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.
“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.’”
“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.
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?”
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.
“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.”
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
This article appears in the 17 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies