By Ken Sharp
Gene Simmons clearly has his eye toward the future. As KISS wind down from their “End of the Road” tour,, Simmons, a self-described serial entrepreneur, has already proactively launched shopgenesimmons.com, a venture centered around merch sporting logo permutations of his money bag trademark. Simmons also manages genesimmonsauctions.com and Gene Simmons KISS World in Las Vegas, culling The Demon’s vast personal collection of KISS memorabilia and one-of-a-kind personal items.
In the following Goldmine interview, we discuss these new ventures but also delve deeper into the psyche of Simmons touching upon his teenage years, KISS’ farewell tour and mortality.
GOLDMINE: For KISS’ “End of the Road” tour, at a show I saw, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Paul smile so much. It really feels like there’s a sense within the band that now the end is coming and let’s enjoy every moment on that stage but in a more tangibly deeper way. Is that a feeling happening with you?
GENE SIMMONS: Yeah. Considering we started in ’73 and we’re in the year 2022 now and probably by 2024 we’ll be done. That’s enough. 50 years is enough for anybody. And also out of respect and love for the fans, you want to get off the stage while the getting is good; you’ve got to have a sense of pride and know when it’s time. You don’t want to be some of the champions of all time who stayed in the ring too long and got knocked out. It’s “quit while you’re on top.” Of course, everything comes to an end at some point, and you’re lucky and blessed if that last lap around the track is your victory lap. You celebrate the past. But of course, that thing is going to be over at some point in your life. You’ve got to leave home. You’ve got to leave mom and dad and go off on your own and start that next chapter. And by the way, at some point, life itself is going to be over.
GM: Take us into what your bedroom was like as a teenager: What would we have seen?
GS: I was living at my mother’s house, so I put nothing on the walls, nothing. At about 13, 14, I was learning to play just by watching people’s hands on guitar. My mother bought me an SG standard Gibson, and I remember thinking, Oh, my God, my fingers are killing me. How can anybody play this? But slowly I started to play a C chord and then a G chord and so on. So there was nothing on my wall. I was more fascinated by publishing my own fanzine.
GM: What did you learn from doing your own fanzines?
GS: The biggest lesson learned doing my own fanzines was vision. Vision is an interesting idea, and I don’t mean to be able to see something in front of you. That’s easy, everybody can do that. To have vision is to see something that’s not there. You know who had vision? Bugsy Siegel. He went to a desert and actually saw a place — never mind the fact that he was a criminal, that has nothing to do with it. He actually landed in the desert and he said, “Yeah, right here, this is where the city is gonna be. It’s gonna be a gambling city. People are going to come from all over the world to see it.” That’s vision. And that became Las Vegas. And when he first went there, there was nothing, not even worms for buzzards.
And vision means KISS. It means before groups thought of trademarks and logos and faces and icons and before all these toys. But before this happens you have to have this kind of vision, this kind of almost religious vision. I’ve heard Christians talk about this, and I don’t buy it. But I don’t downgrade or degrade their vision of it, this kind of, “I know there’s this gateway to heaven.” You see the stars in their eyes. I love that part. Passion and vision. And that’s what I learned because at the same time I was doing the fanzines everybody in class thought I was a geek, but they were small-minded. I was getting letters from grown people, 20, 30 or 40 years old, saying what I was doing was great. To get letters from around the world saying you’re great, it tells you you’re good. You’re good when you’re 13 and get a postcard from Stan Lee, which I still have, saying, “Congratulations, you’re very talented, keep going.” It was signed by him, too; someone who you thought lived in the clouds. My fanzines apparently were so good that the University of Wisconsin put it into their time capsule as examples of 20th century amateur press.
GM: Did you have a typewriter in your room?
GS: I had typewriters, a printing press, all kinds of stuff. Did it all myself.
GM: Did you have a stereo in your bedroom?
GS: No, just a radio. The stereo was in the living room. And that’s where I played my Chubby Checker records and all kinds of other stuff. This was pre-Beatles. I never bought records. I hardly ever bought anything. I just saved money. My old school chum and later Wicked Lester bandmate, Stephen Coronel, turned me onto a lot of music, things like Cream, The Jeff Beck Group, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, The Ventures. I was aware of Jimi Hendrix, and clearly the guitar was the star there. Pragmatism always ruled in my life. I looked around and everyone was trying to be a lead guitarist or rhythm guitarist, and I didn’t see anyone trying to be a bassist. So, I figured if I wanted to be in a band, maybe I’ll pick up bass. I had no training and just tried to follow the chords and play the root notes. Because my mind tends to wander, I started playing melody on the bass guitar. So the first sense of an important bassist was Paul McCartney, and that was the right first introduction to it. He didn’t play bass the way bass players play bass. He was a guitar player initially. Paul switched to bass much later on. Often the bass didn’t have much to do melodically or rhythmically with either the guitar or the drums. I was initially aware immediately of how unique it was to do a song like “Day Tripper” or “Taxman” or lots of other Beatles songs where the bass and the guitar did riffs together, almost the way horns played together.
