This story is from the April 7th, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone.
"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.
"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.
"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?"
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."
"You know how it is when you sleep with chicks on the road," says Billy Miller, latest in a long line of Kiss tour managers. "You'll do anything to make them leave before morning. Without their makeup, they look like Señor Wences' fist."
Anderson smiles at the analogy as Paul Stanley lies on a couch, exhausted after the show. Most of the big black star over his right eye is sweated off. Did Stanley find any validity in the charge that some of their lyrics were sexist?
"Fuck 'm," he says. "I don't believe in women trying to be me. We're two different species. You get trouble in a relationship when they try to act like a man. Somebody needs to be in charge. I have a lot of respect for my own opinion."
Could it be that many rock stars lead insulated lives on the road and get distorted impressions by being with groupies all the time?
"Well, it would be easy to generalize that all women want is a free meal and a fuck. That's not my generalization, though."
Stanley is the Virgin Mary of Kiss – in the Unholy Quadrenity, he is the most approachable by the worshipers. He does the majority of singing, all the talking onstage (in a Southern accent rather incongruous with his upbringing in Manhattan), and some amazing dancing that includes clicking his heels in the air while wearing eight-inch platforms. It is almost more an athletic test of endurance than a concert.
I tell Stanley about the deodorant discussion with Simmons. "If we're selling something," he says, "it's good. We're selling escapism, relief from nine-to-five problems. Many people lead dreary lives and we fulfill a need to get away from it all. People take Valium, people buy records. It's just not as heavy as you want to make it. We reach the masses, we have fun, and that is valid. I sleep very soundly."
A photograph of Kiss without their makeup has never been published, and I wonder about the great emphasis placed on preserving the mystique. "We're not telling you we're from another planet or that we're laboratory creations," he says. "We try to keep, a sharp image because the public wants it. Who would have wanted to see Clark Gable without his false teeth?"
After Stanley takes a shower, we go down to the hotel bar, where a woman comes up to point out a rose tattoo on her shoulder, identical to one on Stanley's shoulder. He wears no makeup, but with his plentiful hair, fringed leather jacket and high platform shoes, it is obvious he is a rock star even if you can't place the face. I find Star Stowe's Bunny friend and, thinking to flirt, ask if she's really a lesbian.
"Don't say that out loud! I'm the most man-hungry woman in the world," she says, genuinely upset. I change the subject to Simmons. "He was right this afternoon, you know," she says. "He's always right in everything, except when he's wrong."
In his hotel room in Detroit, Peter Criss takes a quick swig from a white plastic bottle. "This protein liquid is the worst shit I ever tasted," he says with a grimace, as Al Ashton, a Canadian disc jockey, sets up a tape recorder to interview him and Ace Frehley. "I'll try anything to wake up. Even vitamins."
"Why not just take speed?" suggests Ace Frehley, who's slumped in a chair.
"'Cause I don't like it."
During the interview, Frehley will say that he wants to go to another planet before he dies, but Criss is the first to open up, reminiscing about his childhood. "They threw me out of the choir because I drank all the wine when I was an altar boy," he says. "They used to lock me in the closet for hours in school. They made me sit in the wastebasket. I hate nuns, man."
The resentful memory seems to jar loose some inhibitions because Criss is soon railing against the present-day equivalent to his old nuns. "We're the ones kicking shit out there every night! The only ones who know what's going on are the band and road crew. Record executives just sit behind desks getting their pictures taken for the trades and grabbing all the credit... Oh, God! I didn't say it! I've pulled a John Lennon!"
Frehley shrieks with high-pitched staccato laughter. The DJ asks about his childhood. "I was in the Bronx somewhere, floating." Again he shrieks. And his future plans ? "I want to start a monkey farm." Another shriek.
"And the agents!" Criss resumes, shouting. "They're bigger assholes than the record company. They'll book us anywhere. They drug us, say they'll let us bring our old ladies, have bodyguards to lock us up." A bellboy wheels in a cart with a big silver bucket of ice. "Oh, no! Not more champagne!" Criss cries. "See what I mean about drugs?"
Everyone takes the bellboy as a signal to end the radio interview. As I walk to the door, Alan Miller, head of promotion for Kiss' Aucoin Management, jokes: "If you say anything to hurt the group, we'll break your legs."
The four band members stare intently into the mirrors in their dressing room and smear on makeup as Bill Aucoin, president of Aucoin Management, announces that "Beth," their hit ballad of 1976, has tied with "Disco Duck" for best song of the year in the People's Choice Awards.
"What did we win?" says Stanley. "A hundred pounds of dog food?"
Aucoin chuckles and says they have to discuss how they will receive the award since they will be on the road during the ceremony.
"I don't think we should be on TV at all," says Simmons.
"Are you kidding?" says Aucoin. "We'll make it a surprise for Peter. He'll go out to sing the song alone as usual, and you guys will come out and say you just got a wire that you've won the award. Peter says thanks, blah blah, you walk off and he does the song. We'll put together a tape and send it to the show."
