Growing up, I can’t really remember a world without the “greatest band in the world”—KISS! They were at the height of their career about the time I was old enough to allocate every penny of my allowance toward procuring as many records (we didn’t call it “vinyl” back then) and memorabilia as my tiny bedroom could hold.
I had the “Spirit of ’76” poster with the guys loosely costumed as Revolutionary War soldiers on top of their existing band-themed make-up. I had the limited edition Love Gun record with the souvenir cardboard pop-gun enclosed. And, I had the comic books printed in ink guaranteed to contain actual drops of the band member’s blood. My only regret—not joining the KISS Army ($5 was a lot of dough back then).
Just like with the Beatles, everyone had their favorite band member. And there was many an elementary-school recess period spent arguing the finer points of why Ace Frehley kicks Paul Stanley’s ass. Nobody really liked Peter Criss and proclaiming Gene Simmons as your number one was like saying you prefer a Ferrari to a Plymouth. Duh.
Gene embodied the mystery of KISS. And whether you believed they named the band as an acronym of “Knights In Satan’s Service” or after the lip service of the literally thousands of ladies Gene is said to have conquered (with Polaroid proof), there was definitely a cool factor in everything about KISS, especially when you’re 10 years old. Looking back nowadays, I realize the “God of Thunder” actually bestowed more upon my impressionable mind than I ever imagined.
Gene Simmons taught me that spitting up blood and blowing fire is dangerous, but doable. He taught me that you don’t have to write a good song, or even be able to play an instrument to be a rock star. And, he taught me that wearing make-up and platform boots wasn’t just for the ladies.
He taught me that no matter how much you lack in actual talent, you can more than make up for in shameless self-promotion. A scary costume, glitzy showmanship and an intriguing character backstory can nicely overshadow one-note bass lines and inane lyrics.
Recently, I casually watched a KISS concert on television (something I would’ve given my left nut to do in person 35 years ago). During the ten minutes of the show I could stomach, Gene performed his infamous bass solo during which he conjures up from the depths of his being “actual” blood (fabled to be from a hole in his heart, if I remember correctly) which flows from his mouth down his chin and over the top of his guitar as he plucks one, ominous low bass note over and over. When you’re 10 years old, who cares about the solo? He regurgitated blood from a hole in his heart! Cool!
Now that I’m as old as he was when I thought he was God, I understand that Gene (I believe I’ve purchased the right to just call him Gene) is just a guy like you and me. He’s a lover, a father and an unapologetic businessman.
KISS’s Wikipedia page clearly outlines the band made four times as much money during the height of their career (’76-’80) on merchandising than on music royalties. Milking everything he could out of kids like me kept Gene going. And we bought the lunch boxes, action figures, posters, patches, comic books and other crap because Gene made it cool to like KISS. And now with a reality show about his current day-to-day, he’s making it cool for us kids who are now middle-aged to still like KISS.