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.”
KISS still tour. But the only original members left are Simmons and the band’s frontman, Paul Stanley…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.
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 [the band] 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.”
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.
[Paul] 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.”
“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.
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.”
[While I was at Simmons' residence], Paul Stanley [dropped by], 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.)
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.
“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.”
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.
On some tours, Singer has even sung a version of Beth, which breaks original drummer [Peter] 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.'”
Read KISS’ entire cover story at Rolling Stone.