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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

Matthias Seifarth for New Statesman
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What happened when Kiss went to Moscow: bullet-proof tents, rivalries and mating rituals

Gene Simmons: "If Putin is here, he will not make himself known to me."

When Gene Simmons decided he wanted to be a rock star, he made a deal with his mother: be in a band but show me how you’re going to pay the rent. He had a variety of marketable skills at his disposal. At Newtown High School in Queens, Chaim Witz, only son of Flóra, who’d brought him to New York from Israel, took stenography and typing classes. By 13 he could out-type his teacher. By 18 he was a “tele-girl” (a temp) and found himself in demand with powerful female executives in Manhattan. With his feet, he worked a Dictaphone machine to take their letters – one pedal for go, one for stop and one for rewind. The then managing editor of Vogue, Kate Rand Lloyd, heard about the only male temp on the floor at Glamour. He became her Man Friday and fixed her hectograph, rexograph and mimeograph machines.

On 29 April 1974, he made his first television appearance on The Mike Douglas Show as Gene Simmons, “The Demon”, of the rock band Kiss. He picked his way across the studio floor on 30lb silver platforms, his abnormally long, seven-inch tongue thrashing about in his mouth like a skinned snake. In a whisper he declared himself “evil incarnate”. On the sofa next to him was the comedian Totie Fields. “Is your mother watching?” she asked. “Wouldn’t it be funny if under all the make-up he’s just a nice Jewish boy?” Eighteen months later, Simmons got a cheque from his record company for $1.5m. He showed it to his mother and she said, “Now what are you going to do?”

Up on the roof garden of the Park Hyatt hotel in Moscow sits Simmons today, his wiry hair, like black loft insulation, pulled into a ponytail. I’ve been taken to see him briefly, before an interview scheduled for two days later. Despite looking, in his own words, “at best like a baby dog at birth”, Simmons claims to have slept with 4,600 women, taking a record of each with a Polaroid camera. At 67, his latest conquest is Siri, whom he has programmed to call him “My Lord and Redeemer” on a cellphone with a special Kiss case.

Simmons stands when a woman arrives; he analyses the size of your bag, wondering how you fit your make-up in it. He thumbs through photos of Kiss products on his phone: Kiss guitars, Kiss car wraps – and a Kiss Kasket, a limited-edition coffin, part of his funeral range. The murdered Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell was buried in one: affection runs deep for the cartoonish glam-metal compound, now in its 44th year of music and merchandising. Among the expressions Simmons claims to have trademarked are “rich and famous” and the Chinese word xi, meaning “the West”.

Rehearsals for Russia’s May Day celebrations float up from Red Square, operatic folk songs and the chug-chug of army boots being put through their paces. Over in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin prepares a phone call to Donald Trump to talk about Syria. US-Russian relations have hit a new low. In recent months, Simmons has generated a steady flow of headlines from views that wouldn’t seem out of place in a hardline administration. Drug addicts should be sent to gulags, he said; paedophiles put to death. Islam is a “vile culture”, and don’t even get him started on immigration. On the night of the national festivities, Kiss will play the Moscow Olympic Stadium to 15,000 people who’d rather hear “Crazy Crazy Nights” than “The Song of the Volga Boatmen”.

Will Putin be at the gig?

“If he is, he will not make himself known to me,” he says, drifting off to his room.

Gene Simmons’s hoist, which enables him to float 30 foot above the stage, puts a great strain on his body because his costume gives him an extra 50lb in weight. He recently fell over on to his back and couldn’t get up again, like a turtle. At the show, he will be spitting fake blood. But today’s soundcheck is a sedate affair: a three-hour dissection of stage manoeuvres, the testing of winches and timing of feet. In plain clothes, the band’s frontmen, Simmons and Paul Stanley, step on hydraulic arms and sweep out over the empty arena like two tree surgeons. Simmons noodles on his bass – snatches of Peter and the Wolf and “The Pink Panther Theme” – but seems less interested in playing the well-oiled anthems of Kiss.

It’s like watching a group of men congregate around a car they’re refitting, or a hole they’re digging in the ground. They seem completely absorbed – but every so often, with a sting, a guitar pick hits my face, 30 feet away at the side of the stage. Throwing their personalised, painted guitar picks at people is part of Kiss’s mating ritual. Stanley greeted me remotely earlier by despatching a fistful of them via the tour manager, the way a man might order a drink for a lady across a hotel bar. Another pick hits my forehead. “Hey, Statesman.” And another. “Can someone lift her on to the stage?”

