Familiar face

September 26, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Gene Simmons is obnoxious, annoying, sexist, racist, homophobic and one of rock's most notorious cartoon characters. However, like Howard Stern, he is also hugely popular and occasionally very entertaining.

I spoke with the tongue-wagging Kiss bassist as his costumed band (once again minus guitarist Ace Frehley) made its way across the U.S. opening for Aerosmith as part of a tour that stops at the Tweeter Center tonight.

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During the course of our conversation, Simmons paused to put two female "friends" on the line, told several offensive and very un-P.C. jokes that can't be reprinted in the Sun-Times, and of course plugged his latest endeavors, from his new book, Sex Money Kiss (Simmons Books/New Millennium), to Kiss' latest album, "Symphony: Alive IV" (Kiss Records/Sanctuary).

Q. You had to reschedule your Chicago show because of the big blackout a few weeks ago. What happened in Detroit?

A. Well, of all days, we had a stadium full of people -- 50,000 or something like that -- waiting to get royally beaten and kicked in the teeth. And not only does the North East decide to go on a power blackout, but Detroit gets hits the worst.

Q. You've always had a special relationship with "Detroit Rock City." What's so great about the Motor City?

A. If you study American history, geography dictates an awful lot. Port cities tend to be influenced much more by what comes from overseas. For instance, Liverpool, because it was a port city, got the blues records right away, and it spawned an entire sound -- I think you're talking about 40 or 50 bands that hit the charts out of one small place. You've got New York and L.A., which have always been much more media towns, because they're port cities. Detroit is meat and potatoes. Think about it: no fashion, no politics, the U.N. is not there. What you do have is cars, and politically they've always been a little right of center, and then you've got Motown. The black underclass got a chance to rise, and the blue-collar working man got a chance to get a job. Detroit has never been swayed either way by miniskirts or discotheques or disco, for that matter. It was never about fashion; it was always about if they recognize a quality, a value, then they take it in their hearts, and it's forever.

Hold on one second -- I want you to say hello to someone.

Female voice No. 1: Hello.

Q. Um, hi. Are you having a fun morning with Gene?

A. Yeah. We're about to get breakfast. He feeds us well. Here, hold on for Holly.

Female voice No. 2: Hi. We're gonna get French toast and fruit. And a whole pot of coffee.

Q. Um, good for you. Enjoy. Can I talk to Gene again?

A. I’m back. I really love girls, women. It’s just a lot easier than waking up with somebody going [affects a Brooklyn accent], “Yo, how ya doin’, Gene?”

Q. I hear you. Better than the road manager banging on the door.

A. Or having him sleep in your bed! [Simmons tells two off-color gay jokes that can’t be reprinted in the newspaper.]

Q. You realize, Gene, that you had an alternate career in the Catskills.

A. Oh, I love going to comedy clubs! I love laughing. Because when you really think about it, when you hear a joke that rings true, you laugh to your core.

Q. You’re a regular Shecky Greene. Was it difficult when you were writing your book?

A. Which book?

Q. The one that just came out, Sex Money Kiss, which followed Kiss and Make-Up. Was it difficult to remember and collect all of the stories through the years and put them down on paper?

A. You mean my second New York Times best seller? No. I’ll tell you what, I really am no different than Santa Claus: I always make a list, I always check it twice, I always find out who’s naughty and nice. [Sings:] “Santa Claus is coming to town.”

I guess I’m an oxymoron, which means I’m not a dumb cow. Ox, cow, get it? These are semantics, but I’m not anti-semantic. I really won’t give myself the opportunity to take the lazy way out, because I refuse to lose. It’s just a terrible feeling, and so I prefer to make lists about everything. I am one of those guys who does not go into a supermarket without a list, because jackass ears grow out of you and you start going [brays like a donkey]. “You know what? I forgot the milk.” That doesn’t happen if you have a list.

Q. It’s just that I’ve interviewed so many rock legends from your generation who use that cliche, “If you can remember the ’60s or the ’70s, you weren’t really there.”

A.More so now than ever, rock ’n’ roll and rap even more are populated by morons. Let’s call it what it is. The truth is that in rock ’n’ roll, if somebody didn’t have a guitar hanging around their neck, he might be asking you if you want fries with that. [Simmons proceeds to make a joke stereotyping rappers that can’t be reprinted in the newspaper.]

I have to say this in the interview: Talking about Simmons Books or Simmons Records or Gene Simmons’ tongue or a horde of other Gene Simmons endeavors wouldn’t do what’s happening now justice. The most exciting thing now is Kiss and Aerosmith. We’ve soft-pedaled it; there hasn’t been any major press conference, and we haven’t even taken a picture together. But we don’t want to hide this amazing idea: Two bands, perhaps the only two bands that have survived for 30 years and are the preeminent American bands of their time. Nobody does Aerosmith better than Aerosmith, and there isn’t another American band in all of musical history that has more gold records than Kiss, which is astonishing. In the vernacular, in the patois of the street, it blows me away.

