In August 1978, I interviewed Gene Simmons for what would become a January 1979 cover story in Guitar Player Magazine. Ace Frehley — whom I also interviewed — snagged the main cover story, while Gene and Paul Stanley were relegated to a diagonal yellow banner across the right bottom portion of the cover.
Disclaimer: I need to say this upfront so you, the person reading these words, understands the intent and emotional thrust of this story. I have never liked KISS. No, that’s not entirely true: I hated KISS and always have. In my mind, they were no more than a third-rate boogie band playing watered-down riffs. For the life of me, I could not understand their success. I have since come to appreciate in some small way Ace’s kind of frenetic, buzzsaw style of guitar playing, but that’s about the extent of it. That being said, let’s move on.
About two years before I sat down with Gene Simmons, the Man Who Spoke In Tongues, a Gallup Poll named KISS the most popular band in America. Merchandising was through the roof, including two Marvel comic books, pinball machines and maybe the worst made-for-television movie ever produced called KISS Meet the Phantom Of the Park.
A year after Gallup anointed them, the quartet simultaneously released four solo albums. Gene’s eked out the number 22 spot on the charts.
All this by way of saying that when I met Gene Simmons, KISS was one of the most powerful bands on the planet. Nobody would dispute that. A huge part of the allure, of course, were the theatrics: the face paint, the costumes, fire, blood. I had interviewed a lot of guitar players and bass players up to that point who cited KISS as one of their biggest influences, and virtually to a man they all namechecked Ace.
Gene wanted to change that impression, and so this interview was a big fucking deal for the band and they knew it. They wanted legitimacy as players and nothing could do more to legitimize them than a story in Guitar Player. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, scoring a feature in the magazine amounted to heavy currency. If you were in GP, you were a player worth noticing. You were the shit.
I remember it was a picture-postcard California day, the air sweet and clear, as I sat there in the lobby of Casablanca Records at 8255 Sunset Blvd., waiting for Gene to make his entrance.
“Wait a fucking minute,” you’re probably saying to yourself. “If this guy hates the band so much, why is he there interviewing them?”
Fair question. I was there as a reluctant participant. Typically, I would give a shout-out to Jim Crockett, Guitar Player’s editor and suggest a story. This time around, he called me and said he wanted a story with KISS. I may have hemmed and hawed, but there was no way I was going to pass on his request. As a freelancer, you were hanging by a thread from one story to the next and turning this down would have put a black mark next to my name that would have been hard to erase. I said yes and there I was.
Waiting in the lobby, I paid no attention to the cat walking through the door. At that point, the publicist had come down from her office on an upper floor and approached me. She said hello and introduced me to this dude who had just walked through the doors. I figured he was another record company person she wanted me to meet. I extended my hand in greeting as she said, “Steve, this is Gene Simmons.” I was speechless. I had assumed Gene would have appeared in all his kabuki kitsch, but there he was in all his workingman normalcy.
Gene witnessed my bewilderment and smiled benignly with a sort of modest smirk that said, “Yep, this is what I really look like.” At that time, the band was never seen without their war paint and I privately mused, “I am the first person on the planet to see Gene Simmons without his makeup” though I knew I wasn’t. Truly this was a crucial moment in the band’s development. Had he appeared in full costume — the custom-configured leathers, Frankenstein-styled lift boots, and Day-Glo face paint — our conversation would have assumed a completely different dynamic. I would have been talking to Gene the Demon and not Gene the musician.
We were ushered into a private suite and from the moment the tape began rolling, Gene revealed himself — truly unmasked as it were — as an affable and humorous individual, and someone completely open and honest about his life as a bass player. Bright. I liked him. He was a bit full of himself, but fair enough.
He was in a band perched at the top of the mountain and what musician wouldn’t be a bit cocky about that achievement?
