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Kiss: The Pagan Beasties Of Teenage Rock

With painted faces and piles of naughty poloroids, are these bad boys as shocking as their stage show? The members of Kiss know what they are, and flaunt it fiercely

Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley of Kiss.
Michael Putland/Getty Images
April 7, 1977

We broke Lawrence Welk's attendance record in Abilene, Texas. I'm very proud of that," says Gene Simmons, the Kiss bassist, notorious for his grotesquely long tongue and for dressing like a pterodactyl. We sit at a backstage dinner table on the first of three nights they are playing Detroit's 12,000-seat Cobo Hall – exceptional dates because they are doing mostly secondary markets this tour. "We're hitting places they've never seen a big band, and they'll remember us forever. The reaction has been amazing. I was watching the local news in Duluth and the announcer said there had been a robbery at the auditorium. I thought, 'That's it for the gate receipts,' but it turned out some kid had gone up to the window and stolen three tickets at gunpoint. I don't understand it. Tickets are so ethereal. One concert and they're gone. Now money, that's real power."

Money, I object, is as much an illusion as a ticket.

"Not if everyone believes it," says Simmons, holding up a fork. "If I say this is a royal scepter and everyone recognizes it as such, then it's a royal scepter and I'm king. That's power, not an illusion."

Before I can insist it's still a fork, guitarist Paul Stanley – known for the black star over his right eye and for his bright red lips – sits down and stuffs a piece of cake into his mouth. "I'm really sick to my stomach," he says, licking the fingers of one hand, holding his taut belly with the other, and searching for another slice with the calm eyes of an addict who has enough money to feed his habit. "I got chills and everything. I thought I was going to pass out onstage last night."

Maybe he would feel better if he stopped eating gunk?

"The best diet for the road," he says, "is soup for lunch and candy for supper. It keeps the weight off and you're speeding on all that sugar by show time."

A roadie announces that it is time for a sound check, and the three of us walk to the $300,000 stage set in the cavernous auditorium. Drummer Peter Criss – who paints his face to resemble a cat – is already at his kit and nearly falling off his seat, laughing at his own ludicrous version of the bang-the-drum-slowly ending of the Chambers Brothers' hit, "Time Has Come Today." Guitarist Ace Frehley, who plays the role of a spaceman with two silver stars splashed over his eyes, ignores the folderol and sends occasional blasts of power chords echoing through the hall. None of the members of Kiss is wearing the makeup he invariably puts on for public appearances, and, stripped of paint, Stanley comes the closest to handsome, with patrician features that one could imagine, in another age, riding a two-stallion chariot too fast down a crowded Roman street and lashing the backs of slow peasants. Frehley looks like the original 1967 acid casualty, his face as pock-marked as the moon backdrop on his side of the stage. Criss appears several years past his official age of 30, but his eyes are a child's in their lack of calculation. With his swarthy central-European complexion and flaking black fingernails, Simmons could look filthy stepping out of a shower. Though we are all about 6'2" in our stocking feet, Frehley, Stanley and Simmons tower over me in their eight-inch platform shoes and I begin to realize the luxury of height. All these years, I've been talking down at people. Standing here under Simmons' unflinching gaze, I am somehow the wimpy one whose opinions don't matter.

"Come here. I want to show you something," he says, ascending a staircase to the parapet of the ruined castle that is his side of the stage. It is spattered with red from the nightly ritual of puking blood during his bass solo. "We're 40 feet over the audience. You know what this is?" The 40 feet are straight down and the only answer I can think of is acrophobia. Simmons steps to the edge and gestures over a sea of empty seats. "This," he says, "is power."

According to Scientific American, every time a buffalo farts in Africa, thousands of dung beetles are alerted to the possibility of manna from heaven. The relationship between the farts and the beetles is a peculiarly honest one. Each species of beetle is genetically programmed to eat a particular kind of dung, so the buffalo need not sponsor marketing surveys to discover where they have to fart for maximum return on their investment. Competing herds do not advertise themselves or offer promo samples. As for the product: buffalo farts do not promise to reveal the meaning of life. Buffaloes do not promise to craft farts that make the whole world sing. They do not promise intellectual respectability if a beetle can interpret their fart sounds with sufficient pedagogy. Buffalo farts promise shit, which is what they deliver.

Among contemporary rock & roll bands, the music of Kiss comes the closest to comparing favorably with buffalo farts. Allowing for a few aberrational songs, they, too, do not promise to reveal the meaning of life, make the whole world sing, or any of that. They scream elemental need, placing as much emphasis on words like "I wanna" as the Ramones, only with no condescending satire to sink them in Middle America.

One of their most dramatic stage moments comes in a break, when Stanley faces the audience alone and gets them chanting: "IiiiIIIiiahah WaAAaaNT YooOOooOOooOOu." He sounds uncomfortably close to Robert Plant, but the moment obliterates the known world aside from primal craving. None of this woman-you-need-love chivalry, none of this hold-your-hand subtlety. (Kiss had to drop "Hard Luck Woman," a song about a woman being hard luck until she found a man, because it was getting lousy audience reaction.) The known world, aside from primal craving, is a vast conspiracy to most teenagers pouring into the job market with no intellectual skills, thanks to the massive rupture that is American education. Ask a Kiss fan why he/she likes the band, and he/she will likely stare at you with vague hostility as the words fail to articulate in the cerebral cortex, and it's too much effort to dig them out. The smarter ones notice the press pass pinned to your shirt and beg to be taken backstage. Ask to take their picture, and they preen with all the bravado their fresh hormones can muster. What's important is declaring "I" to the conspiracy.

