KISS has outlived most things its age (and probably more than a few cockroaches), as the rock and roll entity rolls into its 40th year. That means I’ve just entered my 36th year as a member of the KISS Army (does this make me a five-star general yet?). Of course, I’m not alone. KISS fans are as devoted (or gullible, depending on who you ask) as they come.
2014 is shaping up to be a big year for the most divisive band in the world. After 15 long years of eligibility, the four original members—Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley—are finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band is reissuing its entire catalog (complete with cardboard Love Guns and posters) on vinyl. And Stanley—the Starchild and the glue who has held things together all these years—finally penned an autobiography, making him the final of the four originals to do so.
While there are plenty of nuggets about KISS’s early daze, Stanley doesn’t belabor the sex, drugs and minutiae that most KISS fans probably know anyway (although there are points early in the book, where it feels like Stanley whizzes through rock and roll’s impact on him). Instead the Starchild digs deep into the human condition, starting with his upbringing, where his parents were going through the motions themselves and found little time for young Stanley Eisen, who was dealing with his own insecurities (he was born with only one ear, and to this day is deaf on one side).
Things get particularly interesting at the low points in KISS’s career, which force Stanley to explore his relationships—personal and intra-band—and discover what he’s truly lacking in his life. And the later years, once Stanley starts a family, deal with divorce and the beginning of a new chapter with his current wife, Erin Sutton, all while keeping the KISS machine afloat.
For Stanley and the devoted members of the KISS Army, the band’s longevity perhaps offers some validation for decades of being the underdogs. At this point KISS has been part of my life so long, it’s hard for me to even explain what it all means. All I know is, I finally got to talk to Paul-goddamn-Stanley who, ever the rock-and-roll politician, was forthcoming, articulate and funny.
: So, I rifled through the book. There’s a lot to chew on.
Paul Stanley: Well, you know, good meals should be savored and enjoyed.
: So how did you decide what to include in the book, especially which details to include about yourself and your bandmates?
Stanley: Well, anything that’s in the book could have been expounded on ad infinitum. I wanted to give a clear picture of both my circumstance and my situation, without becoming redundant. So my goal was to write a book that could inspire other people, that could let other people know that even the people who you hold in esteem or aspire to be like may have stories that are more like yours than you know. I came from a dysfunctional background. I had a birth defect that brought me under a lot of scrutiny and ridicule. I’m deaf on one side. And yet over the years I found ways, or ultimately found the way, out of it. I [believed] that success and fame and wealth would be the answer to my problems. I was fortunate enough to succeed and attain those so I could see starkly that that wasn’t the answer. I’ve always been a survivor. And I wanted to document my life in a way that my children could read at some point and understand what I had gone through and what it takes to find happiness.
: One of the themes in the book is that you say you overcame being judgmental toward people. Has it made you more sensitive to things like addiction, which your sister Julia, and obviously Peter and Ace, have dealt with?
Stanley: I think that addiction is a horrible end to, perhaps, a predisposed condition, disease or set of circumstances. The best way for people to deal with potential addiction is to get to the bottom of the issues that are fanning the flames. I’m a big believer in therapy. I’m a big believer in not sweeping anything under the rug, and confronting your issues, confronting your life and building a support group to make that possible. One of the issues and problems with addiction is that by the time people go to get help, it’s too late.
But just in general, it’s very easy to be judgmental because it makes us feel safe, and it makes us feel better than, and it makes us feel secure, when we’re really not. If we were, we wouldn’t be judgmental. Who are we to judge the person on the street who is begging, regardless of why they’re there? The disdain of looking at somebody and saying “Why don’t you get a job?”—we’ve never walked in their shoes. We don’t know what these people have been through. And, whether or not we can help them by giving them food, or a dollar, or whatever you want to give them, what’s wrong with a momentary reprieve from what they’re going through? Now, all that may sound very new age-Kahlil Gibran, but it’s true.
: The book also touches on the fact that for a good portion of your life you were kind of a lonely guy…
Stanley: [laughing] I wasn’t kind of lonely—I was lonely!
: [laughs] I was trying to be delicate with it. But as someone who’s listened to KISS most of their life, I could sort of sense that in some of your songs. You always seemed like a romantic in search of love. Do you think the book sort of solidifies what many KISS fans already knew?
