The Long Kiss Goodbye: The Search for Vinnie Vincent
The Long Kiss Goodbye: The Search for Vinnie Vincent
Smyrna, Tennessee, is not a likely place to find a guitar god, or anyone in particular, which meant it was just about perfect for Vinnie Vincent. For a while anyway. The town of 42,000 people is roughly 25 miles southeast of Nashville, and full of non-descript McMansions and farmhouses kept watch over by lazily grazing goats and cows. There are cozy residential subdivisions, too, where children's bikes are strewn across the well-manicured front lawns of one-story brick ranch houses.
One property near the outskirts of town, though, sticks out amongst all the idyllic sameness. Behind a forbidding eight-foot-tall picket fence and a padlocked gate stand two houses. Paint cans, a television set and stuffed black garbage bags litter the driveways. This is where guitarist Vinnie Vincent — who gave life back into Kiss in the early Eighties, when the bandmembers had removed their makeup but seemed musically ready for embalming, and then became a hair-metal solo star in his own right — has lived in seclusion for the last 15 years. Or, more accurately, had lived. It's hard to know where Vincent is these days.
From the looks of it, the houses have been abandoned for some time. Knocks on the front door go unanswered, and multiple calls in to Vincent's lawyer inquiring about his client's whereabouts yielded nothing. It's not as if Vincent, 61, was ever a man about Smyrna. Up the road, a clerk at the gas station clerk can't recall ever seeing the musician who once played for 137,000 fans in Brazil — Kiss' biggest concert. A next-door neighbor, Paul Sachtjen, says he'd never met Vincent face-to-face. He had, though, endured a battle over some pruned pear trees hanging across property lines, receiving angry letters and police visits, but never at the expense of Vincent's closely-guarded privacy. Years later, Sachtjen's son vandalized a convertible belonging to Vincent's wife, Diane. Soon after, surveillance cameras and mounted outdoor spotlights were installed on Vincent's property.
"I feel bad for him," Sachtjen says now. "He wants to be a recluse and left the hell alone."
But Kiss fans being Kiss fans, that is, somewhere between Deadheads and Trekkies on the obsessiveness scale, means that interest in Vincent is still strong. As the original replacement for founding member guitarist Ace Frehley, Vincent garnered a reputation as one of the band's most talented, influential, and divisive members in its 40-year history. From 1982 to 1984, Vincent's knack for cocky melodies and virtuosic guitar shredding revived an outfit that had limped into the Eighties with the release of the high concept, low quality Music From "The Elder." 1983's Lick It Up was the Kiss first album on which Vincent was credited as a member (uncredited, he'd subbed for Frehley on the previous year's Creatures of the Night). It was also the first time the band appeared without makeup, and as the writer of the title track and the musician responsible for the re-born Kiss' most jaw-dropping moments, Vincent helped frontment Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons establish a post-grease paint identity, pushing the music in the chart-topping direction of Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard.
Despite his contributions, on April 10th, when Kiss receives their long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Vincent is about as likely to attend the ceremony as Syd Barrett would've been to fly on an inflatable pig over a Pink Floyd show.
"He's such a mysterious figure," says Bruce Kulick, who held down the lead guitar spot in Kiss for 12 years following Vincent's departure and who will attend the Rock Hall event. "In some ways, he's the Howard Hughes of Kiss. Vinnie has laid low for so long that it adds to his legend."
From his home in Smyrna, Vincent did send out occasional ripples into the world. He filed multiple lawsuits against his former bandmates, alleging unpaid songwriting royalties. There have been run-ins with the cops. And scorned soldiers in the Kiss Army have charged Vincent with intentionally ripping them off by offering products for sale that he then never delivered. It's because of those head-scratching moves, and the lingering echo of his jaw-dropping musical talent, that Vinnie Vincent still inspires others' curiosity. He just isn't interested in satisfying any of it.
Vincent John Cusano was born in 1952 to Alfonso and Terri, who worked as country musicians throughout his youth. Growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Vinnie's parents exposed him to the guitar, and by the time he was 10 years old, the boy, already fascinated with the Beatles, became enraptured with the instrument.
"I slept with my guitar as a kid and I didn't even know how to play it." Vincent said in a 1987 Guitar Player interview. "I loved the guitar more than anything and it's all I ever wanted to play."
