Gene Simmons: "I don’t really care about your culture"

The KISS frontman on why he thinks immigrants "need to speak English" and men should stay single through their 20s

By Erin Keane
November 22, 2014 5:00AM (UTC)
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Gene Simmons (Reuters/Alex Gallardo)

KISS co-founder Gene Simmons has a lot of opinions and he's not shy about sharing them. In his new book, "Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business," the reality show star and entrepreneur shares life lessons and tips for creating successful business ventures and building wealth. Simmons starts from the beginning with his first taste of self-employment, picking cactus fruit to sell to tourists in his hometown of Mount Carmel in Israel, where he and his mother emigrated from in 1958. In the first chapter, Simmons calls the book "my own bible." Through chapters on topics as varied as "Vacations, Holidays, and Other Wastes of Time" and "Speak English," Simmons explains how he built his various empires and offers advice for others wanting to emulate his success. I spoke with Simmons by phone this week while he was en route to the airport.

So your new book, “Me, Inc.,” is all about how to build your own entrepreneurial business empire.

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Yeah, but even those words are off-putting to the masses. They are so sick and tired of veiled language. Nobody just talks to them straight ahead, you know? Even cigarette packs have this veiled language, like, “it is not proper—” it’s gonna fuckin’ give you cancer, wake up and die, right. You know?

Say what you mean then. What do you want to tell the readers?

The sad part, as a former sixth-grade schoolteacher, is that school doesn’t teach you anything about life. You learn that Columbus discovered America in 1492, which is not entirely so, and how does that prepare you for…?

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Let’s take you and me. We both make money doing stuff that we do, more or less. What was the name of the high school course that I took that prepared me for doing what I do? There is none. We don’t learn what mortgages are, we don’t learn what taxes are, we don’t learn how the free-market capitalist model works, we don’t learn anything. We learn nothing and then all of a sudden, like birds in a nest, the mama bird takes the little bird and pushes it off the ledge; good luck, start flying—or not.

The book doesn’t have graphs, it doesn’t use fancy language. In fact, often, it’s insulting. It is insulting because mother nature doesn’t give a shit, and despite legislation and the good intentions of politicians and tastemakers and so on, the masses will think as they like, privately. There’s a chapter called “Speak English”—nobody else has the balls to have a chapter called that. I should have called it “Speak Fuckin’ English,” that’s what I should have called it.

That’s going to be a hard sell on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I guess.

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But the point is worth noting. Remember, I don’t have a horse in this race. I wasn’t born here, I don’t look like I come from here, and English was not my first language, it was my third. But it is profoundly true that because of my English-language skills and people skills and other skills, it’s enabled me to get… how do I say this… filthy rich. Without being able, at least, to have good language skills—let me be blunt: if Siri can’t understand you--may I speak French?--you’re fucked.

You can be proud of speaking fluent Serbian, and the guy next to you can be proud of speaking fluent Zambian, and somebody else can be proud of speaking Russian, but how does that pay your bills? The pride of culture and language and religion means nothing if you can’t feed your family or yourself. It’s like, get over yourself and understand that in life there’s a thing called gravity, whether you like it or not. Mother Nature is unkind and so are people, by the way. Mother Nature will burn a baby just as harshly as it will a college professor who knows better. If both of them stick their hand in the fire, they will both be burned equally.

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The first lesson I learned about these United States—and I suspect the same is true in Canada, England, all the English-speaking countries—is, I was 8-and-a-half years old and I heard [something] very unkind. “What are you, stupid? Can’t you speak English?” Actually, that’s profoundly accurate and true. Politically incorrect, harsh, insulting, blah blah blah blah; the predominant notion in these United States is that if you can’t speak English you’re an idiot.

That’s not fair, but who cares if it’s fair? It just is. You cannot work at IBM and answer the phone if you can’t speak English. You can’t make a living, not a good one. If you’re happy wrapping fish, go ahead. Just speak fluent Serbian. Notice I say Serbian and not Spanish or other languages that infuriate people, “you’re insulting my culture!” Actually, I don’t really care about your culture. You wave your flag, I’ll wave my flag, everybody will wave their flag, and we still have to communicate. Unless and if we follow the advice of all the airline industries in the world—when a French or a Mexican airline lands in Beijing, guess which language they’re going to be communicating in? Mandarin? Spanish? French? Every airport in the world, it’s English.

Again, I want to remind everybody that I don’t have a horse in this race. The very first thing to all immigrants, especially legal ones because I am one and there is a difference, is learn to speak English. That’s the first key to unlocking it. There are other things; I’m not going to tell you what to choose for your career, what graphs are telling you and other due-diligence notions, but your life decisions are so important and will either hamper you or really propel you forward into the express train to success and riches. What I strongly suggest—unless the limo driver kills me—is that we all want that.

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When I was reading the book, I got the sense that an outsider’s perspective informed this entire worldview that you’re laying out in this book, in which you observed how the culture worked and said, “it is like this and here’s how to work best within it.”

