Rock 'n' roll is as much about attitude, shock value, and spectacle as it is about the music. I learned this at a young age. It was 1975, and I was 9 years old. We had a record party at school and my pal Henry bought in KISS "Alive." Now most of the other kids had carried in stuff like the Bay City Rollers and Leif Garrett, and I had brought in some Elvis 45s, yet I was drawn to the cover of Henry's offering.
Pictured there were four dudes straight out of Dante's "Inferno," or outer space, a comic book, Kabuki theater, or from under a rock. It was like nothing we'd ever seen. We dropped the needle in the groove. It was like nothing we'd ever heard.
The announcer's voice boomed. And we were doomed. "You wanted the best, you've got the best. The hottest band in the land ... KISS!"
Henry and I went completely wild, jumping on desks and chairs, and playing what we would later learn was air guitar. The rock 'n' roll shenanigans continued until Sister Rosaire ripped the needle noisily from the groove and marched us down to Sister Roberta's office.
But alas, it was too late: I had been bitten. Jesus couldn't save us now. From that moment forward, KISS and the memory of that day would forever be with me. It's still one of my all-time favorite albums. So imagine my squealing glee when I secured an interview with the fire-breathing, blood-spitting, bass player Gene Simmons.
Simmons is an excellent spin doctor, and a lot of his answers were seemingly well-rehearsed. But he was charming, succinct, and super cool. KISS is a mega business after all, and its fingers are in all kinds of pies, from KISS cruises and themed restaurants to a line of caskets. The band is also charitably conscious and active in raising money for veterans. But business aside, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is arguably the biggest band on Earth, having sold more than 100 million records worldwide in its 42-year history. Nobody puts on a show like KISS.
Simmons rang me up, and we kibitzed for 20 minutes or so about the band's Freedom to Rock Tour, hitting new cities, helping vets, and how Lady Gaga is potentially the world's next big rock star. An edited transcript of that conversation follows
City: Hey Gene, how're you doing?
Gene Simmons: I'm deliriously happy.
I gotta say I'm a big fan.
You're a powerful and attractive man.
So KISS ... did you ever think it would have lasted this long?
I never imagined it. When you're a kid and you think, "Gee, I wonder what it would be like to climb Mount Olympus and live up there with the gods" — you know, kids have wild imaginations — and for this to happen, 42 years on ... KISS is America's number one gold record award-winning group of all time; we have the KISS golf course in Las Vegas; we have KISS cruises that sail from the Bahamas; we have the LA KISS football team; all the way down to KISS condoms and KISS caskets, we'll get you coming and get you going. There's so much on our plate. We are certainly the most blessed people to ever walk the face of the planet.
What's different about this tour?
This tour, 40 cities in America that are not New York, Detroit, LA, and so on. We're going to the heartland, the cities that made us who we are.
This includes some cities you've never played, right?
That's exactly right. Smaller towns, smaller populations. Our last two shows were in Minot, North Dakota, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. In fact more people showed up at the Minot show than actually live in Minot. There are 30,000 people in Minot.
We're also playing 5,000 seaters. Some places don't have large arenas, and that's OK; we're not here to say, "It's our way or the highway." We're proud to get up on stage, and we bring everything with us. So when we come to your town, we're going to stand proudly, guilty as charged by our harshest critics of making a complete spectacle of ourselves — you're goddamn right we are.
One other thing, it's called the Freedom to Rock Tour. We're teaming up with the US Chamber of Commerce, and we're giving local vets jobs. We're hiring them; we honor them.
Why did you pick this particular charity, Hiring Our Heroes?
We've been giving back to our vets for a long time. On previous tours, we gave a buck out of every ticket to Wounded Warrior and other veterans programs. And likewise on this tour, we're writing checks and hiring vets. Everybody should.
You were once quoted as saying there are no more rock stars today. What did you mean?
Well, you reap what you sow. Let's play a game, OK? From 1958 to 1988, 30 years, we've got Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones, Hendrix — the biggest enduring rock stars to ever have been there. That includes Prince. And in pop there's Madonna, Michael Jackson, U2, all that stuff. From 1988 until today, just give me five. Who's the new Elvis? The new Beatles?
Are there any artists that excite you today?
The most exciting thing for me is for Lady Gaga to get rid of the disco boys and the disco music, and come out and rock out with a real live band, because she has the goods. She can actually sing; she can play; she can write songs. I'm just not a fan of the actual stuff, but if she came out with a real rock band, she would shock a lot of people.
As far as I'm concerned she is the only new rock star out there. I mean there are great pop stars; Taylor [Swift] and Adele, they're wonderful, but that ain't rock. It's not music for your groin; it's for the heart. And that's OK. Now the music for your loins, that's what I'm talking about.
Do you have a favorite KISS album?
There are a few of them I like, but the first one holds so many memories from 42 years ago. Part of your favorite thing is that it's filled with memories, like your first kiss, your first girlfriend, all that stuff that you'll remember forever. It may not be the best, but you remember it the longest.
Any chance you'll ever work with Ace Frehley and Peter Criss again?
Do you remember the first girl you ever went out with?
Are you getting back together with her anytime soon?
The defense rests, your honor.
KISS is playing for multiple generations in the same audiences. How does that feel?
It's unbelievable. You can see them in the audience. To those who shook their finger and said, "This is the stuff that separates generations," the opposite is true. It brings generations together. And we see them at the show: a 5-year-old dressed like me is sitting on the shoulder of his dad who's dressed up like us next to his dad. It's just unbelievable.
What are you most proud of?
We did it our way. We didn't care what anybody else did. We proudly ran our own race and never looked over our shoulder to see what anyone else was doing. I mean look at us; we wear more make-up and higher heels than your mommy, and we're proud of it. We refuse to use backing tracks. We play everything live. We're anti-fashion. We're OK with everybody else doing whatever they want to do. It's just not what we do. To thine own self be true.
What's something you'll never do?
Endorse KISS crack.
Are you going to be buried in a KISS casket?
Well I won't know it, will I? I think it's beside the point, I know what should be on my tombstone — if there is one: "Thank you and goodnight."