Rolling Stone‘s first-ever Kiss cover story mostly focused on the original lineup of the band: Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. The Rock and Hall of Fame also chose to induct only those members – a decision Simmons and Stanley made quite clear that they opposed. They invited current Kiss guitarist Tommy Thayer, current drummer Eric Singer and former guitarist Bruce Kulick (who played in the band from 1984 to 1995) to join them at their table for the April 10th ceremony, and thanked them from the stage for their contributions. In that spirit, here are Kisstory-spanning conversations with each of those musicians, culled from the cover-story transcripts.
When Eric Carr and Vinnie Vincent wore makeup in Kiss, they had new characters. Did you have any discomfort about simply wearing Ace’s makeup?
No, first of all, I didn’t have any input on that. That was a decision that those guys made. There was not even a conversation about it, because I think it was so obvious, that they weren’t going to introduce new characters 30 years into the band. I never thought that there should be some new designs or something. I thought that would have been ridiculous. And the only thing is, you’ve got a lot of push-back from some of the diehards. And that’s understandable. Hey, you know, if you lived in the Seventies and Kiss was your favorite band, and that’s what you grew up with, and suddenly there’s another guy wearing that makeup, I can understand how some people, it might not have appealed to them as much. But as time as gone by, a lot of people have changed their mind.
You can imagine what Ace has to say.
He probably wouldn’t agree with that, would he?
He told me, “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.”
[Laughs] You know, that’s one way to… that’s one way to put it, I guess, even though that’s not really accurate. These guys like to say that, oh, he was the road manager. He never paid his dues. Well, you know, if you look back, I’ve been in music professionally for over 30 years now, and I’ve made just as many records as they have, probably. And it’s not to detract from what he’s saying as far as, he was iconic in the Seventies, you know? And he did influence a lot of guitar players, and he did record and write some great stuff. Specifically, the first three or four Kiss albums, up to Kiss Alive!
He feels that it’s almost like trying to trick people that he’s still in the band.
Yeah. Well, you know, I can understand him saying that, too, but I don’t think that’s really accurate. I don’t think there’s anybody going to a Kiss concert thinking that it’s Ace Frehley on stage. I really don’t. And if it is, then they’re really not paying much attention at all. But the vast, 99.99 percent of people that are there, they know what’s going on.
Your Eighties band, Black and Blue, opened for Kiss. What was that band like?
I started to play guitar about 40 years ago. I grew up in Portland, actually, Beaverton, Oregon, which is a suburb of Portland. And I had all the garage bands and played school dances and did all the typical stuff and played clubs in Portland. But by the time I was probably 22, 23, I had put together this band called Black and Blue. And we were kind of an Eighties hard rock band, on Geffen Records. We were the opening act on the Kiss Asylum Tour in 1985, and we did probably 25, 30 dates in all of 1985 and that’s actually when I met Gene and Paul. Towards the end of that we were working on some demos for our third album, and we asked Gene if he would be interested in producing it. And as it turned out, he ended up producing our third and fourth album. So that’s kind of where the main association with Gene started. And it just evolved from there and grew a lot.
Did you ever play in a Kiss cover band?
[Laughs] Yeah, I did, I actually did. One of the guys from Black and Blue, and a couple other friends, we were all Kiss fans, obviously, growing up, so back then when Black an Blue had kind of run its course, we said, let’s get onstage at a club in Hollywood and play Kiss songs. And this is kind of before tribute bands became kind of common. People went crazy, because nobody had kind of done that thing. And then it was Halloween and for a goof we put makeup on, just for a laugh. And we did that for a while, but it was never like a serious career move or something.
People kind of use this fact against you.
It can be kind of misleading, because it was just for goofs. But then Gene and Paul and the guys came to a few of the club shows we were doing and they got a kick out of it. But I always tell people, it was like the minor leagues or something. It was my segue into Kiss, because I think once they finally decided they wanted a new lead guitarist around 2002, they knew I could do it. Because they had known me for a long time, they knew I was quite capable on the guitar, but they also knew I could put Kiss makeup on and get onstage and do a great job. So I think, in the back of their minds, I think that might have stuck a little bit.
