Sometime around 11 p.m. on Dec. 2, Gene Simmons will walk off stage at Madison Square Garden in New York as the final notes of “Rock and Roll All Nite” echo through the arena, remove his Demon makeup for the last time, and say goodbye to the band he formed five decades ago. It’s easy to be skeptical about this considering nearly every farewell tour in rock history has been bullshit, this is actually the second Kiss goodbye tour, and this isn’t a band known for leaving money on the table, but Simmons swears the finale is absolutely legit.
“My hand on the Bible,” he tells Rolling Stone on the phone from a hotel room in Edmonton, Alberta, the morning after a show at Rogers Place. “And I should know because my people wrote that book. In fact, my people also wrote the follow-up book, the New Testament. And so I’ll say right here, right now, my hand on the Bible, it will be the final Kiss in makeup appearance.”
It’s fitting that Kiss are ending their storied run at Madison Square Garden: They first put the makeup on 50 years ago at a rehearsal hall ten blocks south of the arena. It took the band just four years to move from tiny clubs to theaters to the Garden. They were back in smaller venues during some lean years in the Eighties when they toured without makeup, but the decision to paint their faces once more and reunite the classic lineup in 1996 revitalized the brand, and kept them in arenas even after Simmons and Paul Stanley yet again parted ways with drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley shortly after the turn of the millennium. Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer have since replaced them on drums and guitar, respectively.
The final concert is completely sold-out (there’s just scattered seats for the penultimate show at Madison Square Garden a night earlier), but this being Kiss, the group is offering fans the chance to purchase the last show via pay-per-view. We asked Simmons about the possibility of special guests, including Criss and Frehley, the importance of MSG in the band’s history, and his post-Kiss plans. As always, he had much to say.
How is the tour going?
Great. We played last night in Edmonton, and we’ve doing one-nighters as opposed to staying in one city and doing two or three shows. We’re trying to cover as much ground as we can. It’s really all about the fans since if you stay in one city, people a thousand miles away can’t see you. And so we’ve been doing these one-nighters, bang, bang, bang, bang, as many as we can. By the time we’re done, we will have done something like 300-plus cities.
How are you doing physically after all that?
Terrific. It helps if you never got high, and never smoked, and never been drunk. Your body reacts to the fuel you put into it. And if you mix a little sand with the fuel that goes into the car, that’s not going to work well. So we’re very lucky, because not by design, not by planning, but literally everybody in the band is what they call straight-edge. Literally, nobody even smoked cigarettes, nobody drinks, and without question, nobody’s allowed to get high.
Of course. Moving on to…
Wait. What do you mean “of course?” With rock bands?
I meant that you’re famous for never drinking or smoking. You’ve been very vocal about that.
Well, it’s less about us. There’s a professional and very emotional duty we have. It’s not only fiduciary, but also an emotional duty to the fans. They are our bosses. They made our wonderful lives possible. What an insult, to have some bum get up on stage and think he can deliver the goods, and be high as a kite.
Let’s dive into some Kiss history here. In your early days, when the band moved from The Daisy to the Academy of Music and the Beacon Theater, did you always think in the back of your head about playing Madison Square Garden?
Sure. It happened, actually, very quickly. In fact, we played New Year’s Eve, 1973 to ’74, fourth on the bill at the Academy of Music, which was a 3,000-seater. It was Blue Oyster Cult, then Iggy Pop, then a local band called Teenage Lust, that didn’t have an album, and Kiss, that nobody ever heard of. And of course, my hair caught fire, and it wound up being on the cover of Melody Maker in England. The news traveled fast. And our first record wasn’t even coming out for another month.
Within a year and a half, we were headlining Anaheim Stadium above bands that had been around 10 or 20 years before us. This was before even voicemail. There was no digital. Clark Kent still had to go into a phone booth to change into Superman. Young people have no idea what a phone booth is now. Even transistor radios were just coming into vogue.
I just went back and read the New York Times review of the band’s first Garden show in 1977. It was absolutely brutal. John Rockwell said you looked like a “diabolical armadillo.” He said the show was a “safely sanitized image of the sort of glittery outrageousness that was so popular with the American heartland among more vanguard bands three and four years ago.” He ended by calling it “shallow” and predicted that “fans will catch on to that shallowness soon.”
I recall that first Rolling Stone article about Led Zeppelin. The reference was “Limp Blimp.”
How did you process mainstream press reviews like that back then?
It never meant anything. If you check around, critics are really an unnecessary life form on the face of the planet. Here’s what I mean. And it’s not a childish bitch slap or anything like that. If critics cease to be, would life on earth be any different? If police, or firemen, or teachers cease to be, that would be a big impact on the planet.
The final Kiss show with Eric Carr took place at the Garden in 1990. [Carr died a year later.] What do you recall about that night?
