Questions for Gen Simmons
By John Glassie
(Portions of this interview were published in The New York Times Magazine, December 2, 2001.)
Q. I assume you didn't emerge from the womb in demon make-up and six-inch platforms. What was your childhood like?
A. I was born in Haifa, Israel. My mother and father were Hungarian Jews. My mother had been through the horrors of the German concentration camps. I never saw a television set, a Kleenex tissue, or toilet paper for that matter. But my childhood was actually pretty wonderful. My two toys were a long stick -- a kind of a Moses staff that I liked -- and a rock! And I would catch these huge scarabs, big beetles, and tie thread around the neck of the scarab and let it buzz around my head. And when other friends would come over I would pop the scarab in my mouth, just so I could gross them out. I suppose not much has changed.
Q. I imagine your background surprises a lot of people.
A. I don't have an agenda. It's not important for me that everyone knows I'm Israeli or Jewish. I didn't think I had to get up on stage and say: "Ladies and gentlemen, before we begin this concert, before I stick my tongue out and start throwing up blood, I just wanted you to know I wear a yarmulke."
Q. Does Judaism play a role in your life today?
A. In America, my mother put me into Yeshiva, a Jewish theological seminary, to get me off the streets. And I started heavily studying the old testament. I made peace with my Jewishness, which is to say that it has less to do with God and more to do a religion that doesn't knock on your neighbor's door and try to sell you a bill of goods. I do think there are lots of good things about all religions. But a lot of things I find faulty as practiced by man. I think God shouldn't care whether we believe in God or not. Unless there's a self-esteem problem.
Q. Okay, well, let's go back to your childhood. What influence did it have on the rock star you became?
A. I think it had less to do with where I came from and more to do with my mother, who had an abiding trust in the goodness of humanity, somehow. Her entire family was killed in Nazi concentration camps. Her mother was killed in front of her. But she held her head high, and kept instilling in me the notion that the sky is the limit. She instilled the notion that you've been given life and every day above ground is a good day.
Q. When did you move to the States and what was it like for you?
A. By the time I was about eight and a half, my mother decided it was time to leave Israel. Coming to America really was an Alice in Wonderland experience. It was difficult to shut my eyes because every thing I saw was brand new. I didn't understand anything, much less what
people were saying to me. I remember seeing a poster of Santa Claus smoking Kent cigarettes. I'd never heard of Christ or Christmas or anything like that, and so I figured: there's a rabbi, he's having a cigarette. And someone tried to explain to me about Christmas -- but that Santa Claus is really not about the religion, and there's this guy whose name is Jesus Christ and he was Jewish, but Jews don't worship him, but everybody else does, and there there's his mother who has super hero powers but there's his father on earth who really isn't his father. And I was just: "You guys are out of your mind." But America has been a hoot every day. I still see America as the promised land.
Q. Well, you seem to have assimilated. You were born Chaim Witz?
A. I was born Chaim Witz. I became Gene Witz for short time when I came to America and then I became Gene Klein because I took on my mother's maiden name. And then I became Gene Simmons in my early twenties, when I decided: Okay, now I'm Gene Simmons. Pretty much like that.
Q. What was your vision for KISS when you formed the band?
A. Music was never the point. I believe that music and inspiration and creativity are all way overblown and overemphasized and overvalued. Everybody who is in the "arts" likes to emphasize the romantic because it makes good copy. If you're in the arts for a paycheck, that's supposed to be pathetic. The guy who works and digs the ditch for money is noble, but if an artist wants to get rich and famous, than that's pathetic. Well, I don't believe a word of it. I have a little bit of advice for all the new rock stars and all the new artists. If you're uncomfortable and queasy about all the money you've made, here's the answer: Sit down and write a check to Gene Simmons for your entire net worth.
Q. Music "was never the point." Aren't you going to upset some fans?
A. No, I just think art should be the name of a guy. I mean, yeah we write tunes, and I enjoy it. But that doesn't’ mean it's earth shaking, that doesn't mean it's going to change the world. And it's not supposed to. It's supposed to take you away from your world. Millions of people bought our records, but do I think it means that I'm this great writer and we're these great artists? No.
Q. In the past, you've mentioned the moment you saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Was that a source of inspiration?
A. It wasn't inspiration, it was a how-to, a paint-by-numbers. This is how you get the girls. Here's how to get the guys to think you're cool. And here's how to avoid working for a living.
Q. There wasn't more to it?
A. I was attracted to the idea that you didn't have to be any one kind of person. I was always attracted to the outcasts, because when I first came to America, I was an outcast. The thing about the Beatles was that they didn't look like anybody else. They talked funny, they looked like girls and their jackets didn't have collars. And yet people still loved them. That appealed to me a lot. So when I put the band together with Paul Stanley, on a subconscious level we wanted to be the Beatles on steroids. Ironically, we're right behind the Beatles in the number of gold records by any group in history.
