“You know,” mutters Gene Simmons, “giving birth was a long time coming, as they say.”
Gene Simmons did not really give birth, of course. Gene Simmons is a man—a fact he takes great pains to highlight throughout our conversation. He is also, as the frontman of KISS, a musical icon whose relentless branding has earned him praise and condemnation.
The “birth” the 68-year-old rocker is referring to is The Vault, a mammoth box set consisting of 150 unreleased songs spread out over 10 CDs. It spans his entire musical career, from 1966-2016, and includes the first song he ever wrote at the tender age of 14. There are tracks co-written with Bob Dylan, tracks with Van Halen (a band he discovered), Joe Perry, and a slew of other luminaries. The Vault is also a literal 38-pound safe that comes with a $2,000 price tag. For $50,000, Simmons will hand-deliver the Vault to your home; for $25,000, you get exclusive studio time with Simmons, a credit, and access to additional unreleased recordings.
In addition to his brazen business sense and abnormally large tongue, the Israeli-American formerly known as Chaim Witz stands out as a rare conservative in the very liberal music industry.
We are seated together on a purple couch on the floor of Electric Lady Studios, a famous recording hub in New York City’s Greenwich Village built by Jimi Hendrix, where legends like Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Prince—and yes, KISS—have all recorded.
And Simmons is, shall we say, in rare form. By the end of our hour-plus talk, he is a teary-eyed mess.
Here’s how he got there.
It must be pretty cool to come into Electric Lady and see KISS’ Destroyer hanging on the wall next to classic albums by the likes of David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix.
Patti Smith doesn’t belong there.
Why do you say that?
The people decide everything. Big, huge, stadium-filling artists, platinum records. I mean, it’s nice when, I dunno, you’re a cult small-audience thing. But either the people decide or they don’t. So if you haven’t reached the heights… It’s like the Olympics, where the gold record winners are on top, and the ones who aren’t don’t belong on top. They’re lower. And it’s not a personal opinion. The people have spoken. When the people who get elected get up there, then the people who don’t are off to the side.
I was going to say, it sounded like you were talking about the presidential election.
In reality, either the people decide or a few critics and the intelligentsia say “I think that’s great,” and the masses go, “Who’s that?” You have to pick your fight. So, I actually started here [at Electric Lady] singing background vocals with Paul [Stanley] on radio commercials or for other artists about forty-five, forty-six years ago. KISS has been around forty-four years. Not much has changed here, and recording studios are becoming a thing of the past. Before this place closes, I will buy it as a New York apartment. I mean, how cool would that be?
A lot of history in these walls…
…And you’re in a great part of town. Everything. But to make a long story short, with this lifetime of stuff, Superman and Clark Kent have a symbiotic relationship, but the masses only knew about Superman. They didn’t know about Clark Kent. So for a while I was thinking of calling my original box set Monster because of the sheer size of it, but then I changed it to Alter Ego because there are sides of me that people don’t know about. Everything’s a journey. Nobody starts being the pope, or Gene Simmons, or anybody else.
Has anyone taken you up on the fifty-thousand-dollar Vault package?
Oh yeah. Yesterday we already had a guy named Gino who took a private jet to come here because he wanted the “producer experience,” that cost twenty-five thousand. So he gets his name in the box set. So the simple idea behind this is that I don’t believe in retail anymore. It’s broken. Streaming is called “highway robbery.” With Spotify, the artist works his ass off and gets a fraction of one penny [per stream]. “Fuck that” is in the dictionary, and that’s my response to it. So everything is broken because the fans—the masses—have stopped paying for music, and I refuse to play that game. I like my creations too much.
So this will not be available in retail or online. This is available only in this version, two thousand dollars, and you could flip it for ten times the amount, easy. It’s thirty-eight pounds of metal hardware, and designed to last. The only place you can get it is at GeneSimmonsVault.com, and only a few thousand are being made for planet Earth. And the shortcut is, if you get your vault and you live in New Zealand or Finland, I will get in my plane—at my cost—and I’ll fly and hand-deliver the vault to you. I’m taking a year off to do just this. When I was a kid, Elvis wasn’t going to come to my place when I bought the new record. I wanna change that. Have you seen my impression of Elvis?
Simmons leans back on the couch with his tongue out, playing dead.
You know, you once said that “rock is dead.” What did you mean by that?