Harboring dreams of a career in music, Vinnie paid the rent with a series of odd jobs, doing everything from selling vintage guitars to working in the incinerator room of a department store burning boxes. After scuffling through the early Seventies playing tiny solo gigs, Vinnie's his first professional break came when he met Connecticut-based former Rascals' singer Felix Cavaliere at a local session for an album by Blood, Sweat and Tears horn player Fred Lipsius.
"He was an incredible talent," says Cavaliere. "He used to do a lot of solo dates in Connecticut. He'd go up to these bars and little restaurants. He could play as subtle as you wanted. He could play acoustically where he doesn't drive a crowd out because they need to hear to eat. He could play anything."
Cavaliere subsequently befriended the guitarist, who he remembers as strangely guarded, and asked him to join his new rock band, Treasure, which in 1977 released a self-titled smooth-rock album on Epic that, except for a handful of majestic Vincent guitar solos, deservedly came and went. In 1980, Cusano, by this time married to his first wife AnnMarie Peters and the father of twin girls, headed to Los Angeles hoping to further his career. He landed at Paramount, where he worked on music for Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi, among other TV shows. Not satisfied scoring the exploits of Fonzie and Ralph Malph, Vincent collaborated on rock material with eventual Paul Stanley co-songwriter Adam Mitchell and Robert Fleischman, lead singer for Journey before Steve Perry.
During these early L.A. days, Vincent exhibited little of his future eccentricity. "The first time I opened up the door [to meet him]," says Fleischman with a laugh, "he was standing there with a t-shirt, tennis shoes, and jeans and no makeup. He was very nice, very charming. Obviously, his ego got quite inflated [with Kiss], but he was never that way with me."
By 1982, Ace Frehley was well on his way out of Kiss, and Vincent was called in for a try-out. "The first time Vinnie came to the studio," recounted Paul Stanley in his recently released memoir, Face The Music, "he started doing a solo and got down on his knees. I thought it was one of the goofiest things I'd ever seen." Evidently, goofy was good. Vincent played all over 1982's Creatures of the Night and joined the band for its subsequent tour, where he appeared with his face painted in an "Ankh Warrior" ancient Egyptian motif — the design courtesy of Stanley.
The follow-up, to Creatures, the confidently swaggering Lick It Up, was the first Kiss album to go gold since 1980's Unmasked. Vincent was rightly proud of his role in rejuvenating the iconic band. "My chemistry with the band helped put them back on top and gave them a musical credibility that they'd never had before," he told Kerrang! magazine. But resentment, largely over songwriting royalties, was already festering. In the same interview, Vincent said, "I couldn't get the recognition I needed."
In concert, the guitarist was determined to get the attention he desired. A portion of the band's shows during its 1983 and 1984 tours was given over to a Vincent solo spot. Often dressed in a sleeveless, tattered shirt, tight black leather pants and high-heeled boots, Vincent would play impossibly fast flurries of notes, fall down to his knees, wring whammy bar dives and wails from his instrument and bust out finger-tapped triplets and power-chord riffs. He preened and pranced and drew screaming ovations. He wasn't Eddie Van Halen, but he wasn't far off.
The hotdogging did not go over well with the other members of Kiss, especially not when Vincent began ignoring the other bandmembers' cues to end his solos. Things came to a head in the Spring of 1984, when Vincent's solos spun well beyond the few minutes they were supposed fill.
"Onstage, Vinnie was hell-bent on using every solo as an opportunity to showcase himself," Stanley remembered. "We used to call it the high point of the show — because everybody in the audience left to go get high."
Once his unsanctioned bravado become too irksome to Stanley and Gene Simmons, Vincent's time in the band was short-lived. "It was torture working with him," Simmons wrote in his 2002 autobiography, Kiss and Make-Up. "He didn't like to be told what or how to play." The way Simmons and Stanley tell it, they had reservations about Vincent from the beginning. Stanley felt Vincent was "shifty" and told Simmons, "I just want to go on record saying that [working with Vincent] is a bad move." With each passing show, they came to loathe his self-indulgent mindset and standoffish attitude. "He had no sense of what to play or when," Stanley wrote, "and he had no ability to self-edit." Vincent's playing, felt Stanley, "was like puking — it just came splattering out."
Vincent, naturally, felt differently about his virtuosic displays. "I'm an over the top kind of guy," he said in a 1987 radio interview. "I like it. It's extreme and excessive. I think as spectacular as Kiss was with its live show, they were conservative musically. I think they were looking for more a generic, old school kind of guitar player. I think that's what they wanted me to do. But that wasn't in my blood."
