Vincent Cusano. The spawn of two Connecticut musicians born in 1952, little Vinnie would grow up to be among the most revered musicians in the history of Rock and Pop music. Did I say revered? Sorry. I meant despised. Detested. Loathed. Abhorred. Shunned? Described as a thief, a paranoid megalomaniac, his own worst enemy, wife beater, cross dresser or collector of dog carcasses there seems to be only one positive adjective that even Vinnie‘s biggest detractors will concede. Talented. Largely unknown when he came into the KISS world, leaving two years later it is without debate that KISS‘ pasture was a greener place musically and commercially than it was just prior. How much credit he deserves for that turnaround however, is something of great debate amongst the KISS Army. After KISS, Vinnie released the first of two well-received records under the Vinnie Vincent Invasion moniker. From there, things get less rosy for Vinnie and now he has become, in the words of former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick, the Howard Hughes of rock. So what happened? How did someone with his talent become a music industry pariah? How could he not at least keep some form of activity in the industry? I suppose being known for frivolous lawsuits has a way of turning people off but the story of Vinnie Vincent is a complex one.
After the implosion of his band the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, he spent the 90’s teasing us with possible projects before disappearing for good at the beginning of the 2000’s. His reclusive nature has only cemented the legend regardless of which side of the flying V fence you find yourself on. While it’s not easy to objectively dismiss so many stories of questionable to immoral (possibly illegal) behavior. I still find myself, not as a fan, but as a curious mind thinking. He can’t be THAT bad. Can he? Maybe he’s just eccentric. It seems the lack of his side of the story has been used against him. And since he’s unwilling to defend himself, I’m going to. Try anyway. I will take to my pulpit as a writer for Decibel Geek and use the 2016 KISSmas In July to offer a defense of Vincent Cusano a.k.a. Vinnie Vincent. I officially declare Vinnie Vincent, not that bad.
The perception people have of Vinnie seems to vary depending on the time they knew/worked with him. Before he was in KISS it seems people genuinely liked working with Vinnie. In an interview Decibel Geek did with Blanche Napoleon, she described Vinnie as a very normal and fun guy from their time working with Dan Hartman. She had nothing bad to say about him. No stories of him being difficult to work with. No unethical treatment of fans. Nothing but fond memories working with him. And looking at comments from Hirsch Gardner, Robert Fleischman and Jack Scarangella their reflections of working with Vinnie prior to KISS are positive.
The story seems to shift with Adam Mitchell. Adam is the person who introduced Vinnie to Gene Simmons, opening the door for Vinnie to work with and eventually join KISS. To hear Mitchell describe it now it’s as if Vinnie was some vagabond he was paying cash to clean his gutters when Gene happened by for a chat and Vinnie just sort of stepped in front of a handshake to lustily pander himself to Gene. Adam’s recounting comes off a tad revisionist describing Vinnie as a slimy opportunist just before plugging the Adam Mitchell Song Writing Method where you send him money and in return, he gives you five secret steps to writing hit songs and finding personal riches.
Here’s what we know. Adam was working with Vinnie, as a songwriter, when he introduced Vinnie to Gene. We know this introduction would lead to Vinnie working with KISS and eventually joining the band after the release of Creatures of the Night. Suffice it to say Vinnie impressed Gene enough at this time to get Gene to work with him. How everything went from there to him joining is more debatable. But I highly doubt Adam Mitchell begrudgingly introduced Vinnie to Gene as he would tell it today. Meaning he either knew of the nightmare working with Vinnie was and disliked Gene so much he encouraged the encounter OR, more than likely Adam felt Vinnie was a talent and could help KISS. Vinnie saw an opportunity in KISS with the lead guitar position vacant. That doesn’t make him sleazy. That makes him a working musician.
It’s hard to say exactly how Vinnie really was during his time with KISS as much of that narrative is supplied by a couple of guys Vinnie has sued a bunch of times. Something tells me a lawsuit or two might affect how one would reflect on what it was like working with you. The story from Gene and Paul has consistently recalled a talented man who was unreasonably demanding. Difficult to work with and was never their ideal replacement for Ace Frehley. Like they were the hot chick in the friend zone, drunkenly relenting to Vinnie‘s advances. Even in his book KISS and Make-Up, Gene minimizes Vinnie. “Vincent Cusano, who would later become Vinnie Vincent and have a temporary place in the band” as if they knew all along he was just a stop gap. For his part, when Paul discussed Vinnie in his book Face The Music, Paul mentions Vinnie as a guy Adam Mitchell hated but thought would be a perfect fit in KISS, only to shift to complaining about the methods Gene employed trying to get acting jobs. They may have gone light on details fearing a lawsuit. But they certainly have seemed to prefer Vinnie be a footnote.
