In my life story I am the main character. My story is about power and the pursuit of it. Ultimately, all conflict seems to center on it: who has it, and who wants it.
If I had to choose a single passage to best summarize Kiss and Make-Up by Gene Simmons, that might be the one. It provides the best lens through which to view the events relayed and even the ones completely omitted from the narrative but alluded to in other Kiss books. Another one might be:
In a lot of ways, I was delusional and still am. I am one of those few guys who can look in a mirror and believe I am better looking than I actually am. This has always been the case.
It's especially for this reason that I think Gene Simmons Family Jewels was a good move for the Demon. He's difficult to humanize - especially when he's trying to do the job himself - but the affection his family obviously has for him and he for them softens his oft-times insufferable public persona.
|The fabricated reality of Reality TV is pretty much a perfect fit for Gene. And at no time - at least in the episodes I've seen - do Gene and the gang come across like the Kardashians or any of the Real Housewives or whomever.|
I guess from his point of view he's just being a good businessman and up-selling his product, but such things are certainly at odds with his assertion in the preface to Kiss and Make-Up that "everything you're about to read is the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
|Then again, caveat emptor.|
THE EARLY YEARS
Gene was born Chaim Witz in Israel and moved to the United States with his mother (a concentration camp survivor) when he was 8 years old. He patterned his speech after what he heard on TV, particularly Walter Cronkite. He certainly did a good job of it; listening to him, one would never know English wasn't his first language. I've never been a particular fan of Gene's vocals (or when he goes into that game-show voice in concert or interviews) but it's certainly an impressive feat to achieve stardom singing in one's third language.
|It's kind of funny, too, to consider that native-born Peter was the one whose lines had to be overdubbed in Attack of the Phantoms on account of his Brooklyn accent being too thick.|
As a teenager, he discovered rock and roll but only as a means to end. His philosophy - which would be articulated many times in the years to come - began to take shape.
This is the big secret of being in a rock and roll band. There are no messages, there's no inner being striving to express itself through music. We all picked up guitars because we all wanted to get laid. Plain and simple. (...) Having a band was simply a tool for getting access to other things. (...) It was never about friends. It was never about hanging out. It never was, and to this day it still isn't. (...) The master plan was to create a cultural institution that was as iconic as Disney. (...) Disney is not just the theme park or the cartoons - it is anything you can imagine, from pillows to pajamas to videos. Mickey Mouse started out as a cartoon, then became part of America. Whether Mickey Mouse is respected or not is such a small issue. When you're too big to argue with, you make your own rules.
Is Elvis credible or not? Who cares? The question is moot. You may think Santa Claus doesn't have any credibility. But at a certain time of year, he rules. That's what I wanted for Kiss: to make such a big impact that authenticity or credibility would be beside the point.
Gene was (and remains) the driving force behind Kiss's merchandising. Few topics are more nebulous or lines more fine than the whole concept of "selling out." Gene's approach at least has the virtue of being unambiguous:
We have no illusions about our corporate identity - we're like any other corporation. Some rock bands are delusional. They say they're a people's band, but even they don't perform for free. Whether you have long hair or razor blades in your eyeballs, you're a corporation. (...) Americans by and large feel a little awkward talking about money or showing it off when they have it. That's why the richest men in the country walk around in jeans. When a band that has sold millions of records walks onstage in jeans, it's every bit as much of a costume as Kiss's costumes.
At the same time, maybe not everyone gives a crap about such things? I'd say this is where Gene gets himself into trouble. He makes absolutist statements that no one could ever really back up. In this, he's no different than most people in the media, but that's hardly a standard of comparison of which to be proud. So many people disagree with him or embody a counter-ethos that you'd figure he'd at least acknowledge he doesn't speak for everyone, yet he consistently implies (if not outright insists) that anyone who does is just being dishonest.
Regardless, he at least approaches a live and let live attitude about it all, even if he does so somewhat dismissively.
Let other people go into trances and think about spirituality or Werner Erhardt. I'd rather concentrate on having something to eat. The here and now. Be glad you can get a good night's sleep and eat a good meal and, if you're lucky enough, have somebody attractive sharing your bed with you. That's about all there is to life.
He devotes a good amount of space to the early years of the band, how they came together in the local New York scene of the time, his bonding with Paul and forging the connections in the industry that would lead them to recording the first album. When it came time to choose an image for himself - the band having decided upon the course of theatricality that would define their stage presence - he mined his own preoccupations to create The Demon. One part Universal Horror movie and one part comic books
|Specifically, Jack Kirby's design for Black Bolt.|
The main point (to Gene) was always to score chicks, of course:
The lifestyle really appealed to me, spending the night with a girl who wanted me just because I was in a band, whose name I barely remembered. I wanted to do (it) all the time. I understood exactly what I wanted out of the touring experience. I wasn't drinking. I wasn't using drugs. (...) There was only one more thing to do, and that was to go out and chase skirt. I got a reputation for being indiscriminate, and I suppose it was earned - I didn't have very specific tastes in women. If they were female and in my presence, I was interested.