Well, Eric Carr, bless him, was one of the pure souls, never said anything bad about anybody, was a multi-instrumentalist, could play piano, keyboards, guitar. And he actually played bass on a Kiss track, and he could write songs, and he could sing. He was also a hell of a drummer.
He used to clean stoves in Yonkers. He’d go in there, and he’d be the guy who’d stick his head into the stove, and clean it up so your stove would work. And he went from that to auditioning with us, and all of a sudden going around the world. And for Eric being back home, Caravello was his original name, the source of pride, the smile on his face when his whole family came to see him, from being a stove cleaner to Madison Square Garden, come on.
How are you doing mentally, knowing that this tour is coming to an end in a few weeks?
When I was a kid going to school, my nickname was Mr. Spock. I’ve never been much for emotion and stuff like that. I remember my Uncle George, who I loved dearly. I remember standing over his grave, and being sad, but I didn’t cry. Tears don’t come easy for me.
But the few times they have is when I look out at the audience and I see a 50-plus-year-old fan who’s been with us ever since he was a kid, wearing Kiss makeup. And next to him is his late 20s/early 30s-year-old son wearing makeup, and sitting on the shoulder of his son is his grandson, five-year-old, six-year-old, whatever, wearing our makeup. And that little kid putting up my hand gesture, with the two horns and the thumb out, which actually in sign language means “I love you,” and sticking his tongue out for the first time. Well, that gets me going every time.
The last show is being broadcast on pay-per-view. Are there any talks of possible special guests?
As you can imagine, we’ve had all kinds of calls by everybody of note, you’d recognize all their names, who want to jump up on stage. And so far we’ve said, “No.”
Because when you have other artists jump up on stage, you’re showing off. You’re saying, look, “Garth Brooks grew up with our music.” In fact, he recorded “Hard Luck Woman” with us for the Kiss tribute album. “And look, there’s Lenny Kravitz. And look, there’s the Nirvana guys, and Dave Grohl, and the Metallica guys,” on, and on, and on.
It’s not about us. It strangely enough never has been about us. It took me years to understand that because when you’re putting on these big pyro-filled shows, and this is the best show we’ve ever done, you’ll see. It’s jaw-droppingly good and cost a lot of money. We’re adding a million bucks just to the last show, just to give the fans an extra oomph, and self-aggrandizement. And it appeals to the ego. But when you really think about it, it really is all for the fans, isn’t it?
How many boxers have stayed in the ring too long? How many bands have stayed on stage too long? Some of them are still around. You want to go out while you’re on top. And remember, we introduce ourselves with, “You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest mofo band on the planet, Kiss.” At some point, those words are not going to mean very much, when I’m in my rocket-propelled wheelchair with a hot nurse pushing me around.
Are you willing to make a Shermanesque statement that this is really it?
Yes. This is it. Hand to Bible. It has nothing to do with ticket sales or anything. It has to do with Mother Nature. And at a certain point, you have to understand that it’s going to be a point of diminishing returns because of the kind of band we are. I wear seven-inch platform dragon boots, each weighs as much as a light bowling ball, armor, studs, leather, all that stuff, and that weighs about 40 pounds in total. And I got to spit fire, and fly through the air, and all that, and you got to do it for two hours.
Is there a possibility of a one-off show in the future or a festival appearance or something? Is this the final Kiss concert ever?
Yes. Having that, Paul has his Soul Station band. I’m sure he’d love to play some shows. I’ve got the Gene Simmons Band. At some point, I may want to jump up on stage and do some tunes. But the physicality of being in Kiss says that this is the right thing, at the right place, at the right time. Because B.B. King played until his late 80s. He was sitting on stage. We can’t do that. We don’t sit down.
Is there a possibility of a new Kiss record or are you done as a recording unit too?
It doesn’t appeal to us. And the thing that ruined it is streaming and downloading. Kiss is not a charity. We give to charity. We’re very philanthropic. And we’ve, over the years, given millions and millions to all sorts of charities, myself included… But Kiss is actually a band that gets paid for its services, just like all honest ventures. It’s not a hippie San Francisco band.
But you’re saying you might tour solo in the future?
Yes, that would appeal to me, as long as you don’t have to bring a show. In fact, the Gene Simmons Band has toured before, headlined a few festivals, and halls, and all that. I literally bring nothing except my bass, and my backup guys just bring their guitars. The promoter rents everything locally, and that’s it. No roadies, no nothing, like Chuck Berry used to do. He brings his guitar, he gets up on stage, there’s an amp waiting for him and a sound system. And, you know, you have fun.
The fans loved that solo show you did with former Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick earlier this year. Are you open to playing more shows with him in the future?
