Feb 22, 2022 • 14M

Gods of Thunder — an introductory essay to my newsletter

An essay about the greatest Kiss lipsync tribute band in Native American history

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Sherman Alexie
Poetry, fiction, and essays by Sherman a alexie
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Hello, readers, subscribers, and potential subscribers,

Here is an essay to give you a sense of what I’m doing in the newsletter—writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry about what it means to be a 21st Century Native, Native American, and American—and a stumbling citizen of the world

If you’re new to this newsletter, I hope you like what you see and will become a subscriber. If you’re already a free subscriber. I hope you’ll consider becoming a paid subscriber.

Thanks! Here is the essay:

Kiss band head bust figurine

Back in 1977, in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation, four Indian boys put on KISS makeup and pleather and lipsynced “God of Thunder” and “Beth” for the school talent show. The four boys were named Steve, Steve, Stevie, and Mike. I remember they had multiple strobe lights. That part I’m sure about. But I also remember fireworks and smoke machines. That can’t be true. I remember a spotlight for Mike when he sat on a stool and lipsynced “Beth,” that lonely and lovely ballad. There’s no way our reservation school had a spotlight. It was probably just three or four of the band’s roadies shining flashlights at Mike. But I was one of the roadies and don’t remember doing that. 

I do know that crowd went crazy for the Indian boys. Many of the Indian girls rushed the stage. Everybody, including the adults, was ecstatic.

Back then, KISS was dangerous. Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss were outlandish paragons. They were feared and loved in equal measure. Many Christians claimed that KISS was an acronym for “Kings in Satan’s Service.” KISS donated their blood to make the red paint in a comic book about themselves. So much ego. So much debauchery. So many decibels. They were worshipped. It was no different on our reservation. The audience mobbed Stevie, Steve, Steve, and Mike. It was almost scary. A crowd of Indian girls chased the KISS impersonators—boys they’d known their whole lives—into an upstairs bathroom. With the other roadies, I stood guard at the door. But I wanted to be one of those Indian boys in KISS makeup. I wanted and wanted. My envy was as outsized as the reaction to the lipsyncers. The Indian girls wanted autographs. They pushed me into the closed door. They pleaded with me. Somebody produced a notebook and the girls tore out blank pages and gave them to me. They wanted, wanted, wantedwantedwantedwanted. I took those tattered paper sheets into the bathroom as if I were carrying holy parchment. And the boys signed with their names: Stevie, Steve, Steve, and Mike. I took those autographs back outside to the girls. They screamed in delight then looked at the handwriting on the pages and ferociously protested.

“Noooooooo, not their real names! We want them to sign the names of the band!”

Or was it the other way around? Did the girls want the boys to sign their real names instead of the band’s names? Did four rez boys become rock stars by impersonating rock stars? Did four Indian boys somehow become icons while wearing costumes they’d probably purchased from the Sears in Spokane, Washington?

In any case, I saw the real love in those Indian girls’ faces. I saw their mad adoration for rock stars in particular and rock stars in general. For the first time, I saw extraordinary passion in the religious sense. I saw beyond fandom into fanaticism. Some of the girls would end up dating some of those boys. A few married a few. But those romances didn’t happen because of that KISS performance. Or maybe they did. Maybe that’s the way they began.

I don’t remember how that talent show night ended. I lived across the street from the school so I would’ve been back in my bedroom not long afterward. I doubt there were any rez kid shindigs later that night. Many of my schoolmates would become wild party-goers but nobody was like that in sixth grade. Too many of my schoolmates would eventually die in car wrecks. And it pains me to recall that one of KISS’s best songs, “Detroit Rock City,” is the first-person roar of a kid who dies in a car crash.

I always laugh when the puritans claim that rock music is destructive. Of course, it is! That’s why we love it. And that’s why rock—true rock drenched in lust and rage—isn’t popular anymore. These days, even the liberals and leftists are afraid of sweaty electric guitars.

Or maybe that’s just me being overtly nostalgic for the days when a timid Indian boy could pretend to be a stuntman.

I only know that we were back in school on Monday morning, and Stevie, Steve, Steve, and Mike were back to being just popular reservation boys. They were widely admired for their KISS performance but it soon became just a warm memory.

I haven’t seen or spoken to Mike, Steve, or Stevie for years but, after a long estrangement, Steve and I are friendly again. We often text each other. I’ll eventually send him this essay and he’ll certainly have memories that contradict mine. Who is more reliable? The actor or the witness? I don’t know. Our combined stories, with all the contradictions intact, only tell part of the story anyway.

We’re all the unreliable narrators of our lives, so let’s celebrate the unreliable.

Once upon a time on the Spokane Indian Reservation, four Indian boys briefly became superstars. I saw them being created in real time. I was there and I hope, by writing this essay, that I’m bringing that mythology back to life.

I want all of you, my witnesses, to retell the tale of the four Indian boys who, for one night, became deities.