There are no women in the Kiss entourage, apart from one who carries the costumes and another who manoeuvres the large wheelie bins containing the make-up and cosmetic products the men administer themselves. Both employees are on the younger side. It was a different story in Moscow thirty years ago, as Jon Bon Jovi told the NS, when, at the first Western rock gigs in Russia, babushkas swept the stadiums with brooms made of twigs.

At the centre of the Kiss team is a man who will confirm this: Doc McGhee, the music mogul sacked by Jon Bon Jovi after McGhee was convicted for drug smuggling. In 1989, partly to get around his jail sentence in the US, McGhee collaborated with the Russian musician Stas Namin to bring Western bands to the country. Namin’s grandfather was a Bolshevik statesman who served under Lenin, Stalin and ­Khrushchev. The Moscow Music Peace Festival happened on Gorbachev’s watch. McGhee spent three days with the president at the Kremlin offering him $10m for the rights to a book and film of his life. You can’t blame him for trying.

It was different putting on gigs in those days. You had to allow 12 hours for an eight-hour drive to account for the number of times you’d have to stop and bribe border guards with records, or wake Alice Cooper up from the tour bus and get him to do an autograph in order to be allowed on your way. McGhee brought his own ice from Scandinavia. You couldn’t buy records in Russia but there was a feverish black-market trade on street corners in albums pressed on to old X-rays. A young interpreter joins the band one night and talks about her parents’ time with bright eyes. “It’s different now that you have access to everything,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter so much any more.”

Outside the hotel, the teenage boys keeping a three-day vigil for Simmons and Stanley might disagree. Kirill and Daniel have flown four hours from Tomsk, Siberia, for the concert. They are 14 and first saw the band’s white faces in a magazine. Dmitri, in his thirties, knew of Kiss only from some famous graffiti in Red Square: their double “lightning S”, banned in some countries for its proximity to Nazi insignia, appealed to his teenage brain. I bring Stanley’s guitar picks out of my pocket. Twenty boys scrum violently like pigeons on a loaf of bread.

Back at the soundcheck, Kiss leave the stage in strict formation, 20 feet apart, each flanked by a member of staff as though surrounded by great crowds. It’s a small hint of the invisible rules, the secret rivalries, covenants and compromises that allow opposing characters to exist side by side for decades in the classic rock bands. Simmons is the face of Kiss but Stanley’s limousine always arrives first, “because he’s the boss”, someone mutters. Stanley applies his make-up – a soft-faced, effeminate character known as The Starchild – in a private room, while Simmons packs into one dressing room with the rest of the band, playing the Kinks at loud volume.

Gene takes over two hours to complete the process “because he is talking all the time”, Stanley says. “It’s very hard to do it when your mouth is moving. Me, I can do it in half an hour.”

Stanley drifts down the corridor and, taking my chances, I slip into his dressing room behind him. It’s a triumph of interior decorating, the Soviet-style lime-green walls and strip lighting obscured by satin drapes like a black-and-white version of the purple “foo foo room” that Prince used to set up backstage. There is a black satin bed should he need a lie-down for any reason. There are weights of various sizes and a medicine ball – and in the corner, lit with old-fashioned make-up lights, his own cosmetics area.

“Here is my clown white,” he says softly, picking up a pot of the thick, sweat-resistant foundation they discovered in the Seventies. “And here are my puffs.” Why do they do their own make-up?

“Because it’s a ritual,” he says. “It’s a rite of passage. I can’t imagine sitting in a chair like a dummy and having somebody painting my face. It is putting on my uniform. It’s my colours. And it’s better for me in here than the chaos in the other room.”

Stanley takes a seat on a leather sofa, one leg crossed over the other, eyes on the floor. On his mirror, there is a photo of him playing the burned and disfigured lead in Phantom of the Opera, a Toronto production, in 1999. Above it is written “Star of the Show”.

He was born Stanley Eisen, “a little fat kid”, deaf in one ear as a result of microtia, a deformity of the ear canal. He was raised on opera and Broadway. As a young man he drove a taxi. He speaks in careful but lyrical sentences, and gets straight down to business.

