Before we begin, I need to state that I am a charter member of the Kiss Army (1976) and a long time die hard Kiss fan. In high school I had collaged my walls with photos from Creem, Circus, Hit Parader, Guitar Player- a wall of Kiss. But something has gone very wrong in the last years. Gene Simmons has been acting during interviews like he and Paul Stanley had created Kiss together, written all of the songs and deserve all of the credit. Luckily some long term fans have better memories than Simmons and Stanley, and know better. And we know that there is only one problem in Kiss-world, and that thing is Gene Simmons. He has done much to undo any bit of cool that Kiss had ever achieved, and much of that has to do with his treatment of founding members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, victims of his faulty memory skills.
Kiss had come from the ashes of the almost signed New York band, Wicked Lester. They had been signed to Epic, recorded an album, but the label refused to release the record. Glam was big, and New York was overflowing with glam aspirants. Weak songwriting was a problem. Stanley had some talents in writing lightweight pop tunes, but Simmons had no noticeable songwriting abilities. (See: Christine Sixteen and Plaster Caster for evidence). The arrival of Peter Criss brought some street cred from his stint in the Decca band Chelsea, and Ace Frehley brought a genuine rock personality into the fold, and someone who could deliver some solid riffing. (he also designed the famous Kiss logo). Suddenly Wicked Lester had transformed into Kiss
Stars were born, and the slow climb through the first three albums led to the monster of all live albums, Kiss Alive! The success did not stop, and three more studio albums later the band delivered Kiss Alive 2, and were on top of the world. But fans started to wonder if something was wrong.
One thing was the band’s penchant for overmerchandising. Anything repeat anything was ripe for a slathering of the Kiss logo. Action figures were one thing, lunchboxes were du rigeur in the seventies. Comic books were a natural extension. But Colorforms sets for kindergarteners? Bingo and checkers sets for the elderly? Studded Kiss kondoms for the lame? Let’s not forget the ignominy of the Kiss coffin, and the Kiss funeral urn. Kiss cologne and shampoo? Kiss wine? Kiss lip balm? Kiss cooking apron? Kiss Mr Potato Head sets? Kissmas ornaments? Kiss rubiks cube? Kiss checkbook (to buy more Kiss stuff with)? Kiss golf club covers? Kiss Hello Kitty action figures? Kiss electric toothbrush (plays Rock n Roll All Night), Kiss nutcracker? Kiss monopoly?
What the living fuck did this have to do with rock n roll? When asked about the decidedly weird KISS coffin, Frehley said:
“If it was my decision, I wouldn’t have gone there. There’s a lot of things that Gene has done with the merchandising that are just over the top. He’s got everything from prophylactics to toilet paper—anything to make a buck. It’s embarrassing.
That’s one of the reasons I left the group. Towards the end, I’d go out and see kids in the front row with Kiss dolls and lunchboxes and my manager is going, “Hey, Ace—watch the cursing tonight. We’ve got kids in the front row.” I mean, we started out as this heavy, mean, nasty rock ‘n’ roll group wearing leather and it turned into a goddamn circus.”
What the fuck did Gene Simmons think he was doing? (Eventually Simmons licensed over 3,000 different items to appear with the Kiss logo). Were they losing the thread? Hard core rockers started to have their doubts about this actually being a real band. This was the first sign that all was not well inside of the band, and some openly posited the idea that this was all a scam just to sell merchandise.
By 1979 Kiss was in a shambles. And by far the largest part of the problem was Gene Simmons. He had become an absentee landlord of the Kiss empire. 1979’s Dynasty featured Gene playing bass on only four of the nine songs (Stanley and Frehley stood in), and the atrocious Unmasked in 1980 had even fewer appearances from Gene. By 1981, Criss was out of the band (Frehley had been outvoted 2-1 in his firing), and with new drummer Eric Carr in tow, the band decided to show the growing legion of doubters that they were capable of producing some of the heaviest music they could. Rough tracks were cut at Frehley’s home studio, and things were in place to deliver the monster the fans were waiting for. Except one piece: Gene was absent in Hollywood trying to start an acting career. With Stanley and producer Bob Ezrin at the helm, a decision was made to scrap the heavy album and do an ill advised progressive rock concept album based on a yet to be made film, The Elder (despite the fact that prog rock was a stone-cold corpse by 1980. Ever late to the food trough again, also see I Was Made for Loving You–too late for Disco and Carnival of Souls-too late for Grunge). This decision to postpone the heavy album enraged Frehley, and he quit the band in protest as he had watched them take far too many missteps from the true path of rock. (the heavy album project later surfaced as Creatures of the Night in 1982, sans Ace) With the departure of Frehley, the last genuine rock element in Kiss was gone. Seven drummers and guitarists later, the world had passed Kiss by. By the millenium, Kiss had degenerated into a Beatlemania-ish parody of what a Kiss show once was, and light years away from what a real functioning rock band actually is. Real fans had bailed long ago. New fans are few and far between.
