Simmons' mother – who is perfectly lucid at age 87 – saw her mother and grandmother die at a concentration camp, where she was imprisoned from the age of 14. She immigrated to Israel from Hungary when she was 22, marrying a tall, handsome man named Feri Witz, and had Gene soon after. Chaim, they named him, and his mother's love for her only son was a fierce and amazing thing. As he tells it, a neighbor lady once spanked him, and his mother beat her bloody; police took her in, but found her maternal outrage so impressive that they simply let her go.
She had a tumultuous relationship with Simmons' father, who had trouble earning a living and left the family when Gene was only seven years old. Soon afterward, they immigrated to America, and Gene never saw his father again. In America, Simmons was often alone, while his mother worked long hours in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, factory. He endured long hours at the yeshiva where she sent him, and until he learned to speak English, was viciously mocked by other children, even after he renamed himself Gene Klein. He desperately loved American pop culture, escaping into hours of TV, monster movies and endless piles of superhero comic books. After the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show, he added rock & roll to that list, where it quickly shot to the top.
Simmons shut down his emotions. "I remember the feeling of the little boy, rage-crying, being afraid," he says. "No mother, no father. She's working. Nobody around. Nobody to depend on. Nobody's going to keep me safe or feed me. It's dark, and I'm afraid, and all of that. And from that day on, I don't need anybody." As soon as he was successful, he began having checks sent to his father in Israel, but refused to speak with him or respond to his letters. He wouldn't even see the old man on his deathbed. "Why didn't I let a dying man go in peace? Arrogance. 'I'll show him.' It's a failing.
"You get hurt," he says. "The scars heal, but you can still see them." Sometimes, I say, they look like that – pointing at a picture of the Demon, in full armor. "I created Gene Simmons, because the other me didn't work," he says.
He would use the license afforded him by his Kiss success to have what seems to have been compulsive sex with nearly 5,000 women ("not all of them had two legs"). But he had no serious relationship until 1978, when he started dating his first real girlfriend, who happened to be Cher, fresh from her marriage to Gregg Allman. (Simmons' second girlfriend, immediately afterward, was Cher's then-close friend Diana Ross.) In 1984, Simmons met a blond model named Shannon Tweed at the Playboy Mansion, and finally seemed to grasp the "love" concept other humans spoke of: They've been together ever since, finally marrying in 2011. They have two kids: Nick, 25, and Sophie, 21, who are both pursuing showbiz careers.
The same night, another visitor pops by: Paul Stanley, who's bringing by a copy of his book – he hadn't let Simmons read it, but heard I was asking about it, and figured it was time. Simmons is delighted to see him; it's clearly been a while since he came over. "Do you want a drink?" Simmons asks.
"I gotta go home and give my kids a bath," says Stanley, handing over the book.
Simmons flips to the pictures at the centerfold. "Oh, my God," he says, "look at this photo of Ace and Peter. Where was that?"
"The one satisfaction those two guys should get in life is knowing that every day, we talk about them," says Stanley. "A day can't go by that you don't remember something that is astonishing."
"Or makes no sense!" Simmons adds. "And is completely baffling, or so self-destructive." (There was, for instance, the time Ace gulped a bottle of perfume in a limo, after hearing it contained alcohol. And the time Criss shot the big-screen TV in Simmons' house with a .38 revolver after learning his girlfriend had slept with an actor shown on the screen.)
Catching me alone for a moment on his way out, Stanley shakes his head and gestures toward the office. "This is the world that Gene lives in," he says. "It's unbelievable. And it makes him happy."
Simmons comes over. "Do you want to take some toys for the kids?"
"No, thanks. We have so much of that stuff!"
"Do you want to see the upstairs?" Simmons asks.
"No," Stanley says, smiling.
It seems clear that there's at least one person Simmons wants as a friend. They've been together so long, and even Simmons isn't egotistical enough to think they can tour forever. "Physically, I won't be able to do this into my seventies," he says. He has me lift a spiked leather stage jacket from a nearby chair – it must weigh 25 pounds. "I'm 64 now. Three more tours. Two, if I have a life change of some kind." He and Stanley do, however, talk about replacing themselves with new members and having Kiss continue to the end of time.