Whether you like it or not--I’m not asking for your opinion, I’m not your friend, I’m not here to make you feel better‑-how you feel about it has nothing to do with it. Either you want to make a lot of money or you don’t. It’s okay if you don’t; somebody’s gotta wrap fish, OK? Somebody’s gotta pick up my garbage and if that’s what you want to do good luck to you! I don’t, and I suspect most of the people on the planet want more.

By the way, there’s a chapter called “Lady Entrepreneurs” that is important to your readership, which, I would guess with a name like Salon, is mostly female. [Note: The chapter is titled “Women Entrepreneurs.” Also: Salon is not a women's magazine.] I don’t know lots of guys that say that word. How do you like that?

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No, not really. It’s not like a hair salon but like a French salon—

Yes, but guys don’t say that. They don’t say that word.

Well, let’s talk about women entrepreneurs, then.

No, no, it’s a wake-up call. Number one, in my research in the book, I found out that 80 percent of the buying power of these United States is decided by women. Houses, cars, curtains, who the hell knows what. Vacations, where you go, what to do… everything is decided by women, whether it’s their money or not. He will acquiesce every time to make her happy; happy wife, happy life.

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With all this buying power, you would think that in entrepreneurship in general—architecture, mathematics, the sciences—women would be flooding, the predominant thing. But the opposite is true. The grim news is actually terrific news. For those of you who are alpha females and want to access the cadres of power—which, if you haven’t noticed, is made up of white men—the news is good! Very few females there, so you should be able to go in there. Go and get it, it’s waiting for you. You know what the buying public wants as women; go and access the cadres of power.

Educate yourselves, because, for the first time in history, all information is available to everybody equally, from the poorest person to Warren Buffett. It’s called the Internet, and it’s free. You cannot even fail in this culture. You can declare Chapter 7, Chapter 11, and have all your debts expunged—which is a big word, like gymnasium.

The book is intended to be sort of a Cliff’s Notes of “okay, I can make some real choices that will make me multiple times the amount of money even before I decide what to do for a living.” How about, don’t live in a small town, live in a big city? Boom, you just made more money because you have more choices of work. Remember, when the steel mill closes in that small town, the entire town folds up and dies. That includes the grocery store, the babysitting service, dog groomers, everybody, because everything depends on that one industry. Cities don’t depend on one industry, so you have more choices.

Guys, don’t get married in your twenties. Don’t do that, not unless you’re rich, because you have to assume the worst and that includes mortgages and children and, remember, every penny you spend is after-tax dollars. Stay single! Be careful, make those life decisions that last a lifetime—that’s why it’s called life decisions.

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Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t get high. It just doesn’t work; it costs money, you’re not going to be able to run that race, and I simply won’t hire you if you stand in front of me high or drunk or you smell like an ashtray, never mind the fact that you’re dealing with Russian roulette. “I didn’t know it was going to give me cancer!” Really? Come on.

Don’t have a big family if you can’t afford one, is another—

How about have none. Don’t have it!

Ever?

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Not until much later in life when you can afford it. Assume the worst is going to happen. One child, the U.S. government tells us, on the low end of the spectrum, costs anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million—that’s after-tax money, remember, and at the highest tax rate it’s twice as much—just to get him from birth to college. If you’re Catholic or have other religious notions and do that, multiply that by ten. Are you kidding me? Are you insane? Why would you do that? It’s unkind to the children, you can’t afford it, and you know what men will do? They’ll run out on their families. The statistics are grim. The chapter actually says it: In certain cultural, racial and religious groups, the men simply don’t exist in families. They just up and go, especially the more children there are.

The smart choices in life—when you’re a male, especially, but it also works for females because if you get divorced and he has nothing he won’t be able to do alimony, child support, or anything and then you have to take care of the child and go out and work. I’m just saying “child,” that’s if you’re smart. Forget about it if you have children. It’s a subject nobody talks about and that’s too bad, because there are millions of loving, wonderful single mothers who have to work their butts off to support multiple children because the father’s not there. All of that has to do with bad choices, stupid choices. Allowing yourself to have more than one child, or any children, until you can afford it is lunacy, and it’s also not loving to the child.

For men, don’t start a family until much later in life. Figure out what you’re going to do; live in a big city; don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t get high. Hey, don’t take vacations. You’re not rich, what are you doing going on a vacation? 104 days out of the year are weekend days—two days out of the week times 52 weeks, that’s 104 days where you’re sitting on your butt dipping chips and watching the ball game, OK? Then you’ve got Christmas vacation and Easter… by the time we’re done, more days are spent not working than working. Don’t go on vacations; how about if you devote that time to something else? Devote it to yourself; educate yourself; find something else you want to do. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket—I didn’t invent that, but it’s good advice. On Wall Street they say, “spread the risk.” Don’t just put all the money on black.

What would you say to the idea that “on their deathbed, nobody regrets not spending more time at the office?”

How about this: Do whatever the hell you want to do. I am not your motivational speaker, I am not here to make you feel better, I’m not here to do family lovey-dovey time. I don’t care. Buy another book for that. [To his limo driver: Don’t touch anything, just drive. Thank you.] I am here only if you want to make more money. That’s it. Multiple times more money, even without me telling you what to do for a living. If you just take this book when you sit on the toilet, make notes, sit on the bus, and implement those ideas, you’ll make multiple times more money. My contention is, the more money you have, the happier you’ll be. You want me to prove it to you?

