She wants me,”says Gene Simmons matter-of-factly.
Tightly gripping the steering wheel of his Range Rover with fingernails covered with black nail polish, Simmons — the 42-year-old bass player and co-founding member of Kiss — nods toward a red Corvette in the next lane. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting Simmons, whose thick, Frankenstein-monster body is crammed into skintight black leather pants, biker boots, and a skull-and-crossbones T-shirt. His surly mug is dotted with a goatee, and his long, coarse dark hair is in a ponytail — if Satan had a motorcycle gang, its members would look like this.
The Corvette zips into another lane; the inattentive female driver doesn’t even look over. Simmons is not fazed. ”Yeah,” he mutters with a half-smile, staring at the car as it shoots off into the distance. ”You want me.”
Plowing on down the San Diego Freeway toward Carson, a suburb about 20 miles south of L.A. where Kiss will be filming a video for its just-released 20th album, Revenge, Simmons turns to more serious matters. ”I never went for drugs or booze,” he intones. ”Someone told me your d— stays limp when you’re drunk. I thought, ‘What a horrible thing!’ Power, fame, wealth, women — that appealed to me.”
Simmons turns onto an exit ramp and, at a stoplight, flips through a stack of new Kiss T-shirt designs. Most of them are pretty cheesy, and Simmons grunts disapprovingly. Then he stops at one — a naked woman astride a warhead emblazoned with the Kiss logo. He grabs his cellular phone and punches in his manager’s number. ”I like the idea,” Simmons tells him, ”but the drawing blows. Let’s get a new art director.”
That problem solved, Simmons hits the road again. ”When I was a kid, 30 seemed ancient,” he says. ”You didn’t get to do any of the fun stuff, like play basketball and eat ice cream. But in this business, you can be a kid forever, as long as you fight to hold onto the lifestyle. And if that means wearing black nail polish,” he shrugs, ”then that’s what it is.”
Twenty years after Simmons and aspiring New York rocker Paul Stanley decided to form a band, Kiss still has not grown up. It has, however, become one of the most enduring — and least respected — acts in rock history. Its label, PolyGram, estimates Kiss has sold 70 million albums worldwide. Branches of the Kiss Army, its fan club, can be found from the U.S. to Argentina to Norway. There are Kiss tribute bands and Kiss conventions. Whether or not anyone wants to admit it, Kiss has become an institution, which says something — something just a little bit frightening, perhaps — about our culture.
In the decadent ’70s, the members of Kiss hid their faces with makeup and cranked out hard rock that was loud and boorish (”Rock and Roll All Nite,” ”Strutter,” ”Shout It Out Loud,” ”Love Gun,” the proto-power ballad ”Beth”). They introduced a generation of pent-up, pimply adolescents to booze, babes, and Kiss belt buckles. Critics dismissed them and their live shows — extravaganzas of exploding smoke bombs and Simmons’ blood-spewing, fire-breathing antics — but that only seemed to make the band more popular. Kiss gave people what they wanted in more ways than one. Pioneers of all-out, blatant merchandising, they littered stores with Kiss sleeping bags, comic books, dolls, trading cards, makeup kits, linens, radios, and on and on. By 1980, the group was netting $100 million a year. The members of Kiss were the original New Kids on the Block, albeit ones who wanted to molest your sister.
Once the ’70s were over, Kiss seemed headed for the rock landfill. Punk and new wave made its members look like dinosaurs; record sales slumped. In 1983 they wiped off their makeup but didn’t change much of anything else. Other middle-aged rockers, like Sting and Don Henley, opted for a respectable country-gentleman image. Not Kiss. If you flicked on MTV during the ’80s, there was a good chance you would see Simmons, Stanley, and whomever else was in the band lip-synching to loud, dumb hard rock and wearing black leather. (Original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss are long gone, having been ”voted out” of the band, according to Stanley; the band’s current new bloods are lead guitarist Bruce Kulick, who is 38, and drummer Eric Singer, 34.)