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."
Like most sensations, KISS started out modestly. Simmons (born Gene Klein) and Stanley (real name: Stanley Eisen) met at a friend's house in Queens in 1968 and two years later were part of a fairly typical rock band, Wicked Lester. Epic Records was interested in the group, but before it could commit anything to vinyl, Simmons and Stanley split to form their own combo. Criss (Peter Crisscoula) was brought into the fold in 1972 after Stanley and Simmons answered his classified ad; Paul "Ace" Frehley completed the lineup in January 1973 after passing an open audition. Weeks later, KISS hit New York stages in the disguises and paint jobs that would make the players famous. By August of that year, Simmons (described in publicity material as "a blood-spitting, fire-breathing demon"), Stanley ("a star-eyed lover"), Criss ("a cat-man") and Frehley ("a spaceman") had signed with Casablanca Records.
The players released three studio albums (KISS, Hotter Than Hell and Dressed to Kill) in a little over a year, and while none of them set the world on fire, their fourth recording, 1975's KISS Alive! came close. Built from the best songs from previous offerings (as was Peter Frampton's huge-selling Frampton Comes Alive, from the same year), Alive! pretty much soli-dified KISS's approach: sometimes enjoyable metal-meets-bubblegum ditties ("Black Diamond" and the anthemic "Rock and Roll All Nite" are probably the most memorable of them) played in as loud and cartoonish a manner as possible. It wasn't art, but zit-pocked boys found it a lot more fun to listen to than, for instance, Sweet Baby James. Twenty years later, it still is.
For the next five years, KISS was a pop-culture juggernaut, racking up hit albums (Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over, both from 1976, were actually pretty decent), inspiring a massive fan club (the KISS Army) and starring in a KISS comic book that became Marvel's best-selling release. (Members reportedly poured some of their own blood into the ink that was used to print the opus.) There was even a TV movie, 1978's KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, in which the fearsome foursome had to kung-fu fight with evil KISS robots created by loathsome bad guy Anthony Zerbe. The program was the second-most-watched television production of the year, trailing only the mini-series Shogun. (A sample of Phantom can be viewed on the Web edition of Westword, at www.westword.com).
By then, however, the KISS zeppelin was starting to deflate. Even though simultaneously released solo albums by each of the KISS members hit cut-out bins in record time, Criss decided to venture out on his own; by 1980 he and KISS had parted company. (Frehley followed Criss into obscurity in 1982.) Meanwhile, the diminishing returns that greeted rote recordings such as Creatures of the Night convinced Simmons that it was time to ditch the disguises for a while--or at least that's what he was saying earlier this year. His current claims smack of historical revisionism. "The only reason we took the makeup off was because KISS was a dysfunctional family," he maintains. "Two of the members were not healthy human beings at a certain point. And if everybody's not of sound mind and sound body, it's not worth doing, because it slanders the legend of KISS. It's blasphemous, because to a lot of people, this is more than just music. It's almost religion."
It was also a gimmick that had run its course, so Simmons replaced it with a new one: the stripped-down look. But while the decision to appear without makeup propped up 1983's Lick It Up and 1984's Animalize, the fix was a temporary one. By decade's end, pretty much the only people who cared about KISS in this country were subscribers to Guitar magazine. The rest of the band's public had long since grown up and moved on.
Simmons, of course, doesn't see the situation in such stark terms. "Things were quiet for a while here," he concedes, "but the world does not revolve around the backyard. In other words, America is only aware of what goes on in America--but two years ago, we headlined the 'Monsters of Rock' tour without makeup and with a different lineup up and down South America and did sold-out European, Japanese and Australian tours." Like his "We the people" routine, Simmons restates these same facts later in the interview, adding, "Opening up for us were Black Sabbath, Slayer and other bands. And we were killing. By anybody's standards, our worst day is another band's dream day."
