by Elmo Keep
Do you know that when you join the KISS Army they still give you a dog tag? Yes they do.
People still join the KISS Army, all the time. I know that because I receive regular email newsletter updates that tell me all about it. The newsletter came free with the dog tag, which is a pretty sweet deal. I find all sorts of things out in the newsletter, like how Paul Stanley’s latest art show went, or when a new episode of Gene Simmons’ sadly still functioning reality sitcom “Family Jewels” is screening. Also things like when Gene Simmons is threatening to expose the hackers who took down his site, as he did this week. I didn’t used to be this way. I used to coast along in ignorance of these sorts of things. I used to not be in the KISS Army. I used to be just fine. And then I had to talk to Gene Simmons.
I used to not own the set of KISS babushka dolls on my desk which were given to me on my birthday by some friends who found them in a tiny junk shop in the New South Wales countryside one weekend. Or the freakishly life-like Gene Simmons action figure I bought one night on eBay. Or my KISS pyjama pants I enjoy not only for their comfort but for their eye-defying yellow-orange-red colour scheme. I used to not know that the bassline for ‘Deuce’ was just ‘Bitch’ by the Rolling Stones, but played backwards. I used to not know that Gene Simmons has patents on all the iterations of KISS make-up, even the Anhk Warrior one, which no one remembers who wore.
I used to work at a streetpress music weekly in Sydney called The Brag. My reputation preceded me there because I liked U2. I liked lots of things that were totally not in line at all the with kind of hip-to-the-minute things one is normally required to like at a magazine like that. For example, I once had to interview the Black Kids, and for my life, Googling them could not turn up one piece of information that would make them forcibly interesting to me.
To put it another way, Empire of the Sun recorded parts of their album in the basement studios under our offices. It was that kind of place. So whenever I commandeered the stereo and put on something like “Tonight’s The Night,” or “Born To Run,” it would sometimes elicit the kind of eye-rolling that made me a shoe-in for any “old people” stories that might have to be covered. Which was great! That meant reviewing Elton John (twice!) and interviewing Patti Smith unimpeded, while everyone else fought over access to Of Montreal and Clap Your Hands Say Whatever and I tried desperately to palm off a cover story on Rise Against to someone, anyone, who knew who they were.
How I came to be in the KISS Army was tied directly to my covering the Old People beat. In the office on deadline one day, I fielded a call from my editor at another publication to which I contributed. It was four in the afternoon when she rang.
“Hey. Do you want to interview Gene Simmons?”
I was semi-distracted with deep-etching the head of some wasted kid in Photoshop for the magazine’s social pages (like everywhere, there was little money at the magazine, and so everyone had to multi-task.) I did a quick inventory of the few facts I knew about Gene Simmons: fire-breathing, blood spitting, enormous tongue, check.
“Sure, ok.” It sounded like it could be fun. “When?”
“9 a.m. tomorrow.”
I was not the kind of music writer who understood a detailed knowledge of the entire history of music. I had a passing knowledge of KISS at best. I remembered fondly their cover of “God Gave Rock and Roll To You (II)” from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and in particular its painfully 90s music video which featured a lot of swooping aerial shots of the band playing in a concrete-floored warehouse which was covered in large parts with puddles of water. This was during their ill-advised no make-up phase, but I didn’t know that at the time I was watching the video-I was ten and I had no idea who KISS were then either. I just loved the movie I recognised the song from and noted that the guys in the video had really huge hair.
So I spent a couple of hours on the web learning the Gene Simmons CliffsNotes. I was briefed on the phone by KISS’ publicist who told me, hapless writer (for no doubt the thousandth time ever) explicitly not to ask any questions of Gene Simmons about his tongue. OK, great! That’s it! Covered it! The tongue thing is all there is to Gene Simmons, yes? I got this!
My “research” did not bring me across the notorious NPR interview he did with Terry Gross in 2002 until after we’d spoken, an unfortunate error, as it would have greatly helped my chances if I had heard it. Listening later, it evidently was an already somewhat hostile exchange which quickly devolved into a slanging match about which of them was smarter than the other, peppered throughout with increasingly awful attacks from Gene Simmons, like, “You’d have to put the book down and confront life. The notion is that if you want to welcome me with open arms, I’m afraid you’re also going to have to welcome me with open legs.”
Gene Simmons: Don’t you love this interview? Tell me the truth.
Terry Gross: Well, I think it’s kind of a drag, because you’re making speeches.
Gene Simmons: That’s right.
