Gene Simmons must be one of the most polarizing personalities on the planet. He co-founded one of the most controversial bands of the 70s, has allegedly had his way with thousands of women, has run magazines, written books, hosted talk and reality shows,* and has revolutionized merchandising. I’ve always had a soft spot for The God of Thunder, but I’m not surprised when I find someone who hates him.
The first record I ever bought with my own money was Gene Simmons’ KISS solo record. In 1978, the four masked men each released solo records. Gene’s wasn’t the best corner of the square (everyone knows Ace Frehley’s opus lay claim to that spot), but it was probably a solid second, even if a distant one. KISS was my first favorite band and Gene was my first favorite member.
KISS is a band that invited investigation from its young fans. From their comic-book personae, super powers, and devilish face paint to their catchy, cheesy songs, they had a lock on the imagination of preteen boys for over a decade. We had to dig deeper and, thanks to a massive merchandising arm, there was always more to find.
I saw them live in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1979 on what was to be their last tour in the makeup (until the reunions, of course), and KISS remained my favorite band until almost sixth grade, at which time my friend Keith Vanderberg introduced me to Oingo Boingo. Oingo Boingo was the first band whose lyrics actually made me think about things. Bands like KISS were soon on their way off the playlist, and bands like Talking Heads and The Clash were on, eventually giving way to hardcore, Hip-hop, and indie rock.
Gene reemerged somewhere in here, impressing me with his indie rock knowledge. In some music magazine in the early 1990s, Gene waxed geeky about the lineage of Teenage Fanclub, including BMX Bandits and his love of Eugenius. This seemed not only out-of-character for him, but also oddly too well researched not to be genuine. It was impressive.
Fast-forward a few years, I was working as the editor of Pandemonium! Magazine in Tacoma, Washington, and KISS had reunited for what would be the first of several top-grossing tours in the old makeup. In a fit of nostalgia, we were planning to put them on the cover. Our staffer Dave Liljengren was handling the interview, and when Gene called him to chat, Dave was on his way out the door to something he absolutely could not miss.
Dave: “Sorry, Gene. I’m walking out the door. Can you call me back at the same time tomorrow?”
Gene: “Not a problem.”
Now, you’d think that this on-and-off freelance writer for this little regional rag in Tacoma, Washington had just blown his one chance for calling Dr. Love (that’s certainly what I thought), but I’ll be damned if Gene didn’t call Dave back the next day and do the interview. We didn’t end up using it, but the point is that Gene Simmons could be bothered to call back the next day.**
In a questionable move on the other end of the spectrum, Gene donated a $5,000 KISS casket to Dimebag Darrell Abbott‘s funeral. Apparently that’s what Dime would’ve wanted, so it can be seen as a good look. On the other hand, it could be seen as the most tastelessly lame marketing move in the history of tastelessly lame marketing moves.
So, say what you will about Gene Simmons, he is slimy, brilliant, shameless, hokey, flamboyant, cheesy, innovative, and a butterfly flapping his wings in my distant past.
* Is it just me, or does Gene’s son look like Paul Stanley?
** Finding out before we went to press that the October, 1996 issue was going to be our last, I put another of my all-time favorite bands on the cover: the mighty Godflesh.