What of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss and their self destructive drug and alcohol problems and addiction? Because this is what Gene continually points to when he (inaccurately) claims Ace Frehley was fired: continual lapses. Not one writer has pointed out that Simmons also has a debilitating addiction: S-E-X. His long term womanizing has caused just as many problems in the band as Frehley and Criss’ partying. Even Paul Stanley has bemoaned some of the problems Gene’s wizened and widely traveled member has caused the band. When Gene’s photo album of polaroids of every girl he had banged in the early days of the band was stolen from a hotel room, Gene reacted like an insecure teenager, ranting to get it back, bereaved like a coke freak who accidentally dropped two grams of Peruvian dancing powder down the toilet by mistake. He was inconsolable, and his remarks bore all the signs of a full blown clinical addiction. His pointing fingers at Ace and Peter’s problems as addictions are hypocritical in the extreme.
Yet Simmons and Stanley still rant against Frehley and Criss. Both warned Tom Snyder in 1979 not to engage a drunken Ace Frehley on the Tomorrow Show. Tom asked one queston, and Ace was off and running, clearly the only one with a sense of humor and personality. Simmons and Stanley visibly fumed as Ace hogged the mic. Snyder was delighted. Both Simmons and Stanley still mention this event decades later showing their lack of connection to the rock world as the rest of us know it. (In another example, Stanley tried to produce the first Guns n Roses lp, but was wisely rejected when Paul tried to apply the Kiss paint-by -numbers philosophy to them, much to their horror) Both Simmons and Stanley have begrudgingly admitted that Ace’s album was far superior to either of theirs in the simultaneous 1978 solo album release. Simmons album was savaged by most critics as a hodge podge of Hollywood namecheck dreck. (His dalliance with Cher still rankles most hard core Kiss fans). Those descriptions generally fail to capture the horror and depth of failure that album encapsulated. Gene was exposed as self absorbed buffoon, not the cartoon personality he was trying for.
The coffee table book in 1995 was full of photos, but light on any credit for Ace and Peter. Books from Gene and Paul discount and disparaged their input as founding members, and began to rewrite history, leaving out large parts of the story to accentuate their importance, and downplay the input of the other pair of founding members. There is a repeating mantra of questioning Ace and Peter’s commitment to the band. Somehow large parts of the years of Gene’s absence from the fold and long lack of commitment are conveniently forgotten. Gene’s books in particular are mind numbingly dull, lacking details and passion. He pretty much comes out and says that the whole Kiss thing was a shuck to make bundles of cash and score women by the boatload, and that he was pretending to be interested in rock until he ‘made it’. Both of their books bring half truth to a new level, and are a detriment to the actual history of the band and should be avoided by real fans.
The embarrassment continues. The Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels reality show, even though cleverly edited, fails to disguise what a loathsome personality Gene has evolved into. One listen to his infamous NPR interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2002 should be enough to send even the most hardcore Kiss fan straight to the local record store to immediately divest themselves of anything bearing the Kiss moniker.
