A millennial colleague of mine recently viewed Clerks for the first time, and posed the question to the Facebookverse: What is the big deal?
I wrote him a quick answer for perspective: Clerks was to the 1990s what KISS was to the 1970s. Surprisingly, the analogy wasn’t immediately apparent to my young friend, so I explained:
Although Clerks was enjoyable enough when it came out in 1994, I was surprised by its overwhelming popularity among film students. The dialog was entertaining, but what made it different was its…. familiarity. It felt like the kind of conversations that could come from anyone’s group of friends.
It reminded me of how I felt when I first heard Kiss as a high school student in the late 80s. (In those days, KISS was an iconic band, not a football team). I was a guitar player, worshiped hard rock guitarists, and dreamed of stardom. I should have been right in KISS’s sweet spot as a fan.
All the guitarists I idolized loved KISS. KISS Alive! was the album that had started everything for this generation of guitar players. I remember an article in a guitar magazine where thrash metal shredder Scott Ian of Anthrax showed Dave Mustaine of Megadeth a KISS belt buckle he had picked up while Mustaine who became giddy with excitement.
One day, to my surprise and delight, I found a copy of KISS Alive! at a garage sale. Embarrassingly, my father made me return it before I could listen because I paid $2.50 (something like five weeks allowance), and the record had scratches on it. Well, that just made the album more of a prize to be sought, and several weeks later, I brought home a copy from the library and finally give it a listen.
I will admit, that between logoed belt buckles and being found in the library, I was beginning to have my doubts about the cool factor of KISS, so the bar may have been raised by the time I finally dropped the needle.
“You wanted the best and you got it, the hottest band in the land, KISS,” the announcer proclaims, followed by the opening chords of Deuce. It’s an engaging moment but the album loses steam even before the first song is over. (I mean, do they know that the deuce is the lowest valued card in the deck? I suppose the deuce could have been wild, but in my card playing experience, the dealer can declare any card to be wild that he chooses – it’s not automatically the deuce. Perhaps they were playing a low hand game. Maybe they weren’t even talking about cards, but at this point, you can see how this rationalization began to suck the rock and roll spirit of the listening experience.)
I was underwhelmed to say the least. With plenty of other bands to worship (I’m looking at you, Zeppelin), I filed KISS worship as one of the mysteries of the universe.
KISS was emblematic of 70s entertainment. The decade was marked by over the top ostentatiousness. Bowie, Zeppelin, Parliament-Funkadelic. The proprietor of KISS’s record label, Casablanca Records, so exemplified 70s excess that it was once said of him, “if it cost him three dollars to make two dollars, he would do it.”
But the 70s were long gone, and it was time to enter the 90s.
After the buffer of the 80s, the early 90s were the opposite of 70s over-the-top showmanship. Kevin Smith entered an entertainment culture that valued authenticity over showiness. Coffee houses. Singer songwriters. Heavy metal bands cut their hair. Bands were supposed to be real, not showy.
Creators and performers were supposed to be one of us. Kevin Smith was a perfect example of 1990s accessibility. He was another fan buying merchandise at the sort of place that future metal pioneers were buying KISS belts, too. He was one of the crowd, like they were. In music, you had the homegrown Seattle sound touring the country in Lollapalooza, and in movies, Kevin Smith was funding his projects with his own credit card.
As the 90s ended, and the new century began, I accidentally solved the mystery of KISS’s popularity. One day, the song Cold Gin came on the radio, and I noticed that was fairly easy to play. I should know, because in the preceding 15 years, my musical skills had been reduced from dreams of stardom to identifying riffs that were easy to play.
And that was when I got it. 80s shredders weren’t inspired by musical virtuosity. They were inspired by the realization that they could do it too. All it took was a the knowledge of some basic chords and a sense of showmanship. And I realized that that was the source of their worship. These shredders had heard the gateway into guitar playing. They might have loved Led Zeppelin, but Kiss was the thing that told them they could do it.
And therein lies the essence of the comparison. Smith was the prototypical 90s auteur, but more importantly, he stripped down the art of movie making to easily replicable parts. Listen to college students long enough, and you’ll collect enough lines to write dialog for your own Clerks. Borrow your pal’s uncle’s place of business for a setting, use black and white film, and you could credibly call yourself a filmmaker. Similarly, learn three chords and a few blues riffs, and watch your rock star dreams gain a foothold in reality. It’s not that KISS riffs or Kevin Smith dialog isn’t catchy, it’s just that they’re not THAT catchy to deserve the hype.
No doubt the fact that Smith represented the stripped down zeitgeist of the day helped with his popularity, as did KISS embodying the “over the top alien monsters spitting blood on stage” spirit of the 70s. But their demonstrating that creating an entertaining work of entertainment is accessible to an aspiring filmmaker or musician solidified their cult status among that audience.