I remember: Gene Simmons

Simon Hemelryk

Rock legend, actor, one-time ladies’ man and TV personality Gene Simmons, 69, has sold more than 100 million albums as bassist and co-lead singer with the American band, Kiss

…My first kiss, aged about 2.

Some relative or neighbour came to our home in Israel, where I was born, wearing bright red lipstick, which I’d never seen before. There wasn’t a lot of infrastructure in the country, back them, so my mother, Flora, didn’t use much make-up.

I wound up dancing a jig on the coffee table and this woman squealed and kissed me. I was horrified. It affected my attitude to kissing for a while—until I stuck my tongue out for the first time and the earth stopped.

 

…Being terrified by something hiding in my hat.

We had to wear caps to keep out the sun at school, and one day, mine just wasn’t sitting right—because there was an enormous spider sitting underneath. I was scared of insects for years. Then, after Kiss formed, I found a black belt with a huge tarantula on the buckle. I must have worn it every day for more than a decade— it was a sort of confront-your-fears approach.

 

…Being taught to really value life by my mother.

She died recently, aged 93, but had been in a concentration camp as a teenager, and to say her family was wiped out is too soft. They were tortured, starved and finally put into gas chambers. She didn’t talk about it, but it gave her a decidedly different world view.

My father abandoned us when I was about six and my mother had to work 12-hour days to provide for me, but she made sure I had a stand-up, be-proud attitude, and didn’t use drugs, smoke or drink. Being alive was too precious, she thought. You only get about 80 years—and you’re asleep for a third of that. And I have yet to consciously get high, drunk or smoke cigarettes.

 

…Moving to the us was a born-again moment.

My mother and I arrived in New York when I was eight. We had a hole in the ground for a toilet in Israel and didn’t even have a radio, but now I was in a place with cars, refrigerators and a flying man in a cape on TV. Anything seemed possible.

I couldn’t speak English and had to run the gauntlet of “What, are you stupid?” But this gave me a thick skin and, because I didn’t have many people to talk to, I was able to spend a lot of time day-dreaming. I’m now connected to my subconscious and I know where I’ve been and I certainly know where I want to go. Having that clarity means you’re less stressed and more confident, which helps a lot in life.

 

…Small, skinny English people with funny haircuts changed my life.

When The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I’d never encountered anything like it. The only British voices I’d heard were the posh ones Nazis had in black and white war films. When George spoke in a Scouse accent, I was transfixed. Even before I knew how to play an instrument, I started singing in bands. For at least a year, I went around with a fake accent, trying to persuade chicks I was English.

 

…Moving from office junior to rock star.

After school, while I was getting bands together, I worked as an assistant at Vogue: a Man Friday who did everything the editor wanted me to do. The entire floor was covered with females. That didn’t hurt. The male of the species has the primordial urge to merge.

But by 1973, Kiss had formed after Paul Stanley [the band’s guitarist and other lead singer] and I had been a band called Wicked Lester. Kiss’s first records weren’t big successes to begin with, but we were much more of a live band, and started selling 10,000-seat arenas very quickly.

We opened for a lot of British groups, such as Manfred Mann and Argent. But they would kick us off tours—for the simple reason that we blew them off the stage. We just let it all hang out. It was like scream therapy, this safe place where you could be your goddamn self.

 

…A trip to Woolworths created our image.

In early 1973, we were rehearsing in a cockroach-infested loft in New York. We found ourselves taking a break and going down to Woolworths and buying clown make-up. We had no idea what we were doing—it was like kids playing with mud. But we always wore make-up on stage, after that.

 

…Riding the tsunami of success modestly.

It wasn’t long before we were playing stadiums and millions and millions of dollars were getting thrown in our faces. All of a sudden, everyone was buying houses and cars. Except yours truly. I was paying $200 a month for an apartment and I had a female housemate—whom I never touched!—so she took care of it. I didn’t buy a car or anything like that until I was 34. It’s the Jewish way. That’s why we created the international banking system.

 

…Rome started falling from within.

By 1979, we had been the Gallup poll number one group in America, three times in a row, sold millions of records and truckloads of merchandise. But, cliché of clichés, drugs and alcohol started to affect Ace [Frehley, guitarist] and Peter [Criss, drummer], and they eventually left the band. It felt like the end at the time, but we got new members and have had many different line-ups since.

I’m sorry in my heart that Ace and Peter aren’t still playing with us, to enjoy the fruits of their labour. If you start something together, you’d like to think you can finish it together. When you’re first forming a group in your garage, you’re so excited. But being in a band is more arduous than a marriage—and it’s difficult enough to keep them going.

 

…Meeting my wife, Shannon, at the Playboy mansion.

I was filming a movie in 1984, called Runaway. Naturally, I was the bad guy. I had a weekend off and, since I was living with Diana Ross, at the time, I asked her permission to go to LA. I was seeing a Playboy playmate on the side and she’d told me about an event called Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hugh Hefner’s house.

“There will be 300 playmates, scantily clad, and about 100 guys—movie producers, celebrities…” she said, and asked if I wanted to come. I said “OK!”

Shannon [a model and actress] was there with not very much on. She is six feet tall. With the heels and big hair, it was a sight. We had a connection and I phoned Diana and told her what had happened. We talked it through and there’s no bad blood, to this day. Shannon and I have been together ever since.

 

…Crying when my son, Nick, was born.

As an only child, I hadn’t really opened up to anybody. Other kids used to call me Spock. I suppose when my father left, I shut down emotionally. But when Nick arrived, I just broke down. The tears wouldn’t stop. I was shaking. I believe, at that moment, I finally got over myself. It had always been about me. “I’m hungry!”, “I’ve got a papercut!” Then, suddenly, here was a new life to focus on, instead.

 

…I used rock to stop kids taking drugs, when I was filming Rock School [2005 Channel 4 documentary].

They lived in Lowestoft, Suffolk, and didn’t have much to do, but I got them to form a band and have something to care about. You could see the lights go on in their young eyes and hearts. In the end, we flew them to California to open for Judas Priest at Long Beach Arena, playing their own song. I just love children and want to help them—what can I say?

 

…Crying again, when I visited Zambia.

I had been sponsoring several African kids anonymously for years, through ChildFund International. But, in 2012, the makers of my Gene Simmons Family Jewels [reality] programme, arranged for me to meet one of them, Joseph, now a young man with a partner and baby, in his home village. People there lived in huts made of cow dung and most of the men had got the women pregnant, then left, partly because there are so few jobs in poor places like that. But Joseph was still there. The smile of love on his partner’s face when he cradled the child really struck me.

 

…Getting up on stage with Kiss on this tour and feeling unbelievable.

This has been one of the highlights of my career. I’ve seen audiences of all ages wearing our make-up. We have fun. We’re just f****** alive.

 

…That all the corny things your mother told you about having children are true.

You can buy most things, but not the feeling they bring. Nick and my daughter, Sophie, are 30 and 27, share a house, pay the mortgage and work in the music industry, but they still go out to the movies or a restaurant with Shannon and me, every other day. I’m proud of them, not for the profession they’re in, but because they’ve made their own life choices and take responsibility for them.

 

…I’m the most blessed human being.

I’m a partner in a restaurant chain, I’ve got a film company, a soda in 7 Eleven and much more. People might say I don’t need to work, but that’s a loser’s phrase. Working shouldn’t be about money, but the love of labour. Stop watching re-runs of Coronation Street, get out there and pump that heart.

 

The Kiss End of the Road world tour is at venues across the UK July 9–16, including London’s O2 arena. For more details, visit kissonline.com