Terry Gross: And you’re being intentionally obnoxious. [laughs]
Gene Simmons: No, I’m not. I’m being a man.
On that afternoon though, I did not find or read this interview. Instead I skimmed the KISS greatest hits. Noted that they were once a pretty great rock band in their 70s heyday, had enjoyed several missteps creative and otherwise for most of the 80s and 90s (including Gene Simmons’ brief but memorable acting career), and at the time of writing, were determinedly on another comeback tour where they only played the certified hits and none of that weird stuff from the 90s. Or, as was most recently and astutely summarised by the wonderful @Discographies Twitter feed:
Kiss: 1–6 successful product introduction; 7–10 overexposure kills brand; 11–17 relaunch w/”edgy” imaging; 18–19 “the old package is back!”less than a minute ago via web
So rather than do the professional thing and knuckle down to an all-night KISS cram session, I instead went out to review The National, because I often made concessions to new music I liked which reminded me of old music I liked.
It was high summer in Sydney at the time, which meant it was blindingly hot during the day, with the only respite coming late in the evening, when everyone descended on the city’s bars where the hot mix of cold beer and people wearing very little is hard to tear yourself away from.
We’d tumbled out of the Recital Hall just before midnight, where the band had played just about every song from “Alligator” so I was feeling particularly buoyed. And also a little weird, because lead singer Matt Beringer had a habit then of getting down into the crowd and clambering the front rows, planting his legs either side of someone in their seat and singing the last song of the night, “Mr November,” into their face quite ferociously, and that night he’d done it to me.
It was late February and that’s when you’re acutely aware that the summer is ending and you want to make the most of it and I had that line from “The Geese of Beverly Road,” “Serve me the sky with a big slice of lemon” freshly stuck in my head, so when in Rome! By the time I got home it was somewhere around 4 a.m., with my friend calling, “Good luck with Gene!” as I got out of the taxi and I was thinking, Oh yeah, don’t forget that in the morning.
* * *
“A guy called for you,” our receptionist said as I sped by into the interview room.
“He’s calling back in ten minutes,” she yelled after me, and I was thinking, OK, it’s just the person connecting the call, I’ve got time, he’s calling back and I was trying to untangle the cables and plug in my laptop and set the recorder on the phone right and all I wanted was a tall glass of water, I thought I was maybe dying, and halfway through all that the phone started ringing.
“Yes!” I barked, “Hello?”
“Is this Elmo?”
“Yes it is. Who’s this?”
“This is Gene Simmons,” Gene Simmons said, pausing for maximum effect and leaving a gaping hole large enough for me to fall into before continuing in his low, deliberate tone: “You were expecting someone else? Who do you think you’re talking to?”
Who does that? No one does that. Unless they are some young up-and-comer you’ve never heard of hoping someone will write about their demo, in which case they call all the time. But no one of Gene Simmons’ stature ever calls direct; their call is connected to you through some complex re-route via the subcontinent handled by someone you’ll never speak to again in your life. Except when it’s Gene Simmons, who is instead calling you straight from inside his spacious Los Angeles lair.
“Uh, hello!” I said at the exact moment my mind was scrubbed clean of coherent thoughts. Or thoughts of any kind apart from oh shit.
Gene Simmons wanted to talk. He wanted to talk, pretty much interrupted, for almost and hour and a half. He wanted to elucidate on the great conversational touchstones of our time. Such as: what women want from men, and how kids should stop using the Internet to steal music; and why marriage was a terrible institution and something else about how he thought of himself as a lion in his familial role of the father. And at some point he wanted even to talk about KISS! It was almost as though he was bored, and had nothing better to do with his time than talk to me on the phone.
In fact he’d started by saying, “We can talk as long as you want. I’m not going anywhere,” when I’d asked how much time he’d set aside for the interview. In any other scenario-particularly one in which I was prepared properly and didn’t feel like the fluid around my brain had evaporated, leaving it to clang against my skull whenever I blinked-that would have been terrific.
As it was, however, in my fanciful attempt at getting myself organized, I had, among other errors, set the call to speakerphone, something I was afraid to rectify in case I accidentally hung up altogether. So Gene Simmons’ voice was booming like God’s, bouncing off the white walls and hardwood floor, reverberating around the enormous conference room where I sat in white vinyl chair at the enormous white round table (where a single person was always an aberration of its symmetry), and the sun was steadily rising at the windows, filling the room with horrible, horrible light and I felt as though I were inside a giant microwave, being roasted, being roasted by Gene Simmons; and the disembodied, booming voice carried up through the atrium drew curious people from upstairs in the office who came to gawk quizzically at me, caged animal, through the glass, making Who the fuck are you talking to? gestures while I gestured back with wide eyes, shaking my head: I have no idea what is happening!
