Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Long Kiss Good-bye

The most famous tongue in rock-and-roll has a little more wagging to do.

By Frank Murtaugh

MAY 1, 2000:  My life changed when I was in third grade and heard "Detroit Rock City" for the first time. As wild as the four members of KISS may have looked in their Kabuki face paint and 7-inch leather heels, it was those anthems from Destroyer that took my 8-year-old world and rocked it like some elevating stage prop. You take your John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Give me Peter Criss on the drums, Ace Frehley on lead guitar, the tongue-lashing, fire-breathing Gene Simmons on bass, and Paul Stanley as ringmaster. Like it or not, it's a KISS world we're just living in it.

I talked to Simmons by phone recently during an off-day on the band's Farewell Tour. In his hotel between shows in Fort Meyers, Florida, and Orlando, the blood-spitting bassist had a lot to say about Superman, Steinbeck, The Peabody ducks, and all things KISS.


Are there KISS whackos in Fort Meyers?

Everywhere you go they dive on the stage; girls throw their bras. It's very bizarre. You'd think they'd behave more civilized because this is certainly not the first year we've been doing this. But you'll see what I mean when we play there.


Was there an epiphany when you decided to call it quits, or was this a gradual decision the band made?

Well, epiphany is a big word, kind of like gymnasium. Here's how it happened: After we'd gotten our Hollywood star on the walk of fame, after Billboard magazine let us know that we were right behind the Beatles in the number of gold records by any group in history, after outlasting five presidents, approaching our third decade, and selling more than 80 million albums, KISS movies, KISS condoms, KISS comic books, and everything else you can imagine, including the number-one world tour in 1996, we pretty much had this idea that, "Thank you very much. We've gone where no band has gone before. It's been amazing."

But then it became very clear that the people who made us kings, the people who gave us all this enormous power and wealth -- you know, the good life -- were our bosses, the fans. It was certainly never the media. If we were going to call it quits as a live band, we really had to stand on stage and in a humble way, with as much dignity as we could muster, and with a bit of a lump in our throats, thank the fans for making all our dreams come true. I know it comes off as cornball, but that's what we do every night. Every one of our stops is an important one because those people in that city are hearing it for the first time. I wish we could go and shake every single person's hand.

It started off with just them: fan and band. It was never about media. Let's be honest, KISS has never been about credibility or respect from the media. All great things American are like that, whether it's Superman or hamburgers. Superman is never going to be perceived as an important piece of literature; although in the 21st century, the masses will remember Superman much longer than they will John Steinbeck. And hamburgers will outlive frog-legs, although cuisine connoisseurs will tell you frog-legs are better. I don't know about you, but my mouth waters when I think of a Whopper. I can't remember the last time I had frog-legs. KISS has much more in common with all great things American. We subscribe to the American notion of the people, for the people, by the people.


Sounds like KISS is a lot more about pop culture than musicianship or the recording industry.

Musicianship is highly overrated, and at the end of the day, musicianship -- when you're talking about rock-and-roll, which is a primitive form of music -- is the biggest joke in the world to classical musicians and jazz musicians. When these guys take a look at rockers, and that includes Eric Clapton and anybody else who thinks they're good on their instrument, it's Stone Age music when compared to jazz or classical. So it's all relative.

The idea of art is always a bizarre notion. I've always believed that art should be the name of a guy, and that the people should decide what is and what is not art not some guy who creates it. If you're painting a picture, it's not up to you to say that it is or isn't good or bad. It's up to the people. More often than not a performer will get up on stage and say, "I am very creative. I am an artist." It's basically, shut up, do the best you can, and I'll let you know if I like it or not.

KISS has always been very clear-headed about what we do. We always stand guilty as charged of making a complete spectacle out of ourselves. You're damn right we do!


Are there any regrets that the original foursome didn't stay together all these 25-plus years?

No, no, no. There are no regrets because we've always practiced what we've preached. Ace and Peter -- during the time they were not in KISS -- did not deserve to be in KISS. They'd be the first ones to tell you that they blew it for themselves. They succumbed to chemicals and alcohol. It's not so much that the band was left in the shadows or that the fans were left in the shadows. They really couldn't deal with themselves. Before you can have respect for the band, or respect for the fans, you've got to have enough self-esteem to be clean. KISS is very much like the Olympics. If anybody's got anything in their bloodstream, they're out on their ass, asking "Do you want fries with that?"


So the band itself would have gone down had Ace and Peter stayed in the band any longer than they did?

Yes. If we can't do KISS the right way, then it's not worth doing at all.


Considering the success you had after Ace and Peter left, it would seem they need KISS a lot more than KISS needs them. Is that a fair statement?

Yes. The answer is yes.


Are Ace and Peter comfortable with that?