Q. I’ve seen some of the reviews, and the consensus seems to be that Kiss is blowing Aerosmith away every night.

A. You know, that’s not what it’s about. What it’s really about is that both bands get up there and love being up there together. It’s a mutual admiration society. This is not the Holyfield-Tyson fight, nobody’s biting body parts off. In fact, if anything, backstage before we go on, the ’smiths come out and we start tossing jokes, and when there’s time, we lunch and breakfast together.

Q. But you haven’t played together yet onstage.

A. No, not yet. And I have to say that neither Steven [Tyler] nor I have [cuckolded] each other. Yet.

Q. There’s still time.

A. Yes. [Laughs] He’s a powerful and attractive man!

But it’s a monumental event, and slowly, in the near future, we’re going to get up there together. And in case you haven’t noticed, this tour, by industry accounts, is on its way to becoming the No. 1 or No. 2 tour of the year.

Q. It’s one of the only success stories of a dire summer in the concert industry.

A. You can make an assessment of an industry that’s changed because it has to change. And whether that’s good or not, and it’s because of ticket pricing and parking or I forgot to tie my shoelaces — there’s always an excuse — at the end of the day, if you want to go see somebody, you will. People don’t like going to stadiums by and large, but people will go to see Bruce [Springsteen] in a stadium. Aside from Bruce and one or two others, the rest of the concerts are dying for a very important reason.

Can you guess what it is? People don’t want to go! That’s it. It’s not, “It’s rainy and the power black-outs and Iraq and this and that.” They don’t want to go, and the reason people are coming out for us is they want to go. They’re sick and tired of seeing bands who are looking at their shoes and saying, “Here’s the second song from our new record.” They could give a [crap]. They’re paying enormous prices, and god damn it, they want value — bang for the buck. And they’re right.

Q. In many ways, it seems like the early ’70s again, when bands with imagination are rewriting the rules. For example, you’ve started your own record company rather than going with one of the major labels. And going out on tour with Aerosmith, you’re able to set the terms rather than being dictated to.

A. Correct. Good assessment. If you have enough firepower, you can basically dictate the terms, that’s true. Which brings me to the Kiss Symphony, “Alive IV,” the debut release on Kiss Records.

Q. Generally when a band records its old songs with an orchestra it’s seen as a bid for high-art affirmation: “Listen, we write real songs, we can add cellos!”

A. No, no. What Kiss did is we did it without a net, one time only, in a stadium packed with Kiss crazies, in Australia much less, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which by all accounts is one of the top symphonies in the world.

Q. There has always been this Wagnerian quality in your music.

A. We did it of course preposterously, and that’s a big word, like “gymnasium.” We made sure that all 70 members of the symphony were in full Kiss makeup, and we added a 20-piece Australian children’s choir and stuck them in Kiss war paint as well. If you would have come in unannounced from someplace, you may have thought you’d landed on another planet packed with Kiss people.

Q. You must have used an awful lot of grease paint that night.

A. The album, as far as I’m concerned, should have been called, “The Roar of the Crowd, The Smell of the Grease Paint.” And you know what? It was a glorious time, and the magnitude and the scale of it was beyond anything I’ve seen. There was more firepower on that stage than most third world countries. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few new people who are going to populate the earth were conceived that night. A lot of activity was going on.

But speaking of the Kiss Symphony, Kiss is not all that far off from symphonic music. Ironically, Beethoven is the most oft-used reference point to rock ’n’ roll and symphony music; “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.” Thank you, Chuck Berry. Let’s take a look at Beethoven: Well, he was deaf, and so are a lot of rock musicians. He played something called “long-hair music,” because he always had unruly long hair. If you study music history, the royalty of Europe would gather in the spring and summer and have big feasts in the middle of the day; that’s where brunch was invented.

Q. Just like the girls are ordering right now.

A. Yes! God, they sure are pretty; especially when they’re kissing. Beethoven would be told like all the other classical writers, “Write this or write that.” But he noticed that after a meal, the royals would gather on the lawn, and on a nice warm comfortable day, the Mozart music — the chamber music — would put them to sleep. He didn’t like that. So with “The War [sic] of 1812 Overture,” he brought in cannon. [A factual note: The “1812 Overture” was written by Tchaikovsky, not Beethoven.] He wanted to wake them the [heck] up. He brought in horse races, a military brigade — he made a complete spectacle out of himself, and he was roundly trounced by the other classical musicians saying, “This is not music! You don’t put military hardware into the middle of songs.” But why not?

Q. Sounds like a familiar criticism.

A. Criticism, schmiticism. You look at the Beatles and Elvis and the number of gold records we’ve earned, and we’re doing just fine, thank you. My mother thanks you for all her houses, and if that’s criticism, I’d like some more, please!