“I’m asking you a question,” Gene Simmons said, now waiting.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked. “Could you say that again please?”
“I said: If you are going to walk a tightrope, which is going to help you; having blind faith in your abilities? Or fear?”
“Um, does there have to be a tightrope? I’d rather just not walk the tightrope, it seems kind of showy and stupid. I would never walk a tightrope.”
“That’s because you’re a woman!”
This is the part where I get my comeuppance for not being prepared.
* * *
“Sure, but a woman doesn’t need a man, after you’ve ejaculated,” I said, after Gene Simmons had told me that my one overriding goal in life as a woman was to find and keep a man. “In the equation, it’s women who have all the power,” I argued, “because women choose. Women choose which man will pass on his genetic code. Men however, will just stick it in whatever moves, from an evolutionary perspective.”
How was this happening? How was Gene Simmons not just regaling me with hilarious war stories from the road? Or trying to explain why KISS ever took their make-up off? Or how Lou Reed was once cajoled into being a co-songwriter on “Music From The Elder”? Why didn’t someone just bring me some water?
“From a biological perspective,” I went on, “in evolutionary terms, your job is done. Your job is to pass on your genes”-zing!-”and once you’ve done that, you can jump off a cliff and you’ve still done your job.”
So I went on like this at some length, because if there’s one thing you should always, always do, it’s talk over your interview subject. It’s all about you, and not them, don’t forget. For the most part anyway, I was distracted by the fact that this was a conversation that was taking place, in the first place, in my life. If I was rambling on in an incoherent fashion, I thought I was doing pretty well to hold up my end of the interview at all.
Gene Simmons was not buying this evolutionary biology idea.
“Good luck with that,” he said.
He spoke in a slow, lecturing tone to me throughout all this. But it was also peppered throughout with something more playful. Like if you ever had those kinds of adversarial conversations with your parents over dinner when you were much too young to properly articulate what you were arguing for, but you knew absolutely that you were right? I was reminded of that feeling often when talking, or fighting, with Gene Simmons. He gave me the impression that he was enjoying this, quite a lot.
The ‘why do we have sex’ argument dissipated with no obvious victor emerging and he wanted to move on to the death of the music industry at the hands of merciless, greedy pirates.
“The people who say they love music the most, have killed the music business!” he said. “It’s too late now, once you’ve let the fox into the henhouse-the chickens are gone. Once something has been made available for free, how are you going to convince anyone that they should pay for it? You can’t. It’s too late now. It’s not going to matter for us, for bands like KISS. But it will matter for the next KISS who are out there somewhere waiting to be signed to a label. They won’t be. There won’t be any money left.”
As one of those merciless, greedy pirates, I wanted to spout our most recent cause celebre in our defence. Something to prove that the dire state of the music industry was not connected to the fact that no one thought they should pay for music anymore. I was going to assuage my own guilt, and dazzle Gene Simmons with a sparkling vision of the future of music distribution at the same time!
Radiohead had then recently decided to give their album “In Rainbows” away on the Internet, for free. Or free if you wanted it to be. The idea was to let people pay what they “thought it was worth.” It turned out that this was often actually “a lot”. After the ensuing ruckus about the death of the music industry had subsided a little, it happened that the experiment had worked out well for the band; they ended up shifting 1.2 million downloads at an average of U.S. $6 a pop. At the time, however, this was a way off in the future and it looked instead as though perhaps Radiohead had just made a giant, career-and-industry-killing mistake.
Gene Simmons thought it was the single most stupid idea he had ever heard in his life. His entire worldview revolved around the making of money, and then, how to make more money from that money; his outlook was once eloquently described as “a subtle blend of Ayn Rand and Ron Jeremy.” The notion of an artistic experiment which spoke of an utter distain for the very structures which had made its creation possible in the first place did not interest him in the slightest, and he summed up his feelings on it with a rhetorical question/analogy combo, as was his favoured mode of communication:
“What happens when a miner strikes gold?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, but I think you want to tell me.”
“Every other guy is going to pitch and dig in right next to him. And that isn’t happening, and it’s never going to happen.”
“You don’t know that-”
“You aren’t qualified to make that statement.”
“-but shouldn’t we wait at least longer than a few months to gauge its effect before saying it will never work?”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“But it just happened!”
