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Kiss Forever: 40 Years of Feuds and Fury

The strange, contentious saga of the world's most indestructible band

March 26, 2014 9:20 AM ET
KISS
KISS
Fin Costello/Redferns

All that's missing from Gene Simmons' home office is a cash register. He has stuffed a wing of his otherwise tasteful Beverly Hills mansion with Kiss merchandise, turning it into a shrine to his favorite guy, Gene Simmons, and the band for which he's spent 40 lucrative years playing bass, breathing fire, spitting blood and waggling a tongue so freakish he's had to deny grafting it from some unlucky cow. There are thousands of Kiss things in his lair, overflowing from glass cases: Halloween masks; life-size busts of the band members' heads; dolls; action figures; coffee mugs; motorcycle helmets; plates; blankets; demonic Mr. Potato Heads; sneakers; bibs; a bowling ball.

A lifetime of Kiss: look back at the group's long history in photos

On one wall is a plaque commemorating 100 million Kiss albums sold worldwide. "This room," says Simmons, adding extra portentousness to his baritone, "didn't happen by accident." At the far end is a Kiss motorcycle, a brightly airbrushed Kiss Kasket (the late Dimebag Darrell, of Pantera, is buried in one), a Kiss pinball machine and a Kiss throne emblazoned with a cute Hello Kitty version of Simmons' demon makeup – Kitty-Kiss hybrids are hot right now. Just outside the office, in a place of honor, is a Kiss video slot machine. "This box makes more money than most bands that tour," Simmons says, stroking it with a huge hand.

Kiss still tour. But the only original members left are Simmons and the band's frontman, Paul Stanley, two New York Jewish kids who shared a cleareyed ambition and zero self-destructive tendencies – smart guys who managed to write some of the most gloriously brain-dead lyrics ever ("Get the firehouse/'Cause she sets my soul afire!"). Drummer Peter Criss and lead guitarist Ace Frehley, the ones who took the whole party-every-day thing to heart, who crashed sports cars and threw furniture out of hotel windows, are long gone. You can sometimes catch Simmons and Stanley talking about their old bandmates with distant fondness, as if they were parked in their very own Kiss Kaskets, rather than living quiet lives in New Jersey and San Diego.

Circa 1980, Kiss fired the tenderhearted, insecure Criss, who lost control of his drug use soon after singing the band's biggest hit, "Beth." The gifted but underachieving Frehley quit soon afterward, intending to pursue a solo career – which he did, though with less verve than he pursued the consumption of massive quantities of cocaine, tranquilizers and booze.

Kiss recorded a disco hit and a ludicrous concept album. They stuck two new guys in weird new makeup, before finally unmasking themselves in 1983, beginning a long run as midlevel hair-metal hitmakers (Stanley looked pretty without his makeup; Simmons, not so much).

Let the debate begin: Kiss' Top 10 albums, ranked

They had already started work on an inevitable grunge album when, in 1995, Stanley and Simmons reunited with Frehley and Criss for an MTV Unplugged episode. They brought them back, this time as salaried employees, for six years of wildly successful but strife-filled tours – with the makeup back on. These days, Simmons and Stanley use two reliable hired guns instead, replacements who dress up as the old guys' characters, to Frehley's and Criss' considerable distress.

In the land of merch, though, Kiss is always just Kiss. It's the white-faced likenesses of the band's signature characters – Simmons' Demon, Stanley's Starchild, Frehley's Spaceman and Criss' Catman – that matter, not the men behind them. So what if the actual founders of Kiss have written wildly contradictory memoirs insulting one another? Their dolls get along just fine. In here, as Simmons likes to say, Kiss is a brand, not a band. "Kiss is like a cockroach that will outlive you all," he says. "It's bigger, even, than the guys who were in the band." He means himself, too.

On this cloudy afternoon, Simmons, 64, is wearing a tailored black blazer with a bright-red pocket square over a finely made black T-shirt, paired with black leather trousers and cowboy boots. Business on top, rock star on bottom. He's six feet two, with a build that doomed the band's early attempts at performing in drag ("I looked like Phyllis Diller with glitter," he says). As always, his poodle-textured black hair hangs to his shoulders, in a style one comedian suggested was inspired by Planet of the Apes. "This is all me – a lot of spray," he says, fondling the inert fur. "You're welcome to play around with it."

He's sitting in a leather office chair behind his desk, which is stacked with copies of his autobiography and DVDs of his reality show, Gene Simmons Family Jewels ("More episodes than I Love Lucy!"). Behind him is a giant blowup of his appearance on the cover of a magazine called Private Wealth. "I have a life-equity strategy entity called Cool Springs," says Simmons (it helps rich people obtain mammoth life-insurance policies). "It's difficult for people to understand, because they've been poisoned by the idea that rock stars are stupid. Jagger's pretty smart. Very few others are. If it wasn't for their guitars, they'd be asking, 'Would you like some fries with that, sir?'"

When he's not slinging button-pushing, right-wing lectures (he claims that the Vietnam War was a great idea), Simmons can slip into boastful defensiveness, but there's something puppyish beneath it all, as if he's daring you to like him. "All the credible bands can kiss my ass, with all due respect," he says, apropos of not much, within three minutes of my arrival. "The original forefathers who are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and I don't mean the disco or the hip-hop artists, what the fuck are they thinking? – couldn't spell the word 'credibility' and never thought about it. It was an antithesis of the self-imposed mandate, which is, 'Do what you want to do.' In other words, no rules."

In April, Kiss themselves will finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 15 years after they first became eligible. The band members share a distrust of the institution, which represents a rock establishment that long dismissed Kiss as lowbrow purveyors of gimmickry – presumably in contrast to the dignity and reserve of a berouged Little Richard screaming nonsense syllables. "The most important thing," says Simmons, "is that it's validation for fans who were picked on for liking Kiss as opposed to, I don't know, Air Supply."

As Simmons sees it, his band's values have triumphed. Arena concerts of every stripe, from country to hip-hop, have long since embraced Kiss' once-derided stage tricks: pyro, stage elevators, flying musicians. No one knows what "selling out" means anymore: The Grateful Dead have an entire division at Rhino Records devoted to licensing their brand; Bruce Springsteen's online store sells Bruce mugs and tote bags. And to Simmons' delight, Bob Dylan (a hero who once helped Simmons write a song that he released on a solo album called Asshole) just did a Super Bowl ad. "They all come around to our way of doing it," Simmons says. "Cherry Garcia, baby. The hippies lost. They really did."

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