Kissing the ring

From his strangely tasteful Beverly Hills mansion, Kiss frontman Paul Stanley reflects on fear, fatness and fame.

Published October 11, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Behind me a small fountain trickles softly as I sit at a wrought-iron table on a stone patio with ocher frescoed walls. Surrounded by ficus plants, I overlook a pool with a small cabana and a garden full of roses. Beyond the pool is a valley hinged with mountains. What is the frontman of Kiss doing with a pad like this?

"A home should be your sanctuary," Paul Stanley says of this place -- which happens to be his Beverly Hills abode. "The purpose of a house is to build something where you don't want to leave. That was the idea of this place."

Stanley and his fellow masked musicians -- Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss (plus some minimal personnel changes over time) -- have, after 27 years, decided to call it quits. Time to shed the platforms and revel in the afterglow of nearly three decades of defiance. Kiss, which Stanley calls a marriage of "rock band, superhero and athlete," defied the critics. For years it flouted the hacks who never stopped chiding the band for their over-the-top performances, their musical simplicity, their simple pleas to party and rock 'n' roll -- chiding them, in fact, for embodying exactly what rock 'n' roll types are supposed to embody.

Rock 'n' roll notwithstanding, it's hard to ignore the mountains, the roses and the trickling fountain all around me -- and so strange that all this comes from a man with a reputation for earsplitting, in-your-face, screw-the-critics, blood-spewing, spandex-wearing, guitar-screaming, pelvic-thrusting, ass-shaking, pyrotechnic-blazing, heart-thumping performances. Stanley refers to Kiss as a marriage of "rock band, super hero and athlete."

It isn't that I expected him to meet me in platform shoes and spandex -- I do understand the idea behind costumes -- but I didn't expect such ... unabashed normalcy. The normalcy includes a friendly wife, a spunky son, a feisty dog and a well-manicured lawn. When Stanley greets me in jeans, a white tank top and tennis shoes for our morning brunch, which he's snuck in before a pool party for his son and a concert in Anaheim that night, I am pleasantly surprised to be invited into this little slice of Tuscany.

"Coffee?" he offers. "Orange juice? Mimosa? Tea?"

Kiss have never been a critic's choice, but they've weathered the years. Their tours are consistently near sellouts -- their '96-'97 reunion was the top-grossing tour of the year -- and they've had nearly 30 platinum and gold albums. Still, they've received few awards, have been nominated for only one Grammy and find themselves with no place at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

Kiss's official accolades are of a different orbit: boot prints in concrete squares at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, a Hollywood sidewalk star and a death threat from a South American terrorist group. (It's not hard to envision Gene Simmons, aka "The Demon," beating his chest and screaming, "You want a piece of me?!" No offense to would-be revolutionaries, but I'd camp in Gene's bunker.) For a long time, even MTV spurned them. If they were politicians rather than rock stars, they'd be the Green Party blowing the big tickets out of the water. They'd actually represent the people. They'd have union backing.

Stanley, 48, comes across as both confident and mild-mannered, almost soft-spoken. There's just a hint of Queens in his accent, and he's open to answering nearly every question. (He excuses himself to fetch some fresh fruit -- in wine glasses -- when I mention the nearby Democratic Convention happening at the time. Can it be? Can he actually be a Republican?) His 6-year-old son, Evan, pops out from behind glass doors intermittently, and Stanley, who is clearly in love with this child and often gives him whirlwind museum tours while Kiss is on the road, calls him variations on a theme: little man, monkey boy, little guy.

The question is: Why now? Kiss have proven that they are as popular as ever. They can sell out arenas. They can still perform grade-A spectacles. Hell, they can still wiggle into their spandex. So why not go for an even 30 years?

"I want to quit when people are saying 'Why are you?' instead of 'Why aren't you?' And nobody wants to see a fat old man in tights," Stanley laughs. "We've really accomplished more than we set out to do. After the Psycho Circus tour [in 1998] we thought about quitting because there seemed like nothing left to do, but then we thought we'd go out one more time, do the absolute epitome of a Kiss show and let people know it's the last time. Because when people die or leave and you don't know, you always find yourself saying, 'Gee if only I'd known, if only I could have said goodbye.'"

With dry Stanley humor, he lists his injuries much as an aging football player might -- including, but not limited to, surgeries on both knees and one shoulder. Later, when he shows me his personal workout room, and later still when I see my first ever Kiss show complete with fires, nipple squeezing and prancing, it becomes clear that even with his collection of injuries, Stanley is in freakishly good shape.

With the ending of the Kiss era later this fall, Stanley will concentrate on a new avenue of musical expression: Broadway. Last year he starred in "Phantom of the Opera" in Toronto and received critical acclaim. He has been offered several Broadway shows, including "Phantom" and "Jekyll and Hyde." When I suggest "Rent" he rolls his eyes.

"That's not enough of a stretch," he says. "Let's put a guy in a tank top and let him dance around on stage? No offense to anybody, but I want to push the envelope a little more than that."

