All that’s missing from Gene Simmons’ home office is a cash register. He has stuffed a wing of his otherwise tasteful Beverly Hills mansion with Kiss merchandise, turning it into a shrine to his favorite guy, Gene Simmons, and the band for which he’s spent 40 lucrative years playing bass, breathing fire, spitting blood and waggling a tongue so freakish he’s had to deny grafting it from some unlucky cow. There are thousands of Kiss things in his lair, overflowing from glass cases: Halloween masks; life-size busts of the band members’ heads; dolls; action figures; coffee mugs; motorcycle helmets; plates; blankets; demonic Mr. Potato Heads; sneakers; bibs; a bowling ball.
On one wall is a plaque commemorating 100 million Kiss albums sold worldwide. “This room,” says Simmons, adding extra portentousness to his baritone, “didn’t happen by accident.” At the far end is a Kiss motorcycle, a brightly airbrushed Kiss Kasket (the late Dimebag Darrell, of Pantera, is buried in one), a Kiss pinball machine and a Kiss throne emblazoned with a cute Hello Kitty version of Simmons’ demon makeup – Kitty-Kiss hybrids are hot right now. Just outside the office, in a place of honor, is a Kiss video slot machine. “This box makes more money than most bands that tour,” Simmons says, stroking it with a huge hand.
Kiss still tour. But the only original members left are Simmons and the band’s frontman, Paul Stanley, two New York Jewish kids who shared a cleareyed ambition and zero self-destructive tendencies – smart guys who managed to write some of the most gloriously brain-dead lyrics ever (“Get the firehouse/’Cause she sets my soul afire!”). Drummer Peter Criss and lead guitarist Ace Frehley, the ones who took the whole party-every-day thing to heart, who crashed sports cars and threw furniture out of hotel windows, are long gone. You can sometimes catch Simmons and Stanley talking about their old bandmates with distant fondness, as if they were parked in their very own Kiss Kaskets, rather than living quiet lives in New Jersey and San Diego.
Circa 1980, Kiss fired the tenderhearted, insecure Criss, who lost control of his drug use soon after singing the band’s biggest hit, “Beth.” The gifted but underachieving Frehley quit soon afterward, intending to pursue a solo career – which he did, though with less verve than he pursued the consumption of massive quantities of cocaine, tranquilizers and booze.
Kiss recorded a disco hit and a ludicrous concept album. They stuck two new guys in weird new makeup, before finally unmasking themselves in 1983, beginning a long run as midlevel hair-metal hitmakers (Stanley looked pretty without his makeup; Simmons, not so much).
They had already started work on an inevitable grunge album when, in 1995, Stanley and Simmons reunited with Frehley and Criss for an MTV Unplugged episode. They brought them back, this time as salaried employees, for six years of wildly successful but strife-filled tours – with the makeup back on. These days, Simmons and Stanley use two reliable hired guns instead, replacements who dress up as the old guys’ characters, to Frehley’s and Criss’ considerable distress.
In the land of merch, though, Kiss is always just Kiss. It’s the white-faced likenesses of the band’s signature characters – Simmons’ Demon, Stanley’s Starchild, Frehley’s Spaceman and Criss’ Catman – that matter, not the men behind them. So what if the actual founders of Kiss have written wildly contradictory memoirs insulting one another? Their dolls get along just fine. In here, as Simmons likes to say, Kiss is a brand, not a band. “Kiss is like a cockroach that will outlive you all,” he says. “It’s bigger, even, than the guys who were in the band.” He means himself, too.
On this cloudy afternoon, Simmons, 64, is wearing a tailored black blazer with a bright-red pocket square over a finely made black T-shirt, paired with black leather trousers and cowboy boots. Business on top, rock star on bottom. He’s six feet two, with a build that doomed the band’s early attempts at performing in drag (“I looked like Phyllis Diller with glitter,” he says). As always, his poodle-textured black hair hangs to his shoulders, in a style one comedian suggested was inspired by Planet of the Apes. “This is all me – a lot of spray,” he says, fondling the inert fur. “You’re welcome to play around with it.”
He’s sitting in a leather office chair behind his desk, which is stacked with copies of his autobiography and DVDs of his reality show, Gene Simmons Family Jewels (“More episodes than I Love Lucy!”). Behind him is a giant blowup of his appearance on the cover of a magazine called Private Wealth. “I have a life-equity strategy entity called Cool Springs,” says Simmons (it helps rich people obtain mammoth life-insurance policies). “It’s difficult for people to understand, because they’ve been poisoned by the idea that rock stars are stupid. Jagger‘s pretty smart. Very few others are. If it wasn’t for their guitars, they’d be asking, ‘Would you like some fries with that, sir?'”