Which brings us to...
GENE'S BINDER FULL OF WOMEN
Gene liked to take photographs of his many liaisons with the ladies of the road. Those who have seen this legendary tome have all attested to its tastelessness. He got permission from each of the girls and hasn't published it on the internet or anything like that, so I don't quite see the big deal. It isn't a crime to be tasteless. (Surely, the world proves that on an hourly basis.) But Gene's attitude about it - and his bewilderment at his subsequent girlfriends (and eventual wife's) reactions to it - is worth noting:
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.
Gene is an unabashed chauvinist and will argue - as he did with Terry Gross during his notorious Fresh Air interview - that this is just the male condition. As with his unabashed capitalism, sometimes his candor on this topic is somewhat refreshing. But it, too, gets caught up in his curious web of double standards. (Then again, as he states in the forward: every personality has contradictions, and a large personality has large contradictions.)
The AV Club takes him to task on this in their review of the book:
In Gene Simmons’ myopic mind, where his own needs and urges take precedence over everything else, collecting an extensive collection of photographic evidence of your sexual conquests (...) then sharing news of that collection with your girlfriend is a far healthier, more normal, and understandable 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.
|"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."|
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.
This is the revisionist version of the band's history that he's engaged in over the years. Gene never seems to recognize that a musician like Ace is never going to take someone like Gene - whom Ace nonetheless acknowledges as a decent songwriter and showman - seriously. Gene almost takes pride in the fact that he couldn't care less about jamming with other musicians and can't distinguish between different models of guitars. (This strikes me as completely at odds with his "the fans are our bosses" attitude; aren't you telling the fans you don't give a shit about your craft, just their money? If a pilot got into a cockpit and said I don't bother with all the controls and the console or the safety of the passengers; I just like the stewardesses, what would people say?)
Gene brags about his prolific songwriting, but the difference between quality and quantity seems entirely lost on him. Don't get me wrong. Gene's not a bad songwriter. But simplistic? Absolutely. I don't know if he's qualified to tell Ace what is or isn't a great Kiss tune. (Apparently, "Great Expectations," "Charisma" and "Sweet Pain" and so many others are "Kiss-level" but any of the tracks on Ace's '78 solo album aren't? Please.) I'll even go so far as to say this: of the original line-up, Gene would have been the easiest to replace. Picture the scene in The Prestige where they find the drunk actor to impersonate "the great Danton" in the magic show. With the exception of his tongue - which I don't think would have been a great loss, despite Gene's assertions that it was / is the singlemost important visual element of the band - you can't tell me they couldn't have found dozens of musicians in New York alone that could have done the job equal to or better than Gene.
So, to answer his question, "Would you want to be in a group with Criss and Frehley?" Perhaps not. But perhaps the alternative - having someone with questionable qualifications to evaluate musicianship and an equally delusional relationship with reality micromanage, manipulate and criticize everything you do under guise of being "the reasonable one" - is just as intolerable and ridiculous.
The band was designed as a democracy. This was the blueprint - it was the Beatles model. But like the Beatles, it was clear that Paul and I were in the front seat, because we were writers, and Ace and Peter were in the backseat. (...) Whenever there were decisions, we made them democratically, which didn't always make sense. If Paul and I wanted to do something and Peter and Ace didn't, we were in a stalemate. To get our way, we had to emotionally batter them, and often they felt like we were ganging up on them.
It's passages like this that best corroborate Ace's and Peter's version of events. Gene basically admits here that he and Paul actively exploited Ace's and Peter's insecurities, vulnerabilities, and fears in order to achieve their own desires. Perhaps Gene's ideas of his own power and the pursuit of it shouldn't come at his allegedly democratic bandmates' expense. He bitches about "band members who didn't see us as a unit, who sought to undo everything we accomplished," yet is this not exactly what he reveals about his own behavior in this passage?
That said, I certainly walked away from Kiss and Make-Up with sympathy for Gene's position. Drunks and druggies - particularly at the level of Ace and Peter - aren't easy to put up with for very long. And Paul and Gene had to put up with them in close quarters for agonizing lengths of time. And were forced into enabling it all, in many ways. Given the financial hits the Kiss organization withstood as a result of their antics (particularly the situation Gene and Paul found themselves in with Ace's departure, as recounted in Kiss and Sell) it's completely reasonable for Gene to have, as the kids say, simply run out of fucks to give.