You went to work for Gene and Paul, and in the Nineties you did everything and anything for them, right?
You read internet blogs, “Tommy, he got the coffee” and all these things, and people have a laugh about that, but it’s true. I did whatever needed to be done at the time, and I’m proud of it. It’s just my personality. When I jump into something, I don’t have any limitations in my mind in terms of ego or something like that.
And where did you think this was all leading at the time?
You know, it’s funny. I’ve heard people say, “Well, Tommy had this grand plan and he knew what he was doing all along,” and that’s really not true either. When I started working for those guys behind the scenes, I was completely committed to working as hard as I could to do that and be successful in the music business. And actually when [manager] Doc McGhee came on board, Doc kind of took me under his arm, and I think he had designs for me as well, possibly in management and being part of his company. I never was thinking, “This is all a means to an end to be the lead guitarist of Kiss.”
You worked with Ace and Peter to help them prepare for the reunion tour.
They were off track and they weren’t playing the stuff in the classic, signature way. So we had to help get those guys back into shape and it took a long time. It wasn’t like it took a week. We spent a month or two working on that, before the actual four of them started rehearsing together as a unit. Ace was a little more on track, and his attitude at the time was a lot more easygoing that Peter’s was, to be honest with you. Peter on the other hand would get more uptight and actually, he would get upset sometimes, with me giving him direction. At least, initially he was, and then he got more comfortable with it once we got going. But I couldn’t believe how upset he got, because he basically said, “Don’t you fucking tell me what to do.”
You did eventually become the road manager. How did you get along with Ace and Peter in that role?
I started having to spend a lot of time and energy, extra time and energy, on things I would consider to be almost like dysfunctional. Not showing up, and being late, and suddenly we’d be sitting in the hotel lobby waiting for Ace for an hour just to come down so we could go to the gig, and everybody would just be sitting there. And it just became very difficult just to tour. And Peter’s attitude was not great after a while either.
There was that one show where they had you in makeup ready to go because Ace was so late?
After a while, I did have an outfit, I did have boots, and stuff made and ready, just in case, as an insurance policy really. Because you can’t go on tour, and start canceling shows potentially when there’s millions of dollars on the line. I remember one gig in Irvine, California. I think it was the summer of 2000, and I was completely made up and ready to go because we didn’t think Ace was going to be there. He was in another city still. So twenty minutes before we’re going onstage, we’re all standing there in makeup, and here comes Ace walking in. It was the weirdest thing. He just looked at me, and he goes, “Hey Tommy, how are you doing?'” Like any other day! It was really weird.
How did it start to become clear that Ace might be leaving and you might be taking over?
Well, there were a few more gigs where there were close calls. Finally, the band was scheduled to do this private concert down in Jamaica. Doc called me. He said, “Tommy, you gotta come to Jamaica. You’re going to be on stage, you’re gonna be on.” He goes, “Ace is not coming.” And I was just basically filling in, because I don’t think they knew exactly what they were going to do long-term. But we all knew I was going to go down and do that gig, and step up, and do my first whole, real gig with Kiss. And that was really interesting.
And how did that feel for you?
Well, you know, in one way it felt very comfortable and normal, almost, because I’d been around these guys at that point for years, sitting in the dressing room when they’re putting makeup on. And to be honest with you, I put makeup on as a kid also, you know, for fun, for Halloween. And then we did that tribute band. So it wasn’t like it was totally foreign. But then there was a surreal aspect to it too, thinking, “I’m going on stage as the guitarist of Kiss in an hour.” And that’s kind of a mind-boggling feeling, because I grew up loving Kiss. I was a fan ever since I started getting into rock & roll music and playing guitar when I was 11, 12 years old, you know? It’s like, “Wow.” I was sitting there thinking, “Man, things have really come full circle, and this is almost unbelievable.”