When he’s not slinging button-pushing, right-wing lectures (he claims that the Vietnam War was a great idea), Simmons can slip into boastful defensiveness, but there’s something puppyish beneath it all, as if he’s daring you to like him. “All the credible bands can kiss my ass, with all due respect,” he says, apropos of not much, within three minutes of my arrival. “The original forefathers who are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and I don’t mean the disco or the hip-hop artists, what the fuck are they thinking? – couldn’t spell the word ‘credibility’ and never thought about it. It was an antithesis of the self-imposed mandate, which is, ‘Do what you want to do.’ In other words, no rules.”
In April, Kiss themselves will finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 15 years after they first became eligible. The band members share a distrust of the institution, which represents a rock establishment that long dismissed Kiss as lowbrow purveyors of gimmickry – presumably in contrast to the dignity and reserve of a berouged Little Richard screaming nonsense syllables. “The most important thing,” says Simmons, “is that it’s validation for fans who were picked on for liking Kiss as opposed to, I don’t know, Air Supply.”
As Simmons sees it, his band’s values have triumphed. Arena concerts of every stripe, from country to hip-hop, have long since embraced Kiss’ once-derided stage tricks: pyro, stage elevators, flying musicians. No one knows what “selling out” means anymore: The Grateful Dead have an entire division at Rhino Records devoted to licensing their brand; Bruce Springsteen‘s online store sells Bruce mugs and tote bags. And to Simmons’ delight, Bob Dylan (a hero who once helped Simmons write a song that he released on a solo album called Asshole) just did a Super Bowl ad. “They all come around to our way of doing it,” Simmons says. “Cherry Garcia, baby. The hippies lost. They really did.”
The Hall of Fame ceremony could have included a heartwarming reunion of the original lineup, but maybe that kind of thing is for hippies. Instead, Simmons and Stanley insisted on playing as the current Kiss, with guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer. “We heard, ‘We would like Ace and Peter in makeup,'” says Stanley. “And we said, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ That band is long gone. I question what Ace and Peter would look like in those outfits. We’ve spent 40 years building something, and to dissipate what we’ve done, or confuse it by sending mixed messages? What we offered was to play with Tommy and Eric and then bring out Ace and Peter to play with us.”
Criss and Frehley were so insulted by that proposition that they threatened to boycott the ceremony. “I won’t be disrespected,” Criss says, sitting in his New Jersey home. “How can you put me in the Hall of Fame and then tell me to sit over there in the corner while another guy puts on my makeup and plays? That’s an injustice. To the fans, too.”
Stanley was affronted by the Hall’s refusal to induct any of the musicians who played with Kiss after the original guys (several lead guitarists, plus two drummers: Singer and Criss’ original replacement, the late Eric Carr). “I don’t need the Hall of Fame,” says Stanley. “And if there’s not reciprocity, I’m not interested. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, practically every member was inducted, and virtually all 175 members of the Grateful Dead. Rules need to apply to everybody.”
Simmons, meanwhile, says that Frehley and Criss “no longer deserve to wear the paint.” “The makeup is earned,” he adds. “Just being there at the beginning is not enough. You know, quite honestly, my hand to God? I would have preferred the same lineup all these years. But if I fuck up, I should be tossed out. And if you blow it for yourself, it’s your fault. You can’t blame your band members. ‘Oh, look what happened to me. Oh, poor me.’ Look at my little violin. I have no sympathy.”
Hanging out in his San Diego condo, Frehley says that the resistance to a reunion is all business: After all, the current lineup has a summer tour planned. “The reason they don’t want to perform with me and Peter,” he says, “is because the last time they did, they had to do a reunion tour. We play three songs, the fans go crazy. They don’t want to open up a can of worms.”
Frehley and Criss may not get the performance they want, but it looks like they won’t have to see anyone else in their makeup. Outmaneuvered, for once, Stanley and Simmons announced in late February that they wouldn’t perform at all.
There is no Kiss memorabilia on display in Paul Stanley’s house. “I know what I’ve accomplished,” says Stanley, “so I don’t need to see it. My friends don’t need to see it. And it can also be misleading, because the impression it might give is that you’re responsible for more than you actually were.” Stanley lives in Beverly Hills just five minutes from Simmons, with three young kids and his wife of eight years, Erin, a former attorney (he also has a 19-year-old son from a previous marriage). But they don’t get over to each others’ places much. Stanley’s house is a tastefully proportioned Mediterranean-style structure, with a guesthouse in back; he owns enough acres around the property that he’s considering starting a vineyard.
He’s sitting in his immaculate, fussily decorated living room, wearing black jeans and a V-neck tee that exposes impressively muscled biceps, along with a very familiar thatch of chest hair. Even with his makeup off, even at age 62, he looks like the Starchild – you half-expect to blink and find him transformed, ready to rock. On the wall opposite him is a painting of a textured orb, which turns out to be his work. “I’ve done multiple-seven-figures in sales of art,” he says. Sadly, his sedate speaking voice bears no resemblance to his jive-y, throat-shredding aw yeah stage-banter shout, which began as an imitation of Steve Marriott’s preacher-man shtick.