Vincent and Kiss parted ways once the "Lick It Up" tour ended in March 1984. Simmons said the band fired him for "unethical behavior" — understood to mean he wouldn't sign the employment contract being offered. There were other issues. Speaking at 1995's Worldwide Kiss Konvention in Nashville, Stanley said that "Vinnie sold a fan a guitar he had never played and said it was his favorite guitar, a guitar he always played, and he sold it to a fan for more than it would cost in a store." For a band that above all valued its relationship — business and otherwise — with its fans, the ethical lapse, said Stanley said, "was totally unacceptable."
As the hotshot who'd given Kiss a kick in the ass, Vincent was in high demand after exiting the group. Chrysalis Records quickly offered his new band, Vinnie Vincent Invasion, a reported eight-album, $4 million contract. He recruited drummer Bobby Rock, bassist Dana Strum and, for touring, vocalist Mark Slaughter.
Things did not go smoothly.
An obsessive taskmaster, Vincent, on four separate occasions, made Rock entirely re-record his parts for the group's self-titled debut. The veteran drummer still considers the drilling to be "the most difficult recording experience" of his career. Vincent held himself to his own, perhaps impossible, standards. "He kept using the whammy bar on this one solo," says Robert Fleischman, who recorded vocals before being replaced by Slaughter for shows, "and he kept doing it and doing it, and it kept getting out of tune. He was just chasing his tail and going nutty." The guitarist got pissed off — literally. "He finally just got up," says Fleischman, "and smashed the guitar and he fucking pissed on it. And he's just pissing on it on a hardwood floor. It was just nuts. We couldn't go into the studio for, like, three days."
Despite the recording craziness, Vinnie Vincent Invasion sold respectably and earned a spot on Kerrang!'s 1986 albums-of-the-year list. In the years since, the album has become something of a hair-metal connoisseur's favorite, as tracks like "Boyz Are Gonna Rock" and "Animal" are peacocking party-rock exemplars. Kerrang! included Vinnie Vincent Invasion on its list of the 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All-Time, and writer Chuck Klosterman praised it as an Eighties hair-metal classic. Vincent, wrote Klosterman, played like "a Tasmanian devil whirling toward vaginas and self-destruction." And he meant that in a good way.
After releasing the album, Vincent's band landed opening slots with Alice Cooper and Iron Maiden as well as embarked on a headlining club tour. But, in something of a pattern, conflict quickly arose. Vincent's bandmates felt the guitarist's showmanship detracted from the music. They attempted to hire a manager who could reason with Vincent. Vincent saw this as an attempted mutiny. "He took it badly," Rock says. "We handled it wrong." Despite the relationships having deteroriated, Vinnie Vincent Invasion released its sophomore effort, All Systems Go, in 1988 and embarked on a tour that was to be its last. Soon after, Slaughter and Strum broke off on their own. Performing as Slaughter, they went on to sell more than two million copies of their 1990 debut, the aptly titled Stick It to Ya. The Invasion was over.
Without a band, Vincent landed a publishing deal and tried writing adult contemporary pop songs. By chance, he ran into Simmons at a recording studio. "Vinnie Vincent came up to me and apologized for causing the band all the grief while he was a member," Simmons wrote. "He wanted to patch things up and wondered if I would consider writing some songs with him."
Vincent was brought back into the Kiss mix to co-write "Unholy," "Heart of Chrome" and "I Just Wanna" for the band's 1992 album, Revenge. Once the record hit shelves in 1992, Vincent quickly shed his penitent's skin.
"Vinnie was up to his old tricks again," fumed Simmons. "He reneged on a signed deal we had made and decided that he wanted to renegotiate. He eventually sued us and lost. As far as I was concerned, he was persona non grata forever."
He was also not proving to be musically productive on his own. A modest contract with Enigma Records gave Vincent the financial wherewithal to chip away at a third LP. He called on Robert Fleischman and drummer Andre LaBelle to help. "With recording," Labelle says, "Vinnie went extremely overboard and was never satisfied." The drummer says the meticulous guitarist had him work in six different studios over a two-year period and "blew money like crazy." He also says Vincent refused to let him take demos home and practice his parts off the clock.
