Demon Dreams | A Chat with Gene Simmons

“We’re working our butts off making music, then having a pimply faced kid steal it. It isn’t a charity.”

https://www.instagram.com/genesimmons/

It was a call that my 10-year-old self would never believe could happen in a million years.

The chance to interview rock icon Gene Simmons, the man whom none other than fellow legend Bob Dylan refers to as “Mr. KISS,” fell into my lap, and I was expecting a call from the Lord of the wastelands at 2 p.m., Central. Tricky demon that he is, he actually called me at 1, catching me slightly off guard.

“Hello, this is Gene,” came the familiar voice on my phone—at which point I proceeded to hang up on him, albeit totally by accident.

You see, I’ve had a lot of fun opportunities to interview rock stars, but none of them fought Doctor Doom in the pages of Marvel comics, and not one of them plays an axe that is actually shaped like an axe. As a longstanding member of the KISS Army, this one was a little bit special, and hearing him on my phone so unexpectedly threw me off my game a bit.

Mere seconds later, he called back, and I braced myself for a tongue-lashing from the most famous tongue in rock ’n’ roll. Almost immediately, I began to offer my apologies.

“Not a problem at all. Don’t even waste your breath. It’s all good,” he said.

Confident that I’m back in his good graces, we begin talking about his upcoming appearance at Wizard World St. Louis, as well as his solo show at The Pageant. The St. Louis stop is one of only five dates on this solo tour, his first.

“We show up to the venue, set up some amps, and have some fun.”

Without the makeup and bombast of a modern-day KISS extravaganza, Simmons’ current solo tour puts the focus squarely on the music. Word on the street is he’ll be robbing audiences of their virgin souls with deep cuts like “Charisma,” “See You Tonite,” and “Plaster Caster.” “We play all the hits, some obscure stuff, even some R&B songs, from people like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding,” he says. “Rock ’n’ roll came from black music, and brought us rockabilly, country, and soul. Even the Beatles covered Motown.”

The tour itself is collaboration with Wizard World Touring, and will not only feature a concert by Simmons in every city, but appearances at conventions during the day: to meet fans, take pictures, and sign autographs. Some folks are asking why Simmons would even be appearing at a Wizard World convention. Turns out, his love for comic books goes way back.

“I am a geek at heart, and KISS has been appearing in comics going back to’77 when we had our own book with Marvel. Since then, we’ve worked with Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and now our current series with Dynamite. We even have a team up with Astro-Boy coming out.”

With all this activity, I have to ask how the multi-hyphenate performer, who’s been stomping across stages for well over 40 years, finds the energy. Surely the temptation is there to plop those platform boots on the ol’ coffee table and binge watch some Luke Cage on Netflix, right? Wrong.

“People who work their asses off have no trouble sleeping. And I sleep well,” Simmons says, before reeling off a dizzying list of projects he has in the hopper—including, but not limited to, a horror film production company with WWE called Erebus Pictures, a new book called On Power to be published by Harper Collins in November, and more openings for Rock & Brews, the restaurant chain he co-owns with Paul Stanley. “You know, we just opened a Rock & Brews in St. Louis. You should check it out.” I assure him I will.

With KISS kicking off a European tour starting May 1, I ask if there’s any possibility the band will head back to the studio to record a follow-up to 2012’s Monster. “There’s less of an incentive to do another album, because downloading and file-sharing have convinced people that they don’t have to pay for music,” he explains. “We’re working our butts off, then having a pimply faced kid steal it. It isn’t a charity. We work for it. We give lots to charity, but if a plumber comes to fix your sink, you can’t just arbitrarily decide not to pay him. I worked for you; where’s my money?”

Growing up poor in Israel, he and his mother came to the United States when he was eight years old, and Simmons immediately fell in love with everything America had to offer—comic books, rock ’n’ roll, and television—and he soaked up as much of it as he possibly could. When he taught sixth grade in Spanish Harlem, though, he was reminded once again that life doesn’t necessarily treat everyone the same way.

“If you’re poor, it’s devastating. I taught mostly Puerto Rican and black families, kids who came from broken homes, no male figure, mom is a crack addict, that sort of thing,” he recalls. “I tried to get them to read Jane Eyre, and they just weren’t having it. [The characters] were white people, rosy cheeks, living in England. It didn’t work. They just couldn’t relate to it.”

Eventually, he found that comic books, specifically Spider-Man, was something they could connect to. “There were no black faces or Puerto Ricans in comics, so they couldn’t get inspired. Spider-Man was different, though. He had no mom or dad, he saw his uncle get shot, and he had trouble fitting in. He was an outsider.” Since Simmons was a bit of an outsider himself, he found he was relating to it, as well.

“My father abandoned us when I was six or seven years old. I thought if I could relate to it, the kids could too, and they loved it,” he remembers. “We ended up having these great, deep discussions about good and evil, what justice meant, all that stuff.”

Unfortunately, the school board didn’t see the value in using comic books as a gateway to reading. “I got in big trouble,” he relates, acknowledging that these days, the medium is much more respected in that regard. I mention to him that I got my kids interested in reading via comic books.

“You’re a smart man,” says the God of Thunder, before excusing himself to attend to his next interview. Mega-high-five from my 10-year-old self, in full-effect.

Sometimes even demons make dreams come true. | Jim Ousley

Meet Gene Simmons at Wizard World in St. Louis on Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8, and see him perform at The Pageant April 8. For more information, visit http://wizardworld.com/comiccon/st-louis

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