Stanley: I think what it does, perhaps, is explain what some of them may think they know, and explain the reasons I am the way I am.
: You take Gene to task in the book. There are even parallels to his attitude in the early-’80s and Ace and Peter’s—that, in your words, they were delusional as far as their contributions to the band. Why do you think yours and Gene’s relationship survived that?
Stanley: That’s really interesting. I mean, I just left him 20 minutes ago. There is a respect for each other. I don’t necessarily approve of everything he does, but how something affects you has nothing to do with the other person. It’s all about how you take it in. There are things about Gene that over the years may have annoyed me, and that’s OK. There are other times certainly where he did things that I felt a betrayal, and that he was taking advantage of me. But at the end of the day, Gene and I are brothers. We’ve been together 40-plus years. I know I can count on him in any situation, and we’ve only grown closer. Certainly we’ve had our—I don’t even want to say moments—we haven’t had moments, we’ve had weeks and months. Years. At the end of the day, both of us have always been about trying to do what’s best for the band. But, look, you know, a strong relationship gets tested from time to time.
: Yeah, it’s like a marriage.
Stanley: Yeah, and perhaps the things that have tested our relationship have made us stronger. We are both blessed to have made possible the lives we both wanted, by each other. The life Gene has now is not a life I would want, and I’m sure it’s vice versa. But how fortunate we are, that we’ve come to this point, and have a future to look at. It’s phenomenal. We both started out living at home with our parents, and here we are with grown children, at a very fulfilling part of our lives. Although very different from each other.
: Both you and Gene have said that Ace and Peter are both important to the foundation of KISS. But where do you think the band would be today if they hadn’t agreed to do the reunion back in 1996? I mean, obviously, they had a lot to gain as well.
Stanley: I would have to say not where we are now. By putting it back on it allowed us to reclaim those four iconic characters and move on from there. So the reunion tour was very important. Absolutely. It was the ground on which we reclaimed our legacy.
: Do you think KISS would be still be here if it didn’t happen?
Stanley: KISS would always be around, because if it ever comes down to it, I am KISS. I don’t mean that with disregard to Gene. It ultimately means that no matter what anyone does, I covet this band and will keep it going.
: I think a lot of KISS fans understand that with no Paul Stanley, there’s no KISS. Does Gene recognize that? [Laughs] I mean, does he thank you for that?
Stanley: Oh yeah, he acknowledges it now probably more than before, because I think he’s more comfortable in his own skin. I do believe that getting married and looking at his past, seeing why he is the way he is, has made him more open to acknowledging that, which is great.
: You refer to KISS as your “life raft” in the book. Do you think if you’d found something like acting or theater during those tough times that you would have fought as hard for KISS?
Stanley: I had opportunities to pursue things, or explore things, but I always did it with deference to KISS. I always deferred to what was going on with the band. I’d never put the band on hold for what I wanted to do. I did The Phantom [of the Opera, in which Stanley took lead in the Toronto production in 1999] because we were on a break.
: On to something lighter, is there a certain KISS record that has grown on you that maybe you didn’t care for back in the day?
Stanley: No. [long pause] No, nothing has grown on me. I can only go back and go, “nope!” [laughs]
: Which leads to my next question. Has your opinion of Music From “The Elder” changed at all in 30 years?
Stanley: Not at all. I think that in some ways it was symptomatic of a bunch of guys who were clueless, who were fat—if not physically, mentally—with success, and became concerned with outside elements that shouldn’t have had any bearing. And the result was something that I believe is shallow, superficial—no matter how it purports to be conceptual or deep, I just find it lacks depth because there’s no truth in it.
: Why do you think KISS fans still gravitate toward that record?
Stanley: [laughs] Let’s be honest, not all KISS fans gravitate toward it.
: Not all, but there is a good segment out there—including myself—who like that record. I guess for me it’s well-produced, I think there are some really good songs on there, and it’s good to hear KISS doing something outside their wheelhouse.
Stanley: Well, then you answered your own question. You know, you answered it better than I could. You can do the rest of the interview. [laughs]
: [laughing] Anything you wanna ask me?
Stanley: What’s for dinner…I don’t know. I think that some people may like the Elder because they feel that it validates us as something more than just a typical rock band. Perhaps that’s part of it. And some fans may like it because it surprises them in its content. I, unfortunately, was there. And it wasn’t a pretty time. So I know it, warts and all.
