Born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel, Gene Simmons grew up to be one of the most successful, notorious, and influential American rock stars of all time. As Simmons himself eagerly points out, the music, imagery, and showmanship of Kiss have seeped into nearly every corner of American culture, and not just because the sheer volume of its merchandise rivals any pop-culture phenomenon this side of Star Wars. Since forming in 1973, Kiss has been an ultra-profitable pop-culture institution, selling millions of albums, making untold millions through merchandising, and regularly ranking among the most popular live acts in the world. Though Simmons has remained in the group, he's also branched off into other arenas, including acting (Wanted: Dead Or Alive, Red Surf), producing, and even managing other artists' careers. Three decades into his career, he continues to make waves, obscene amounts of money, and headlines, most recently when he tangled with NPR host Terry Gross, who described the 53-year-old father and businessman as "obnoxious." The Kiss merchandising machine shows no sign of abating, with Simmons' autobiography (Kiss And Make-Up) currently on the bestseller list and numerous projects in various media on the way. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Simmons about sex, money, his plans for further world domination, and why he's too rich to care.
The Onion: After you immigrated to America, you spent some time in a yeshiva. Did that make much of an impact on you?
Gene Simmons: No, not really. The biggest influence on me was television, which opened up all these worlds to me that I had only imagined. People were flying through the air. I saw people like Liberace going, "My brother George." I didn't know who these creatures were or where they came from. Everybody was bizarre. There were costume dramas and little kids with mouse ears on their heads. All that stuff opened up the possibilities visually for me. It was kind of like, "Why not?" You have to dream big. Television and comic books are, and continue to be, probably the biggest influence in my life. It's the biggest influence on everybody's life.
O: When and where did you come up with the idea for what would become Kiss?
GS: It happened gradually, over time. First, when I was 12, I saw a Spanish girl jumping rope. I never saw her face, but it was still the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen. And I thought, "Gee, this beats being a rabbi." That was the first piece of the puzzle, and then the next piece of the puzzle was watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and watching guys who thought The Beatles were cool and girls who wanted to have their babies. I thought, "Wow, that looks like a lot of fun." They were also from another country and spoke kind of weird, and so did I, having an accent at that point, so one thing led to another. Girls, The Beatles, horror, and science-fiction movies were the gruel that Kiss came out of.
O: Do you think that all rockers are motivated, at least initially, by a desire to meet women?
GS: Sure. The straight ones, sure.
O: So you don't buy into that whole "It's all about the art" philosophy?
GS: No. None of these guys ever took any music-theory lessons or anything, and that includes me. None of us ever took the time to go to music school, and we can't, to this day, read or write musical notation. We never took music lessons to learn about that. So the deluded notion that we're making anything other than sugar is nuts. I'm not saying that sugar doesn't taste good, but it burns fast. It's not meant to last. This is not classical music. It's modern, popular music, and for somebody who isn't really qualified to call himself a musician to claim he's making art is, at the very least, delusional.
O: What led you to decide to pursue music full-time?
GS: Well, the band was always going on, but again, it was a social tool. It was a chance to get laid more often than not, because being in a band has its fringe benefits. It's a lot more exciting than saying, "Oh, yeah, I'm a dentist." If you're in a band, there's a kind of sexuality inherent in the clothes and what you're doing.
O: Were there always a lot of groupies around?
GS: Well, if you're not famous, they're not groupies, because they know you. And they give it up a lot faster. Once you become famous, they become groupies, and groupies want to have sex with you because you're famous. That, by the way, is okay with me. However you get to the honey.
O: What were the first few Kiss shows like?
GS: We did three club shows and then we got a recording contract. It happened that fast. Within a year and a half, we were playing Anaheim Stadium, and a year or two after that, we were the number-one band in the Gallup poll, above The Beatles and everybody. For three years in a row.
O: Why do you…
GS: Wait, I'm not done tooting my own horn. Thirty years later, we are the number-one American group gold-record champions of all time. No other American group even comes close.
O: Why do you think Kiss took off so quickly?
GS: Who cares? Just as long as we did. You know, if you win a race, you don't ask how you did it, as long as you do it. There are all sorts of notions I could throw back and forth about being in the right place at the right time, but I'm not gonna fool myself into thinking this is classical stuff, because if Kiss was around in the 1800s, people wouldn't have gotten it. You know, [sings] "Roll out the barrel / We'll have a barrel of fun," and John Philip Sousa, and then here comes Kiss. I just don't think Kiss would have worked then. But guess what? Beethoven worked then, and continues to work now.
O: It seems like Kiss was inspired by the more theatrical aspects of…
GS: No, you said that. Kiss is not theatrical at all.
O: You don't think of yourself as theatrical?
GS: No. We're not playing characters. In theater, you're playing characters. You believe you're somebody else, and you're acting.
O: And you don't feel like you're acting when you're onstage?