“Is that your opinion? Because if it’s your opinion, then that’s fine.”
“Is what my opinion? That it could work?”
“Yes, you’re entitled to that opinion. But as a statement of fact, you are not qualified to make that statement. You’re reading Rolling Stone and throwing these figures around, and you have no idea what you’re talking about. You sound very nice though, I like you.”
“You’ve never met me! What if I’m awful?”
“You sound really wonderful and very creative, but if I want financial advice, I’ll go to my banker. If I’m sick, I’ll go to a doctor. I won’t ask my neighbour what I should do about my health! I’ll ask a professional. And you’re not a professional, and that’s all I’m saying.”
I was, really, completely out of my depth on this one. Anyone who thinks piracy hasn’t impacted record sales is an idiot. I was that idiot, trying to defend that position. And who was I to do that in this situation? Of the two of us, Gene Simmons was about three million times more qualified than me to talk about this with authority. He was certain that the music industry was over. He did not want to hear about ringtone sales and the iTunes Store. There wouldn’t be another KISS album, he said. Not when there wasn’t a sure-fire way to distribute it for proven profit. (That would turn out not to be true, when KISS released the incredibly so-so “Sonic Boom” in 2009 and distributed it exclusively through WalMart, selling around 500,000 copies.)
Chastened, I tried for an elegant segue.
“So, do you ever call up the other guys for a barbeque, to catch up on old times?”
“Not really, no.”
“I mean, Peter and Ace, I wish them very well. But when people ask, ‘Hey, when are you putting the team back together that made football great?,’ it’s not going to happen.”
With that he was alluding to the fact that the original members of KISS who are no longer in the band-Ace Frehley and Peter Criss-are essentially in his eyes, fuck ups. Ironically, rockstar behaviour was not tolerated in KISS, “the hottest band in the world!” It was in effect a duopoly run by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. Playing with them in the band was a big ticket gig, but if you wanted in, you had to treat it like the job that it was: that is, seriously. No drugs, no alcohol. As much philandering as you liked, but no partying. Otherwise, you’re out.
“You don’t get to where we are, having been around as long as we have, and being as big as we are, without losing a few people along the way. It’s just not possible. There’s no one who’s done it.”
“Sure there is.”
“No there’s not!”
“What? Who? You mean AC/DC?”
“No, Bon Scott died some time ago. I mean U2,” I said. “They’ve been together since 1976. Same line-up. So, that’s only what, three years less than you guys?”
“Yeah. So all I’m saying, is that it can be done. Someone did it.” Point!
We then enjoyed a further small skirmish about the particulars of when a band’s career starts proper, and that was, apparently: only when you put out your first record. Not your first EP, not your first gig under your band name with your original line-up. And so by this logic, KISS were safely older than U2 by seven years, and Gene Simmons could rest.
“I’ve got to get going now,” he said rather suddenly, before imploring me to go along to the show when KISS toured Australia the following month. He did this by making a particularly crass allusion to the experience being tantamount to sleeping with a man of incredible sexual prowess for the first time in my life.
“Come say ‘hi’ to me. It’s been great talking to you. I wish you well.”
“Thanks for your time. It’s been,” — uh, a mind fuck? — “interesting.”
* * *
How else to account for the fact I soon found myself standing on my own among the KISS Army by the side of a Grand Prix raceway where, soon after the cars finished screaming by like low flying jets, the band took to the stage, all confetti canons and pin-wheeling fireworks and 40-foot stacks and taking flight, winched over the heads of the crowd on a highwire? I told myself it was for background. But it wasn’t really, the story was done.
I certainly didn’t have to see them twice, in two different cities, in the same week. But I did.
It was, I realized, down to two things: the fact that KISS wrote at least a handful of the most perfect hard rock songs in the history of the form (and two eminently danceable other tracks) and the way the KISS fans were losing their collective minds all around me at the shows. Particularly at the Grand Prix, were I spent the night standing behind a KISS family, the face-painted little kids up on their parent’s shoulders throughout, belting all the words out together, the kids no doubt having their tiny minds blown by the spectacle of it all.
It was all so refreshingly lacking in cynicism, so steadfastly about nothing but having the greatest possible time, being nowhere but where you were for two hours. “If you wanna be lectured to by someone at a rock and roll show,” Paul Stanley shrieked from the stage at one point, “you’re in the wrong fucking place tonight!”
And so even though it turned out the one song I knew at the start of it all wasn’t even theirs, that was how KISS gave rock and roll to us, putting it in the soul of everyone there. No one more so than me, and it was good.