The band has never made it a secret of some very real ideas. KISS was created with the idea that each one of us was equally important to the band and each other, as long as everybody was carrying the weight. Think of it as a football team. If I pass you the ball and you lose the ball, the whole team dies. That's why we're hard on each other in terms of standing up and carrying the weight. When Ace and Peter couldn't, they were gone. Nothing personal. Get your life in order, and we'll have a conversation. Well, getting their life in order took a decade and a half. That's okay. The most important thing is that the family is back together. Ace and Peter are clean and sober, love life, and are really grateful. Families go through dysfunctional periods, and that's life.


And they've carried their weight since the Reunion Tour in 1996?

There's no choice. There's no letting down the guard. The band is playing better than ever; we're getting along better than ever. And that's when it's time to call it quits. The physical nature of what we do means that we won't be able to do it as long as the Stones. God bless Mick Jagger for running around all over the stage, but everybody else [in the band] is pretty much standing still. KISS is all about four guys pushing the limit, musically and physically, and blowing up everything in sight. We can continue and keep playing, but because of what we look like and how we walk I mean, every step I take is 8 inches higher than the step you take because of the platform heels. Past a certain point, the physical limitations are going to speak.

I have the highest admiration for a guy like Michael Jordan, who at the top of his game says, "Thank you very much, I'm going out on top."


How does the rush of taking the stage now compare with 1973 and playing New York clubs like Coventry?

In '73 it was all about pure adrenaline. The shows would disappear at the snap of a finger. You're just sort of hyperventilating. It's like the first time you climb on top of a girl. It's all nervous energy. Boom, you're done and you're watching TV and having your chocolate milk or whatever it is you do. See, I relate to chocolate milk and not beer, because I don't drink beer.


I have a KISS poster -- part of the "Got Milk?" campaign -- with chocolate milk dripping from that tongue of yours.

That's a very powerful and attractive man, isn't it? We've never done a beer commercial or a cigarette commercial, although I have no problem hocking Pepsi-Cola. None at all.


This is ironic. When I was young, my parents would screen any and all things KISS before allowing me access. Now, 20 years later, it turns out KISS is one of the cleanest acts in the history of rock-and-roll.

We've always been clean. I've always espoused a lifestyle that includes enjoying life. In some ways, I don't agree with society. I'm not a believer in the institution of marriage. I believe that no person should have dominion over another person. Although I believe in responsible behavior. I believe that if you get high, you can't expect to be treated the same as a person who doesn't. So I reserve the right to get rid of anybody who lets numbing their own senses get in the way of their job. Most people are afraid to step up to the plate and say, "This is what makes me happy. I may not fit in with society, but that's okay."

I have yet to be married. I have yet to get high or get drunk. But that's a personal choice. I believe you have the right to jump off a building if that's what you choose to do.


KISS seems a lot less controversial now than you were in the late Seventies. Why is that?

That's an interesting observation. In a very real way, KISS is much more on the edge than it's ever been because rock-and-roll is dead. Everybody looks like a pizza-delivery boy, and KISS stubbornly refuses to insult the audience by taking the stage looking worse than they do. You know, stars twinkle, stars shine. That's why we raise our chins and look up to the sky. The stage is elevated, it's where stars live. [Most bands these days] don't have the magic, the charisma. God bless them for having a hit record or two, but make sure you save your pennies.


What spawned the charisma and showmanship that you, Paul, Ace, and Peter have taken to the stage for so many years?

There was a simple idea behind KISS. We weren't here to save the world. We had no message. I don't trust any musician who has a message. Six months ago, this guy couldn't tie his shoelaces; now he's our emissary to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The last thing I need is a musician to tell me what's wrong with life as we know it on this planet.

However, we always wanted to see the band that we never saw on stage. What happens when Mick Jagger has an off night? The Stones are dead. We wanted a four-wheel-drive vehicle the band we never saw on stage. That's the only thing we ever tried to do. What it all means? Who cares? If it makes that day a more memorable experience, that's as valid and as profound as I need to be.


Does it get tiring, playing night after night, year after year?

Physically, it's exhausting. On a day off, we sleep till two or three in the afternoon.


How do you maintain the stamina to deliver the same show during the last two weeks of a tour that you did in the first two weeks?

You get the adrenaline rush of hearing people outside who are seeing the show for the first time. It's expectations. When you go into a club and everybody around you is jumping up and down, it's infectious. When you're feeling sad and everybody around you at a comedy club is laughing their heads off, you find yourself smiling. It pulls you like a tidal wave.

As much as we'd like to think a KISS show is all about KISS, the truth is that a lot of it is about the fans. We've always maintained that without the fans we wouldn't be here, but it goes much further. We turn the cameras on them. We have these huge screens, and they're part of the show. They look different, they act differently, they dress differently. They're standing on their seats from beginning to end. They know when we introduce ourselves -- "You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest band in the world" -- we mean it. We're going to give it all we've got.

