TONGUE TIED: The Bat Lizard
The magic is done. The Wayback Machine has deposited us along the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, thousands of miles from the New York origins of KISS. Chaim Witz, later to become Gene Simmons, details his heritage. "My parents were born in Jand, Hungary, a small town on the Danube River. During World War II, my mother was in a concentration camp, and her mother, her brother, her grandmother, and most of her family were killed. After the war, my parents met in a way station, got married, and snuck into Israel. They didn't return to Hungary because Hungary, like a lot of countries, wasn't interested in taking back the Jews that were still alive. I was born August 25, 1949, in the port city of Haifa."
"When I was very young, we moved to the village of Carmel, where the Scrolls of Carmel were discovered. As a small child, I remember playing on a hill that had these little caves. There was always lots of stuff around, but I never gave it much thought. It turns out that some of the oldest specimens of human beings were discovered there. Everybody in America has the impression of Israel being the land of kibbutzes, but it's not. Israel is the most modern country in the Middle East. It's very Americanized. I remember in 1955 and '56, watching Jeff Chandler movies where he played Cochise. My first exposure to American culture was seeing the Indians in those movies. The language sounded very alien, like gibberish, and the Indians looked like they were from another planet."
In Israel, Gene was "a marbles champ. Marbles was the national pastime, and I was it. I was pretty good at tops, but marbles is where I killed everybody." Gene doesn't have any musical memories from those days, but he does recall "one thing that made me start wearing all the spider jewelry. It begins with the fact that in Israel, when you go into a public place, you wear your yarmulke. One day, I tried to put mine on before I left home, and for some reason, I just couldn't get it on my head. So I took it off, and the biggest daddy longlegs crawled out of the hat. Without exaggeration, it must have been two inches long. I was scared to death and it gave me nightmares. When I came to America, I suddenly realized that one of the ways to overcome fear is to confront it. So I started wearing spider jewelry. Now, I wear all kinds of this stuff that are gifts from fans. At my home, I've got an amazing collection of spiders."
In 1955, Gene's parents were divorced, and Gene and his mother, who had two brothers living in the U.S., emigrated to America in June of 1958. It was in America that Chaim became known as Gene Klein. "We first lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It was a ghetto right across the border from Bedford Stuyvesant, which is now all black, but at that point it was turning into a Latino neighborhood. Our rent was $36 a month, and my mother went to work picking lint off clothes for $24 a week in the Bronx, a long subway ride from home. So I was alone most of the day." American culture was so strange that almost everything Gene saw seemed bizarre. "There were some posters left over from Christmas, a Coca-Cola advertisement with Santa Claus drinking a Coke. I couldn't believe my eyes. First of all, I never heard of Santa Claus, and I thought he was a rabbi, because he had a beard. To me, the world was filled with Jews and Arabs, and that was it. In Israel, we never heard of Catholics or Christians. Never heard of Jesus Christ at all."
Gene's days in this new and foreign land were basically divided into two parts. Every day, for ten hours, he attended a yeshiva, a Jewish private school. In every other free moment, Gene's attention was focused on his two new loves-television and monsters. Making friends had never been easy for Gene, and the language barrier made it even more troublesome. Gene: "My difficulty in learning English definitely had an effect on me. I had trouble fitting in with the kids in the neighborhood. I was a loner for a while, partly because I was always out to prove that I was better than everyone I met. Since I couldn't speak a word of English at first, every time I opened my mouth, the kids would start laughing. So we played marbles. Laugh they did, but in the end, I walked away clutching tons of marbles. I still have them."
Those early years in America were a solitary time for Gene. "From the time I was nine till I was eleven, I was too busy watching TV to make friends. That was the only way I could learn the language. Because of the strong New York accents, I couldn't understand anything people said to me. The good diction I have now is a result of imitating what I heard on television."
A magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland and superhero comic books (like Superman) became Gene's passion, partly because they were visual media, something that could be understood without knowing too much English. "The concept of anybody dressing up in outlandish outfits just attracted me. I guess what I really wanted was to have people look at me. Everything was so foreign and strange to me, and I wanted to overcome the language difficulty. I wanted to fit in."
One of Gene's most unusual memories is "the sound of American coins. Very strange to me. It sounded fake, like iron. I couldn't figure out why the coins made so much noise when people would jingle them around in their pockets. I thought it was a custom."