After Vincent burned through his recording advance, Fleischman and LaBelle believe he tried to leverage his demos into a bigger record deal with a larger label and in the process scuttled his relationship with Enigma. Speaking at a Kiss convention in the mid-Nineties, Vincent said, "It was a small label, but they were spending quite a bit. I stopped production on the record and didn’t do anything with it. I let some time go by and I realized what I really wanted to do was launch my own record company."
Due to waning general interest in hair-metal, Vincent left Los Angeles in the mid-Nineties, following the shifting stylistic winds to Nashville, where he hoped to land songwriting work and session gigs. At around the same time, Vincent began participating in Kiss Expo fan conventions as a way to earn some money. He'd sign autographs, pose for photographs and sell merchandise. The re-connection with the Kiss universe also paid-off personally: At a Chicago convention in 1995, Vincent met Diane Kero, a longtime fan of the band and one of Frehley's ex-girlfriends. The two married the following year.
According to veteran Kiss expo organizer Phil Elliott, he and two European promoters fronted Vincent more than $20,000 in early 1996 to headline a series of conventions in Atlanta and throughout Europe. The guitarist used that cash to re-launch his career. He readied Euphoria, a four-song EP that he self-released on his own label, Metaluna Records, that spring. The effort, he told fans, offered a preview of the impending full-length, Guitarmageddon, which he described in a fanzine as "the definitive guitar record."
Vincent began telling convention goers that Guitarmageddon would be available in late 1996. Both Elliott and multiple fan reports on message boards suggest he also started taking pre-orders — charging between $120 and $300 each — for a career-spanning cassette box set dubbed The Vinnie Vincent Archives. It appeared that Vincent's music career was getting back on track, and he worked out another deal to ride on a bus with Kiss fans to different Expos. But things went awry. Vincent told Elliott he felt increasingly unsafe about making public appearances and feared a deranged fan might shoot him. Elliott remembers him saying, "I need an armed bodyguard. Look what happened to John Lennon." The event promoters balked at the demands. In return, Vincent threatened to renege his contract and cancel his appearances. Elliott pleaded for him not. He says he told told the guitarist, "Vinnie, if you were to leave like you're threatening to, not only will you destroy your career, but nobody will ever touch you with a ten-foot pole ever again."
Vincent's reply? "It's nothing personal."
In 1997, Vincent made one of his final public appearances in Nashville. He held a press conference to announce his latest lawsuit against his former bandmates. He claimed Simmons and Stanley had pressured him to sign an "unconscionable contract" that would have cut his salary to a mere $1,000 per week and made him stay in hotels full of "addicts and prostitutes." He also demanded additional unpaid royalties. The erstwhile Aknh Warrior began to see himself as a cautionary tale, telling reporters at the press conference: "I don't want the kids out there with dreams of becoming another Vinnie Vincent, or Kiss, or any band they idolize, to fall victim to the music business." He said, "I don't want their dreams to turn into nightmares."
On the evening of May 22nd, 2011, Vinnie Vincent's wife, Diane Cusano, walked into the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 15 miles from her Smyrna home. She smelled of alcohol and was covered in blood. She told the on-duty deputy that her husband had slapped her face, grabbed her hair, dragged her through shattered glass and, as she tried to escape from their property, repeatedly hurled her to the ground. According to police, the two had been arguing over a conversation Vincent had had with another woman.
Working on an arrest warrant, a fleet of squad cars arrived at Vincent's home. As a precautionary measure, Rutherford County deputies closed off the subdivision and requested SWAT backup. After refusing to answer his door for hours, Vincent was finally led away by the police. The cops charged the one-time Kiss hero with aggravated domestic assault. He spent the night in jail and was released on $10,000 bond the following morning.
Upon entering Vincent's home, authorities found four dead dogs in sealed containers. His wife told police that some of their larger, more aggressive dogs had attacked and killed these smaller ones. Vincent told local authorities the same thing, adding that he had rescued 20 dogs from abusive situations and that bad weather had delayed their burials. No animal cruelty charges were filed.
In a statement released after the arrest, Vincent urged, "Please don't believe everything you read. I would never hurt anyone - ever. What has been reported is an absolutely inaccurate depiction of the events that occurred that evening. When it's time, the truth will be known."
Cusano agreed to attend anger management therapy and stay out of trouble, thus avoiding a potential courtroom battle and possible prison time. In return, the local judge expunged the incident from the public record.