You played with Kiss for a few years, and then they went off to do the reunion tour. How did you handle that?
I never burned the bridges with Gene and Paul. I never slammed them in the press. But I was mad. I was unhappy about the whole situation, but I’ve always told people, you know, you can’t blame Gene and Paul for doing the reunion. It’s like if I gave you the winning lottery ticket but I said, “You’re going to get the money, but you have to do all this work first.” That’s what it was like for them. You have to do the touring, and I’d have done the same thing. I don’t always agree with the way Gene and Paul do things at times, but I don’t have to agree with them, it’s their band. You hear people say, “Well if you want to do it differently, you have your own band.” That is a true statement.
And then around 2000 you started to come back in the picture. How did that all come to happen?
I started hearing that there were some issues with Peter, but I was busy doing my own thing playing with Alice Cooper. Then one day my lawyer calls me up, I was in Japan, and he says, “Hey, I just got a call from Kiss’s lawyer and they want you to come back and play in the band.” And I remember I asked him, “So what am I going to do about the makeup? Are they going to have me come up with a new design?” He goes, “They haven’t decided that yet.” And this was the beginning of the week. That Saturday I got home, and he said, “Okay, here’s the deal. The show’s on, they’re just going to have you keep wearing the cat makeup.”
And how did you feel about that?
I didn’t really give it much thought. I was like, “OK, whatever.” I mean, honestly, I never looked at it emotionally like some people do. I don’t look at it like it’s sacrilegious. It’s just a band. It’s just music. No offense. And some people say, “You don’t understand, though!” No, I do understand! Because I was a big fan of, not just KISS, but a lot of bands, myself, when I was younger. But then I became a musician, and I have a different perspective. I know what it’s like to be a huge fan, really love a band, and then also know what it’s like to be in that band. And that’s a unique perspective. This is just music. It’s not solving the problems of the world. You know, the most important thing is – I tell everyone – “Look around you. If you have a kid, look at your kid. Look at her smiling. Look at your family.” That’s life. That’s what’s really important. Not what some band does.
So you think people get too upset about this stuff.
I’m sorry, but I just cannot put so much value and importance on what a fucking band does. I’m sorry! And I don’t mean that out of disrespect. If somebody loves a band, and has a passion for it? Great. It’s because of fans having passion that bands have a career. But at the same time, you’ve gotta take a step back and look at the reality, and the reality is, it’s just a band.
Some people see what you and Tommy Thayer do in Kiss now as almost an impersonation.
I know, but here’s the thing that’s ridiculous. I love when people say that, because the reality is, I’m not impersonating. Because I wear the makeup that he wore? Did they come up with their designs? Yes. Of course. But it’s not an extension of their personality. Peter wasn’t a cat. Peter Criss was a cat? They had to create a character. You know something? I don’t know if he even had a pet cat. Come on, it’s ridiculous.
Do you try to play like Peter onstage?
I’ve always played the way I play. I play like Eric Singer. I don’t play like Peter Criss. I don’t try to play like Peter Criss. I don’t mimic him on stage. Bottom line is, though, am I playing KISS songs? Yes. Am I playing songs that were originally played by Peter, and learning parts that Peter played or originally wrote? Yes, of course. But guess what? I did the same thing when I played in Black Sabbath or played with Brian May or played with Alice Cooper.
When you were singing “Beth” in his makeup – how about that? That seemed to freak some people out.
But the thing is, I didn’t go out there and do the same thing he did. I didn’t bring out a drum stool and sit out there with a dozen roses. We did it in a different way. The point is, it’s a Kiss song. I love when people try to say, “That’s Peter’s song!” or “This is an Ace song!” No, they’re Kiss songs.
At the same time, your favorite version of Kiss is the band’s early years.