Q. Of course, you haven't quite had the same critical acclaim that the Beatles had.
A. But that's the great notion of America that appeals to me: of the people, for the people, by the people. You can buy, let's say, "Food Cuisine" magazine, which is supposed to tell you what's good to eat. But you know what we eat? We, the people of the United States, we like hamburgers. People vote for KISS with money! Try to argue with that. When we come off tour 158 million dollars later and someone tells me it sucks, I'm going, "Well, why did I make all this money?"
Q. They vote on KISS products and merchandise, too, don't they?
A. As for no other musical unit in history. We have 2,500 licenses -- everything from the KISS coffin, which doubles as a KISS cooler, to KISS condoms. I'm starting some stuff outside of KISS, too. There's going to be Gene Simmons Tongue magazine. We'll have, you know, a beautiful girl on the cover, but she's got to stick her tongue out.
Q. So what's your response to the charge that you've sold out?
A. Of course! Every time we play a concert we sell out! I want to sell out every day.
Q. No scruples whatsoever?
A. No, of course I do have scruples. I wouldn't promote booze. I don't smoke or drink. I've never been high in my life, I've never been drunk in my life. A major cigarette company came to us and offered us millions to put their name next to ours, and there is not enough money in the world to get me to help people get hooked on that crap. On the other hand, do I love Pepsi-cola? Sure! Don't you? So if you're going to drink the stuff, don't you want them to give you millions of dollars? Art is highly overrated. Michelangelo, Mozart, Rembrant, they were all on commission.
Q. KISS is in the midst of a three-year Farewell Tour. What do you think the band's larger legacy is?
A. You know, America has given me everything I've ever dreamed of and more. And what it all means is sort of beside the point. Meaning is highly overrated. If people like what we do, that's enough. I don't know what a hamburger means. But it makes life worth living.
Q. All right. Any comments you'd like to make about your tongue?
A. It's no different than a girl with big breasts or bright lips. It's sexual power. It's good to have control of what's around us, and that includes people, too.
Q. Which brings up your sex life.
A. So far, for the record, no farm animals.
Q. Thank you. You say you've slept with more than 4,600 woman. Over 30 years, that's 2.9 a week. Does that seem about right to you?
A. Yeah. That's not a lot. No. I've heard about Wilt Chamberlain and 20,000 woman and, you know, that's a lie. Because if you just do the numbers: One a day, seven days a week, you've got about 350 a year, times ten years, that's 3500. Well, to get to 20,000, you've got to go 60 or 70 years. I don't know how you do that. But it really has never been anything more than this: I've had just a wonderful life. I'm not doing anything anybody else isn't doing or would want to do.
Q. Relative to all this, have you given any thought to ethics and morality?
A. Of course, of course. I believe ethics and morality begins and ends with complete honesty. The good the bad and the ugly. The most important thing I've ever done with any liaison I've had is to be completely honest. “I find you very attractive. I'm glad you're here. And let's enjoy life. And please tell your sister I'm glad she's here, too.” Women are owed the God's honest truth -- and kindness, everybody wants kindness.
Q. Would you say you're living every man's fantasy, or do you think that, perhaps, with respect to women, you have issues?
A. I think I've got the best of all possible worlds. I've lived with Shannon Tweed, who is wonderful, for 18 years, and we have had two children together. We've never been married. I think the best thing everybody owes everybody, men and women, is to be honest. The first thing I did when I met Shannon was, I took out my big folios with pictures of all the girls and showed them to her. Why not?
Q. You've taken photos of these women?
A. Oh, yes. I keep them in huge portfolios, they're like three feet long by three feet wide and they have handles.
Q. Why did you start doing that?
A. The funny answer is that I'm like a tourist. If I've been there, I want to take a photo. The serious answer is that somehow I'm trying to hold on to my mortality. At the end of your life what have you've got except memories? That's it. And then poof. You know, we're all just passing through. You really do have to be selfish. You really can't love anybody else unless you're Goddamn in love with yourself. Be delusional. Be really delusional. Consciously, I know I'm not the best looking guy in the world, but when I walk into a room I'm so convinced I'm good-looking that I *will* go home with your girlfriend.
Q. Is it "delusional" or "arrogant"?
A. I don't know what "arrogant" means except that those who aren't self confident are jealous. That's what arrogance means. The person who says "He's arrogant!" means he doesn't have the balls to be as ballsy as that guy. Just because you have a self esteem problem, why is that my fault?
Q. Okay, can you sum up what it's like to be Gene Simmons?
A. Oh, I love it! When I grow up I want to be Gene Simmons. I don't want to grow up to be Elvis, because then I'd be fat, naked and dead on a bathroom floor in Vegas. I'd like to send everybody a postcard: Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.