After a few more minutes of makeup smearing, Criss announces with ridiculous solemnity that it is time for Gene Simmons to come out of the closet and admit to his leadership role in the gay liberation movement. He suggests several loathsomely graphic possibilities for the origin of Simmons' long tongue, to uproarious laughter among several roadies and other assistants.
"He says if he likes you he'll swallow it," says Stanley. "He even owns stock in K-Y jelly."
Simmons stands defenseless against this locker-room onslaught and says nothing after a couple of lame attempts to link Criss' Italian heritage to the Mafia. I catch his eye and for the first time see the monster pleading.
Someone brings in a box and says it is a present from the family at whose house Kiss has been invited to party after the concert. Criss opens the box and pulls out a bottle of wine. "If these people are as rich as they say, how come they send us Gallo?" he asks. "Oh, man! Look at this!" He passes around a greeting card that shows a photograph of a slightly obese businessman, his wife and two beautiful children smiling out from their suburban living room. "This is Middle America, man. They're sicker than we are."
Peter Criss walks out of the bathroom with a smoking hair dryer in his hand. "I was blowing on my hair when all of a sudden sparks started coming out of the thing," he says. "I could have gone up in flames. Imagine that: all these years of bombs going off next to me every night and I finally get done in by a hair dryer."
As he settles down in a chair to towel off, I ask about the ribbing of Simmons. "That was heavier than usual because you were there," he says. "We were showing off and really getting to him because the press means so much to him. Joking keeps my mind off the performance and keeps us all friends."
And the outburst this afternoon with the DJ? "It's a game. We built up this whole thing about being outlaws against the system. But I do feel the guys behind desks a lot of times don't know what the hell's going on.
"My social life has suffered," he continues. "I go to parties and find myself really scared – always sitting in the corner, not knowing how to act. It's sick. I used to go to parties and flaunt the rock-star role, but now that I am one, I can't. I'm losing the real Peter Criss somewhere and it scares me. I never go to sleep at night. I sometimes have an insecurity that I'm not good enough for the success. But I believe I've worked very hard and I'm entitled to it now. I've cleared that up. I'm pretty happy. I'm very excited over the band."
Does he find any conflict between the Christian crosses he wears around his neck and the group's image of evil and sex?
"I find myself evil," he says. "I believe in the devil as much as God. You can use either one to get things done."
What would he tell God about how he had been spending his life if the hair dryer had in fact fried him?
"I don't know. I'm having a good time. It's all show business. I would tell him, 'You should have been there, man.'"
Ace Frehley braces himself for my questions with a beer and a firm dismissal of a couple of little kids who are staring at him at the party thrown by the family who sent them the Gallo. They've turned out to be more upper than middle class, with a mansion in Grosse Pointe, just outside Detroit. Seeing "the spaceman" without his makeup, the children appear to have just learned that there is no Santa Claus.
"I go crazy about privacy," says Frehley in a heavy New York accent. "I have to, to keep my sanity and handle stardom. Onstage I'm Ace Frehley, and offstage I'm a kid from the Bronx. I consider myself lucky in a way. Mick Jagger will always be Mick Jagger, but I can take off my makeup and know who I am. When all the girls scream, it's not me they're grabbing. It's what I represent."
Does he really believe he's going to another planet?
"I eat, sleep and drink my character. It is my fantasy to go to another planet. By the time I'm 40, interplanetary travel will be common. Nobody will want to talk to me at that age anyway. Stardom is a temporary phase. You become a candidate for the nuthouse when you believe what you are is everlasting."
Don't all stars play for immortality, though? Doesn't he want to be remembered in 50 years?
"I'm gonna be on Mars. It doesn't fuckin' matter. This planet won't be here in 50 years."
And how does he feel about deodorant?
"Better to compare us to President Carter," he says, "because people vote the same way they buy records."
All the members of Kiss were fuckups in high school: Frehley was thrown out of two schools and dropped out of a third in the Bronx; Criss got his knuckles rapped by nuns in Brooklyn and was humiliated for wearing his hair too long; Stanley was chronically "at the bottom of the smartest class" in school in Manhattan; and Simmons was the inveterate class clown and a fan of monster comic books in Queens. All were driven by an unquenchable craving for fame and a love for simple rock & roll. Stanley and Simmons found each other six years ago and formed a band that played everything from country & western to rock. That flopped, but the two took their money from a shelved album and invested in a loft and the most imposing-looking equipment they could find. In early 1973, Simmons called up a drummer who had placed an ad in Rolling Stone saying he would do anything to make it. That was Peter Criss, and they played together for several months as a trio. After about 60 guitarists had answered an ad they placed in the Village Voice, they were impressed enough by the surliness and musicianship of Ace Frehley to hire him on.
The focus of the band existed from the beginning: heavy theatrics, heavy metal and heavy makeup, though they looked more like vermin than monsters at the time. The emphasis on the projection of power was also immediate: they played in front of a huge wall of amplifiers that, if the lights were misplaced, would be revealed as having no speakers inside. They stenciled the Kiss logo of double "s" lightning bolts on all the equipment so it would appear as if they were a big touring band.