Gene has also embarrassed himself several times recently. First there was a debacle over the appearance of Kiss at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall wanted the original Kiss to perform. Simmons and Stanley wanted the new puppet band to perform, with hired hands wearing Ace and Peter makeup and costumes. The impasse led to the original four onstage to accept the award, but no performance. Few were aware of the behind the scenes tantrums that Simmons had thrown trying to avoid appearing with Ace and Peter. That came on the heels of his support for Donald Sterling of the Clippers, which was greeted by more derision, and his support for Rick Perry for president engendered even more of the same. Then even more recently Simmons spoke out ill-advisedly in the wake of Robin Williams suicide to claim that folks who who are depressed should “just kill themselves and get it over with”. Radio stations banned Kiss music, and even a man so self absorbed and narcissistic that it is hard to believe that even light can escape his gravity had to backtrack somewhat. (More recently this pattern repeated itself with the untimely death of Prince). Now the recent news that the duo has purchased an arena football team caused a few groans, but full page ads in magazines this month indicate this event is a part of yet another reality series? Again the question-what the fuck does this have to do with rock n roll?
This begs yet another question: “was Gene Simmons ever actually a rock n roller?” The pre Kiss band Wicked Lester featured Simmons and Stanley along with long time friend Steve Coronel. Coronel has stated that the only reason that Gene (Chaim Weitz) and Paul (Stanley Eisen) had gotten into music was to get laid, and escape the Jewish community center circuit trade they were unsuccessfully plying. His bass playing never really progressed past the skilled novice stage of Alive era, and I began to suspect about a decade ago that Gene had always gotten into the rock business to promote himself towards a huge financial reward, and was not someone with a strong affinity for the rock n roll vibe. Nothing he has done in the last three decades can dissuade one from this opinion. The lack of any serious musical output in the last thirty years would seem to indicate that, despite claims to the otherwise, Ace and Peter were a huge part of the band’s creativity. Poring over his quotes in interviews, he seems clear that he has no principles, integrity or values, gleefully admits it, and exists in an infantile state of development stuck on self gratification.
So where does that leave us? I’d seen them in the glory days from Destroyer to Dynasty, then saw Accept dismantle them quickly on the Lick it Up tour and began to wonder what was wrong. The 80’s and 90’s found the band on auto-pilot, straddling the line between self-parody and fading relevance, with Gene more absent than present once again. The reunion tours with Ace and Peter were a godsend, but had a hint of ‘staged event’ more than concert. Follow up tours with Thayer and Singer, both able musicians who clearly have no input and have to play a part more akin to being in a character in a play than being in a band have brought the band to an uncomfortable crossroads.
So Gene and Paul soldier on with replacement parts wearing Ace and Peter’s make up. (Perhaps more accurately, Paul has soldiered on diligently to keep this cash cow afloat without much help from Gene). Kiss plays the same set year after year, Paul says the same things between songs he has been saying since ’76, and the real rock vibe has long since gone away to hide. While it takes some prodding to get Ace and Peter to get their dander up over their departures from the band they co-created, Gene will still take shots in print at Ace and Peter for events that took place in the 70’s and early 80’s, nigh on forty years ago, with a mantra of ‘drugs and alcohol ruined this band’. Nary a mention of Peter and Ace’s long term sobriety, nor any acknowledgement that these two were integral to 95% of the success this band has had. (Let’s face it, few Kiss fans from the 70’s made it past Lick it Up, and even Paul has noted the troughs in their album quality extended uncomfortably to more than a decade in length.) The superfans are still out there keeping the faith, but with the stubborn refusal of Gene to show any grasp of what Kiss really was-GenePaulPeterAce-one might ask “what is there currently about the band to actually keep the faith to?” If it is a tribute to the memory of past glory, that does make sense. But this implies that Kiss is no longer a band but a tribute band, a tribute to themselves. How did all the coolness of the band manage to ebb away into such a polyglot of phoniness? Did Ace and Peter really ruin the band as Gene claims? Paul’s aloof attitude towards Gene show that even he is aware that the problem lies much more with Simmons’ uncontrollable ego, and 40 odd years later, it isn’t likely to change. Is there a solution?
In conclusion, If Gene had committed suicide sometime before 1980, he would be revered as a rock god of immeasurable importance, instead of the fat, vapid, self aggrandizing hype machine he has turned into. Gene Simmons, you have forgotten what it means to play, live and breathe rock n roll. A bit of research indicates you likely never knew. You are guilty of immeasurable crimes against rock, Kiss and humanity. Rock n roll does not take well to phonies and frauds. Please turn yourself in at the nearest record store for processing, your time is up.