As a child, Stanley used to wear out Beethoven records. He wasn't sure then if he wanted to be an opera singer or a rock star. His entire family sang. "We used to go on weekend trips in the car and sing in three- and four-part harmony," he says, referring to them as the "demented Von Trapp family. As in, 'The Sound of Music?' with a question mark."

He grew up, in his words, a fat little kid. "I used to ask my parents why I was fat and they'd say, 'You're not fat, you're big-boned,'" he says. "And when I got older and saw skeletons they were all about the same and I realized there were no fat skeletons, there were only fat people. I finally figured out I could reduce my intake of calories."

Stanley is telling me he grew up the Jewish son of very "observant in a nonobservant-kind-of-way" parents when his son suddenly reappears, midstory, with a box of Pokimon Pop Tarts. Stanley allows himself to be derailed and reads through the various flavors for a moment. Evan turns to me and boasts that he can swim from one side of his pool to the other without taking a breath. Very, very fast. Stanley glows and, when Evan disappears, proves his own metamorphosis from rock god to dad with that uncanny ability to be sidetracked and bamboozled and still make it back to the original conversation.

"So I was petrified anytime I went to synagogue that they were going to call me up to the stage and make me read Hebrew," he says. "Now, first of all, I could barely read English, but I was terrified the moment I got in there until the moment I left."

Nowadays, he admits his fears tend toward the more generic. (He hates helicopters, and he refuses to learn to scuba dive though his wife is a water junkie, overcoming her claustrophobia by donning scuba gear.) I tell him diving would shed his claustrophobia. "Yeah, it's interesting," he muses, "the pilot on our jet -- you see how I got in that we have a jet? -- he's afraid of heights."

A little later I ask him a question about his musical purpose, and before he answers, he waits while I change the tape in my recorder. In five years of interviews, no one has ever done this for me.

"My purpose was always just to express myself," he answers, when I'm ready. "People are kidding themselves when they think music is going to change the world or enlighten people. It's a bunch of hogwash."

This is the closest he's come to bitterness about the years Kiss has been rejected by critics.

"My purpose," he continues, "is to become better at what I do. I love music and that's my outlet. My goal is just to explore music. Whether I choose it to be rock or something else, I don't want to live within the preconceived ideas that other people have about me."

Later, after he's given me a tour of his house and greeted the folks who've begun to trickle in for the pool party, I hear him plunking out a tune on a piano in his living room. It is only a few notes, and probably just an afterthought as he's waiting for me to gather my things, but it is a musical swatch that I suspect I'll never hear at any Kiss show.

"Many people can't stomach the idea of somebody else succeeding where they've failed, so you'll always find a plethora of people who'll tell you you can't accomplish something," he says. "I had people telling me I couldn't become a rock star ... [but] there's nothing we can't have if we're willing to sacrifice for it." He sweeps his arm around his house. "There's nothing really out of reach."

During dessert I ask him about world music, how it is merging, representing more people, more sounds, more complexity. He scoffs.

"When something touches a nerve universally, then it's world music. Elvis was world music," he says. "Maybe he wasn't singing about saving the purple whales or not peeing in the rain forest, but ... The Beatles were world music. What you're really saying is some sort of ethereal, intellectualized music, but it's simply what the masses listen to. It's like when people used to call U2 alternative. Not to knock U2, who I happen to like a lot, but there's nothing alternative about a band who sells out stadiums. They are the establishment."

"So Kiss is world music?"

"Look," he says, "when you come to see Kiss, you know we're wearing costumes. When you come to see a bunch of millionaires on stage wearing ripped-up clothes and they have their Versaces in the dressing room, who's kidding whom? When I go on stage you know I'm in costume, you know I'm not walking down the streets in tights and high-heeled boots. But when you see someone on stage and he's trying to tell you he's just like you, well, he's not! World music? N'Sync is closer to world music than -- well, I don't want to be socially incorrect, but it's snobbery that looks at it the other way."

"So perhaps it's simply that Americans are the ones just beginning to open up to the possibility of other kinds of music?" I offer. "We are the ethnocentric snobs?"

He shrugs, as if to say, "You decide."

I change course and ask him about the first song he was ever proud of. He groans and looks toward the sky. As in most of our discussion today, he takes his time answering, as if the interview more resembles a chess game.

"It's all relative," he finally says. "I mean, at some point you're proud that you're not peeing in your pants. I was 15 and it was fairly early on, but it's nothing I would ever want to play today."

Many of the pool guests have arrived now, and one man around 70, who Stanley says is the kids' swim teacher, greets him and tells him to have a good show tonight. It is like watching someone's dad tell his kid to knock 'em dead wiggling his ass for thousands of adoring fans. I smile at the man in the pool, tell Stanley I'll look for him on Broadway and he turns to me as if we might be teammates.

"You know," he says, "we're so lucky we can pay the rent by doing something we love. What could be better? Without the jet I would be just as happy."

By Rachel Louise Snyder

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