“I always found it interesting that a lot of the critics were venomous in their dislike of us,” he says. “It’s something that perhaps they should work out on the psychiatrist’s couch. Because the dislike for the band was so out of whack, so out of proportion, you almost have to look at someone and go: who beat you as a child!”

In 1978 the NME ran an interview with Simmons under a headline it had also used for Freddie Mercury: “Is this man a prat?”

“The fact is that what we do has endured,” Stanley says. “What we are doing has no expiration date. Some of the critics who embraced us when we were struggling spurned us when we became successful. Once you gain acceptance you have ‘sold out’. Well, sold out means the place is full. I never felt the need to counter the vitriol because I was too busy succeeding.”

Stanley Eisen is the son of Austrian and Polish Jews who escaped to New York via Amsterdam. Simmons’s mother was born in Hungary and spent many months in a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, where she saw most of her family put to death. She fled to the new state of Israel, where her only son was born, and moved to New York in 1957 after her husband deserted the family. Stanley and Simmons have survived many line-up changes in their band: they once had a member called Vince Cusano, whom Simmons renamed Vinnie Vincent, because the old name sounded “like a fruit vendor”. Their tour manager, Steev Toth, has Hungarian and Jewish ancestry. The guitarist Tommy Thayer is the son of Brigadier General James Thayer, who liberated 15,000 Hungarian Jews from a concentration camp in Austria which, Simmons thinks, may have been his mother’s.

Paul Stanley: "I have said to Gene, I would shoot myself if I had your life."

“We are children of immigrants,” Stanley says. “We are children of the post-Holocaust; we have a certain mentality, and a mindset, and a work ethic. I was taught you don’t take anything that isn’t yours, don’t take anything that you don’t deserve and don’t take anything you didn’t work for.

“We are, more than ever, brothers. That doesn’t mean we want to spend all our time together. I have said to Gene before, ‘I’d shoot myself if I had your life.’”

Why?

“Because what is appealing to Gene in life is not my desire. And my life is boring to him.” He stretches along the whole length of the sofa, beginning to relax.

It is 4pm, and from behind a Superman curtain down the corridor, the muffled sound of Sixties British music signals the start of the transformation. “All right?” barks a cod London accent. I can make out Simmons’s silver platforms propped up on the top of a crate but I cannot see his face.

“He is the strangest guy,” their manager Doc McGhee told me the previous night in the hotel bar. “I mean, the strangest legitimate guy I know – I know bipolar guys, guys with mental problems. He has NO friends.”

Simmons’s family life played out in 2011 on a popular reality-TV show called Gene Simmons Family Jewels. For decades he had been “happily unmarried” to the erotic actress Shannon Tweed, the star of films including Meatballs III and Indecent Behaviour. The couple have two children, but they did not live together.

“The show made him behave differently towards his family,” McGhee told me. “It showed him from different angles and he didn’t like what he saw.” The idea inspired McGhee to conceive another programme called Extreme Combover: “You do this thing to your hair, and you think it looks good, but everyone else sees it from a different angle. My first two contestants would be Gene Simmons and Donald Trump.” Simmons appeared with Trump on The Apprentice (Trump fired him) but Combover has yet to be made.

The Superman curtain is ajar and I can see Simmons in profile, emerging from behind a wall. The next time I look up, he has pulled himself across the room on his wheelie chair and sits facing me with legs thrown apart, groin open, presenting a silver codpiece.

“All right?”

Nothing can prepare you for the Kiss make-up transformation in the flesh, and the psychological shift it occasions in both onlooker and band. One by one, a series of giant, seven-foot space clowns, taller than anything else in the building and whiter than the moon, emerges, each with a look of surprise on its face. High up the door frame of Stanley’s dressing room peers a face like a sad mime, one eye a black star, red lips pulled into a feminine pout. He takes to the corridor with the careful elegance of a giraffe – and there is something new in his manner; glorying in eye contact now, waving his platform boots in my face. Suddenly the biggest mystery of all – how Kiss can claim to have got so much sex – is a mystery no more. The white faces are frozen as men of 25. And the costumes, if you can call them that, directly facilitate inappropriate physical interplay: all rules of personal space are broken as, without thinking, you find yourself touching and poking them. A tail emerges from Paul Stanley’s satin backside and my hand closes around it.

“Is it real rabbit?”

“Will you call me a fraud if it’s not?”

He bears the sense of an older, more medieval conquest; of pillage and of poor women taken by force.