Still, Simmons wasn't satisfied with being a somebody in Brazil and a nobody in Hoboken--hence, KISS My Ass, featuring appearances by Lenny Kravitz, Garth Brooks and others. Although the album wasn't a blockbuster, it spurred a series of KISS conventions during the summer of 1995. These get-togethers were a godsend for Criss and Frehley, who were about as down on their luck as they could be. By August of that year, the two former bandmates were back alongside Simmons and Stanley for an MTV Unplugged taping. (The Unplugged CD, which also featured the now-banished Kulick and Singer, hit stores earlier this year, followed promptly by You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best!!, with Criss and Frehley.) Shortly thereafter, the original members KISSed and made up just in time for a bank-account-enriching jaunt across the U.S. "When the first show went up for sale--Detroit, Tiger Stadium--it went clean in 47 minutes," Simmons boasts. "It took 58 minutes for four nights at Madison Square Garden to go clean. Three nights at the Forum in Los Angeles, three nights in Philadelphia--it goes on and on. We could easily play a week in most of these cities." Even Marvel Comics is back on board: No KISS fan worth his salt could live without KISS Meets the X-Men, written by Stan Lee.
Even more surprising than the comeback itself have been the generally positive reviews that have greeted it. Knowing that showing gratitude for this journalistic turnaround would make him seem wimpy, Simmons insists that the notices only "solidify my image of critics as being cowards. It's always been very suspicious to me when somebody who has no credentials gets access to power. I mean, there are journalism classes in colleges, but there are no critics courses.
"Now, I have no beef with anyone who writes a column that says, 'Twenty thousand people came, they had the time of their lives, everybody went out of their minds, a million bombs went off, it was the biggest show I've ever seen, but I didn't like it.' That's fine, that's fair. Maybe it's not for everybody. It's like, believe it or not, not everybody loves hamburgers. Some people's mouths don't drip over a Coke and a double-cheese Whopper. Not everybody likes that. And that's okay. But to say, simply, 'This sucks, and never mind the rest of the people'--that's un-American. So all these raves, from the New York Times to the L.A. Times--from the bottom of my heart, they mean nothing to me. The only thing that matters to me is if you print my picture and spell my name right."
Likewise, Simmons claims to be unfazed by the suggestion that what's drawing throngs to KISS concerts has more to do with special effects than music. "It doesn't matter what they come for," he says. "Who cares? Who gives a shit? If they only come for the spectacle, that's fine. I want to make a spectacle out of myself. And if they come for the music? That's cool, too. But live, we have more responsibility. Because a ticket is so much more expensive than a CD, you deserve to be shown something. And it'll be something you can enjoy in and of itself.
"I hate it when knuckleheads on the sidelines, charter members of the intelligentsia, watch the fireworks go off and then go, 'That was amazing--but what does it all mean?' Get the fuck out of here. Sure, you can stand around and say, 'Ah, yes, but in the Jungian world as we know it, what does it say about society as a whole?' But to me, when a fireworks show goes up, that's all it is. It's just fireworks."
These comments suggest that Simmons has come to terms with his own superficiality, but that doesn't mean he'll sit still for KISS being dubbed a nostalgia act. "We're letting technology take KISS a step further," he proclaims. "We're trying to stay true to the spirit of the first KISS era, but this is not a play. It's not paint-by-numbers. We're not doing the same songs as we used to. We're not using the same raps. We're not doing any of that. The only thing we're trying to re-create is the feeling. Every year you have a birthday party, so in that sense they're all the same. But hopefully every party's different. And this party is beyond anything you can imagine. This clearly has trampled everything in its path, like Godzilla stomping Tokyo. You have ten bands on the H.O.R.D.E. tour and the Lollapalooza tour, or whatever: This thing is chewing them up and spitting them out.
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"The truth is, KISS with makeup and the original lineup just dwarfs everything else. It's no different than Superman and Clark Kent. They're one and the same person, but let's be clear and upfront: Superman looks cooler with the 'S' and the cape."
It's unlikely that millions of music fans will remain enthralled with KISS for as long as comic collectors have supported the man from Krypton; the KISS phenomenon seems inspired as much by a dearth of lively new bands than by anything else. But you won't be able to convince Simmons of that. "There aren't enough days to meet the demand right now," he says, "but we will be back. We'll come around on a second swing and keep adding stuff. Because as much of a kick as it is for the fans, for the KISS Army, it's a bigger kick in the ass for me. If God is going to walk the face of the Earth again, he should try this--because this is as good as it gets."
So when God returns, you'd advise him to join KISS?
"No," Simmons replies, "because there's only room for one God at a time. And I'm it."
KISS, with the Hunger. 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, September 7 and 8, McNichols Arena, $27.50-$37.50, 830-TIXS. Sept. 7 show