When you go to a rap show, everybody looks like a criminal. When you go to a country-and-western show, everybody looks like a cowboy. The idea is that at our shows, all are welcome at the church of Kisstianity. You've got the strippers who are throwing their bras on stage -- in my general direction, thank you very much -- you've got guys in business suits, dads with kids on their shoulders. There are no rules.


The demand for KISS is going to live on after this Farewell Tour. Can that be met without new albums and tours?

No new albums, no new tours, but we are finalizing a KISS Psycho Circus theme park with Universal Attractions. We're finalizing a KISS casino in Las Vegas, a four-hour mini-series, cartoon shows, and all this other stuff. KISS is simply in the process of metamorphosis. The live band, out of respect to itself, should go out on top and not wait to play to a hundred people at the House of Blues 10 years from now.


But when you take all the marketing and merchandising and boil it down, KISS is fundamentally a rock-and-roll band. And that requires music, right?

I've never maintained that it has to be one thing or the other. To me, the eyes are every bit as important as the ears. I'll grant you that when you buy a KISS record, only the ears get the bang, though we try to make the packaging as interesting as we can. When you go see KISS live, it's hopefully for the eyes as much as the ears. That's why we spend so much money on it. But when you buy a KISS comic book, it's only for the eyes; it's not about instruments. There's not a guitar on the KISS lunch box. It's about the characters, a demon, a starchild. Can KISS exist without the music? Of course. Can R.E.M. or Loverboy exist without the music? No. KISS was never designed to be just about guitars.


There are all kinds of marriages that haven't lasted nearly as long as your partnership with Paul Stanley. What's the secret?

Stubbornness. We are like oil and water. On the surface, it looks like we're completely in synergy with everything. It's not true. He says black; I say white. We agree on nothing. The thing at the center of [our relationship] is the self-respect to passionately believe in what you believe in and make a point for it, but have respect for the other guy as well because he may have a better idea.


Did that grow out of the many years together?

No. You have to recognize that in a person. When you first meet a person and they open their mouth, you can tell if smoke is coming out of it. I think we recognized something in each other that said, this is valid. I may not agree with it, but there's something there.


What's next, when the tour is over?

All things are possible. There's plenty of time to rest when they stick you 6 feet under. I've never had a vacation in my life, and I'm not interested in one. I'm having the time of my life. Every one of us will be doing projects after the touring band ceases. KISS right now is taking all the time away from the other projects. The truth is we have to do all these shows in a certain window because everybody has their own life planned out [for afterward].


Is there a date set for the final show?

We do know that date, but it's a secret.


When the final song is sung, have you thought about what you're going to feel in the hours and days that follow?

Victorious. It's like running a race and winning. In some ways it's bittersweet. We'll have the lumps in our throats and hopefully we'll all hug each other because we finished the race first. We ran our own race, on our own terms. Look at us. We weren't in fashion when we started, we aren't in fashion today. I promise you tomorrow KISS will not be in fashion. But everything that was fashionable -- alternative, new wave, new romance, grunge, thrash, punk, heavy metal -- is dead.

We stubbornly refused to do anything we didn't want to do. Look at us. We walk silly, we dress silly, we look silly. But you know what? All great things are kind of silly. What else is Superman but a middle-age man who wears tights and a red cape? You ask what that is if you don't believe in the magic. Santa Claus? An old guy in a red suit with reindeer? That's kind of silly. Well, it's not silly to people who believe in Santa Claus.


Do you have any thoughts on Memphis you can share?

A lot of women. Women, women, women. And ducks! Coming out of the hotel. First time I saw [The Peabody ducks], I thought, oh, those poor things. They're going to be killed and that's what we're having for lunch. These guys live on the penthouse! The elevator opens up and they go for a walk. I tell people about this overseas. They all think it's very bizarre.


Was Elvis an influence?

I admired the star [quality]. The only thing I shared with Elvis were some girls. Other than that, I was a fan from the sidelines. There was one gorgeous girl, just stunning. After we became close friends, she showed me the TCB necklace Elvis had given her. There were more than one, but that was the first.


A hundred years from now, if there was one word, expression, or song that will call to mind what KISS was and will be, what do you want it to be?

America. I'm from Israel. Where you're born is an accident of birth. If you're from Africa, you're black. If you're from the Orient, you're Oriental. In Israel, no matter how big I get, the only thing I can do is sell falafel on the street corner. The point is you can be black, white, Israeli, Martian, it doesn't matter. You come to America, there are no vistas that are unavailable. You can do anything. You can scale the heights. The American dream is not only alive, but it sure is well. I'm living proof. Anything I want to do, I can do. But only here. Try doing that in France. Get out of here!


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