Sure.

OK, your mother needs a hip operation and she’s very sick but you’re poor and you can’t afford to put her in the hospital to take care of her. But if you have money, you can cure your mom and you can give to charity and you can support your family—ta-da! I win.

Even if you’re an asshole and are enormously rich and don’t give any money to charity, even at the worst, you’re a job creator. As you’re building your mansions and your yachts, you’re actually giving work to people. If you’re poor you can’t give work to anybody.

Well, let’s talk about the music industry, since that’s where you built your business—

—Initial business. Since then it’s been restaurant chains, football teams, real estate; spread the risk.

Right. I really enjoyed the parts of the book that went into great detail about all the work you did building KISS from an idea into an empire, and some of that was just reading about how different the music industry was in the sixties and seventies than it is now. Do you have any specific advice for musicians who are trying to break through?

In all seriousness, don’t quit your day job. Don’t depend on music as the thing that’s going to pay your salary because the chances are pretty high that you’re not going to earn a dime from it. That’s because there’s no structure, there’s no payoffs. Technology has run far ahead of the laws of the land, so you can download and fileshare—in other words, you can steal and not pay the artist for what he does. What Taylor Swift just did, because she’s got a large fanbase, she took all her music off [Spotify] and made sure everybody paid full price for it. Good for her!

Yeah, well, that situ—

—By the way, I just want to make the point—you should listen to me, because I really have important stuff to say and I’m not shy about it. “1984” was a book by George Orwell. Big Brother was supposed to be the government. No, no, Big Brother is us. We’ve done more harm to the economy and everything else than the government ever would. We are the ones who take out our cellphones and, uh, invasion of privacy. The government, barely. We’re the ones that have the cellphones with us and take photos and videos and whatever of all kinds of private things. We’re the ones. The freckle-faced kid next door, who otherwise is a law-abiding citizen, is the one downloading and filesharing and doing all that stuff. That’s who killed the record industry; that’s who killed the next Beatles. Those new bands are not going to have the chance that I did because there were record companies there who paid for me and paid for touring and posters and promoters, and now there are no more record companies. Rock is finally dead, and the people that killed it are the fans that loved it in the first place.

I’ll prove it to you: From 1958 to 1988 is 30 years. Name 100 classic, iconic rock acts that will go down in history: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, on and on and on, 100 bands. Motown, Metallica, U2, Madonna, AC/DC, yes, even KISS, Aerosmith, on and on. From 1988 until today, that’s more than 30 years, just give me five bands. Just five.

Oh, am I playing? Ok, Nirvana, definitely.

Oh, so you just have to record two records and then you’re iconic.

Well, I guess we’re still living that history. You do raise a valid point—

— You didn’t get past Nirvana.

Are we talking about bands or individual artists? I think Taylor Swift might be a contender herself.

Too early. A few years does not make iconic and forever. No.

We have to let history decide who’s iconic and who’s not.

No, actually, the people do by their buying power.

So when you mentioned that there’s no structure in the music industry now, do you think that there’s an entrepreneurial opportunity for someone to come in and create a new structure?

Not just one. There has to be a new business model, and Taylor Swift, by the way, is leading the charge there. Instead of doing the Radiohead model, which is “let me put my record out there and let people pay whatever they want,” she’s saying, “no, I want to be paid in full for this.” U2 is not kidding anyone—and they’ve been upfront about this—that Apple paid them a small fortune to distribute their music to half a billion people. Smart; half a billion people get something for free, but they get paid for it. Anything that is free is worthless. If you can’t even put a price on it people call it priceless.

There’s gotta be a new structure. Or not. Listen, it doesn’t affect me; I make a living. We’re on a two-year-long world tour, we have the KISS golf course and, in fact, I’m going to Las Vegas now because we’re doing a residency there. The next Prince or the next Beatles or the next KISS, not a chance. Who did that, government? No, the fans did that to themselves. When you let one fox into the chicken coop you cannot complain that there aren’t any eggs or chickens left. That first fox should’ve been killed, and then the rest of the foxes would be afraid. See, that’s how it works. Punitive. If there is no punishment, everybody will steal.

I don’t want to wax too long and too poetic or prolific, but we’re pulling up to the airport so I gotta get off the phone. The upside is, great news. There’s a chapter called “Kid Entrepreneurs,” there’s a chapter called “Lady Entrepreneurs,” the opportunities are just almost endless. The Dow Jones Industrial is even, at this time, 17,600. The opportunities are just enormous; you just have to get off your fat ass and go do something about it. You have language skills, people skills, be at the right place at the right time with the right thing, and make smart decision when you’re young, especially when you’re young and poor. That’ll be the first steps to becoming rich.

Got it.

By the way, there was an article in Atlantic Monthly years ago and it was an assessment by a think tank. The think tank said that everybody in America can be rich—rich, defined by the U.S. government, is anything north of $250,000—everybody! You get education, and you have to provide services people want. The door is wide open; you just have to get up and go through it, and then, of course, hard work.

I wish you well but I gotta go.


Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief.

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