Rock—in all shapes and sizes—is dead. And I’ll explain to you what I mean. I don’t mean that there isn’t a dearth of talent. There’s enormous talent out there. There’s Foo Fighters, who I love, which is an old-man band that’s been around for twenty years. What I mean is that, since 1988, when fans were introduced to all the stealing entities—including using cassettes to tape off the radio, burning CDs, and later Napster—generations of fans started being trained to not pay for music. So, let’s play a game: from 1958 to 1988, we have The Beatles, Elvis, Hendrix, Springsteen, Madonna, Michael Jackson, U2, KISS (if you want to include it), AC/DC, Metallica, the largest bands of all-time. And from 1988 until today, tell me the new Beatles? You can’t do it.
And that doesn’t mean there aren’t popular pop bands and popular rappers. But is it Elvis or The Beatles? No. If music and great stuff is in the cargo of the train and there’s a track, it can go on forever. If the people steal the tracks, even if the next train is more modern and has better stuff, it can’t get to market. Rock is dead because the fans have killed it. Not that there isn’t talent out there. There may be more talent and better musicians and writers than ever before, but there’s no structure for them to quit their day job and do it twenty-four hours a day. You know the ten-thousand-hour principle?
Gladwell. The Beatles in Hamburg. Yup.
How are you gonna pay the rent if nobody’s paying for it? Radiohead tried to do something. They gave away their album and said, “Pay whatever you want for it.” They only did it once.
I wanted to talk about you a bit as well. You’re known for the tongue, which is rather iconic. When did you discover that you had an abnormally large one?
I didn’t know anything. I was twelve years old, and I was in school. Girls made me understand it when I was in the sixth grade. I was the tallest one in class—but I never picked on anybody or do that bully stuff—and I’d sit in the back of the classroom, because the shorter kids were in the front so they could see. And the two girls in front of me would always turn around and get me in trouble, and say, “Hey Gene, do that thing you do with your tongue!” and I’d stick it out and wiggle it, and they’d giggle like turkeys being led to the slaughter. So, I’d get in trouble making the girls laugh. I had no idea what they were thinking about when I stuck my tongue out. You want me to put what? Where?! And once I understood the power—because it is sexual power—then I understood that I didn’t have to be the best-looking guy or the smartest, but that they would all succumb to my will.
Have you ever received an interesting sexual proposition, as far as the tongue goes?
Quite a few. Quite a few through the ages whose names shall remain a secret. But you’d know their names. You know, you’re in a party and somebody you know… at least in one instance, a foreign prime minister’s wife at an event. And some men as well. The gay community has been rather curious.
A foreign prime minister’s wife, you say?
Oh yeah. At least one. And there was also a… I don’t want to get too much into it.
The rumor that you had a cow’s tongue grafted onto yours is a pretty great rumor.
That was a good one, them thinking that it was a cow’s tongue. But it’s not so much that it’s a little bit longer than you ever hoped for or dreamed of, but that it has a spin and dry cycle, and can whip up a good goddamn froth. It is flexible beyond what I’ve seen people do. So, the floor is dirty so I won’t stick it out the full length, but I’ll show you just the tip. You ready?
I think I’m ready.
Simmons proceeds to slowly push his tongue out of his mouth, before rapidly spinning it around. I am speechless.
I’m the king… but for me, with this Vault, this is the closest I can come to giving birth, because this is my baby. This is the one and only child I’m going to have, which is why it’s the largest one of all-time. I’m going to try to explain this in emotional terms so you can get it. You’re probably like, what do you care? You’ve got money and stuff. Imagine you’re going on a journey to the Grand Canyon, and you’ve got the limos and the peeled grapes and all that stuff, but you’re back there all by yourself. And the entire journey, only you perceive. And you notice how my hand doesn’t shake? That’s called no booze or cigarettes. How’s my hand at sixty-eight years old?
Simmons extends his hand out for a good seven seconds. It remains steady.
Pretty steady hands. But no drugs or booze… ever? You must have been tempted.
Never. Because my mother was fourteen years of age in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, and she had a horrible life, and if she gave me birth and carried me for eight months and raised me and tutored me and all that stuff, then how dare I disappoint her. I know who I am, and I know my ethical and moral insides.
But let me finish my tirade before I get too ti-red. See what I did there? So you’re going on your journey, and you get to the Grand Canyon, and you finally get to Mecca, as it were, and you can’t believe what you’re experiencing. But there’s nobody there except you. Then you go back home, and you’re on your deathbed. It’s lonely at the top when you can’t share it with anybody. So, before this is over—and I’m not going anywhere, we’re touring and I’m in great shape though nothing’s going to last forever. But I saw [Paul] McCartney yesterday. Why is he still touring?
Because he loves doing it.