Kiss’ only enduring relationship is between Simmons and Stanley. “We’ve always seen each other as brothers,” Stanley says. “What we seem to be at odds at is how you treat your brother. Gene’s priority, by far, has always been himself. And he’s not one to let anyone else’s feelings or contributions get in the way.”
Stanley comes off as friendly and warm, though he can be chillingly blunt in assessing his old bandmates. But if you believe Criss and Frehley, he is a Dick Cheney-like figure in Kiss, the real power behind a flashier figurehead. “Pauly’s the one you’ve got to watch for,” says Criss. “He’ll leave this building, and then you’ll go, ‘Holy fucking shit, he cut my throat.’ He really is the leader of Kiss. He’s the guy who pulls the strings – trust me.”
Stanley doesn’t show any evil mastermind tendencies during our day together, as he lifts his daughters in the air (“I love you, little people,” he says); closes his eyes while grooving on old Zeppelin tracks blasting from the spectacular stereo he’s set up in a guesthouse man cave; shows off a photo where he’s flipping pizza dough with impressive professionalism; and tools around Beverly Hills in an SUV filled with kids’ DVDs. Each night, he says, he thanks his wife for their life together before they go to sleep. “I know two people who demonize me,” he says. “It’s funny, because I don’t know anyone else who does. I can’t possibly be responsible for those guys’ situations or failures. Any more than I can make someone else responsible for mine.”
Stanley does agree that Simmons’ prominence as a band spokesman is misleading. “Gene’s makeup is the face of Kiss,” he says. “It’s the strongest. But the idea that he’s the motivating force in the band – that’s only believed by people who don’t know the band.”
Once Frehley was out of Kiss, it was up to Simmons and Stanley to keep the band alive – and Simmons was busy pursuing an acting career and other projects, including managing Liza Minnelli’s career. Stanley felt abandoned. “And it wasn’t like he was making Gone With the Wind,” he says. “Some of it was more like passing wind! But what I resented was just being informed and then working to his plan. It didn’t seem fair.” He considers Kiss’ 1984 album, Animalize, close to a Paul Stanley solo album. “I could deal with that. What I couldn’t deal with was that somebody wanted to be paid for not doing their job. If it applied to Ace and Peter, it applies to Gene, too.”
He laughs when he hears that Simmons played me some of the very un-Kiss-like ballads he writes for fun. “Gene loves the sound of his own voice,” he says. In all those episodes of Simmons’ reality show – 167 of them – Stanley never appeared, despite many requests. “Because it wasn’t reality,” he says, laughing again. “To create a life that isn’t accurate and for me to be a part of it, or to help you promote something that I think is questionable . . . and, quite honestly, waste my time? You’re missing out on living a real life if you’re filming a fake one.”
Presented with a list of Stanley’s beefs with him, Simmons simply pleads guilty. “The luckiest break I ever got was meeting Paul Stanley,” he says. “Who hated me when he first met me – thought I was arrogant. True! Self-absorbed. True! Guilty as charged. Thinks that he’s better than he actually is. Guilty as charged. And yet something in that mixture between us – you know they say that purebred dogs are retarded. It is the differences in things that make something stronger.”
When I ask Stanley if the two men have ever sat down to work out their differences, he’s genuinely confused. “I’m curious . . . what’s there to work out?” he says. “The fact that we have 40-plus years between us means we worked it out.”
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.
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.
Peter Criss is at home when I ring the doorbell of his big house in Monmouth County, New Jersey, which sits at the edge of a snowy, unshoveled walkway. But he doesn’t answer the door. (There’s a small sign next to it that reads IN CASE OF FIRE, PLEASE RESCUE CAT) I have to wait a couple of minutes before his wife of 16 years, Gigi, a former model, comes home to let me in.
Criss, who’s cozy in his finished basement, wearing tinted glasses, a pale-blue T-shirt, black jeans and white athletic socks, has a policy of not coming to the door. He last did so a few years ago, and he didn’t like the results.
“I opened up, and there’s these six, like, skinheads from Norway,” he recalls, in his thick, old-timey Brooklyn accent. “And they’ve got tattoos on their heads and black T-shirts. They look right from white supremacy. And they’re like, ‘We want your autograph! We flew all the way here from Finland.’ They could’ve killed me. We’re livin’ in a crazy world. After John Lennon got it, and George Harrison gets stabbed in his own house?”
Criss has already died and been revived, at least twice. “I am a cat, and my lives are going out. I’m losing ’em,” he says. He died for the first time after his Porsche crashed into a pole (his friend Fritz was driving, though Simmons blames Criss for the accident). And the other? “Oh, God, I can’t even remember. Somethin’ else stupid.” He also survived breast cancer not long ago, and has become an advocate for other men with the disease.
