Kiss’ Gene Simmons Discusses Childhood, Shares His Musical Inspiration


February 23, 2008

Unlike many rock legends, Gene Simmons did not grow up in a home where music filled the halls.

“It was a quiet household,” Simmons said. “I come from a broken home. My father left us when I was 6 or 7 years old, and my mother worked from sun up until sundown, so there was never any music at home.”

Instead, he discovered rock ‘n’ roll music “naturally” by listening to the radio. Simmons said the early rock he listened to “crawled into my blood.”

Born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel, in 1949, Simmons was the only child of his mother, Florence Klein, a holocaust survivor. Simmons and his mother immigrated to the United States when he was 8 years old. They settled in Queens, N.Y., and Chaim adopted a more American-sounding name: Eugene.

Simmons attended Richmond College in New York and graduated with a degree in education. After college he had a number of positions: He was a sixth-grade teacher in New York’s Spanish Harlem, an assistant to the editor-in-chief of Glamour magazine, and a deli cashier.

In 1973, Simmons settled on his real passion. Along with his friends Peter, Paul and Ace, he formed the band Kiss.

The idea behind the band was that they would “take no prisoners.” While Simmons admits that “we didn’t quite know what that meant,” the group took on a bold bravado onstage that made it famous.

“At the beginning, this was a four-headed beast called ‘Kiss’ that had the balls to get up onstage and grab the world by the scruff of its neck and proclaim. ‘You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest band in the world,'” Simmons said. “The rally cry, the manifesto, is ‘Rock and Roll All Night and Party Every Day’ … it’s a feel-good manifesto of a party.”

Simmons’ onstage character is known as “the Demon,” which came from the documentary “Man of a Thousand Faces,” about Lon Chaney, a silent film legend.

Simmons resides in Beverly Hills, Calif., with his partner of 24 years, Shannon Tweed, and their two children. These days, the Simmons family is featured in its own A&E reality show, “Gene Simmons: Family Jewels,” now in its third season.

‘The Twist,’ Chubby Checker

Simmons’ first musical memory came from watching the “afternoon twist show” in New York City hosted by Earnest Evans.

“He used to teach all the little boys and girls how to twist, and he became Chubby Checker and he had a song ‘The Twist,'” Simmons said. “That’s when I first realized that music wasn’t just something you listened to, it was also a social tool. And I figured that one when I won ‘The Twist’ contest in PS 145.”

‘Fire,’ Jimi Hendrix

When Simmons was a teenager he was particularly impressed by Jimi Hendrix.

“When I first started hearing that guitar I just realized there was a new gun slinger in town,” Simmons said.

The first Hendrix song he heard was “Fire,” a song he said was made great by its simplicity.

“It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and of course, once I finally saw Jimi Hendrix that was the end of it. Nobody like him then, nobody since.”

‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’ Cliff Edwards

When Simmons first came to America he couldn’t speak any English. When he was young he went to see “Pinocchio,” and while he could barely understand what was going on, the music spoke to him.

“I thought the music was great, that little puppet boy, I immediately connected to [Pinocchio]. I felt like that, like some outsider,” Simmons said. “All of a sudden this little cricket, this Jimminy Cricket character that comes in like the Messiah and looks at the movie screen and starts singing ‘When you wish upon a star … your dreams come true.’ I thought he was singing to me, ‘Shhh Gene, this is from me to you.’ And I could understand the words enough that it doesn’t matter who you are, your dreams can come true … when I finally did my first solo record in 1978 … I decided to record ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ with the American Symphony Orchestra and I’ll never forget the vocals. It was a private moment. I was in the sound booth by myself and I cried like a 12-year-old kid. An experience that I’ll never forget, because this little Jimminy Cricket character [who] wasn’t real to anyone else was very real to me, and J.C. and I are friends to this very day.”

‘Running with the Devil,’ Van Halen

Simmons recalled hearing the song “Running with the Devil” by the then unsigned band known as Van Halen at a Los Angeles club. He believed that the band had talent and worked with them on their first demo.

“‘Running With the Devil’ didn’t really say anything more than, ‘I’m on my way, nothing to fear and if life is 100 miles per hour then let’s go.’ … It was a West Coast-good-time-feeling rock band ultimately at the core of it. And Roth at the time was the epitome of the frontman and nobody played guitar like Eddie van Halen, then or now.”

‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl,’ Jet

“‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ is ultimately a supreme song … and you know the riff, but it doesn’t matter where it came from. The idea is there is something about the cockiness … all the guys in the band are about 2 feet tall and about 12 years old and these little guys jumping up and down and they capture the rock ‘n’ roll feel of it,” Simmons said.

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