I still have a fondness for Gene, Paul, Peter and Ace, those first tours that I saw. I saw them on the first album tour and on Hotter Than Hell, which was kind of going into Dressed to Kill because they put out two records, even, in a year at that point. There was something about them that reminded me of English bands like T-Rex, Bowie, Sweet, Slade. But they had this Black Sabbath, darker side to them as well. Some of the songs were heavy and just darker, and the imagery was real dark. Back then it was more black leather. My three favorite bands were Queen, Mott the Hoople and Kiss. So I saw them those first two years, in the very, very beginning, formative years, when they were this hungry, young band. Most people never got to experience that Kiss.
You’ve argued that there’s a certain hypocrisy to Ace and Peter’s criticisms of other people wearing their make-up, right?
This is something that I notice that nobody seems to point out. When I came in to play with the makeup, Ace was in the band, and had no problem with me playing with Peter’s makeup while he went onstage and made that Kiss money. In fact, he loved it, and he didn’t want Peter back in the band. And then go forward the next year, when Ace decided to leave. When we fast forward, all of a sudden they bring Peter back, and you got Tommy Thayer playing guitar wearing the Ace makeup, and all of a sudden, no one minded it was Ace’s makeup design. Peter had no problem, did he?
How do you feel about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s decision to induct only the original line-up?
We know that was the one that created it all and was the most impactful. No one’s gonna deny that. I’m not gonna deny that. I acknowledge it all the way. But the reality is Kiss wouldn’t be here 40 years later if they would’ve stayed with them. The value and the importance that other people have contributed to Kiss should not go unrecognized and should be acknowledged as well. Just because it’s not as important to some people as the original version, that’s fine. That’s okay. But to try to diminish or devalue it completely and act like, oh, people are just hired guns and they mean nothing? That’s so completely unfair and ludicrous too. We wouldn’t have Kiss today in 2014 if everybody didn’t mean something.
You joined Kiss in 1984, but you actually recorded with them before that, right?
I wound up doing some ghost guitar work before I joined the band, on Animalize, because they had Mark St. John, who was an overreaction to Vinnie Vincent. They had to move on from Vinnie because he wouldn’t sign contracts or however that story goes, and that was the end of him. But Mark St. John was the wrong guy for the band. To play in Kiss, you should worship Jimmy Page. You shouldn’t be worshipping a shredder, you know? No way. By December of ’84, Paul and Gene sent Mark home, and asked me to join.
How did they want you to play?
I remember the conversation. Paul was very specific – “I want you to be competitive with all of the current guitar players and also be familiar with where we started.” So I was the right guy, because I was definitely hip to what Eddie Van Halen did, yet my love of rock guitar came from Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, etc.
There was some conflict between Paul and Gene during your tenure in the band – Paul felt like he was carrying too much of the Kiss burden while Gene was off doing other things.
I was very happy that Paul was there to steer the ship. Because Gene’s plate is always full. He’ll do 50 things, and he’ll throw everything against the wall. Paul’s not that way. Paul is much more meticulous about what he wants to spend his energy on. Fortunately, he wasn’t distracted with lofty, “I want to be a movie star, TV star, screenplay” – whatever it was that was so kind of fascinating for Gene. I mean, if you think about it, Gene really got his inspiration from movie people, movie horror people, Lon Chaney and all of that, right? I guess in Gene’s mind, it was, “Well, I’ve conquered rock & roll, so now it’s time to make a name as an actor.” It’s kind of ironic, even with all of the aggressive behavior in Hollywood, the only time he’s had real success in that medium was the family TV show. And that’s Gene the way most people don’t see him, but it’s much closer to the real him. And even though Paul resented when Gene was busy carrying on, I never felt like Gene didn’t care.
How did you feel about the band’s look in your era?
I don’t like to make excuses for the Asylum era. That’s what everybody was wearing! It was ridiculous. Paul, he’s flamboyant with his clothes in any era, okay? So of course he went wild with it, and I fit in the best I could. Gene was lost, completely lost. You know, he buys a sequined, red top from a crazy woman’s shop in Vegas and cuts it up and wears it. I’m like “Come on.” He went through a period there he didn’t know what to do.