GS: I think you should ask the millions of people who see us. They call out, "Hey, Gene!" It's clear to me you've never seen the band. See, Alice Cooper is theatrical. He says he plays a character. He's acting.
O: You're not playing a character?
GS: No. You should ask the fans. In Alice's show, there are characters. There's a girl in a toothpaste outfit and dancers that come out. It's theater. We just get out there and play. Nobody else gets out there onstage. I mean, we dress interestingly, but so do football players.
O: Have you always played a major role in how Kiss is merchandised?
GS: Sure. Of course, the more the better. Immediately, I saw that we were a rock 'n' roll brand, not just a rock 'n' roll band. See, the rest of the guys with guitars around their neck want credibility. I don't want credibility. That means nothing. Remember, none of these guys learned how to play their instruments properly. They all did it by ear, the lazy man's out. So a big word like "credibility" coming out of a guy who's unqualified to say anything other than "Do you want fries with that?" is delusional. I've never deluded myself about what this is. Kiss appears in comic books and puzzles and condoms and anything else we damn well please. I'm happy that the rest of the bands are afraid of merchandising themselves. They should all be afraid of it, and leave it to Kiss to do everything.
O: Was there ever a point where you said, "Gee, maybe this time the merchandising thing went too far? Maybe this is something that we don't want Kiss' name on?"
GS: Oh, this is just the beginning. As far as I'm concerned, Christianity is next. I'm going to build my own shrine, and then every dollar I get is going to be tax-free. What do any of the other religions have that we don't have? It's all smoke and mirrors, anyway.
O: Where did the Kiss Army come from?
GS: It started with a guy named Bill who came out of Terre Haute, Indiana. The radio station in town—this was about '75—wouldn't play Kiss, even though we were out-selling everybody else out there. Bill threatened them. He said, "If you don't play Kiss by 5 o' clock, the Kiss Army will surround you." And the reason I know this is because it was printed in the newspaper on the cover. The radio station said no, and at the end of the day, we saw a photo of a radio station that looked like it was in the boonies, surrounded by what looked like thousands of people. The day after, of course, they started playing Kiss, but the headline read, "Kiss Army Surrounds Whatever-It-Was." And it stuck.
O: Why do you think fans remain so devoted to Kiss?
GS: Kiss seems to be the anomaly. We completely and totally avoided all movements, including bowel movements. So, if hip-hop is around, we're not a part of hip-hop. If disco's around, we're not a part of it, although we'll do a disco song. If it's heavy metal, well, we were out before heavy metal. So you can't quite figure out what that thing is. We dress sillier and wear higher shoes than anybody. We wear more make-up and high heels than your mommy does, and we completely disregard all notions of what the rules of proper behavior are. The rule of proper behavior for a hip-hop artist is, you're supposed to be a criminal. You know, the more criminal stuff you have in your past, the higher your credibility. There goes that word again. You wear cowboy hats to get more credibility if you're a country star. If you're a punk kind of guy, well, it's more about how you are: spit-in-the-face, that type of attitude. Each and every one of these genres has rules. And I say, in the nicest possible way, "Fuck them all." The rules are made to be broken, as far as I'm concerned, because the original spirit of rock 'n' roll was, "There are no rules." And so, by definition, it's a contradiction in terms if you're a punk guy and you refuse to do a ballad. You're a slave to your own rules. That's why Kiss very bravely did a disco song and had the biggest hit of our career worldwide. We have no problem doing ballads or selling merchandise.
O: Kiss did a concept album [Music From "The Elder"] in the early '80s. What led you to pursue that kind of an album?
GS: Delusional behavior. I fell into it because it was based on my story, "The Elder." We thought, "What we need to do is turn the critics around, because the fans don't count." And here we are, outselling everyone, outselling the Stones two-to-one and all that, breaking every attendance record set by The Beatles and Elvis. I thought, "Oh, we need to turn the critics around and make them like us." So we did a concept record. The Who had Tommy, The Beatles had Sgt. Pepper, Kiss needed The Elder. You know what? I was wrong, because The Elder doesn't stand up to those records, and at the end of the day, why are we trying to court the favor of critics? If you think about it, critics are an unnecessary life-form on the planet Earth, and here's why: because it's a job without credentials. You don't have to go to school. To be a journalist, of course, you need to get a journalism degree, and there's such a thing as journalistic ethics. You know, if you print news, your opinion is not important. A critic has no credibility whatsoever. He doesn't even need a license to be a critic. He just sort of says, "I'm a critic." And then you are.
O: Couldn't the same be said of rock stars?
GS: That's right. Except we're more famous and everybody likes us. Everybody hates critics. A long time ago, David Lee Roth—whom I discovered, I discovered Van Halen—said something that I found very apropos. He said, at the height of Van Halen's popularity, "You know why critics love Elvis Costello and hate Van Halen? Because critics look like Elvis Costello." And you know what? He's right. Critics look like the people who never got laid in high school.
O: Do you think it's a matter of getting revenge?