According to Gene, his days at the yeshiva fulfilled everything that my mother thought I should be getting in terms of history and culture. But [after school] I'd get as much TV as I could, from The Mickey Mouse Club to Yancy Derringer and other great [now] obscure shows that I loved. What attracted me to shows like Superman was that these people were superhuman. The only place I'd heard about superhuman beings and people who could do things I couldn't was in religious books. But these guys on television were super and neat, and they weren't telling anybody what to do or think. Superman never told you what to do. He just flew around and did all this stuff that these religious guys were doing, without being a pain in the ass about it.
"This was my first connection with the anti-establishment. Guys like Tarzan and Yancy Derringer didn't have superpowers, but they were able to do things that I couldn't do. And they weren't boring about it. They were just themselves, didn't tell anybody how to dress or think. And they always looked completely different from everybody else. When Superman walked into a room, you noticed him. Nobody else dressed like that. I believe that this relates very strongly to what KISS does today."
In 1961, Gene and his mother moved to the Jackson Heights section of Queens, in New York City, and Gene transferred to public school. This less demanding school atmosphere gave Gene more time for his hobbies, including his first ventures into the world of fantasy. "As soon as I learned how to type, when I was thirteen, I started writing my own stories. I created a prehistoric character, Omar: The Cliff Dweller, and wrote stories about him. I would mimeograph them and hand them out in school. One of them was a composition that I got an A+ on.
"As far back as the fifth grade, I remember thinking that dinosaurs were very special. There was a science fair where I won second prize for making clay dinosaurs demonstrating the eating chain. It's interesting that Paul started drawing dinosaurs when he was five years old. Sometimes on tour, Paul and I will test each other about dinosaurs. One of my favorites was the pterodactyl. It has this bony structure at the end of its head that it used to whack its victims into unconsciousness. In terms of my stage image with the long tongue and the bun on top of my head, I think there's an interesting similarity."
Gene's interests in science fact and fiction date back to his earliest TV-viewing days. "I was very bored by The Hardy Boys Go Eat Lunch. So what? I was doing more exciting things than that. What was exciting to me was Superman going to Planet X to fight some evil character."
In his early teens, Gene's fascination with superheroes led him into publishing "amateur science fiction publications called fanzines which dealt with horror movies, comic books, as well as science fiction. These magazines would have reviews and short stories and small comic strips. I'd write most of the articles, and there were a few contributions from others. Some of my pen pal friends from those days have become editors at Marvel Comics and professional writers." For Gene, "the fanzines were giving me a sort of intellectual satiation. Also, I made a little money with which I bought a used mimeograph machine for $35."
Making money has always been important to Gene, and from his early teens through the early days of KISS, he has always had several jobs. It was his very industriousness that provided him with a firsthand sexual education. "In seventh grade, I delivered newspapers. A girl on my route's parents were away for vacation. She was in the eighth grade. Once a week, I'd go there to collect. One week, she paid me. She seduced me. I lost my virginity on Christmas Eve of 1963.
"It was around that time when my tongue just started to pop out of my mouth. At a party in early '64, I was slow-dancing with Irene Wouters. Some prankster turned off the lights, and Irene and I started necking and she stuck her tongue in my mouth. I almost threw up. But then, I started to do it to girls. At first, they'd say, 'Yucch.' Then, we'd compare tongues." Gene notes, tongue-in-cheek, "I never really had to hang around street corners for any of that stuff."
In analyzing his personality, Gene thinks that the fact he's "never been afraid of failure is the key to his makeup." It's okay for me to fail. I've never been afraid of asking people something, because even if they say no, there's always somebody who'll say yes.
"In my late teens, I weighed 220 pounds. I actually went and fitted myself for a training bra. I had a paunch, a beard that stretched under my chin, and a mustache. I was pretty hideous, but it never seemed to bother me. The big problem with fat people is what it does to their minds. Not me. I was fat for my first two years of college. When I was twenty, I lived with a girl for a short time, and she treated me like King Tut, which meant cakes every day. I would eat all of them. The point is, the biggest thing about being shy or being fat is that people are afraid of rejection. As soon as people understand that it's okay not to be liked by some people, they're better off."
Gene's career as a performer is a direct outgrowth of his philosophy. As he puts it, "'Go ahead, don't be afraid to take the first step, thinking you're going to fail, because then you're going to be standing still.' I was always interested in being in front of people. I guess it's called having a large ego. I was always in school plays through junior high, high school, and college. In fifth grade, I was Little John in Robin Hood. I played Curly in Oklahoma! In college, I was in James Thurber's The Stork Who Married a Dumb Wife. I played the French doctor who operated on women."