: There’s more baggage for you, obviously.
Stanley: Well, sure. It’s not an album that I just put on blindly. It’s an album that I was there from its inception.
: I guess we should talk about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I know it was your intention to include everybody, and obviously the Hall did not want that. How do you think it would have logistically gone down? It gets a little tricky. I mean, you can’t expect Ace and Peter to want to perform with Tommy and Eric in their makeup.
Stanley: Well, let’s start right there. That makeup meant nothing to those guys. Those guys thought we were idiots to buy it from them. They sold it as bargaining chips. So to suddenly covet that makeup because someone else is not only wearing it, but making other people forget the other people who wore it, that’s gotta be strong medicine. So, how would it have gone down? Look, we were asking them to consider some of the members—including Eric Carr, who played on multi-platinum albums and toured with the band, and Bruce Kulick, who did the same. We were asking for something to be considered that we were told was a non-starter. Now when pencil-pushers—for lack of a better description—are telling me—who played the guitar and has been successful for 40 years—what a non-starter is, I find it more than arrogant. At least give me the consideration to talk it over. Clearly KISS is such a bitter pill for them to swallow in the first place, they wanted that pill as small as possible.
And then on top of it, they tried to strong-arm us—which is a joke—into playing with Peter and Ace in makeup and KISS gear. And that wasn’t going to happen. I never quit the band once; I never quit the band twice. When I put that gear on, I do it with confidence and pride in everything that I’ve done. And to stand the chance of jeopardizing that for the sake of this organization’s nostalgia—it wasn’t gonna happen. The best thing to do is to go there and accept the award for the fans, who—despite their ambivalence and feelings—want us to be in the Hall of Fame.
: My take on it is that I was used to the fact that KISS wasn’t in there, and that it was more a sense of pride not being in the Hall of Fame. At the same time, if there’s something called a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then KISS has to be in there.
Stanley: One would think so! So, all that being said, we should all be there to accept, and I am united with the other three guys on that night. But the differences we have, we have and will continue to have. And if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chooses to make it a night, as they have, of celebrating the original four members, that’s their choice. As far as I’m concerned, we’re celebrating 40 years of the band.
: Well, I’ll be there, too. So does it sound like the four originals will be there to accept and call it good?
Stanley: Yeah! I know two of us are going to be there, and I imagine all of us will be there. We deserve to accept the award together.
: You mention in the book that you hid behind the makeup and the personality for years. What does the Starchild mean to you in 2014?
Stanley: He’s more integrated into who I am. It’s not the Starchild, and then there’s me—he is an aspect and a part of who I am. It’s a much nicer relationship than turning into the Wolfman.
: You’ve mentioned that you see KISS going on without you and Gene. My question to you is, do you think fans will buy it?
Stanley: Of course. They may not know that they’ll buy it now, but they’ll accept it if it’s great. Look, I was included originally saying that the four original guys are the band, until people started leaving the band. Then it’s, well we’re going to continue anyway. The fans who thought it had to be the four of us are now 50 percent wrong. Well, they’ll be 75 percent or 100 percent. The truth of the matter is that the band is bigger than its individual members, and there are other people out there who can do what I do, although they’re probably not known right now. And somebody will come along who’s terrific.
: But I mean, it’s like when I see Queen performing without Freddie Mercury, I’m like “ehhh, you just can’t replace a guy like that.”
Stanley: Obviously, they haven’t found the right person that gelled with the band. So it wasn’t a band. It was somebody fronting Roger and Brian. The difference is when we go on stage now—and I just saw pictures of us playing on the last tour for 30-50-75,000 people—nobody’s holding up signs asking for former members. No disrespect to them, but the reality is that most of the audience that’s there today doesn’t miss Ace and Peter any more than somebody going to a Yankees game misses Babe Ruth.
: I guess we’ll see how it goes.
Stanley: Hey! It always goes on.
: By the way, I’m going to try out your Brussels sprouts recipe [mentioned in the book]. I’m a big Brussels fan, and it sounds delicious.
Stanley: Oh, it’s awesome. Get a good balsamic. Don’t get that shit that they’re selling at the supermarkets. You need something that’s thicker, you need something that’s more of a reduction. All right? But it’s awesome.