Simmons, hair pulled into a five-inch topknot and with giant leather bat wings under his arms, is a different beast. His entire body is plated in armour – part orc, part titanium warthog – and where Stanley is charming, he bears the sense of an older, more medieval conquest; of pillage and of poor women taken by force.

He talks little, but what he wants, he gets with his body. He pulls the make-up girl in for a hug – by the hair. I am told under no circumstances to get in his line of vision after the show, because if I do so he will “slime” me with fake blood and sweat. He pretends he hasn’t seen me – then backs me into the wall with a little too much force, his spikes digging into the back of my hands.

***

The next morning, up in the second-floor restaurant, Simmons has breakfast with Shannon Tweed. They finally married in 2011. Tweed, 60, is dressed in pink and flicking through Time magazine. Simmons’s thumbnails are short and wrecked, black with last night’s make-up. Silver hair curls on his chest: in his mirrored sunglasses and military-style shirt with gold adornments, he looks like Gaddafi at leisure. He moves my Dictaphone closer.

On the way home from school, he would go to the library and read the encyclopaedias. That’s where he learned that Edward VI used to torture animals. “When you’re king, who’s going to tell you not to skin a frog alive?” he reasons. I ask him about his childhood heroes. “I didn’t have heroes,” he says. “Not real people. My heroes were fantasy. My heroes didn’t have flaws – Superman and Einstein and ethereal, semi-godlike figures. Because whenever you have a real-life hero it’s f***ing pathetic how they wind up – like Elvis, naked and bloated on the bathroom floor.”

He picks up his phone and summons Siri to bring up a picture of the British dish of faggots in gravy. “Explain this to me – what the hell is that?” he asks. “The English were always a smaller people because of the food. After the war you had beans on toast and what the f*** else did you eat? In the States we had butter and pancakes – it was always a big supply. If Jagger got into my outfit on seven-inch heels spitting fire and flying through the air, he would be exhausted. Put Bono in my outfit? Good luck.”

It seems a good time to ask him how he feels on stage.

“I can glibly speak about it,” he says. “But in real terms I am aware that there is a transformation that takes place here –” he points at his ribs. “I am aware that my chest cavity expands, and my heart is pumping, and the only thing I can compare it to is when a boxer can be backstage toying with his little girl, then go into the ring and be oblivious to the audience, and have this kill thing.”

Tweed has looked up the root of the word “faggots” and reads from her phone in her slightly anaesthetised, Beverly Hills voice: “A bundle of pieces of iron or steel to be welded, rolled or hammered together at high temperature.”

“It’s a question of semantics,” Simmons replies. “Though I’m not anti-semantic . . .”

I ask him about the reality show that changed his life. “I didn’t like watching myself,” he says. “I mean, I love the way I look, other than these affectations [he gestures to his sunglasses]. They even filmed my facelift – I had my face thrown over my shoulder like a scarf. But in the course of the show I realised what an asshole I was.

“When I was a little kid, my mother would smack the shit out of me as soon as I went out of line. When I went off on my own, I was my own police in certain areas: I’ve never knowingly got high or drunk or smoked a cigarette, because I didn’t want to break my mother’s heart. But other than that, I was self-entitled. I’m an only child so I look to myself for everything. Part of that process is you get deluded with the sound of your own voice. And although I am fairly educated, that doesn’t mean I have wisdom.”

In the early 2000s Simmons launched a magazine called Tongue, which ran for five issues, with an emphasis on the celebration of the female form. There will be a new magazine called Mogul – “high-end pop culture, entrepreneurial” – and he shows me a mock-up of the cover with him on the front. He has published several books, including Ladies of the Night: a Historical and Personal Perspective on the Oldest Profession in the World and the business title Me, Inc: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business.

“I’m a curiosity to people in high finance,” he tells me, “because I haven’t been there and done that, but I have made a decent living. They can’t put a finger on how and why it has worked for me.” He adds, of music, “What other job would give you money in advance and you never have to pay it back?”

He has read Trump’s books. “All business books are lies,” he says. “Ten secrets of success? People want a short cut to life. You have a duty to educate yourself, and from there on it is f***ing hard, back-breaking work. Forget ‘inherent’ and ‘intrinsic’ and other big words like ‘gymnasium’. Nothing happens without hard work.”