GM: Were you collecting comic books then? Would we have found a stack of comic books in your room?
GS: I probably had a thousand comic books. All the first issues, all the Marvels, all that stuff and of course, one year when I didn’t do well in school, my mother threw out all the comics. (laughs) Even back then, when I showed my mother how much these comic books were going for, she said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know all that.” So when I was at my mother’s house, I didn’t put anything up on the walls, that was forbidden. As soon as I was 22 or 23, I rented out a one bedroom from a couple. That was the first place I actually paid rent. It was in Brooklyn. By then I met Paul (Stanley), and we would religiously buy Melody Maker and the other British music magazines, and often there were full-page ads. I remember liking one ad for Silverhead, a band led by Michael Des Barres, that was on my wall, along with God knows how many other bands, just because I like the style of the English bands. And wouldn’t you know it, within a year and a half, Silverhead was opening up for KISS.
GM: Who was your best friend growing up, and who is your best friend today?
GS: I’m a strange duck. I’ve hardly had any friends. I never really hung out. I never drank, so that was out. I wouldn’t hang out on street corners and smoke cigarettes and all that stuff. I was just busy doing what I wanted to do and chasing girls. So that didn’t leave time for friends. I didn’t go to baseball games. I kept reading about what friends do. They hang out with each other. They call each other, “Hey, I need a favor.” I never had any of that. But when I was doing a project and I needed somebody to do the project with, then you have somebody to work with and have a social thing. So in the beginning, I worked with a guy named Seth Dogramajian. We were busy doing cool stuff with a band. He was in The Missing Links, which became The Lynx. We were in a band together, and then we started in fanzines together.
GM: So if you had to pick one guy as a best friend from your teenage years, it’d be Seth?
GS: Yeah, he’s passed, unfortunately.
GM: How about later in life?
GS: Through school and through college, I had no friends, I was just chasing girls and doing stuff at work. But actually I had a friend — Steve Coronel. Steve and I were in a band together by the time I was in 7th or 8th grade. The band was called the Long Island Sounds. It was actually also called Love Bag, which we thought was dangerous. That means prophylactic. We shared a love of music. He liked Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and so did I and we talked about another band he also liked called The Ventures, and then he started listening to the British guitar players. But we were in a band together. He was actually the original guitar player in Wicked Lester. He was a friend when we’d get together pretty much only because of the band. When the band wasn’t doing anything, I wouldn’t go to movies with guys or hang out.
GM: What’s the source of that insular nature where you really didn’t have a need to connect with people?
GS: Even today, as I sit here, other than Paul, and we only get together when we do stuff with the band. How do I say this without sounding inhuman? I don’t have friends. Yeah, if friends means, “Gee, I don’t know what I’m going to do this afternoon. Hey, you want to come over and hang out?” I don’t hang out. ‘‘I’ve never hung out. I’m more interested in what I want to do, and I don’t want to pretend that I’m interested in what you want to do because I’m not.
GM: Gene, your parents divorced when you were young. Looking back, how did that loss of your father impact on the person you became?
GS: At about seven or so, my mother was forced to go out and work six days a week, and I woke up in the middle of the night and my mother wasn’t there. We were living in a one bedroom in Israel, and I remember being scared and just crying and crying and also scared and alone and sad that nobody’s around. “I’m here alone.” I remember I cried so much that I cried myself to sleep. And the next day the sun came up and my mother was there and everything was back to normal. And without being able to verbalize it, I may have thought that was a waste of time. That was wasted energy. And maybe, without having my father as a father figure, I learned to depend on myself early on.
GM: After KISS made it, despite having no contact with your father for many years, you took care of him by buying him a home. He would write you letters, but you never responded. Do you have any regrets that you didn’t connect with him? And if you did connect with him today, what questions would you ask him?
GS: Yes and no. I thought I had a responsibility regardless of providing for my father, especially because I could. He had a number of wives afterwards, and that’s fine. Everybody should try to be happy anyway they can, and he had quite a few kids with other wives, and that’s OK, too. I’ve since grown close to my half sisters and brother. He was a busy guy so I had a responsibility. I believed in buying him a house, sending him money and stuff like that. But I didn’t believe I had the responsibility of having a social relationship.
GM: So you never responded to him ever?
GS: No, I did not.
GM: Or a phone call?
GS: No. My mother flew over to Israel 25 separate times to visit my father and brought him money and all that, despite the fact that he had other wives there. My mother didn’t want to break up his marriages or anything. But she would go over to visit him; that was her first great love. She wanted to make sure he was OK. She would go and visit him with his children and his wife. My mother, I think, was hurt forever. My father was just sort of a different kind of guy. He was always a big guy. I thought he may have been six (foot) nine and partly because of that, quite a few women were attracted to that.
