Gene Simmons is the preeminent villain of Kiss mythology. He isn’t just notoriously selfish and leering in a realm where those qualities are ubiquitous; the man pretty much embodies rock-’n’-roll greed and lust. The great Jon Wurster does a devastating impersonation of Simmons on The Best Show and Best Show Gems in part because he doesn’t have to exaggerate much to make Simmons seem hilariously self-serving and mercenary. In Peter Criss’ Makeup To Break-Up, which I just wrote about for this column, Simmons is certainly the bad guy, a cold-hearted, money-grubbing bastard who ran the band like a dictatorship during the boom years and treated drummer Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley like disposable employees during their lucrative comeback tours, all despite the original vision to have Kiss be like The Beatles—four individual superstars with strong personas in one band. (While plenty of bands emulate the Beatles, note that none of them ever envision themselves as being composed of “four Ringos”.)
Simmons has embraced the role of heavy in his public life—sneering defiantly at critics, extending a middle finger to punks/true believers who think music should be about art and integrity and not chicks and money, and lasciviously waggling his famously long tongue at the highbrow gatekeepers of culture who are aghast at the nakedness of his sexism and greed (most notably Terry Gross of Fresh Air). There’s an unmistakably preemptive quality to Simmons’ confrontational, unapologetic shtick: A man who loudly professes to have no integrity or values cannot be accused of betraying his integrity or values. And a man who makes it clear that he cares only for power, money, and women cannot be accused of losing his way.
But what does the villain have to say about himself and his path to infamy? That is the question behind Kiss And Make-Up, Simmons’ relentlessly self-aggrandizing, intensely unedifying 2001 memoir. In the book, Simmons pats himself on the back for having the courage to deliver the unvarnished truth about Kiss in spite of what fans might think, but that mostly means he’s comfortable repeatedly trashing Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. To critics who ask how he could have treated core members of his group so coldly, he responds, “Would you want to be in a group with Criss and Frehley?” Simmons portrays himself here as a man who patiently endured Criss and Frehley’s drugged-up craziness until he was forced to replace his band’s problem children with company men eager to go along with their bosses’ wishes. But before Kiss And Make-Up presents Simmons the horrible, horrible man, it asks us to feel a little for Simmons the overwhelmed little boy.
Kiss And Make-Up emphasizes the immigrant angle of Simmons’ rags-to-riches Horatio Alger tale, positing him as an insecure boy born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel, who grew up feeling powerless and awkward as an Orthodox Jewish immigrant in New York. As a response to this, he boldly re-created himself using the outsized fantasy figures of his adopted land: monsters like Godzilla, comic-book heroes, movie stars, and The Beatles. In creating Kiss, Simmons created a world where he held all the power, where he was King Kong or Godzilla or Dracula rather than a scared immigrant boy trying to understand a strange and unknowable world.
Simmons fell in love with trashy American pop culture, but his memoir is largely devoid of the characteristics that made the world fall in love with Kiss: energy, passion, humor, excitement, and visceral, kinetic thrills. For a great showman, Simmons writes like an unusually horny accountant who is mainly concerned with presenting the events of his life and career as dryly and succinctly as possible.
A typical example of Simmons’ just-the-tedious-facts approach to chronicling his sexual exploits can be found in the following passage about his pre-fame days. He writes about an interracial tryst with a woman who worked at the hotel where he was a lifeguard with all the passion, flavor, and erotic intensity of a manager at a used-parts stores compiling a detailed inventory:
“That was the place where I had my first sexual escapades in which I actually took the bull by the horns. There was a black maid who cleaned all the rooms, including the rooms of the staff who worked at the hotel. We had these little rooms, just big enough to fit a bed and a sink in. One day I was leaving, and she was saying, “Okay, are you ready? I need to clean up the room.” As we brushed past each other, I got aroused and closed the door behind me. She didn’t object. She was young enough but older than I was. I have always had respect for a clean room, never more so than that day.”
That’s not just bad writing; that’s bad leering. Simmons is so fucking apathetic and contemptuous of his audience, he can’t even commit to being a leering jerk. In Kiss And Make-Up, it’s achingly apparent that all he cares about is sex and money, and he can’t even muster up the energy to chronicle his relentless pursuit of both in anything but the most perfunctory, arbitrary, half-assed fashion. That passage is Kiss And Make-Up in a nutshell, from the clumsy use of clichés (“That was the place where I had my first sexual escapades in which I actually took the bull by the horns”) to the complete lack of exciting, telling detail (we learn only that Simmons’ partner was black, worked as a maid, and was older than Simmons yet “young enough”) to the half-hearted semi-leering joke than ends the passage. “I have always had respect for a clean room, never more so than that day.” That’s not even a lascivious quip. It’s the beginning of a lascivious quip but it quits early on and never recovers. If Simmons were to write, “I banged a beer vendor in the restroom of Wrigley Field. Now I always rise during the seventh-inning stretch in more ways than one,” that would be a smutty quip, not the half-baked nonsense he favors us with here.
And that isn’t just how Simmons writes about his sexual misadventures. That’s how he writes about everything in Kiss And Make-Up: as something not particularly interesting or important that he’s recalling with little interest or investment. Huge moments in the history of Kiss are shrugged off as afterthoughts. He recalls Kiss’ controversial decision to go disco on its hit song “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” by saying, “Paul [Stanley] embraced this idea, and I fought it slightly, although not out of any sense of grand principle.” And Simmons describes the riveting steps that led to the creation of the notorious TV movie Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park thusly:
“Midway through 1978 Hanna-Barbera, the famous cartoon producers, approached us about being in a movie. We had already been in Howard The Duck [the comic book] and in the Marvel comic book [Kiss]. We had an initial meeting and they told us about the idea, and we shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘That sounds fine.’”
And here’s Simmons on how he almost left Kiss to have his own TV show:
“By 1981, I was spending more and more time in Hollywood. I was approached by Marcy Carsey, a producer of shows like The Cosby Show and Roseanne, to try out for a show to be called Grotus. I would be the star. I shot a short pilot and everyone seemed to like it enough to get me in front of the ABC staff. There were 10 people around a table and we chatted for five minutes. Then they offered me my own TV series. I was stunned.”
But Simmons was offered the insultingly low payday of $60,000 an episode, far less than he makes with Kiss, so he admits two paragraphs later, “In the end I didn’t do the TV show; I stayed with the band.”
Holy shit, what fascinating subject matter! Gene Simmons nearly quit Kiss to star in a show called Grotus. What was it about? What did Simmons play? Was he a rock star from outer space who becomes a surrogate father to a gaggle of orphaned moppets? Was he a grumpy but lovable White House chef? Was it a drama? A comedy? A thriller? A cop show? A variety show? I have no idea because Simmons finds the whole incident so staggeringly uninteresting that he doesn’t bother to explicate any further. But at least this incident finds itself in good company; Simmons found his experience working at Vogue before Kiss blew up so unmemorable, he mentions it only in passing. His time teaching in Spanish Harlem is introduced and dismissed with a brisk, “As soon as I graduated college and got my B.A., I taught sixth grade for six months in Spanish Harlem. It was a fine experience in some ways, less satisfactory in others, but it didn’t last long.”
“A fine experience in some ways, less satisfactory in others?” Whoa, way to wow us with your erudite wordplay there, Shakespeare! Simmons doesn’t seem to find his own eminently fascinatingly life interesting, so he has developed a singular genius for making it seem uninteresting to readers as well.
Gene Simmons has a reputation for being smarter than the average rock star—which is setting the bar awfully low—but there’s a difference between something like business savvy, which Simmons undoubtedly possesses in abundance, and true intelligence. True intelligence requires intellectual curiosity and passionate engagement in the world. It’s a product of reading and growing and constantly trying to broaden your horizons and expand your frame of reference. Simmons possesses none of that. He figured out early on that he could score an unending supply of sex, money, power, and public adulation through his work with Kiss, and stopped caring and therefore stopped growing at that point. Women exist to be fucked. Men exist to give him money. It’s as simple as that to him, and he seems genuinely bewildered that others think there’s more to life than that.