The reality is KISS were in a pinch. After the departure of Peter Criss, Gene and Paul seemed to go out of their way to disparage Ace from having input on the big picture decisions in KISS. A fairly short-sighted path as their record contract they renegotiated after suing their new record label contained a clause requiring there be at least 3 original members in the band. Dynasty, Unmasked, and the Elder were not Ace decisions. So finding themselves in the quagmire that was Ace wanting to leave KISS was of their own doing. If hiring Vinnie was purely a move of necessity that’s their fault as well. If he only got the gig through happenstance and timing that is solely on the shoulders of Gene and Paul. They could have pumped the breaks until they found the proper replacement. Or at least a guy they wanted. And Vinnie was not the first or last member of KISS that Gene and Paul would call a bad fit.
So Gene and Paul are stuck with a talented weirdo who was difficult to work with and happened to be in the right place at the right time. Often referencing his unwillingness to sign a contract. As much as they have mentioned “the contract” they have never stated what Vinnie wanted that they weren’t offering. So we know it’s money. Was it unfair or were Gene and Paul just tight? In trying to determine which side was right, Vinnie doesn’t do himself any favors by recently selling T-Shirts for $75, guitars for $10,000 and of course that hilarious auction. But it is possible that Vinnie saw what he was doing for KISS. And seeing how working with Gene and Paul was going to be for him, restrictive, maybe Vinnie figured if he’s going to sell out to be in KISS he should be compensated. Let’s not forget, KISS was hardly an “A” list band at the time. There weren’t a lot of people clamoring to work with them in 1982. We shouldn’t assume Vinnie would be crazy to have reservations about joining KISS in 1982.
In his book KISS and Sell, Chris Lendt mentions some of the less than professional treatment of Vinnie during his time with KISS. Putting him up in a horrible motel that was run down. Frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes. Vinnie also expressed dissatisfaction with many of his guitar solos being chopped up in the studio. Recalling one time during the Lick It Up sessions he recorded a solo 6 or 7 times until he got the one he liked. Only to have parts of the 6 solos cut into one. The next two years were apparently a cat and mouse game between Vinnie and a contract with KISS. KISS says Vinnie never signed a contract and it got to a point where they moved on. Vinnie says the contract was bullshit and low balled his value. Rumor has it in addition to his salary Vinnie also wanted a percentage of band income. That’s never been confirmed. Vinnie has only said he would’ve been signing his life away.
Was money the only factor in Vinnie‘s continuation in KISS? In a 1985 interview, Vinnie stated “realizing he was never going to be able to do what he wanted to do in KISS.” as his reason for leaving. Can anyone who’s heard the Vinnie Vincent Invasion records claim he didn’t back that up? With the success of Lick It Up, an album he received 8 writing credits out of 10, is it really implausible that he could deduce his value to KISS may be monetarily larger than what Gene and Paul would be willing to give up? And considering the direction he went we know he felt musically constrained in KISS. Feeling undervalued, underpaid and underutilized, why would he stay? In early 1984, Vinnie Vincent had seen a lot of the music business. He had to realize his value may never be higher. He may never be hotter as a commodity. And if KISS wasn’t going to give him what he wanted as a businessman, musician or artist. He had strong reasons to leave.
And let’s talk about those songwriting credits on Lick It Up. More than one Vinnie detractor has questioned how much Vinnie actually wrote on those songs. Implying that the songs were basically written and Vinnie changed a single lyric or added a riff. It’s laughable to think Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley would share songwriting credit out of the kindness of their hearts. Not only does no one in their position give songwriting credit to a relative unknown for minimal contributions, Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, Eric Carr and Bruce Kulick have all commented on the struggle to get Gene and Paul to even listen to their songs much less share credit. Eric Carr got to the point of actual open frustration over a lack of songwriting input. Rest assured. If Vinnie got songwriting credit from those two, he earned it.
The KISS side has often referred to Vinnie as his own worst enemy. Gene has often stated that Vinnie was handed the keys to the kingdom and turned them down. One thing we know for certain. Gene is incapable of understanding a view different than his. On anything. Just because he says he was offering the kingdom doesn’t mean it’s true. Or that everyone should want it.
Robert Fleischmann, who had the opportunity to work with Vinnie before and after KISS, talks of his time working with Vinnie pre-KISS fondly. Even encouraging a young Mr. Cusano to take the job in KISS leaving him without a gig. And in his post-KISS experiences, he describes Vinnie as being manipulated and used by those around him. Mostly in reference to Invasion bass player Dana Strum and manager George Sewitt. Leaving the Vinnie Vincent Invasion with a certain level of disgruntlement, he would later work with Vinnie again in the early 90’s. Showing there wasn’t any professional animosity.