Which is transcendence of the inner conspiracy that is growing hair and zits in strange places all over their recently nubile bods. No better way to forget the inexorable march of biology than to lose your identity to four guys who have stepped out of their mundane bodies altogether and simultaneously wallow in those disgusting urges your parents would rather forget. It is pagan religion for adolescents. Bombs, flame throwers (sometimes as much from the audience as the stage), Simmons spitting blood and fire, all of them leaping and running up and down stairways in their platforms, Frehley's guitar smoking and bursting into flames, Criss' six-foot glowing demon cat statues and drum set that levitates 30 feet in the air – attending a Kiss concert is surviving the Normandy invasion. You walk out and you are one of the gods' chosen few, a survivor who can go home and face the enormous blackheads on his nose like a man. Or at least have the inspiration to paint them different colors. Kiss is the greatest act since death.

Gene Simmons, dressed in a blue bathrobe in his hotel suite, I asks, "Would you like to see my collection?" He pulls about 20 Polaroid snapshots out of a suitcase and drops them on the desk in front of me. Each is a groupie posed in a spread shot or other equally imaginative position. The bodies range from beautiful to grotesque. "Names, dates and places are written on the back. Those are just for this tour."

"You must have strange diseases," I finally say.

"Never."

"Did you ever do it with anyone famous?"

Humming "We've Only Just Begun," he walks into the adjoining living room. Star Stowe, the February Playboy foldout, and a Bunny friend of hers emerge giggling from the bathroom. Stowe wears black panty hose with holes ripped in them, skimpy blue-jean shorts and a Kiss T-shirt a couple of sizes too small. I recognize her from a Polaroid. Simmons makes some remark about their sexual proclivities.

"Ge-eene," says Stowe. "You know we were only in there together 'cause we have the same suitcase. Don't even joke about that with him here. If I was a faggot, I woulda said so in the [Playboy] article. I don't want my reputation ruined."

After a few more minutes of distressed discussion, Simmons dismisses them with a curt "Why don't you do what females are best at doing?" They immediately quiet down, so presumably that is what he thinks they are best at doing.

"We're not a great band," he says, turning his attention back to me. "The musicianship is average, maybe even below, but in a year we're going to be the biggest band in the world. Two hundred million Americans out there don't appreciate subtleties. They want to be sledgehammered over the head with clear issues and no pussyfooting. Nobody hides behind any pseudointellectualism. I am a fan of Middle America. Remember, it was mass culture that created rock 'n' roll. Our tastes happen to coincide with theirs."

I ask who he voted for in the 1972 presidential election. He says McGovern and admits there may be something wrong, on occasion, with mass taste. "But nothing is right or wrong in music. There are just certain tastes. People in New York hate Lawrence Welk, but he sells half a million records every time out and he's got about 30 releases."

"Will you admit it's still shit?" I ask.

"Somebody out there likes it."

"Jacqueline Susann sells more books than Shakespeare, but she's still shit and Shakespeare is still Shakespeare."

"Wait a minute!" Simmons exclaims. "I think Shakespeare is shit! Absolute shit! He may have been a genius for his time, but I can't relate to that stuff. Thee' and 'thou'; the guy sounds like a faggot. Captain America is classic because he's more entertaining. If you counted the number of people who read Shakespeare, you'd be very disappointed."

"No aesthetics exist aside from what people buy?" I ask.

"You bet."

"But Madison Avenue, for instance, doesn't much believe in what it sells. Nobody needed a deodorant before they created a market." Simmons answers by spraying his pits with a can of Royal Copenhagen. I continue, "All they're selling is a stupid image of getting laid or something. They're selling an illusion to get money, which is just another illusion."

"So why not commit suicide," he helpfully suggests, "and get rid of this pain you're having? TV is an entertainment medium. If I had a computer go on the air to list the ingredients and price so there wouldn't be any images, it would be the most boring commercial ever. I wanna see a slut put it between her legs and ram it in and out! Then I'll go buy it!"

"I'm saying don't sell shit in the first place. The human race got along without deodorant for 10,000 years."

"We must have smelled like mooses."

"There's a whole theory of evolution that says we survived because we smelled so bad that no other animal would eat us."

"I get eaten great because I smell so bad – and so what if deodorant is shit? I demand this shit! I am full of shit!"

"Do you consider yourself more socially significant than deodorant?"

"No."

The telephone rings for the umpteenth time and Simmons answers. He is the only member of Kiss – and one of a very few rock stars of any stature – who registers in hotel rooms under his real name. The result is a deluge of calls which he feels he owes his fans. "Yes, dear. Open your hand and look at it. My tongue is longer than that . . . "

The subject changes to his personal motivations for getting into music as a career. "After graduating from college," he says, "I taught sixth grade at P.S. 75 at 96th and West End, near where I live now. I lasted six months because I couldn't stand the kids. I wanted to beat the shit out of them. That's the age when rebellion first sets in. I started teaching for the same reason I'm doing this: I needed to be onstage. All people need to be noticed, but some need it more. I'm an extreme version of what everybody is . . . I don't want any kids of my own. I'm the last male in the family and I want the line to end with me. I'm very guarded in my personal relationships. I never want to get married."

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