Grappling with Simmons' ego was a modest challenge compared to what Stanley faced in his early life. Born Stanley Eisen, he grew up in Queens with distant parents stuck in an unhappy marriage, and a mentally ill sister. He had a congenital deformity called microtia, which left him deaf on his right side, with "nothing more than a stump" where that ear should have been. As he writes in his new memoir, a kindergarten bully called him "Stanley the One-Eared Monster." "The physical manifestations of it were horrendous," he says. "If you wore a shirt that was ridiculous, once people start staring at you, you go and change your shirt. But people with birth defects don't get to change it. So you live with it, and you live with constant scrutiny." He struggled with depression, and at the age of 15, with no assistance from his parents, found himself a psychiatrist who helped him move forward. In the early Eighties, he underwent reconstructive surgeries, with doctors constructing an ear with tissue taken from his rib cage.
As much as for anyone in the band, Kiss' makeup suited Stanley's psychological needs. "Paul invented himself," says Simmons. "He was a pudgy little Jewish kid and had the ear thing going on, so his self-esteem issues were whatever they were. He invented Paul Stanley, the name, his look, patterned after the English version of what a rock star is."
It took Stanley years for his real life to catch up with the illusion he created onstage. For a long while, he'd come home from tours and find himself alone on a couch, a rock star without any place to go. "In the beginning, the Starchild was the Wizard of Oz," he says. "It was a little guy behind the curtain moving the controls. But over time, the two kind of melded together and came to terms with living as one."
Kiss began as a shaggier, far duller band called Wicked Lester, also led by Simmons and Stanley. They had met through a mutual friend, guitarist Stephen Coronel, and soon had written enough strong songs to win a deal with Epic Records. They spent months making a generic, over-produced album ("We sounded like a cross between Three Dog Night and the Doobie Brothers," says Simmons) that everyone hated. The pair quit the band, but not their partnership.
They wanted to do something different. "We knew what we liked," says Simmons. "The English version of American rock & roll. They were better-looking, they played better. It was far cooler than the San Francisco stuff, where the guys onstage looked worse than the people in the audience."
They began writing new songs, liberally borrowing bits of all the rock they loved. Until egos pulled them apart, Stanley and Simmons were a true writing team: King and Goffin in greasepaint, Bizarro-world Becker and Fagen. The sound they were leaning toward was tight and hooky – the first demo version of "Strutter" is pure power pop, not that different from Big Star's "In the Street." "We've always been about verses, choruses, bridges," says Stanley. "It's called a hook for a reason, because it grabs you. And that's my mentality. Give me the Raspberries. Give me Small Faces. Give me Big Star."
Seeking a drummer, they responded to an ad in Rolling Stone's classifieds: "Expd. Rock & roll drummer looking for orig. grp." It was placed by one Peter Criscuola, a 26-year-old Italian-American kid, schooled on jazz and Motown, who was convinced he was running out of time to make it as a rock star. Simmons asked if he would wear a dress onstage. Absolutely, said Criss, who was playing in a cover band at a Mafia-run club in Brooklyn.
Simmons and Stanley had wanted a heavy, Zeppelin-y feel to the rhythm section, but Criss' swinging, behind-the-beat feel kept them lighter on their feet – even if he was so instinctual that he rarely played songs the same way twice.
There were immediate signs of personality differences: Over a slice of pizza at their first meeting, Criss blurted out that he had a nine-inch penis, a piece of information that his colleagues didn't know how to process. "He was a Sopranos guy, a Godfather guy," says Simmons. "You know the Italian alphabet? Fuckin' A, Fuckin' B?"
"They had fired their whole band," Criss says. "That should've let me know something then and there, the first time I met them! But I remember comin' home to my mom, sayin', 'Ma, it ain't my kind of music, but we could become a really great rock & roll band.'"
As with the New York Dolls, there was something prescient in the flayed-to-the-bone style they were developing, its rawness a rejoinder to prog-hippie excess. A teenager named Jeffrey Hyman attended Kiss' first gig, in Queens, and he'd later dub them "the loudest band I'd ever heard." He was soon calling himself Joey Ramone.
They auditioned tons of lead guitarists, including a weird dude whose mom dropped him off at the band's rehearsal space on East 23rd Street: He was wearing one red and one orange sneaker, and had to chug a beer to take the edge off before sitting in with the band. He proceeded to blaze through every lick he knew in the course of one song. His name was Paul Frehley, but they couldn't have two Pauls in the band: He went with Ace, a nickname bestowed by friends impressed with his prowess with women.
Kiss rehearsed for months before playing live, and an impatient Criss threatened to quit. They soon had their sound – and then came up with an image so powerful that it threatened to drown out their music. "I can't take credit for it, and Paul can't," says Simmons. "Nobody can. Certainly not Ace or Peter, who never thought of anything." (This is unfair: For one, it was Frehley who designed the band's logo.)
"We found ourselves going downstairs to the Woolworths," Simmons recalls. "And we buy these tall mirrors. And we bought some clown makeup – and I don't remember thinking anything of it. 'Let's go get mirrors, and let's go get makeup, and let's put makeup on and see what happens.' Just like that. And over the next hour or two, whatever happened, happened. And it wasn't too dissimilar to what you see today."
During my second visit to Simmons' house, Billy Ray Cyrus suddenly shows up. Simmons never met Miley's dad before, but he's always happy to show off his trophy room; the day before, an executive from Bain Capital stopped over. These visits are very rarely social. "Always business," Simmons says. "I hardly have any friends. Friendship is overrated."
Cyrus is jittery, outrageously friendly, all leather, denim and hair, with a thick Southern accent. He is star-struck by Simmons, though the feeling doesn't seem to be mutual. "This is the most overwhelming contribution to society," he says, gazing in awe at the knickknacks. "I stood in line in Huntington, West Virginia, to see you!"
Back by the Kaskets, Cyrus is talking about getting older, and mentions a former hard-partying lifestyle that put "heavy mileage" on him.
"But that was your choice," Simmons says. "You chose to do that, yes?"
"Well," Cyrus says, gearing up to unleash some tragic tales, "I had a rough time growing up."
Simmons cuts him off. "So did I," he says. "My mother was in a Nazi concentration camp. I came to America when I was eight years old, and I didn't speak a word of English."
Cyrus is momentarily struck dumb. "That just adds to how impressive this man's accomplishments are," he says, shaking his head, gazing at a case full of Kiss dolls. "I didn't overcome nothing compared to what you came from."
In any case, Cyrus says, Simmons really has to come and hang out at his house someday.
"Do you have any matzo?" Simmons asks, deadpan. Cyrus smiles uncertainly.
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