Kiss: the secret to being a rock legend? Face paint and a head for business
Kiss' Gene Simmons in full costume Photo: AP
Gene Simmons, bass guitarist with the US hard-rock group, Kiss, may be one of the most successful Jewish musicians of the past 40 years.
But he is also an arch proponent of what he calls “Kisstianity” — the religion followed by the band’s thousands of devoted believers.
“It is a religion of sorts,” affirms the performer born Chaim Weitz in Haifa, Israel, in 1949, chatting in a London hotel without the garish make-up that helped make him famous.
He finishes the joke: “Only, without anybody having to die for anybody’s sins.”
Then he gets a bit more serious. “It’s a celebration of life and a real mind-set.
"Being in Kiss is a privilege, not a birthright. On the one hand, we are humbled by our fans and truly grateful to them for allowing us to be here.
"On the other, we are arrogantly self-confident about who we are and what we mean. We subscribe fully to the idea that we are legendary — we are legends who walk the face of the earth. ”
Simmons does this for much of the interview — talk in grandiose terms, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek, about the impact he and his fellow Kiss members have made.
Then again, they have sold upwards of 100 million albums since forming in New York in 1973.
With their outlandish space-age costumes, platform boots and face-paint, Kiss were an American version of British glam rockers such as David Bowie, with some of the shlock-horror theatrics of Alice Cooper.
By the late ’70s, they were one of US’s biggest bands, selling out stadiums on the back of albums such as Destroyer and Kiss Alive II.
And, although they may have lost members along the way — notably, original lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss, to alcohol and drugs — nothing has stopped them becoming an American institution.
Whatever their travails or the trends of the day, Kiss seem to go on and on, acknowledging that the band is a brand, bigger than any of the individual players.
Today, they are like a Stateside Rolling Stones — survivors (Simmons’s Hungarian mother Florence was an actual Holocaust survivor) and hardy perennials who, whenever they go on the road or release a new record, still command the attention of the press and public.
“We certainly hold our place in America as the underdogs that continue to win, the black sheep that still play by our own rules and do more than survive — we thrive,” contends singer-guitarist Paul Stanley (born Stanley Harvey Eisen in Queens, New York, in 1952).
“The longer we’re around, the more invincible we appear. We started out as a fantasy of sorts. Now we’re a flesh-and-blood band who put on war paint and carry on a tradition started 40 years ago. We haven’t wavered from that.”
Stanley says that Kiss are a triumph of songwriting prowess, rock power and business nous. “You can’t succeed without business acumen,” he says.
The man behind the make-up Photo: AP
“But that’s the bonus on top of being a creative person. Creativity on its own is almost worthless unless you can harness it. It’s our business sense that gives us the freedom to continue to create.”
He accepts that smartness is an undervalued commodity in rock ’n’ roll.
“Absolutely,” he says with a wry smile. “There’s a stereotype — which is pathetic — of what a rock ’n’ roll star should be: stupid, high, ear-pierced, tattooed.
"Most of the time it’s a stereotype that is propagated by music critics who do none of that and live vicariously by seeing someone else risk their life.
"It’s pathetic to see people buying into that and living a reckless lifestyle. I never wanted to be a dead legend.”
Kiss could so easily have fallen prey to the perils of superstardom. They certainly enjoyed success to excess, particularly Simmons whose penchant for bedding women is legendary.
But it is to their credit that they managed to focus on what matters: the music, and the business empire that it enabled them to build.
“A lot of musicians fall into the trap of drugs and the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, but this band never has,” says Stanley.
He adds: “I live a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle! I’m free to do whatever I want, I answer to nobody, I have four kids and a wife — I have a fabulous life. That’s my idea of a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
"I’m not going to walk on the ledge so somebody down on the street below can tell me to jump. I’ve seen people die! I’ve seen lives ruined. When people used to say ‘sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll’, I’d say: ‘You can keep the drugs’.
On the subject of abstention, Simmons — who charges up to $500,000 a time to give motivational speeches — can only concur.
“There is everything to be said for leading a straight life,” he says.
“No drugs, no booze, your schmekel will work better, you’ll look better. There’s nothing as shameful as God giving you five senses and you going out to get chemicals to numb those God-given senses. It’s the height of stupidity.”
He also agrees with Stanley that Kiss’s rigorous work ethic has stood them in good stead and enabled them to succeed and endure.
“Being in the right place at the right time, with the right songs — that was key,” he says.
“So, too, was conviction and — a very important word — pride: pride in craftsmanship, showing up on time and, by God, doing a good day’s work.”
Not forgetting a just-say-no attitude to all indulgences save for the carnal variety.
“Well,” he muses, “that’s what God intended. In the Good Book it said: ‘Spread thy seed’. We were just doing the Lord’s work.”
Kiss’ latest album, Monster, is released on Universal