It’s not that! It’s the idea of connecting with the fans, and getting your heart pumped up with energy that doesn’t come in a can at the grocery store. We’re social animals. We want that emotional connection. I mean, it’s not love, but it is a form of love. And it gives life meaning. Your children gives life meaning. And your beloved—whether it’s your wife or girlfriend or boyfriend—gives life meaning. And your friends give life meaning. I know it sounds corny and, Oh, you’re the guy who sticks your tongue out and throws up blood, but after that, going to sleep alone is fuckin’ miserable. So you don’t want to do that unless you can share it with anybody. So for me, the Vault is something I want to share with fans because they made me who I am.
I wanted to go back to your mother, because she seems to have had a profound effect on you.
She still does. She is my grounding force to this very day.
I’m curious if—or how—your Judaism has informed your music.
The ethics and morality of the people who gave to Earth the Ten Commandments and all that… the basic premise of “don’t steal” and “don’t kill” and stuff like that, that’s a good idea. By the way, it doesn’t say “do not kill,” it says “do not murder.” That’s a bastardization of the original Hebrew, as it went through Greek and other languages. “Do not kill?” No, that’s not right, bitch. If it’s “do not kill” then you can’t have police or soldiers that protect you.
How does it feel for you to see literal neo-Nazis marching the streets in 2017?
It’s America, and you’re allowed to do that as long as you’re not breaking the laws or hurting people. Also, I’d rather see cockroaches in my kitchen than have them hiding behind walls. I want to see the faces of the ones who define themselves as racists or neo-Nazis or whatever so I know who they are. The worst thing about hatred is when it hides and walks among you.
An interesting fact about you that I don’t think a lot of people know is that you once worked for Vogue.
I did. I was the assistant to Kate Lloyd, man Friday to the then-editor. I worked on lots of stuff. I was the assistant to the director of the Puerto Rican Interagency Council, a government-funded research and demonstration project. I taught sixth grade in ’71 in Spanish Harlem By ’72, I was working at Vogue—and before that Glamour—and did any number of other jobs at the same time, including the checkout counter.
You were on The Apprentice with Trump and Omarosa, who was a fellow contestant on your season. And Omarosa now holds a key cabinet position within the Trump White House. What was your impression of her? To viewers, she came off as rather unhinged.
No, she was very bright. She worked for President Bush and Al Gore, and was well-educated, knows what she’s doing, and understands her brand. She understood that on The Apprentice she was going to be Darth Vader, and Star Wars isn’t as interesting a movie without Darth Vader. And Donald Trump—who I knew before then—we spent some time together and got along great.
He seems to be a bit of a different person now than he was then. He was a Democrat back then.
Well, it’s Machiavelli and all that stuff. But you can say this about his kids: they’re bright, straight—I don’t mean sexually, but no booze, drugs or drama. They’re bright, civilized, charming people.
Based on what? That they dress well?
If you go to Beverly Hills, you’re in a pit of hell. Everybody famous has kids who behave like assholes, and are in rehab and on drugs and everything. So if I have to put up President Trump’s children against anybody’s families in Beverly Hills—except ours—you know, they’ve done a good job. It’s very impressive. So as a father, everything is great. Politically, you can either agree or disagree, but the Electoral College has spoken. He was duly elected and Republicans across the board beat the shit out of the Democrats, and the public has spoken. We the people. So I think the people who have a problem with it will get their chance next time there’s an election cycle. You draw the curtain, because the Founding Fathers were bright and understood it’s nobody’s damn business who you vote for, and go and vote your conscience next time. But the demonstrations will do nothing; it just inflames the other side. I think it’s time for everybody to stop being polarizing, and treat Americans the way that al-Qaeda and ISIS does: they make no distinctions between Democrats or Republicans; we’re all Americans.
Do you remember when Donald Trump attacked Jon Stewart for being a Jewish guy who changed his name?
Well, he did a few years back. He kept referring to him by his birth name, “Jonathan Leibowitz,” and then claimed that he wasn’t “proud of his heritage” because he changed it to Jon Stewart.
Because Jews are pragmatic. I’ve changed my name. Dress British, think Yiddish. If you have a problem with my culture, not a problem. I’m not going to change who I am. But when in Rome, do as the Romans. That’s been around a long time. I didn’t create it. I’m very happy. If I lived in the Middle East, I’d change my name to Muhammad. And that’s not being disrespectful, it’s just being aware of the predominant culture. And when Jews first came to America, it wasn’t popular to be Jewish—it still isn’t—so Jews changed their names.
Why do you think that is? I’ve though a lot about the roots of antisemitism.