Then Simmons hooked up with Cher at the height of Kiss’ ’70s mega-fame and his entire attitude toward women changed. Before, Simmons merely viewed women as outlets for sexual release (and that’s being nice). But afterward, Simmons found himself in a bizarre new world where men were actually expected to talk to women and consider their emotions, and other touchy-feely hippie shit, writing:
“Cher was telling me, ‘Here’s how I feel, and here’s what it means,’ and asking me, ‘What did you mean by that?’ and ‘How do you feel?’ I had absolutely no expertise in communicating on that level. The first question I kept thinking of, over and over again, was, ‘Why are we even talking about this?’ If you want to be with me, you are. And if you don’t want to be with me, you’re not. It’s simple, nothing to verbalize.”
Simmons discovers, much to his horror, that Cher isn’t the only weirdo in Hollywood intent on discussing these weird things called “feelings.” This frustrates him to no end, as he goes to Hollywood parties and has to suffer through people talking about emotions and hopes and political convictions and horseshit that literally has nothing to do with the revenue stream generated by Kiss’ merchandising or the state of Gene Simmons’ penis and consequently is of no interest to the author.
Sometimes Simmons is so devoid of relatable human emotion that he comes across as an actual extraterrestrial life form. Here’s how he writes about Cher’s response to his charming habit of keeping extensive photographic and film journals of his indiscriminate womanizing:
“Since 1976 or so, I had been taking pictures of the girls I had been with, sometimes film footage. I didn’t do it without their knowledge or compliance. In fact, most of the girls were thrilled about it. It was a habit of mine, partly to keep things exciting and partly as a kind of documentary. There were so many girls—by the time I met Cher, somewhere in the neighborhood of a few thousand. At one point I told Cher about the photographs. It wasn’t to confess, because I didn’t feel guilty. I just wanted to share everything with her. She was shocked. She didn’t understand why I would want to do that. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t any stranger than any other road behaviors—drinking, drugs, and that kind of thing. In fact, it was quite a bit less strange, and it didn’t hurt anyone.”
In Gene Simmons’ myopic mind, where his own needs and urges take precedence over everything else, collecting and publicizing an extensive collection of photographic evidence of your sexual conquests (many of whom, at this point, I imagine, are parents or even grandparents), then sharing news of that collection with your girlfriend is a far healthier, more normal, and understandable quirk (if you can even call such a commonplace, wholesome pastime a quirk) than drinking some Riesling after a show or smoking a bowl before bed. After all, he isn’t a degenerate like those animals Peter Criss and Ace Frehley, merely a reasonable chap who likes to pass around a massive photo album of strangers from various towns and countries whose orifices he has penetrated.
In a similar display of delusional hubris, Simmons writes that during the band’s comeback in the ’90s, he sought out someone famous to write their biography, and was chagrined that his first two choices—Stephen King and Steven Spielberg—were unavailable.
Regarding the band’s down years and failures, the reader is met with a sentiment that screams, “What down years? What failures?” Simmons depicts the late-’80s glam-metal years as times of continued growth, stability, and popularity for himself and the band that he so ably co-ran with Paul Stanley. This was the time when Kiss continued to crank out hit albums without being bogged down by the undependable likes of Criss and Frehley, and canny business moves made Kiss more profitable than ever. Therefore, Simmons was overjoyed to settle down and welcome children into his life after decades of being the world’s greatest cocksman and womanizer. Massive failures are depicted as minor setbacks, disappointments as solid victories, and minor successes as world-beating triumphs. As you might imagine, Kiss’ comeback—and the many sweet merchandising opportunities it presented—is depicted as arguably mankind’s greatest accomplishment.
Simmons’ worldview was concocted from Playboy magazines, Godzilla movies, and repeated viewings of A Hard Day’s Night and comic books. But in writing his bewilderingly forgettable, punishingly arbitrary memoir, Simmons forgot one of the key rules of comic books and genre movies: The bad guy is always the most fascinating character. Kiss And Make-Up isn’t a glimpse into its author’s Scrooge-like soul; it’s just another disposable piece of Kiss merchandise, no different, fundamentally, from a Kiss Beanie Baby or a Dr. Pepper commercial.