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KISS and Sell

Gene Simmons is offering the deal of the century on a slightly used rock band.

Gene Simmons's famous tongue is wagging like Lassie's tail on breeding day. A publicity vampire, he's been starved of the press for a long, long while, at least in America. Although his albums sold respectably into the Nineties, even many onetime fans thought of him as a campy figure from the distant past (when they thought of him at all). But 1996 is revenge time. No longer must Simmons play in thousand-seat venues many miles from the arenas he once ruled. His band, KISS, is currently the biggest live draw in the entertainment business thanks to the decision by the original members (bassist Simmons, guitarists Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley, and drummer Peter Criss) to don their makeup for a gargantuan, hype-filled reunion tour. And Simmons, who beneath his greasepaint and codpiece is a carnival barker at heart, wants everyone to know it.

"If KISS is in town, you've got to go see it," he intones, the words flying from his mouth like a spray of hemoglobin. "I mean, whenever the new darlings of the wrinkled-shirt world come around, it's like, 'I like their record. Maybe I'll go see them.' But with KISS, it's like, 'The circus is in town. Got to go!'"

Wrinkled shirts really seem to irk Simmons. To him, they symbolize all that's deadly and dull about current rock music. "Frankly, I don't know why you'd want to see a new band with somebody in it in a wrinkled shirt who's looking down at his shoes the whole time," he asserts. "Besides, that's really dishonest--because as soon as you have your first million-selling album or your first successful tour, you're no longer poor, and the wrinkled shirt you're wearing is every bit as much of a costume as the costume I wear. Except I'm up front about it and say I wear a costume. You know what I mean?

"When they say, 'I always dress like this--I always dress in wrinkled shirts and jeans,' I don't believe it. They're just trying to put out a vibe, an image. And image and fantasy have nothing to do with reality. It's okay for somebody to get up there and say, 'Okay, I'm going to shave my head and wear wrinkled shirts and put body piercings all over my body because that's the vibe I want to project.' That's fine, that's honest, and I tip my hat to you. But if you say, 'That's what I'm really like,' you're full of it."

For his part, Simmons makes a big show of complete disclosure, but he's not a man who displays much of himself. He's got his monologues down, and while most are enjoyable, there's a canned quality to them. Take, for instance, this lecture on populism:

"Here in this country, the first three words of our constitution are 'We the people.' It's not 'We the politicians.' Politicians decide nothing. We decide. It's not 'We the critics.' Critics decide nothing. We decide. Critics tell us Independence Day stinks. They're wrong. 'We the people' decide that it's going to be the biggest movie of the year. End of story. It's okay for somebody to get up on a soapbox and say, 'I don't agree with the masses.' That's valid and I respect your right. But do not disregard or invalidate 'We the people.'"

Sounds good, right? But fifteen minutes deeper into the conversation, when Simmons repeats this speech virtually word for word in response to a completely different question, his passion seems more than a little forced. Especially when he doesn't seem to realize that the person to whom he is speaking has heard all this before.

Then again, KISS has never been about spontaneity. The band built its reputation not on sudden inspiration or off-the-cuff jams, but on some of the most carefully planned moments of theatrical bombast ever to have been presented as rock and roll. And that's precisely why the crowds are lining up again. Never mind that the two lugs who've been filling the positions once held by Criss and Frehley--Bruce Kulick and Eric Singer--were unceremoniously sacked shortly after the reunion bandwagon started rolling. Never mind that no songs from Eighties or Nineties KISS albums are being performed despite the fact that all of them reached either gold or platinum sales levels. And never mind that KISS My Ass, a 1994 KISS tribute disc that set the stage for the act's mass-market reemergence, was conceived by Simmons himself. The only thing that matters is that big Gene is spewing plasma again. And he is.

"I fly up to the top of the light system at eight feet a second until I'm 58 feet off the ground and sing a wonderful ballad, 'God of Thunder,' while I throw up blood over everyone's head," he enthuses. "We have seven million bucks' worth of equipment and technology on our stage, including hydraulics that lift the band--the entire band--30 feet in the air, and put us out 25 rows into the audience. We have a drum rise that levitates 30 feet in the air; obviously, Peter is wearing a parachute just in case. And Ace shoots out mortars from his guitar that explode over the stage. This, my friend, is the greatest show on Earth."

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