “Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t email or call me to talk about it.”
He’s not exaggerating. Neff, just through the power of this one event, has become a key part of KISS history. Fans send him records by mail to autograph and return. One time, two members of the “KISS Army”—shorthand for KISS’s worldwide legion of fans—even drove all the way from Oklahoma, just to have Neff, who still lives in Cadillac, show them around the places where this bizarre, unforgettable episode took place. The football field, the gym, the homecoming parade route. The former landmarks of a bygone Planet KISS.
“I had one guy say to me, there are two legendary people that every KISS fan wants to meet. One is a guy named Bill Starkey, who started the KISS Army. And the other one is Jim Neff, because I pulled this goofy event off,” Neff says.
Some music historians argue Cadillac was a big moment for KISS too. In 1975, the band was big, but not yet the marketing machine fans know them as today. After all, the band had just released its first album in February 1974. The reality is, they were almost bankrupt—crushed under the weight of an über-expensive stage show that financially outpaced the band’s still-growing popularity. The bizarre but heartwarming episode in Cadillac won them a ton of national press in publications as diverse as Rolling Stone and Reader’s Digest. It was, in a sense, KISS’s coming-out party to mainstream America.
“Cadillac was the beginning of KISS thinking of themselves as successful,” said KISS’s audio engineer Fritz Postlethwaite in Ken Sharp’s 2013 book on the band’s early years. “The day before, I had questioned whether they had more than a handful of fans and then I saw an entire community that looked like them. I thought I had gone through the looking glass.”
Neff admits it was a defining moment in his life too. “I mean, how can some short, bald English teacher at Cadillac High School be famous worldwide? It just doesn’t happen. But it did.” He’s still in touch with Paul and Gene, and can get concert tickets any time he wants just by calling up the band’s management. It’s not a privilege he abuses. But he did score some tickets to take his 7-year-old granddaughter to her first KISS concert a few years ago when the band circled back through Detroit.
With the 40th anniversary of the band’s trip to Cadillac happening this October, some want Neff to use his pull with the band to make another miracle happen. He laughs. “KISS is never coming back to Cadillac.” Instead, Neff plans to give Cadillac the next best thing: Mr. Speed, the KISS cover band, will headline the festivities that Neff and other veterans of the 1975 event are putting together to mark the anniversary. This time, the event is open to the public.
No doubt Neff will spend the whole day the way he spent October 9, 1975—busily running around, attending to all the details. In fact, the day KISS played Cadillac, he was hustling so hard trying to get everything in order, he didn’t even get a photo with the band. “I’ve got the memories though,” Neff says. “That’s more than enough.”
At many points throughout the day, he’ll be asked to call on those memories. The anecdotes are so well practiced at this point, they could easily sound routine. But Neff will deliver the story he’s told a thousand times like it’s the first time. He’ll do it because he actually still feels the enthusiasm for it. And because there’s still an audience for it.
“It’s the story that won’t die,” Neff says, an air of disbelief still in his voice.
But that’s the way it is with legends.
Lou Blouin is a writer and public radio producer. He lives in Pittsburgh, where he covers environmental issues on public radio.