Copying addresses out of Record World, they sent out press releases and invitations – to anyone even vaguely connected with the music business – to their gigs, for which they rented their own halls when they couldn't get bookings. Bill Aucoin, then president of an independent TV production company that did a syndicated rock show called Flipside, showed up at one show and offered to get them a record contract in two weeks if they would let him manage them. This he did, with Casablanca, a label just starting under the aegis of Neil Bogart, former copresident of Buddah.
After three albums, several exhaustive tours and an almost unmitigated drubbing by the critics, they and their record company were in debt several hundred thousand dollars and had no more resources. An entire 1975 tour was financed by Aucoin's American Express card. Then Kiss Alive! was released, went gold, went platinum, went double platinum.
It was the first and only time their sound had been truly captured on record. Alive! in my opinion should be ranked among the classic live rock albums.
Nearly sunk by a catastrophic double album of Tonight Show bits, Casablanca Records refloated and Kiss became rich. Destroyer, their first attempt to write something beyond "suck me, fuck me songs," as Stanley phrased it, also went platinum. So did Rock and Roll Over, which was a return to almost pure heavy metal because the hard core of the Kiss Army (the band's official fan club) reacted so vehemently against the violins on Destroyer (including "Beth"). All three albums remain in the Top 40 of Record World's LP chart.
This June, a Marvel Comic – with Kiss as superheroes – written by Steve Gerber, who also does Howard the Duck for Marvel, will be published on slick paper. And the band members, these days, are almost universally liked among the press for their openness. Aucoin Management, which has maintained firm control over the image-making process by making all photographers sign clearance contracts and other such devices, is less universally liked. Aucoin himself draws a parallel between his control over artists and that of the old Hollywood studios, which he looks on as "places where things got done, whatever their faults."
"The key to building a superstar is keeping their mouths shut," says Bob Ezrin, producer of Destroyer. "They have to be kept isolated to avoid being manipulated by all these outside forces. There was a time when Kiss wasn't allowed to talk to anyone. To reveal an artist to the people can be to destroy him. It isn't to anyone's advantage to see the truth. In the long run, the audience matters more. That's the story."
Did I ever show you my collection?" asks Gene Simmons in the bedroom of his duplex in New York three weeks after the Detroit concerts. He hands me two huge leather scrap-books which I page through, spying an occasional familiar face. After about five minutes, a woman walks out of the closet. I don't catch her name, but she says she played Daisy Mae in a production of Li'l Abner four years ago. The room is decorated with paintings and other paraphernalia from fans. One shows Simmons, with a headman's ax, gloating over a burning city. Another portrays him as a gargoyle. Jewelry with tarantulas and black widows embedded in clear plastic is scattered about. He gives me a few letters from a plastic bag full of fan mail. All of them have drawings of the band. The American ones seem nearly incoherent with bad grammar and misspellings.
"I wonder if these guys are morons," I say.
"Doesn't bother me," Simmons replies. "At least they're doing something."
The Japanese fans, on the whole, seem to have a better command of English. "My dear Gene. Please eat up all my love. I want a lot more experience while I am young. With love, Shinobu I."
"The Beatles sold out the main hall in Tokyo four nights. We've got it booked for five," he says, putting a tape on his cassette deck. As Kiss music plays in the background, a Japanese girl weeps. "Please Gene Simmons, I want to hear your voice. I pray to God every day. I'm expecting you every moment. When you come to Japan, please answer me at once. Please never forget me... please..."
Both stunned, we sort of stare at each other over the 15-odd scrapbooks of press clippings. The heavy Hungarian accent of Gene's mother calls us downstairs to eat. "Make at home yourself," she says. "Sit and have some yummy-yummy."
Over yummy-yummy, she tells how Simmons used to print his own monster fanzines in the basement and how he got his first guitar. "I don't want any of the credit," she says. "I bought him first guitar for $65 from Italian boy. I made $49 a week then. He wanted $75 but I drove him down to $65. Later we sold it for $135. I went along everything every way. I know behind makeup who he was. Al Jolson put on makeup. It's all right so long as he doesn't smoke or drink alcohol. I know all about his girlfriends."
Well, even if Jolson wore makeup, he didn't have a complete alter ego – a distinction Kiss shares only with Alice Cooper, who destroyed his claim to evil and insanity by playing golf with George Burns and Mike Douglas, while Kiss vomited blood and fire. But, given their overwhelming need for adulation, is there any real difference between them?
"I don't know," says Simmons. "I never wanted to appear on Hollywood Squares."
As I rise to leave, Simmons takes me aside and says, "Don't print anything that's gonna blow it for me. It's very fragile and I like it too much." I try to assure him that most of his fans can't read anyway, but he still seems worried.
"I won't have you ridicule them; I won't let you do it." At the door he relaxes. "We make our first comic book appearance in this month's issue of Howard the Duck," he says. "It's crazy. I'm a superhero down the block at the newsstand, and I'm standing here in my bathrobe. I can't think of anyone outside Kiss who can say that."
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