In 2011 Simmons endorsed Mitt Romney, saying that America needed to be in the hands of a businessman. “Government is business,” he says today. “People don’t understand that. A lot of people hate Trump, I get it. I know the man –”

“Which is not to say you like him,” Tweed mutters.

“He doesn’t give a f*** what anyone thinks. You’re talking about a guy who does not care and will go to war against all media. I want a businessman in there. Not someone to dole out favours, raise your minimum wage, meantime countries get deeper and deeper into debt. I want someone who says: ‘You’re fat and bloated and you’re going on a strict diet.’ The dietician is not your friend.”

Excuse me,” his wife chips in.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re burping while talking.”

“I was? At least I didn’t fart. To make a long story short,” Simmons says, “I don’t know why anyone gives a squat what somebody with a guitar round his neck thinks about politics. ’Cos I sure as f*** don’t care what your wonderful new Prime Minister thinks about Kiss.”

“Rock stars are morons,” Simmons says. “Pragmatism is much more my milieu.” And then: “Let me show you a short video.”

He raises his handkerchief, mops his brow, surveys a black patch and muses: “Hair dye.” He’s not the first reactionary American rock star I’ve met who gets flustered talking about Donald Trump despite sharing many of his views. They’re all businessmen, headline-chasers. Trump got to be president after forty years hanging around at the same galas as them.

“Rock stars are morons,” Simmons says. “Pragmatism is much more my milieu.” And then: “Let me show you a short video.” He takes his phone and fires up an interview with the American journalist Dan Rather, in which Simmons declares that immigrants in the US should learn goddam English.

“Yesterday their cousin would have wound up in a can of dog food,” he tells me. “But today you can literally sue the president for sexual harassment and win. You want to try that here in Russia? ”

“And you know what celebrities shouldn’t do?” Tweed cuts in. “Talk politics. Don’t do it. Eat your food.”

As Simmons scoops the last of his porridge I ask about his relationship with Paul Stanley. “It’s too easy to say that we’re both Jewish and the other guys weren’t, so they didn’t survive but we did,” he says. “With Paul and me, it’s like the marriage of different alloys making titanium. Likewise with dogs. Purebreds are retarded. It’s the mixture of bloods that makes them healthy.”

Surely another advert for immigration.

“Legal immigration, do you mean?” he whispers. “Because there is a profound difference. I want to know everybody’s fingerprint. I want to know everybody’s social security number. Instead of just ghosts. Twenty million in America! More than most other countries have men, women and children. Know wot I mean?”

In the days after my return from Russia, I get 16 emails from Simmons’s personal account (he has no assistant), each containing a separate business venture he wishes me to know about. There’s a cardboard cut-out of him advertising Dr Pepper, a reproduction of his MoneyBag clothing logo, a new Kiss sandwich toaster – and a photo of him ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

“You know why we were the number-one banned band in Russia?” he told me. “‘I wanna rock’n’roll all night’, ‘I Was Made for Lovin’ You’ – the most powerful word in the English language is ‘I’. There is no scarier word for an authoritarian regime.”

***

Simmons was once asked to describe the experience of performing and he put it like this.

“The only comparison I can make is with the films of Leni Riefenstahl. One word from Hitler and the masses would move in unison. It was an amazing feeling of power . . . I was King Kong, pounding his chest after chewing up some damsel in distress. Godzilla stomping through Tokyo’s streets. To say I felt like God up there is not an overstatement.”

On either side of the stage at the Olympic stadium are small bulletproof tents. Paul Stanley takes a zip wire over 15,000 Russian fans and lands with force, on unforgiving platforms, on his second hip replacement. He bursts into a perfect Christ-like arc, and keeps up an energetic but slightly banal stage patter: “Here is a song from 1988!”

Over to the left, in a pool of green light, stands a crazy lump – blank of face, rolling of eye, head jerking in time to the music with globules of viscous blood bubbling up from a black mouth. For a moment, there is something tragic about Simmons, like a mad, chained bear, a freakshow. Then he’s breathing fire. Ticker tape explodes on to the crowd from two big cannons; flames leap, and then it’s over.

In the hotel car park, the door of Simmons’s taxi falls open to reveal him etched in light, head back, encrusted with fake blood. His minders walk him through the back of the building, but, knowing his ­tendency to “slime” people, no one wants to share the lift with him. 

Kiss’s UK tour begins on 27 May. Gene Simmons addresses the Oxford Union on 29 May. Details: www.oxford-union.org

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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