Can you really blame him? Vinnie clearly left KISS with a certain sense of defensiveness he hadn’t had prior. I cannot recall any effort from fans at the time to let the story play out. And the guys in VVI literally had a secret meeting behind his back regarding the direction of the band while the label was looking to secure his singer for his own deal. Imagine wondering if the guys in your band are conspiring behind your back with your label to do their own thing only to have exactly that happen. Even if you think it is more complicated than that, you need to see it from Vinnie‘s perspective. This was his record deal. He brought them in. Regardless of how he mismanaged things, we know those points to be true. That his bandmates and label were conspiring to move on without him.
He’s a thief.
Not going to lie. Can’t really spin this one. It seems once he met Dana Strum he developed a certain level of shady-ness. He tried to parlay an already signed record deal with Enigma into a better deal with another label. For whatever reason, it seemed Vinnie couldn’t be involved in an above board deal. There are many stories of Vinnie taking money for appearances and not holding up his end of the bargain. Plenty of people have made claims about sending him money for his box set only to get either an empty box or nothing at all. But one of the more laughable comes once again from Gene‘s book KISS And Make-Up. “He did things like invite us to dinner and then, when the check came, announcing he had forgotten his wallet.” For shame! Seriously Gene? That’s your smoking gun? He’s the new guy in the band. Pick up the fucking check.
I know too little and this is too serious an accusation to take lightly. Suffice it to say his wife did arrive at the police station with cuts and bruises.
For all his sins this is one accusation that was poorly reported and hard to shake. Fallout from his domestic abuse case with his wife was the discovery of some dead dogs in “sealed containers”. Reporting only that and leaving the world to come to their own conclusion. We now know Vinnie treated his property as a sort of animal rescue for stray pets. Some more aggressive dogs had gotten out of the pen and killed these dogs. The “sealed containers” were actually makeshift coffins complete with crosses on them. Once the complete story came out the damage couldn’t be undone. Those who were oppugnant of Vinnie would point to karma. Imagine the world thinking you were rock n roll’s Michael Vick when you are truly Richard Jewell.
The man Vinnie was, sure seemed to change after his time in KISS. Long before the lawsuits Gene and Paul tried to downplay the role and contributions of Mr. Vincent while in KISS. They control the story of KISS and do so through KISS colored glasses. It’s my belief that Vinnie never intended to stay in KISS. I just don’t think it was that important to him. And we know from reading his book that Paul has a thin skin for someone who might not think KISS is super cool (see story about Slash). He took Vinnie not signing a contract and not being super-pumped to be in KISS as a personal attack. And Gene is really only interested in discussing famous people he knows. The KISS side of the story is black and white. Truth rarely is.
I don’t for a second believe the story as Adam Mitchell would tell it. He comes off completely self-serving. Trying to maintain a grasp of any relevance he may have once had. And Robert Fleishman is hardly the first person to bring Dana Strum‘s lack of ethics into question. Something about his time in KISS changed him. And working with Dana Strum seemed to bring out the worst in Vinnie regarding how to interact with, well anyone. That said, even if Gene and Paul were mean to him, he’s responsible for his own actions post-KISS. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. And there is a lot of smoke.
In the years since the fall of Vinnie Vincent’s Invasion, there are many known and rumored instances of less than scrupulous behavior. I think part of Vinnie‘s issue is at least in some way related to some sort of mental issue. Subconsciously he is shutting down. He may not admit it outwardly but part of his reclusive behavior has to be related to not wanting to face the music of his own actions.
So how should Vinnie be thought of? It’s difficult to say. He’s not talking and if he ever does something tells me it will just leave us with more questions. Like most stories, there is more than one side. Vinnie may have looked at KISS not as a destination but as the next step. And once their fortunes started to turn with the release of Lick It Up he may have overvalued his role in that success. Gene and Paul may have undervalued him. Plenty of people in Vinnie‘s shoes would’ve kept the options open. Richie Sambora reportedly tried out for KISS around the time Vinnie did. Do you think he regrets ending up in Bon Jovi?
While divorced at the time, Vinnie‘s first wife was murdered while working as a prostitute. Leaving their twin daughters without a mother. He was charged with abusing his second wife and in the course of the investigation was falsely portrayed as an abuser of animals. He is largely viewed as a dishonest charlatan who has screwed over fans and promoters while filing one frivolous lawsuit after another against the band who first brought him fame. He’s surrounded by rumors from cross-dressing to having a sex change to homosexuality. He lost his home and seemingly disappeared as embarrassing photos of the condition they found his abandoned home filled KISS chat rooms and social media groups. I ask you, the reader, this.
Would you trade places with him?
To the people Vinnie personally wronged or hurt, I respect any animosity you may have toward the man. But he clearly isn’t winning at anything. For all malfeasance or transgressions, he’s committed, a price was paid. It may be time to forgive. To those who have never met or done business with the man but for some reason have ill will toward him I merely suggest, at some point, we all deserve to be cut some slack. Does he really deserve to be loathed? He’s a man in his 60’s with very little going for him (allegedly). He did give us some pretty spectacular music. He did bring a spark to our favorite band. He can’t be THAT bad. Can he?