WHEN I WAS 13 I had horrible skin and no luck with girls. Small wonder, then, that four guys in face paint singing about getting laid would appeal to me so much. I loved Kiss. In those pre-MTV days, I wanted to be Kiss before I'd ever seen them move. Then my mom took me to that fateful Love Gun concert in 1977, on her birthday...a debt which, seemingly, will never be repaid. Especially since I ditched her as soon as we got there.
I've been AWOL from the Kiss Army for years now, having long ago traded my vinyl for CD credit and thrown out the piles of Kiss memorabilia that littered my room (this makes the collector inside me cringe); but that didn't stop me from jumping at the chance to interview one of my former idols.
Nobody's more closely identified with Kiss than Gene Simmons, he of the bat-wing visage and lewd tongue lapping. When the phone rings, I know it will be one of the band members, but I don't count on it being Him. But I recognize the voice instantly and am filled with both fan-boy giddiness and the urge to snicker at the ludicrousness of the situation: How do you interview someone you once wanted to be? And what are the odds that, when the opportunity arises, it'd be on the same day an old friend pays a surprise visit that ends in an unusually long and hazy happy hour? Whatever the irony, nothing could've prepared me for what came next.
TW: Do you read your own press?
GS: Sure. You know, every magazine has its own agenda. Every magazine has to play its own cool. And the truth is, we're just much too big, we're enormous. You know, the circus is coming to town, everybody's loving it and one guy in the corner's going "Ah, it's just a circus." Well, it's too big...the circus is coming to town.
TW: ...Coming to town and kicking your ass!
Emboldened by the booze, I mention the mythology built up around the band by people too young to have seen them the first time around:
GS: You hit the nail on the head. We're in a very strange place. We're in competition with no other band. We're not even in competition with ourselves. We are, in fact, in competition with the legend of ourselves. The problem is, we don't have to be every bit as good as we were when people first saw us. We have to be as good as their imagination. Inflation sets in even with people's memories. You have to be tenfold as good. And that's fine by us.
TW: Is it good? Does it feel like the old days?
GS: I feel like a god walking the face of the earth. I feel vindicated by the Kiss Army. I feel nothing but pride sharing that stage with Ace, Peter and Paul. Especially Ace and Peter, who had the dignity to look themselves in the mirror and straighten up.
TW: How would you explain the chasm between your popularity and the lack of critical acclaim?
GS: It's no different than Spielberg and the Directors Guild of America. See, that's the problem--the biggest movies of all time are also brilliantly made movies, and what's a critic going to say? Nothing, the public has spoken. A Double Whopper with cheese tastes much better than caviar.
TW: Right, and cheaper.
GS: Of course.
TW: I notice that you bring up Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith a lot in interviews as examples of critical darlings but failures. Were you around the same circles when you were starting in New York?
GS: Yes, at the same time.
TW: Were they assholes to you?
GS: Not at all. You want to know something? I actually admire the stuff. I also admire impressionistic painting, but that doesn't mean that I for a second think that America's going to get it. It's the intelligentsia, it's highbrow, it's poetry.
TW: What about the New York Dolls?
GS: We were straight and we practiced. The Dolls were a great club band and that's it. I love the energy on record, but nobody covers that material.
TW: Of the newer bands, I know there are many that're happy to acknowledge your influence....
GS: Well, wait a minute, let's just be up front here. Every band that's earning a living playing electric guitar and drums in some way is going to point to us. I'm sorry but that's life, get used to it. We're not going away.
TW: Who do you hear yourself most in?
GS: Nobody. Our live album was called Alive--not Dead--and the irony is if everybody out there picked up a guitar because of Kiss, that may have been the button that was pushed; but I don't see the negativity, the self-destructiveness of it. I don't get it, because that's never been what we were about. I just want to say that it's such a waste of time and I don't believe it's coming from white kids. Certainly not middle-class white kids. If you're black and Hispanic, maybe I might buy it. If you're the white power elite that rules the face of this planet, what are you complaining about exactly? The main thing is, I'm having a ball and that's the sole idea. If in some way at the end of the show you have a smile on your face or you go "Wow!" we don't need criticism.
TW: It's Halloween, 1977. I'm dressed as you. I nailed wood blocks to my high tops, covered shoulder pads with aluminum foil, and my make-up was dead-on. I'm trick or treating in my neighborhood and there's this house across the street where these college girls moved in. I knock on the door, it opens and there's this gorgeous woman. She wasn't wearing a bra--she could've poked my eyes out. Nothing happened. What did I do wrong?
GS: Did you at least say trick or treat?
TW: Kind of, then I just trailed off and looked down at my platforms.
GS: The first thing: I would've said, "Oh god, I've been doing this all night, can I use your john for a second?" And then you're in. Let the wolves into the house with the little piggies, the rest is easy. If you can't get in the house, you can't eat the piggies.
TW: Where were you for me there? Where were you?
GS: I was right there. I was on your face.
TW: That could have changed my life, man. As it was, I just went home and...I had a bag full of candy.
GS: I understand.
That was the last time I ever went trick or treating. Now, 19 Halloweens later, Kiss is touring in make-up and I think I'm getting a zit. Who says you can't feel young again?
Kiss was scheduled to play the TCC Arena in November, but because the arena stage, which apparently hasn't changed since the band last rolled through in 1977, is too small to accommodate their huge stage show, the circus is passing us by. Call 1-800-638-4253 for status on a second Phoenix show.
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