He talked about seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and how that moment changed his life. He spoke fondly of early bands and the embryonic stages of KISS. But more importantly as his tale unraveled, Simmons subtly kept referencing the idea of wanting respect from his musician peers and even the fans. In truth, I had to read — or listen — between the lines as Gene was talking, because he’d say one thing but really mean something else.
Don’t get me wrong — Gene Simmons was all about making money and spitting fake blood on stage. He loved the power of the dollar and he lived for that moment in concert. But what he really wanted was to walk into a roomful of musicians, hear his name come up and hear the players say, “Yeah, man. That Gene Simmons is a bad motherfucker.”
As an example of what I’m talking about, here is a brief excerpt where I tried to translate what Gene said and what I think he meant when I asked him if he was a better bass player today than he was when KISS first started:
“Yeah, but not to any massive great degrees and I don’t want to be,” he admitted, though I didn’t believe him. “I don’t want to sit down and learn how to read and write music because I think part of the magic is not having preconceived notions about what harmonic structures and scales are like. The more you know, the less apt you are to go back to being simple. Eric Clapton, when he was still playing guitar, said once, ‘It’s not what you put into a solo that makes it good — it’s what you leave out.’”
What Simmons really meant and I’m pretty sure I was right was, “Yes, I wish I could read music and knew a bit more so my songwriting and playing was more developed.” That was important to him, but he would never come out and say that and he never has because that might suggest some inadequacy or frailty.
Simmons has always been fueled by power, control and domination, which is a good thing if you’re trying to beat the shit out of your enemy in war but not so great if you’re trying to deal with other people or trying to be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses. However, I could hear it in his voice when he talked about his mad love for Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce and Felix Pappalardi — players with a profound knowledge of harmony and orchestration — that he desperately wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as those types of iconic players.
Gene might say I’m full of shit, but I speak the truth. I know what I heard and I have it on tape and as much as anything, he wanted to be recognized and respected as a legit player. He had sold a shit ton of records, made bundles of cash and bedded a massive harem’s worth of women but the one thing he desperately wanted and couldn’t buy was street cred as a musician. Up until that point, the band had been regulars in Circus and Creem, mags more interested in the length of his tongue than the length of his bass neck, but with this GP story he wanted to climb to a higher plateau.
He seemed genuinely happy and truly honored to be sitting there talking with a writer from Guitar Player Magazine. There was no sense of guile in him, no attempts at skirting who or what he was. Direct responses. He did love the sound of his own voice, and his responses sometimes wandered and what was meant to be witty came off as silly or downright dumb or plagued with ego. But you could see it in his eyes that he was proud to be talking about his bass playing and not about blood puking. We spoke for well over an hour and you could read in the architecture of his body, the way he sat up so straight and focused everything that was in him on the next question that Simmons was truly digging the moment.
I may have been wrong, and I don’t think I was, but I believed Gene wanted that conversation to resonate in his mind for a long time. He wanted to remember it and hang onto it when he was in deep conversation with other interviewers who wanted to know what type of eyeliner he used or who did his hair. For that one moment on that astonishing California day, he was simply Gene Simmons, bass player in a rock band with a lot to say.
In the end, a knock upon the door finally brought our dialog to a close. As Gene departed and Paul Stanley walked in — I interviewed both of them on that same day — the bassist glanced at his rhythm guitar-playing band mate and shot him a look that said, “Yeah, this was cool. I’m glad I did this.” That could have been my own projection, but I was pretty certain Simmons would hold this exchange in his heart for a long time to come.
Or maybe not. Some 28 years later, I met Simmons for a second face-to-face conversation. Admittedly, I was hoping he’d remember the GP interview. We greeted each other and in a voice devoid of any emotion, he said, “You did the Guitar Player story.” It sounded as much like an accusation ad it did a compliment. I was a little taken aback and thought he would make some further comment, but there was nothing to be had. If he had recalled our conversation, it was from some long-forgotten distance.
But I still believed my story about him in Guitar Player Magazine was important to him — and maybe that’s all that matters.