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Kiss And Tell 

Gene Simmons discusses band's fiery history

Page 2 of 3

Even college during the riotous 1960s failed to dent Simmons' old world perspective. He played in bands, went to school, slept with whoever would have him -- and paid little heed to Vietnam, Civil Rights and the nation's social unrest.

"Every once in a while, the school would be closed, and people would be marching up and down the street," he recalls. "I never marched with them. I always wanted to go to school, because I had taken out a bank loan."

After college, Simmons returned to New York. He worked with various bands and supported his music habit as a sixth-grade teacher, typist and magazine assistant. Around the same time, he met a fellow Jewish New Yorker named Stanley Eisen. The two hit it off, and, soon, Stanley Eisen became Paul Stanley, Gene Klein (Witz's first American name) became Gene Simmons, and two flaky-but-determined recruits, Paul "Ace" Frehley and Peter Criss, rounded out the group.

Within a year, the group, christened Kiss by Stanley, had raided S&M shops for its stage gear and added Kabuki makeup, 7-inch platform heels and a fireworks cache.

Signed by TV producer Bill Aucoin, who took 25 percent of the band's future touring, recording and merchandising earnings, the band learned choreography, circus tricks (thus Simmons' trademark fire-breathing) and began dying its hair the same shade of black. By the mid-1970s, Kiss became the hottest band in the land. Through tours, constant recording (an average of two albums a year) and merchandise (Halloween costumes, trading cards, remote-control cars, lunch boxes), Kiss raked in $120 million a year by 1978.

The typical problems accompanied success. Criss left in 1979, followed by Frehley three years later. Both fell victim to drug and alcohol addictions.

At one point, Criss crashed a sports car in his garage, reduced to having the local fire department come in with the jaws of life to rescue him.

No doubt, it gives new meaning to the band's anthem, "Firehouse."

Simmons remains unforgiving. "I love Ace and Peter straight," he says. "And I hate Ace and Peter high. And I'm allowed to say that because I'm in the same family. You, likewise, would feel the same way about any family member who, you know, you can't even have a conversation with them because the chemicals just get in the way." Is it still a problem? "Yes."

The cofounders, Simmons and Stanley, remain close, principally because they watched their creation dwindle to almost nothing over a 15-year period beginning with Criss' firing.

Simmons and Stanley trudged through the Eighties without their original bandmates. They famously unmasked in 1983, shedding their makeup in a desperate reach for relevance. Aided by Stanley's MTV-friendly footwork and penchant for power ballads, Kiss became a middle-of-the-pack touring entity, a pale imitation of their 1970s incarnation.

"Instead of being leaders, we basically decided to follow," Simmons says.

The songs got worse and worse, the band lurched from one hard rock cliche to another (Def Leppard imitators on one song, Bon Jovi on another) and lost lead guitarists at an alarming rate. Between 1982 and 1985, Kiss went through four guitarists. Criss' replacement, the lovable Eric Carr, died of cancer in 1991.

By the mid-1990s, Stanley and Simmons were reduced to staging Kiss collector conventions at hotel ballrooms. These acoustic performances, combined with ample merchandise sales and autograph sessions, were, naturally, billed as a thank-you to the fans. At the time, Kiss couldn't have filled a large roadside steakhouse with paying customers. The hardest part, Simmons writes, was finding venues where expenses would be low and the band wouldn't have to worry about liability issues.

As with groupies, hotels provided the solution.

A combination of nostalgia and grunge rock's last gasps rescued Kiss from obscurity. A backer of MTV's Unplugged acoustic series, who grew up a Kiss fan, convinced the network a one-off performance might be a pop culture curiosity. Stanley, Simmons and then-members Bruce Kulick and Eric Singer agreed and, midway through the performance, brought on Frehley and Criss. The studio audience roared.

By 1996, a full reunion tour, replete with makeup and enough explosives to fill all the fireworks stands in South Carolina, roared to life. The take totaled $43.6 million in ticket sales alone.

The rules changed with the reunion. Simmons and Stanley put their former mates on straight salary, punishment for their earlier sins. A band assistant had to re-teach Frehley his guitar lines from the band's catalog. Personal trainers whipped everyone into shape and a rigorous rehearsal schedule ensued.

Simmons and Stanley, by the way, split the merchandise sales two ways rather than four.

Riding the renaissance, the souvenirs multiplied at a staggering rate. Kiss Visa cards. The Kiss Kasket, born so Kiss Army members can die with their favorite band. Coffee-table books priced at $150 each. Plus the requisite caps, patches, T-shirts and 3-D photo cards. Last year, Kiss launched its proclaimed farewell tour (two stops in Charlotte thus far). They sold $62.7 million worth of tickets. Merchandise sales equal half that, according to industry estimates. In yet another homage to dumb rock-star antics, Kiss booted Criss last fall, replacing him with -- follow this, now -- former replacement Eric Singer, this time forced to dye his hair and don Criss' signature Cat Man costume.

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