Well, there’s suspicion. There’s “the great Jewish conspiracy.” There are only fourteen million Jews on planet Earth, and predominantly, the power elite is Jewish. Wall Street, Hollywood, fashion, lawyers. I know the history, and I used to teach this stuff. We weren’t allowed to have access to power, so we created the international banking system. The Rothschilds, a family, went to different countries and created the international banking system.
You’re getting into Rothschilds talk now, which is pretty shaky ground.
It is what it is. In fact, [Otto von] Bismarck wanted to go to the Rothschilds to fund his war and they wouldn’t do it, and that was one of the thorns in Hitler’s side when he decided to eradicate the Jewish bankers, because of course they’d rise up against him.
An interesting thing about Jews, which ties in to KISS a little bit as well, is that they’re a rebellious people—which lends itself to innovation.
Free thinkers. The only rule is pragmatism, which is why Jews are lawyers and doctors. And people forget that, in terms of hatred and stuff, when Martin Luther King was marching, right at the front of the line were rabbis with yarmulkes on because they know full well that, yes, it’s about freedom for black Americans, but also if you don’t stand up for the guy next to you then you’re next. And we know what that’s like because when my mother was fourteen, half of the Jewish population was wiped out. And we’ve only now rebuilt the number we had in World War II—because Jews by and large only have one or two children, because pragmatism make sense. Why the fuck would you have twelve children when you can’t afford to raise any more than two? Other cultures—how should I say this kindly—are not taking care of their ethical… this is going to piss off everybody. No, we like big families! Well, you’re stupid for having big families unless you’re rich, because your children suffer. The best thing to do if you’re not rich is to have one or two children.
I wanted to clarify something with you regarding the Trump inauguration.
I didn’t necessarily vote for President Trump or candidate Clinton—it’s really nobody’s damn business; I think you’d be surprised by my choice—but he’s President Trump, because even if you don’t like the man, you must respect the office of the presidency and the will of the Electoral College.
Back to what I was getting at. I saw an interview with your wife, Shannon, where she said KISS was invited to play the Trump inauguration but turned it down.
She’s not a fan [of Trump]. And that’s true. We were invited to perform, but in this polarizing era, it’s not a good idea.
You didn’t want to sleep on the couch?
Oh, that’s fine. I’d be happy to visit the White House.
No, I meant your wife Shannon making you sleep on the couch if you performed at the inauguration.
[Laughs] Oh no, that’s not how we work. We disagree on all sorts of things, and that’s okay. I’m sure you and your brothers and sisters disagree on everything, and you get along fine. Everyone gets the menu of life and you can order whatever you want. “What? You didn’t order spinach soufflé? How come you didn’t order the burger?” “Because I want spinach soufflé, and you take the burger.” It’s OK. It’s all on the same menu. It’s called “America.” Take what you want from it and let everybody be whoever they want. I mean, we used to argue so much we went to war against each other—the Civil War—and killed each other, because the South were wrong and they were fuckin’ racists. How about that for a statement of fact?
So you thought it was too polarizing to perform at the Trump inauguration.
Well, there’s no reason for it. I’m not sure celebrities should be used as brownie points for politicians. “Yeah, I’m running for government so I’m going to get some rock bands and performers beside me.” It’s all bullshit, really. Once you’re trying to influence people by having celebrities beside you, then it becomes who’s got the bigger celebrity and all that. And by the way, I’m not a fan of having our foreign policy decided by anybody living in Malibu. Anybody living in Malibu, their opinions aren’t worth more than the opinions of somebody living in Wisconsin.
Donald Trump lived in a golden palace in the sky and he’s the one currently deciding our foreign policy.
Well that’s right, because the people elected him. And he’s a businessman. Washington D.C. is filled with professional politicians who get elected again and again and again, and their job is to be a politician, so when somebody makes an assessment about stuff and says, “Oh, what did you do in real life?” “Oh, I was a local civil rights leader.” “So where’s your qualification for knowing about capitalism?”
Are you talking about Obama right now?
Yes, I am. And by the way, I was a big fan of his, but his resume was empty.
He was a civil rights lawyer, then constitutional law professor, then served three terms in the state Senate, then one term in the U.S. Senate.
That’s nice, but that’s academic. Do you want professors to run the country? In the real world, international and human laws are broken all the time to preserve liberty. You betcha. There are assassinations and murders and all kinds of stuff, and those happen for the greater good. Yeah, that’s right. A constitutional lawyer will argue the point and win the academic rule, but then the same guy he defended will come and kill his family. Because the bad guys don’t play by rules. And the guys that are coming off heads? Once they get caught and say, “I have the right to a trial by jury,” well, fuck you. I’m cutting off your head right now. No trial.
