Kix parties like it's 1989

Local band behind the '80s hit "Don't Close Your Eyes" comes to Merriweather for heavy metal festival

June 17, 2010|By Sam Sessa, The Baltimore Sun

In the video for their 1980s single "Don't Close Your Eyes," Kix lead singer Steve Whiteman screams the high notes and shakes his shoulder-length mop of blond hair. Behind him, the rest of the band members, long-haired and hard-rocking, carve their way through the hit power ballad.

When Kix plays "Don't Close Your Eyes" at concerts nowadays, they look and sound as if the '80s never ended. Whiteman, still skinny as a rail, has no problem hitting those atmospheric high notes, and guitarists Ronnie Younkins and Brian Forsythe's riffs are as sharp and crunchy as ever. Whiteman wouldn't have it any other way.

"If I'm going to get up on stage and call it Kix, I want it to look, sound and feel like Kix used to," Whiteman said. "I don't want to get up there and have to drag 50 extra pounds around that I didn't have before, and I don't want to go up there wearing a hat. I want to go up there and give them what they remember."

It's safe to say that the five guys in Kix — four are original members — are survivors. Saturday, when Merriweather Post Pavilion hosts the M3 Rock Festival, Kix will share the stage with the Scorpions, Cinderella and Vince Neil — three musical contemporaries who went on to sell more records and make more money than Kix.

Looking back, Whiteman doesn't harbor much resentment that Kix never made it big. But it still stings when Whiteman thinks about how fellow rockers Poison became famous with a similar sound and look, and Kix was left behind.

"Honestly, yeah, there is jealousy," Whiteman said. "Those guys I don't feel had a speck of the talent that we had, and they blew the doors off. But I know how hard it is to make it in this business, and anybody that can do it has my full respect."

The biggest '80s hard-rock band to come from the Baltimore/Washington area, Kix formed in Hagerstown and released its first, self-titled album on Atlantic Records nearly 30 years ago. Their breakthrough came with 1988's "Blow My Fuse," which sold nearly a million copies, thanks to "Don't Close Your Eyes." But in the early '90s, grunge sprung from Seattle, sweeping bands like Kix into the dustbin. Kix plugged away for a few more years, playing smaller and smaller venues before disbanding in late 1995.

"Radio stopped playing it, and it was almost being laughed at," Whiteman said. "You had to jump on the new bandwagon, with the Seattle sound and all that stuff. Our genre pretty much got flushed."

Kix's hiatus lasted nearly 10 years, with band members focusing on solo projects. Whiteman formed a new band, Funny Money, performing a mixture of new material and Kix hits. Enough time passed that metal and hard rock began to come back in favor with music fans, and eventually offers for a Kix reunion started trickling in. At first, Whiteman had his doubts about reuniting the group. But the money was too good to turn down, so he gave it a try.

On Dec. 27, 2003, Whiteman got together with Younkins, Forsythe, drummer Jimmy Chalfant and new bassist Mark Schenker for the first Kix reunion show, at the now-defunct Thunderdome. The gig was so well-received, Kix signed on for a few more shows the following year. Since then, it's snowballed, with Kix scheduled to play nearly twice as many dates this year as last.

No matter how many concerts Kix does, there will never be another Kix studio album, Whiteman said. Original bassist and keyboardist Donnie Purnell, who wrote most of the tunes, refuses to speak with Whiteman. Purnell was notoriously difficult to work with, Whiteman said, and put unnecessary pressures on the band. The final straw came when, after Kix disbanded, Whiteman told Purnell he and Funny Money were recording a song he and Purnell had co-written. According to Whiteman, Purnell hasn't contacted him since. Though Whiteman respects Purnell's songwriting, he can't think of working with him again.

"As far as he's concerned, we're all dead," Whiteman said. "I dealt with this guy for 18 years, and I never want to deal with that again."

When he's not performing with Funny Money or Kix, Whiteman, now 53, gives vocal lessons twice a week to help pay the bills. Despite the fact that he played hundreds — if not thousands — of shows and smoked cigarettes into his mid-30s, Whiteman's voice is just as strong as it was decades ago. While other, more successful hard-rock bands grew rich and complacent, Kix is still lean and hungry.

"We never made any money, so I've never gotten that luxury," Whiteman said. "I still feel like I can get up and rock like I was 25," he said. As long as I feel great, I'm not fat and have my hair, I'll keep doing this as long as they want me."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

If you go

Kix performs as part of the M3 Rock Festival, featuring the Scorpions, Cinderella and Vince Neil, Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Doors open at 11 a.m. Tickets are $35-$175. Call 877-435-9849 or go to merriweathermusic.com.

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