Why not? I took Ace out when I went to Australia a few years ago. I said, “Use my backup band. They’ll learn your songs, and get up on stage, and have fun. You don’t have to worry about roadies, or amps, or anything.”
You briefly reconciled with Vinnie Vincent a few years ago and did a few songs with him. It got a little ugly after that. Is that bridge burned forever?
Look, I’ve said many times that he’s a talented guy, always has been. He could write songs, he could sing, hell of a guitar player…I’ve got to watch my words in these litigious times. But he’s already sued us, and lost badly, 14 times, including having one of his lawyers disbarred. Then he hired him again. Just crazy stuff. Not anybody I would like to be around anymore.
And to this day, Vinnie Vincent has never signed his employment contract with Kiss, no matter how many times he said he would. So we couldn’t insure the band because he never signed. “Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll do it. Let me just work on this one. Can I have a little more here? Can I have a little more of that?” And finally, we just let him go.
There’s been talk of a future version of Kiss with all new musicians. Do you really think that might happen?
I’m totally open to that idea. Why not pass the baton, pass the crown to four new, young people who are deserving?
Many bands are selling their publishing these days. Some even sell the trademark, their catalog, and even their likeness. Are you open to that for Kiss one day?
How much do you have in mind?
Not from me. From someone with very deep pockets.
Just open to a discussion. We’re not incentivized. We’ve made, thank God, a very good living. And what can I say? I’m the luckiest guy who ever walked the planet.
If you did ever sell, wouldn’t it be weird that someone other than you would be calling the shots?
Even if that happened, nobody else will ever call the shots. This is our baby.
I don’t quite get what you mean. If you sold it, wouldn’t the buyer call the shots?
You mean the terms of the deal would mean you’re technically still in charge?
You have to. You let your kid drive your car, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to get into an accident. Nobody else will take hold of that wheel.
I’ve seen some really amazing, innovative rock bands play clubs over the past few years. Some of them just blow my mind. Almost none of them ever make it out of clubs though. Why is that? Why does there seem to be a ceiling for rock bands now that didn’t used to be there?
Well, it was never called just “music.” It was always called “music business.” And there’s the romance part of it, which is the art of it, writing songs, and rehearsing, and getting the right guys, the chemistry, and all. It’s hard. It’s hard to get the right band. And there’s the 10,000 hour principle, the more time you devote to something, the better you get.
Right. But back in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, many rock bands put in those 10,000 hours and it paid off for them. You don’t see that today.
You’re missing the business part of it, which is our best friends were the record companies. If you got signed, they gave you money, lots of it. And you’d never have to pay it back, even if the album was a bomb. They promoted you, took out full page ads in Rolling Stone and everything else. The record companies paid for it. They gave you tour support. They put posters up all over the place, and people actually bought your music with money. All that’s gone. No more record deals. Fans can download your stuff for 100th of one penny, so you can’t quit your day job. So you get what you pay for.
We have a band that’s opening for us here in Canada. They’re fantastic. Two guys. No tapes. They’re called Crown Lands. You should check them out. They will never have the chance that we did.
Tell me your plans for next year now that the band is over?
Well, I’m a founding partner of Rock and Brews. We have restaurants across America, including two at Los Angeles Airport. We also have Rock and Brews casinos. I have a film company called Simmons/Hamilton. Two of our pictures are filming right now in New Zealand. One is called Deep Water with Sir Ben Kingsley and Aaron Eckhart, directed by Renny Harlin, who directed one of the Die Hard movies. And we have another one with the great Laurence Fishburne and Bella Thorne, real thriller. And they’re both solid scripts. More coming.
I also have MoneyBag Vodka. That’s growing by leaps and bounds, and MoneyBag Soda. We have five flavors. They’re across the country. There are all fun things, but there’s nothing like being on stage. Come on.
Speaking of that, a lot of fans are hoping Ace and Peter make it onto that stage for the last show. Do you get why so many fans are hoping to see that moment?
I personally have asked Ace and Peter more than once. The answer was no.
Is there still a chance?
I doubt it. They don’t want to. We can only lead the horse to water. And the door is open. But you can’t wear the makeup. You gave up that right when you were let go of the band three different times. Who gets more than one chance? And it’s sad. I don’t know how else to put it, but there’s no question that Kiss would not have happened without Ace and Peter at the beginning. But I’m fairly convinced that Kiss wouldn’t have lasted with Ace and Peter. Not everybody has the DNA to run marathons. It’s hard being in a band. Marriages break up. Lennon and McCartney turned on each other. Jagger, Richards turned on each other. It’s hard.
Is that door going to be open to them up until the last minute if they decide they want to take part in the show?
They will always be a part of the Kiss family. But how often do you see Aunt Magda, who’s part of the family? When was the last time you went to your aunt’s house for Thanksgiving dinner even though she’s part of the family?