Criss’ basement could pass for the rec room of a prosperous New Jersey dentist who loves Kiss and dabbles in drums: There’s a gleaming kit in the corner, along with guitars and amps for visiting players, plus a relatively modest collection of Kiss memorabilia. “I’ve been to those guys’ houses,” says Criss, settling in his easy chair, “and I get a feeling where I don’t even know what to touch or where to sit. I don’t like to live in a showplace.”
Somewhere upstairs is Criss’ most prized showbiz achievement, a People’s Choice Award for “Beth.” Criss co-wrote the song with an old bandmate, the late Stan Penridge, and Ezrin then heavily tweaked and arranged it for the Destroyer sessions. Criss is desperately proud of the song, but Stanley claims the drummer had little to do with its creation. “Peter can’t write a song, because Peter doesn’t play an instrument,” Stanley argues. “Penridge came up with [sings], ‘Beth, I hear you calling. . . .’ Peter had nothing to do with it. Because if you write one hit song, you should be able to write two. That’s the reality. Devastating? It’s the truth. It was a lifeline that Peter hung on to validate himself, but it wasn’t based on reality.”
“I don’t think that I can break this tie,” says Ezrin, who was originally presented with a song called “Beck” that was less sympathetic to the woman in the lyrics. “I wasn’t there when he was working with that co-writer.”
“God forbid you get that credit,” says Gigi, who sits by Criss’ side during the interview, occasionally amplifying or correcting his answers. (“You said that already!”) “Paul is so full of fucking shit,” says Criss, “’cause as a lead singer of the band he never got to write the hit. That’s his problem. They hated the fact that I wrote a hit record and won a People’s Choice.”
Criss grew up in tough parts of Brooklyn, where his drumming – first inspired by Gene Krupa’s playing on “Sing Sing Sing” – was the only thing that saved him from a life of crime: He had joined a gang called the Young Lords, and his book is full of Mean Streets-worthy adventures. “I think I’m the first drummer, next to Mitch Mitchell and Charlie Watts, that incorporated jazz fills in rock & roll. There’s not many of us.”
Criss was intimidated by Simmons and Stanley’s drive and book smarts, and they didn’t go out of their way to make him feel comfortable. “If you’re going to treat me like I’m a piece of dirt, then I’m going to be mean,” he says. “And I would have to pull that out of my bag of tricks ’cause I didn’t go to college. I didn’t have the knowledge they had. And they would use that constantly, use words I didn’t understand. I’m a kid from Brooklyn. I was not the smartest bulb in the band. They would literally embarrass me in front of people. You can only take so much of that after a while.”
He doesn’t deny that his playing was slipping under the influence of drugs, but he feels the band could have given him more chances. But like Frehley, what really kills him is that someone else is bringing the Catman to life. “I’m not upset that they got the bigger barrel of the monies and the bigger homes and the bigger cars and the bigger watches,” he says. “But I’m pissed at myself that my makeup slipped through my hands. That’s my cross that I bear.”
On some tours, Singer has even sung a version of “Beth,” which breaks Criss’ heart. “How much more can you slap me?” he says. “How hard do you want to hit me? It’s my baby – no one sings it like me. And I said to Gigi, ‘You know what, it’s like the Lone Ranger: You can take his mask off and put it on another guy, but it’ll never be Clayton Moore.'”
Unlike Frehley, Criss remained relatively sober for the reunion years. “I wanted to prove to the fans that I was cool, I was better, I wasn’t on drugs anymore, I was a new man.” But they both bristled at their salaried status, and Criss was horrified when Frehley drunkenly confessed that the guitarist was making $10,000 more per night. Criss took to drawing a single tear on his cat makeup as the tours wound down.
Stanley and Simmons point out that Criss made millions of dollars, but he says that’s not the point. “Come on, simple as this: Look at their houses; look at my house. I was being treated like a freakin’ slob. They treated my wife like a whore.”
Despite it all, he dearly wishes they could all get it together for one more performance. “I just wish there wasn’t so much bad blood,” he says. “I said to the Hall of Fame, ‘Look, I don’t own the makeup anymore, but if they would lend it to me, I would be happy to put it on.'”
On my way out, Criss shows off his collection of Kiss stuff. There’s an amazing photo of the band in full makeup backstage with all of their parents in the 1970s; there are long rows of gold and platinum records, plus a plaque commemorating 500,000 8-tracks sold of Alive! He picks up a small, framed black-and-white promo shot of the band, just four young rock & roll superheroes snarling companionably together for the camera. “That’s a great shot of us,” he says, and sighs. “What can I say? I still love my band.”
This story is from the April 10th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.