GM: Hypothetically, if he still was alive and he knocks on your door, what would you want to ask him about?
GS: Well, what are you going to do? You have to consider it’s a different time. Brand new country, tough to get a job. By and large, if you take a look at the statistics, men leave their families and their children, they just get up when it gets too hard and they check out.
GM: There’s a Faces song called “Ooh La La,” which has a really smart lyric: “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger.” What are the things you wish you did know when you were younger that would have made your life a little easier or enhanced your understanding of people or just your acceptance of yourself?
GS: That it didn’t matter what I thought I knew, and it didn’t matter what I knew. You still have to wade through the jungle by yourself. All the knowledge in the world, or no knowledge at all, doesn’t prepare you for life because there’s no one journey, there’s no one road.
GM: So what do you wish you knew, though, back when you were younger?
GS: It’s an interesting question. I really don’t have regrets because you live and you learn. I don’t want to quote Alanis Morissette, but the life experience itself is going to be the best teacher. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, then that’s on you.
GM: You’re closer to the finish of life than the beginning. How often do you think about your own mortality and what’s your philosophy about death?
GS: I’d be a complete asshole, certainly more than I am now, if I wasn’t grateful for this amazing life. I mean, if it ended today, I know what my tombstone would say. It would say, “Thank you and good night.” What more could you hope for? So I’m not afraid of death unless a car is coming straight into your face. You kind of go, “Oh my God!” But that’s just instinct.
GM: Do you think about death much more now?
GS: I do, but only in terms of pragmatism, which is how up to date is the will. I want to make sure there are no taxes, there are no liens, there’s no nothing so that my family and my kids get taken care of, just sort of pragmatic taking care of business.
GM: What’s your belief system in what happens when you die?
GS: I’m OK if there’s a heaven and a God. I’m OK with it. I’m also OK if there’s nothing.
GM: What do you lean towards?
GS: I lean towards nothing. My question is, if we get an afterlife, do mosquitoes? Maybe my mother’s sort of wise statement about every day above ground is a good day, and that’s it.
GM: Lastly, the level of KISS fandom is akin to the deep mad love fans have for The Beatles, and there’s uber hard-core KISS fans around the world. Perhaps the most celebrated KISS uber fan in the ’70s was the guy that everyone in the band forged a relationship with. You guys even visited his house. Let me test you, what’s the name of the person I’m speaking about?
GS: Fat Vinny.
GM: Yes, Fat Vinny — Vinny Gonzales. Tell us about Vinny. You guys connected with him deeply, gave him instruments, priceless one-of-a-kind memorabilia. You would visit his house. What was the connection?
GS: He is a fan, and he’s been a fan a long time. He used to wait anywhere where we were. Somehow he’d find out and he was there. “Oh, please sign. Mr. Simmons, could you please sign this?” with his New York Italian accent. “Could you please sign over there and sign that?” I’d say, “Sure.” He was always very kind. A few years later, we kept seeing him. We’re going to New York; I guess we’re going to see Vinny, and then he started showing up in Connecticut and other places. There he is, Vinny. And it was only later when I saw a movie called King of Comedy, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Robert De Niro. I found out that the character in the film, Rupert Pupkin, was based on Vinny Gonzales. Wait a minute: Robert De Niro based his character of a crazy fan on Vinny Gonzales? And that’s actually what happened. Vinny loved De Niro, who doesn’t? And he would show up anywhere De Niro was, and De Niro took a liking to him, and Scorsese and De Niro went out to his mother’s house, way out in Long Island someplace, and they’d have cannolis and talk and then they’d go to the basement and Vinny would show them his KISS memorabilia. They’d say, “What’s all this about KISS?” And he said, “Oh yeah, I love those guys.” And they’d go, “Oh yeah, why?” and he would explain. And De Niro kept coming over for dinner, and then when they started filming the movie, De Niro said to Vinny, “I’m going to offer you a job. You’re going to be my assistant, you’ll drive my car and all that, and you start tomorrow.” Vinny actually said to DeNiro, “I can’t do that,” and he goes, “Why? What do you mean you can’t do that? Do you have a job?” “Yeah, I work here and there.” Then De Niro said, “So why can’t you do that?” Vinny said, “Well, KISS is going out on tour, and I want to be there and go backstage and get their autographs.” (laughs)
GM: There are photos Vinny has posted through the years on Facebook where you’re at his house having dinner or Peter’s there. How did that happen?
GS: He’d invite us. There was something about his personality, unlike other fans. Because it was so much just a slice of life at home. People put on airs. I do. Maybe you do and some other people. He was like, “Hey, my Italian mom is cooking a home cooked Italian meal, you wanna come?”
To read more of Gene's interview — plus, an interesting talk with superfan Fat Vinny —get the Goldmine issue on newsstands to the Goldmine shop