As Stanley drives off to his family, Simmons stands for a moment on his porch in the cool of the evening, staring at his yard, where man-made waterfalls flow in the darkness. It's peaceful here, though somewhere inside are a bunch of guns in case he has to shoot intruders. ("If you threaten me, I will take you out," says Simmons. "I welcome anybody who dares go over those gates.")
He takes a breath, and is, for a moment, unusually pensive. "Sometimes," he says, "when I come out and sit out there, just relax between meetings and stuff, Paul's right: I keep thinking about Ace and Peter. 'What are they doing now? Where are they?' It's gotta be close to the end. How do you make any money? How do you pay your bills? I mean, it's gotta be . . . you're in your sixties. Peter's gotta be 67, 68. I think he's 68 now. That's it. You're done."
Ace Frehley, 62, lives with his much-younger fiancee, a singer-songwriter named Rachael Gordon, in an upscale condominium near the airport in San Diego. The elevator opens up directly into his apartment, where the first thing you see is a life-size statue of Ace Frehley in full Spaceman regalia. When the real Frehley emerges, on a rainy afternoon in late February, he's a bit less slender than the statue, with a Vandyke beard he'd have to shave to get the makeup on. Like all of his bandmates, he's still got long hair, and he's wearing aviator shades, a striped button-front shirt open over a black T-shirt, jeans and lizard boots. A sparkly crucifix and a square ace of hearts card hang from his neck; he's got on the usual rocker's skull ring.
Ace is in good spirits. "I'm happier than a pig in shit," he says. "I'm healthy, I'm working, I have a beautiful woman." He takes me into his office, where electric guitars hang on the walls and an enormous monitor sits on his desk, hooked to a Mac he uses to experiment with computer animation and record music. He's working on two new albums, follow-ups to 2009's solid Anomaly, which had been his first in 20 years. "I'm thinking about putting out an animation and scoring it, like a space animation," he says. "But there's not that many hours in the day, and I'm lazy. I'm still lazy, ladies and gentlemen! My problem is that God gave me too many gifts. And from all the drugs and alcohol, I have attention-deficit disorder, so sometimes I just stare at the computer. But that's OK. You know why? Because I'm alive."
Frehley is just back from Las Vegas, where he spent a couple of days recording and gambling. "I lost five grand," he says. "No big deal! Peanuts. I can't drink; I can't take drugs anymore. There's other vices." He's quite a character, Ace Frehley, with a one-of-a-kind squeaky voice and squalling cackle that everyone who's ever met him can imitate. He used to claim to be from another planet. "I was always fascinated with science-fiction stuff," he says. "Who knows? Sometimes I think I'm not from here."
Frehley has been sober for seven years, after a long battle that left his memory a little shaky. He has spoken of falling down a flight of stairs around 2002, further damaging his memory and leaving him briefly worried he wouldn't be able to play guitar again. "Did I?" he says, unleashing the cackle. Forty minutes later, he has a sudden revelation: "Oh, you're right, thank you very much. I did fall down a flight of stairs! It was the scariest thing."
Frehley grew up in a stable middle-class household in the Bronx. His dad was an electrical engineer, and his siblings were all bright, college-bound achievers, trained musicians. He was obsessed with guitar but never took a single lesson. "And maybe that's one of the reasons I approached music differently," he says. "Page, Clapton, Hendrix, Townshend, Beck – all I did was copy their solos and kind of twist them around, and you've got a guitar style."
Of all of Kiss' members, Frehley may have had the most impact on other musicians: He was the first guitar hero for many players of the next generation. "Ace was their firecracker, their dynamite," says Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, who modeled the solo on his band's "Alive" on Frehley's "She" lead (which, in turn, bit from Robby Krieger on the Doors' "Five to One"). Frehley's guitar-hero status quickly created delusions of grandeur, Stanley argues: "Just because you're voted number-one guitar player in Circus magazine over Jimmy Page doesn't mean you really are. Those guys just ate up that kind of nonsense, and believed it."