GS: No, it's a matter of little people sitting in dark corners that nobody cares about.
O: Do you think people resent you because you have lots of money and have sex with lots of women and are a rock star?
GS: Yes. I resent me for having lots of money and having sex with lots of women.
O: Earlier, you mentioned being involved in the business aspects of Kiss, and in the '80s you actually managed other artists. How did that come about?
GS: I'm from Israel, so America has no limits. I started a record label, and then I started managing other artists, like Liza Minelli. I don't know. You want to see if you can do it. I figured out the Kiss rat-maze pretty quickly—I saw that I could get to the cheese pretty quickly—so I thought to myself, "Maybe there's another maze over there that I can get through, too." Life is all about the hunt, not the kill.
O: Is it true that Eddie Van Halen wanted to join Kiss at one point?
GS: Yes. He came down while we were recording Creatures Of The Night, and he had had his fill of Roth, and he said, "I'm leaving. Are you guys looking for a guitar player?" That was back in '82. I told him to stick with his band.
O: How did the television movie Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park come about?
GS: Well, they came to us. Kiss was so enormously popular back in the days when rock bands just played onstage, because we pervaded other areas. You know, every Halloween, you'd see an army of Kiss people walking around. I mean, if you're the Foo Fighters, God bless 'em, you tour and you make albums, and that's it. Kiss somehow pervaded Christmas and Halloween, and you saw people walking around who wanted to be like us. It was kind of a combination of Superman, Batman, Santa Claus, and a rock band. It wasn't just, "I like your records." They wanted to buy the toys and the games, and they wanted to look like us. When they approached us about the movie, the wacky idea came up of "Kiss meets Dracula and Frankenstein." It was kind of cheesy at the time, and in retrospect, maybe it's kind of retro-kitsch.
O: Is that how you caught the acting bug?
GS: Nah. I want to do everything. I want to be the president, I want to learn Tae Kwan Do, I want to climb mountains. I'm always bugged by the notion that I can't do everything.
O: As a kid, I heard a lot of wild stories about Kiss, that their blood was in their comic books and…
GS: That's true. I don't remember if it was my idea or Marvel Comics', but it just kind of came up. Stan Lee, the original head and creator of a lot of the characters, flew us up to Buffalo to their printing plant, and we literally withdrew blood from our veins and added it to the red ink. So, point of fact, there are actually comic books out there with our DNA in it.
O: Another rumor was that Kiss stood for Knights In Satanic Service.
GS: The Southern states, below the Mason-Dixon line, are still in the 1800s. There, the church, and particularly the far-right portion of the church, has a big hold on politics and perception. It started there, that whole bizarre notion. Especially that "Gene Simmons is the devil" thing. I go, "What do you mean by that?" And people say, "Well, you look like the devil." I want to meet the person who's actually met the devil. What does he look like? Especially past the Bible Belt, there are always people marching near our shows with crosses on their backs. It's always struck me, how come you never see Jews with the Star Of David on their backs? Or Muslims with the crescent moon? No, it's always the Christians with the cross. It's such bizarre behavior. It's almost like they're stuck back 2000 years ago.
O: Earlier, you mentioned performing ballads while in makeup. Does the makeup ever make you feel self-conscious?
GS: I'm too rich to care. It always strikes me as a bizarre question. I don't even know what that means.
O: When you took off the makeup, initially, were you anxious that you were making a mistake that you'd later regret?
GS: I wasn't sure whether it would work, but we had to do it to maintain the integrity of the original makeup, because as more and more new members came into the band, it became silly. You know, "Here's Giraffe Boy and here's Hawkman." Less is more sometimes. By the way, even without the makeup, we did pretty well. We still filled up arenas and kept getting platinum records. It was not a problem.
O: Is there a period of music that you regard as Kiss' golden age?
GS: Maybe the beginning, the first few records. But that seems to be the case with most bands. There are very few bands like The Beatles, where they have this grand catalog and anything you pick up by them is a gem. Clearly, the Stones' early albums are more impressive than their later ones. I didn't like the '80s records very much in retrospect, although while I was doing them, I liked them a lot. I mean, everybody has photos of themselves at 14, where if you looked at them now, you'd think, "God, what a dork." But at the time, you didn't think you were a dork. You only have clarity in retrospect.
O: You appear in the movie Porn Star with Ron Jeremy. What's your relationship with him like? What do you have in common with him?
GS: Girls. Or, more specifically, the hunt for more rather than less. One ejaculation kicks out a billion sperm. We're designed to want more than just one. One woman is not going to be able to have all those sperm. The reason we can ejaculate more than once—well, those who are healthy and attractive and powerful like myself—is for multiple partners.
O: Looking back on your life, do you have any regrets?
GS: No. I think perhaps I'd try to do more. When you feel like you've done enough, you should just dig a hole, jump in it, and say, "Thank you and goodnight." That's the time to say, "Okay, I'm done." While you're alive, the notion is to do more.