Prior to the blowout, Cusano kept to himself and — aside from the occasional pear-tree dispute — lived in relative seclusion. One neighbor, speaking only under conditions of anonymity, said that "I thought originally it was just two women [living at Vincent's home] because of the way he dressed. It was very incognito." When the resident found out his neighbor was not, in fact, a woman but a solitude-seeking rock god, he remeberings thinking, "I was like, 'Really?!'"
Aside from the rare, futile fan pilgrimage, there were few clues that the man living beyond the tall walls and padlocked gates had a noteworthy past.
"He made a complete life change," says the Rascals' Cavaliere, a fellow Connecticut-to-Tennessee transplant. "I maybe saw him once, if at all. He just kind of disappeared."
Not quite. While Vincent aggressively avoided public contact of the flesh-and-blood variety, he still loosely maintained an online lifeline to his intensely devoted fan base, intermittently interacting with them via multiple activated, then deactivated, Facebook accounts and in the "Description" field of the videos on his YouTube account. He's also participated in conversations on Vinnie Vincent fan forums, and allegedly created fake user names and online personas to steer the discussion about him in different, more flattering directions.
"To all of the 'truly genuine' friends and fans," Vincent wrote in 2011, "who sent me their heartfelt messages of support and love during my hurting time, I will answer each of you. I ask that you give me some time. I will see u all on the board." (Vincent launched an "authorized" "Double V" fan forum. An annual membership costs $500.)
Promoter Elliott says Diane Cusano largely supported Vincent through her work for a Nashville realtor. Vincent also tried to earn money through merchandise sales on his website. He hired two different guitar luthiers to build an "Official Vinnie Vincent Model Guitar," offering them for as much as $12,000 through guitar reps at the 2011 National Association of Music Merchants show in Anaheim, California. Additionally, throughout the last decade, Cusano continued to engage in legal skirmishes with Kiss over royalties and the use of his image. His claims grew so frivolous that one judge reprimanded Vincent for pursuing them at a trial and ordered him to pay the band $81,000 in damages and legal expenses. At the 2013 Kiss Expo, Gene Simmons told Kiss fans that Cusano had recently brought forward his 15th lawsuit against him and Stanley.
"It's a shame," lamented Simmons, still being asked about Vincent all these years later. "He's talented beyond most people that you'd meet, but you get to sleep in the bed you make."
In January 2014, Diane Cusano passed away due to conditions stemming from chronic alcoholism. She was 47-years-old. Not long after, several neighbors report seeing movers pack up boxes on Vincent's property.
Standing in his driveway, Drew Waldron, a longtime neighbor, pointed to Cusano's house, once surrounded by floodlights. "Those aren't on anymore," he says. Vincent is gone.
Vinnie Vincent's fans and former bandmates have different theories about his current whereabouts: He might be in Nashville, with family in Connecticut, or with some sympathetic female Kiss fan. Wherever he's gone, believes Phil Elliott, Vincent will make his presence known once the bills start to pile up.
"I don't know how he's going to stay afloat," Elliott says. "When he's desperate enough, he'll come out of the woodwork."
It's hard to imagine a situation in which Vincent would not choose to keep his connection to the music world and his fans strictly online, mostly one-way and entirely out of sight, if never truly out of mind. As Robert Fleischman — like so many alienated by Vincent long ago — puts it: "If he wants to be left alone we should leave him alone. I just don't think he really wants to be left alone."
If Vincent does resurface, digitally or otherwise, what kind of reception he'll receive when he does is anyone's guess. He drew the ire of some fans when he failed to issue refunds for pre-orders from his website. Some customers even threatened him with a lawsuit for alleged fraud for selling a product, The Vinnie Vincent Archives, which he never intended to deliver. As a sop, they received letters from Vincent's Metaluna Records, likely a one-man operation at this point, apologizing for the lengthy delay in sending out the compilation. Those apology letters came with offers to buy a guitar pick used by Vincent on the "Creatures of the Night" tour. The asking price was $1,000.
On VVForums.com, rumors still swirl that Vincent will take part in celebrating the Kiss legacy he helped create, whether by acknowledging the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony or through some other, more idiosyncratic means. That idea that he might show up is certainly delusional, but it's also sweetly optimistic — the Kiss Army still loves the Ankh Warrior, and as anyone who knows anything about Vinnie Vincent can tell you, stranger things have happened.