Let’s bring it back to KISS. I wanted to talk about your persona: “The Demon.”
A little bit of it just came out.
But it is a pretty iconic persona, and has been imitated thousands of times. How did you conceive it, makeup and all?
It was a singularity, really. We decided in early ‘73 to go downstairs in a department store and buy this clown makeup, and they had these fifteen-dollar mirrors that were long so when you leaned them against the wall you actually warp a little bit, so you look like you’re in a freak house. So, nobody can take credit for it, but we spent the afternoon like kids playing in mud putting on makeup. First the white face, then we started drawing designs on each other’s faces. Whatever happened, happened, and that became it. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and then you get called geniuses for having the forethought, but truth be told it just happened.
We did it the old-fashioned way. We got in the station wagons and went town-to-town, city-to-city like door-to-door salesmen. I miss that, because today, anyone who hums in their shower can get on American Idol and become an overnight sensation for a minute, because it never lasts because there’s no dues paid or time spent. You know, the working man’s ethic—and “working man” is correct, because the highways and infrastructure of the world was built by the hand of man. That includes the pyramids. Those were men up there, not women. Let’s get rid of this politically correct bullshit. No matter what anybody wants to tell you, it’s changing, but up until now it’s been history because women were not allowed access to power. So man literally made the world. You see this floor? Man. There was not a female that was on her hands and knees and breaking her nails to do that.
All men emerged from women.
That’s another subject. That’s, “Where did they come from?” We built civilizations and we do everything we do, yes for ourselves, but for women—our mothers and our lovers and our wives and everyone else—but the shleppers? That’s men. And continues to be. The highways of the world and skyscrapers of the world were built by the hand of man. Very few women want to be on top of a fifty-two-story skyscraper drilling rivets, but somebody’s got to do it. Did I steer this off-course?
Yes, just a little bit.
Yeah, I don’t like political correctness. I like truth. Say it for what it is. By the way, I believe that females are a higher life form than men. They understand the greater nature of things, whereas men are more primitive and prone to violence because we have a chemical called testosterone. But it is a man’s world. Women should be ruling countries, but the people that actually lift the stuff? That is man. And continues to be.
That’s… interesting. Just to tie this up, it’s been fifty years of KISS. Are there any moments for you that have really stood out where you thought, fuck, I can’t believe this is happening?
Do you want the sound bite or the real, straight-from-the-heart answer?
I’d prefer straight-from-the-heart.
I’m forever grateful to America—and the people of America—for ever giving me, my mother, and all the other legal immigrants to America—illegal is different—the time of day, much less allow me to have access to everything that native born Americans have had for generations. So, as a first-generation immigrant to America, I was given the same access to power than people who have been living here for generations have. That’s astonishing. In my mind, I would understand the idea of, “Okay, welcome to America but please understand that we’ve had generations of people who have made this country and they get to be ahead in the line, and you can go to the back of the line,” but no, anybody that comes here with a funny name and a funny look and a different religion, if you work hard, you can have access to everything. So first, I’m a teary-eyed patriot. If you put the flag up…
Simmons starts to tear up, and removes his big, dark-lensed shades for the first time.
…You see? It’s starting now. I’ll tell you a quick story. We’re in Israel, which is where I came from, and my mother was just out of the concentration camps for a few years. There was no infrastructure when I was born in 1949. A few years later, my mother decides to join her brothers in America—because it was very tough living in Israel. So, we go to the American consulate, and my mother was very attractive as a young woman, and the American guy motions for us to come to the head of the line. I don’t know what they’re talking about, but I heard my mother speak a few words in German which she had to learn in the concentration camps. The man didn’t speak Hebrew or Hungarian, and he said [in German], “Can you speak German?” and she said, “Yes, I can speak a little German.” And so he tells her, basically, that you’ve been accepted to America, and I’m just looking around confused about what’s going on. And then he says, “Okay, we need to swear you in. Raise your left hand,” and because my mother didn’t know any better, she saluted how she saw in the concentration camps, like “heil.” I looked up at the American official, and… oh boy…
Tears are now streaming down Simmons’ face.
…and he got down from his pedestal, came down to my mother, and he put her arm down, and he said, “You’ll never have to do that ever again.” I didn’t understand any of that until many, many years later. And I remember my mother, when we just landed in America, she was making thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents a week working in a sweat factory and was smiling every day and taking big breaths because nobody was trying to kill her. And we lived in a one-bedroom—my father ran out on us years earlier—and we were free.