Gene feels that if he hadn't been able to perform, "if I had never gotten ego gratification, I would probably have had to do something very extreme to get it. I started getting into rock 'n' roll because I noticed that you got instant gratification from seeing people in the audience getting off on you."
Gene's introduction to rock 'n' roll came in 1962. "I became a big Chubby Checker fan, and learned how to twist. [Checker's "The Twist" was a number one record in 1960 and 1961 and launched a huge social phenomenon.] I was the twist champ of P.S. 145, Joseph Pulitzer Junior High School, two years in a row. It was a social tool, a way to meet girls." At a typical dance, Gene recalls, "the boys were on one side of the room, the girls on the other, and nobody would cross the floor. So I used to walk over and ask the black girls, 'cause they were the ones who knew how to twist. The white girls didn't know how. But I never wanted to be Chubby Checker, 'cause I could do it by being on the dance floor.
"Then, I saw that one show that everybody saw that changed all of our lives, the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in February of '64. The thing that struck me was that they were like four Chubby Checkers, four guys who were being front men and each important to the band. Also, the four of them looked as if they belonged to the same band. They certainly looked different from everybody walking the street. Nobody looked like them, and because of that, people ridiculed them. At first, I couldn't make too much out of it. I just thought they were kind of weird. Meanwhile, my mom was watching with me, and she kept harping about how terrible it was. I didn't think it was bad or good. I asked my mother, 'Why would anybody want to look like that? Isn't that silly-looking?' And she said, 'They look like apes. Look at their hair. They look like gorillas.'"
In millions of homes across America, that parental reaction, that scorn, helped make the Beatles heroes for the '60s children. Gene was no different. "For some reason, I liked the fact that my mother didn't like them. So right after the show was over, I went to the bathroom and combed my hair to the front. I distinctly remember that my mother reacted badly to it. And I said, 'Gee, I like that.' All of a sudden, ears looked very strange. Mine stuck out a mile; if the wind came along, I would just take off."
Frank Sinatra. Elvis Presley. The Beatles. These three cultural and musical phenomena had one thing in common when they first hit. They belonged to kids. The screaming that their music inspired was a cacophony that adults couldn't tolerate, and they became heroes partly because of the reaction they caused in adults. Each "new" thing was outrageous to parents who had "outraged" their parents with the previous decade's teen idol. When the adults yelled, "Stop! Enough of that noise!" the kids would clutch harder and say, "That's mine!"
Gene believes that parental disapproval was instrumental in KISS's early success through excess. "Parents are always warning kids about staying away from bad influences and bad people. But kids don't want to listen. Rock 'n' roll is that pursuit of the wrong side of the tracks."
For Gene, rock 'n' roll was still something to watch. Although he sang in the school choir, he didn't play an instrument. In 1965, Gene began his rock 'n' roll career when he appeared at a junior high school assembly with his first group, the Missing Links. "After the speeches," Gene explains, "people would get up and sing. The Links was a trio. One guy played his Silvertone guitar, the other guy played his Mustang, and I sang. We did 'There's a Place' by the Beatles and 'Do You Love Me' by the Contours. Afterward, walking down the hall, I noticed that everybody talked to me. 'Hey, man. You a jive muth'fuck.' Those were the black guys. The white guys would say, ' Very nice.' And the girls all wanted to get close, like bees to honey. In fact, one of the new tunes I'm writing is called 'Girls Love Money.' Girls want to be looked at, and they're attracted to anything that glitters, fame or money. They want to be around a star, grab a little reflected spotlight."
That first show also gave Gene a hint that he was meant to be in the spotlight. "I looked to my left and my right, and those guys were sweating and perspiring and shaking. Not me. I guess I came off like Sergio Franchi. I'd cock one eyebrow a little bit higher than the other, that kind of stuff. At the time, I must have looked completely ridiculous. But I knew it was for me. I wanted to be looked at."
Gene's first real band, the Long Island Sounds, included "Steve Coronel, Seth Dogramajian, and Alan Graph on guitars, and Stan Singer on drums. I was the lead singer. At the time, I had a much higher voice and sounded like Paul McCartney. In those days, everybody became nasal and developed an English accent. The Beatles were by far my favorite group; I've always liked the same things the masses do.