Were you bummed that you never got to wear makeup?
When I joined the band they already took it off, the year before. Because they’d kind of reached the point where it was not even that interesting. I was kind of relieved that my whole era I didn’t need to. In the reunion era, I was kind of in panic at times when I was hearing through the grapevine that Ace was potentially going to be exiting. I wondered if they would they ask me, and I was nervous, because what if I left Grand Funk, and then Ace wants back the next year? Who knows? It was stressful, for me. I wasn’t looking forward to becoming the Spaceman if they offered it to me, I’ll be quite honest.
Eric Singer did make that transition – he returned to the band and wears the Catman makeup.
Let’s do the analogy. Eric only had five years. He’s behind the drum kit, too, so it’s not as critical. He did have to adjust his playing, but only slightly, because Eric could play any style. I never was served up, like, “Learn this note for note. If you’re going to do ‘Cold Gin,’ you’ve got to learn every riff that Ace did.” Tommy Thayer was a perfect guy. Like an understudy.So I know when they went to Tommy, it was more like, the understudy can drop in here and nobody would know the difference. It would have been more of an adjustment for me. That all being said, do I miss being in Kiss? Yes. Because I fit really well with them, and I think my talent is very complementary to their style and what they represent and all. But I don’t miss being the Spaceman. And then the bonus for me, as much as I’m not in Kiss, which I do feel sad about in that way, but if it was at the cost of that, I realize I enjoy being able to wave the flag for my era, when there were probably ten million records sold and countless successful tours.
The late Eric Carr was the drummer in Kiss when you first joined. How well did he fit in?
He was just, like, not real happy. Usually there were two limos for the gigs, and it was usually Gene and Paul in one and Eric and me in the other, and Eric would just be complaining about various things. And I’d be like, you know, you gotta shut up. You’re killing me. You know how many people would want your gig right now? Every band needs a pecking order – Gene and Paul are kind of like the two presidents, and you’re not gonna get the same power. And I think Eric didn’t know how to fit in with that, just let it kind of bother him, and I just wanted to slap him around. But we became very close. He was the best with the fans, I gotta say. But it drove me crazy that he was that miserable. Now, in time, I got to see what some of the faults are of being part of the band. Things don’t always go down the way you think they might go down. But in general, Gene and Paul run a very, very hard-working, focused kind of band. They’re very dedicated to what they do and how they’re perceived, and how to make it go from A to Z. That might mean your feelings might be hurt to make it happen. So be it.
Then Eric got sick, which must have been awful to deal with.
It was awful. I mean, I was definitely close to him. He really had a valiant fight against a very aggressive, difficult cancer. And it was a really hard time for everyone. It really was. I mean, I was really happy to see him do his last video with us, for “God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You” with us. And he had more energy than me in that video, even though he was going through the chemo, and he was wearing a wig that really looked like an Eric Carr wig. His hair was always so hair-sprayed and crazy to begin with. The bigger the hair spray, the better. The bigger the hair, you know? “More hairspray! Bring it in.” Eric’s always been a part of my life, just emotionally, but also in some dreams, and some other things that have happened to me. I always feel like he’s been watching over and he’s a part of my life. So I feel very honored that I had that relationship with him.
After Unplugged, how did they break it to you that they were reuniting the original band and that you were out?
We literally just went to Gene’s guesthouse. He just said, “Hey, since Unplugged, this is what’s happened. And we’re gonna do this. We’re probably just gonna do it for a year, but it’s now or never, and we realize we gotta do it.” And I accepted that. But, you know, Eric [Singer] was in denial. He was like, “There’s no way. No way Peter Criss could do this. No way!” I was like, “Uh, dude, they’re gonna do it. They’ll figure it out.” And they did. And they did it well. Obviously, the cracks started to show after some time. And then the machine keeps going. And it’s a big machine, what can you do?