In any case, Frehley started to self-destruct very early in the band's career. Kiss became superstars with the Alive! double album, the first of the Seventies' blockbuster live albums (though they heavily doctored it in the studio). Afterward, they sought to make their first fully produced studio album – their previous LPs could be thin-sounding and demolike. They brought on Bob Ezrin, the formidable taskmaster behind Alice Cooper's hits. Frehley clashed with Ezrin, and had trouble coping with a certain readily available substance. "There was so much cocaine in the studio with Bob Ezrin, it was insane," Frehley recalls. "And I hadn't even done coke before that. I liked to drink. But once I started doing coke, I really liked to drink more, and longer, without passing out. So I was really off to the races. I made my life difficult because there were so many times I'd walk in with a hangover, or sometimes I wouldn't even show up."
Frehley had moved out to Connecticut by that point, and simply making it to the Manhattan studio was a major hassle. "Musically, he was much more about freestyle," says Ezrin. "He was much less organized and structured than I was asking him to be. And he was feeling pressure and resentment from the other guys. In their eyes he wasn't holding up his end of the bargain, whereas he wasn't sure he'd actually even made the bargain." In an ominous omen for Kiss' future, they ended up bringing in session guitarist Dick Wagner to play a couple of solos.
Not long afterward, the band filmed Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, a campy semi-horror movie that was like an Ed Wood version of A Hard Day's Night. Frehley's attendance was once again intermittent: A stuntman wears Frehley's makeup in one scene, which is all the more obvious because the guy happened to be black. That was the least of the problems. "None of us read the script," says Stanley. "They threw us our lines from off-camera. It was a farce."
Soon, Frehley was threatening to leave the band for a solo career. "We were this heavy rock group," he says, "and now we had little kids with lunchboxes and dolls in the front row, and I had to worry about cursing in the microphone. It became a circus." Their manager, Bill Aucoin, came up with a genius solution: They'd all record solo albums, and release them on the same day. Frehley, whose songwriting had been pent up, George Harrison-style, made the best record, all sleek hard rock. It also had the biggest hit, "New York Groove." (Simmons claims his solo LP – which included a cover of "When You Wish Upon a Star" – outsold Frehley's. "Fuckin' Gene," says Frehley, laughing. "Those fuckin' guys are trying to rewrite history.")
Soon afterward, Frehley voted, "reluctantly," with the rest of the band to remove Criss, whose playing had deteriorated under the influence of pills and coke. Criss took revenge in his book, going into great detail about Frehley's bisexual experimentation in the Seventies, in an apparent effort to freak out the band's less-open-minded fans. Frehley shrugs it off. "When you're high, you'll do anything. So what? It means nothing. I've always been heterosexual. I've lived 10 times as much as people live in one lifetime. . . . I've done every drug, I've done the ménage à trois and everything else in between. I've tried being bisexual. It's stupid! It's not for me!"
Frehley quit the band in slow motion, as his bandmates tried to persuade him to stay. "I was mixed up," he says. "I believed that if I stayed in that group I would have committed suicide. I'd be driving home from the studio, and I'd want to drive my car into a tree. I mean, I walked out on a $15 million contract. That would be like $100 million today. And my attorney was looking at me like, 'What are you, crazy?'"
Each member of Kiss had designed his own makeup. Criss relinquished the rights to his character when he left (although he's confused about the circumstances), and Frehley maintains that he licensed his. He says he's due to get the rights back soon, a claim Stanley called a "fantasy": "We own it. He sold it." In the meantime, Thayer, who once worked as the band's road manager, wears Frehley's makeup. Says Frehley: "I mean, a supergroup has one of the most dynamic, greatest lead guitarists in the world leave the band, and who did they hire to play lead guitar? Their road manager, who used to be in a Kiss cover band. How insane is that? You can't make this shit up." He is, in general, unimpressed with the band's current state: "Paul's voice is shot." (Thayer, whose Kiss cover band was just a goofy side project while he was in a major-label metal band, responds, "These guys like to say, 'Oh, he was the road manager.' I've been in music for over 30 years.")
The band's current drummer, Eric Singer, points out that Frehley never complained during the portion of the reunion era that had him playing with Singer – in full Catman makeup – instead of Criss. "Well, Peter sold his makeup," Frehley says with a shrug.
Frehley called his autobiography No Regrets, and he needed to interview old friends to recover enough memories to write it. He has since remembered more, and is working on a sequel. "The working title," he jokes, "is Some Regrets." He throws his head back and laughs.
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