LADIES IN WAITING
In between assuring the reader of his many road conquests and STD adventures, he spends a good amount of time describing his relationships with Cher, Diana Ross, and the woman who would eventually become his wife, Shannon Tweed.
It comes as something of a surprise to discover how into Gene these women actually were. (Are, I guess, in Shannon's case.) I don't think any of them would be on anyone's short list of "Most Reasonable Women of Hollywood," but each had dated rock or Hollywood royalty (or Hugh Hefner, making Ace the only member of the original line-up not to marry one of Hef's exes) and you'd just figure they'd have no time for someone as nakedly gutter-chasing as Gene. This was a guy whose criteria for spending time with him was simple proximity.
But who can fathom such things? Gene was rich, reasonably good-looking, and led an adventurous life. He remains friends with Diana and Cher to this day, so obviously, in private, Gene must be something more than the sleazy and proudly unimaginative pig he excels at being in the public eye.
This section of the book is fun for some of his fish-out-of-water revelations:
It took me awhile to get accustomed to Los Angeles. (...) It seemed absurd in every way. I had never watched soap operas, partly because I never understood what everyone was so miserable about. In those shows everybody was good-looking. Everybody was rich. Everybody was healthy and young. And everybody was miserable. The promiscuous characters were berated and tortured for not curtailing their natural lusts. The others were talking about their innermost emotions and needs and priorities. And eventually, everyone became promiscuous.
Once, I remember, I was in a room with a bunch of other people, friends of Cher's, and we were watching television commercials with footage of poor African children. People got sadder and sadder, and finally someone said, That's it, I'm adopting an African child. Then another one chimed in. Yeah, me too. It was almost like the Home Shopping Network of kids. I didn't know what to make of it. (...) There were lots of things like that in California.
Or celebrity interactions:
I met Jane Fonda through Cher. Our interaction was brief. (...) She asked my opinion about a movie she had been working on and what I thought about the title The China Syndrome. She told me what it was about. I told her I didn't think much of the title. I said I preferred something like What If... The three dots following the If... would light up one at a time and start to cycle faster with a beep being heard for each visual flash. The movie came out. It was called The China Syndrome.
One assumes the binder - which more than likely does not contain any pictures of Cher or Ms. Ross - is collecting dust in the closet these days. Or at least let's hope so.
One final revealing passage from the "Hollywood Gene" days (on the set of Runaway:)
Kirstie Alley played my girlfriend. I got to stick a knife through her neck in the movie. That made me a really likeable fellow. I tried coming onto the actress Cynthia Rhodes. That didn't work out, so I tried her sister. That didn't work out either, so I went for one of the extras on set, a real knockout of a Canadian girl. That worked. If at first you don't succeed...
THE DEMON AND THE STARCHILD
(Neil Bogart) worried that we were projecting a gay vibe, particularly Paul. We talked to him for awhile and explained our vision of the band, which was to go beyond glam to something else. As far as the gay thing went, our feeling was that we dressed the way we felt inside, and the gay vibe really wasn't part of that.
Paul's sense of things is what you'd more traditionally think of as the female perspective. Call me simplistic, but I think women are less interested in the endgame, in winding up in bed with somebody, than in just being recognized for being attractive. Paul is more like that. Paul is less interested in whether the girl winds up in bed with him than in whether she finds him good-looking. I'm not interested in whether she finds me attractive; I'm only interested in whether she winds up in bed with me.
There's a bit in Ace's book where he describes Gene calling him up to ask if he'd take part in his roast. That Ace would consider doing it at all is remarkable considering the things Gene's said about him over the years, but that's the way Ace is. He decided not to, though, once he realized that Gene didn't really have anyone to call. He'd focused so intensely on his position in Kiss and in scoring with the groupies that he didn't leave much room for developing or maintaining friendships. When the time came to be roasted, he had to basically hire people to come in and "good-naturedly" rib him.
In a way, that's kind of sad. But in context of everything in this book, it makes sense. Gene's world was first he and his mother and no one else, (so much so that he forbade her - in so many words - to have a boyfriend or relationship of any kind until he moved out of the house) then just Gene (this includes all his years in Kiss,) and then just Shannon, and eventually Nick and Sophie. So, really, it's not only a natural outgrowth of his entire life and perspective, it's also a story with a plausibly happy ending for him.
And the fact that he has to manufacture the appearance of friends to make fun of him is soooo Kiss that I don't think anyone could have scripted it that way and maintained plausibility. As Stephen King (someone Gene actually contacted to write the Kiss biography; King was unavailable, though) has often said, reality is the fakest thing going.