Gene Simmons: my stories of Eddie Van Halen, Donald Trump, Cher and more

Gene Simmons circa 1980
(Image credit: Lynn Goldsmith)

When Kiss lumbered on to the scene in 1974 with their self-titled debut album, no one could’ve predicted how much a part of popular culture their bat-winged, fire-breathing, blood-drooling totem, Gene Simmons, would become.

When Simmons – born Chaim Witz in Israel, the son of Hungarian Jews – relocated to New York at a young age he immediately embraced the American dream. As Kiss’s career exploded – quite literally – the bassist/vocalist proved he was no shock-rock novelty act, masterminding an extensive merchandising range and helping transform the band into a global business.

Simmons’s larger-than-life personality helped him inveigle his way into rarefied social circles, and he enjoyed unlikely love affairs with a couple of the world’s top female singers.

Mover, shaker, money-maker, whatever Gene says or does, he’s bound to set tongues a-wagging.


Lou Reed

[Producer] Bob Ezrin started rehearsing with us for the Destroyer record in 1975 and he had just come off working with Lou Reed on Berlin. We rehearsed in a place called Carol’s on 42nd Street and 6th Avenue in New York City. Lou walked in and I’d been aware of, and had been a big fan of, Walk On The Wild Side, which was produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson

Reed walks in, we’re rehearsing, trying to work out songs, and Bob says that he would like Lou to work on lyrics with us and maybe get another angle. But it didn’t work out, actually, and we went off and did Destroyer, because we couldn’t wait to put all these new songs down, like Detroit Rock City and Flaming Youth and all that.

So then the next time Bob Ezrin worked with us was on (Music From) The Elder [1981], which had the best of all intentions but was misdirected. It was intended for the band to kind of move inward, to write something that meant something, and I take full responsibility [for it being a commercial disaster]. It was my concept, the title, the ideal and the idea, the story line. I wanted to do a motion picture. As we were working on it, Paul [Stanley] came in with something called Every Little Bit Of My Heart or something like that, it was sort of a pop ditty, and we tried to work it up but it was too pop. 

Lou came up to King’s City in Toronto and we sat around and he scribbled away on song title ideas and so on, and everyone immediately focused in on A World Without Heroes. It just felt like the song could write itself. So we took the chordal progression of Paul’s Every Little Bit Of My Heart and the line ‘A world without heroes… it’s no place for me… it’s like a bird without wings…’ and it’s pretty poignant. That was Lou’s contribution, just the title, so he got a songwriting credit.

Frank Zappa

I knew his son, Dweezil, socially and he actually learned to play guitar from a guitar player I discovered… Eddie Van Halen. So it all comes full circle somehow. Dweezil actually brought me over to see Frank before he passed away and we started to talk about stuff – music and life philosophies and so on, and after he passed away it was his family that actually gathered around the idea of doing something post his passing. 

I asked if they had any unfinished Frank pieces because I’d love to finish them and get the family around, and so we came together on Black Tongue, which was Frank’s title, not mine. I had this 30-second bit that I built an entire song on, this loop, and I played all the instruments and got all the Zappa family in. It was the only song in the entire Zappa history where the entire remaining family members actually sang around the same mic.

Bob Dylan

Next to Zappa one of the other pivotal people for me is Bob Dylan. There’s certainly no greater lyricist in pop culture. But Dylan is classic poetry to me. And I’ll never forget, he got on the phone to me out of the blue one day. I go, “Hey Bob” and he’s like, “Hey, alright, Mr Kiss!” Always called me Mr Kiss. Even to this day, he won’t call me Gene Simmons. I say, “How you doing?” and he says, [something incoherent and Bob-like]. “Uh, what did you say, Bob?” [Laughs] His voice is instantly recognisable; no other human being has ever had that sound. You can’t quite figure out what country it’s from, never mind which town.

But I have the tapes, I recorded the whole thing. “Gee, I wanna write with you, Bob.” “Alright, man…” [more Dylan-esque gibberish] and I’m thinking, “Does he want to know what time and where?” So I say, “How about so-and-so on this day?” He says, “Sure.” And sure enough, there he was. A little van pulls up, and we both pulled out acoustic guitars… actually, one acoustic and one electric, because I haven’t a second acoustic. I tossed around an idea and he says, “How about this? Try and do that.” 

I sang a melody against his lyric and the tune happened fast, about 45 minutes. But of course, there were no lyrics, just a sense of melody and a chordal structure, and then Bob was gone. That was in 1994, and it took me eight or nine years. I kept badgering Bob, “Write the lyric!” “No, Mr Kiss, you write the lyric!” “Bob, you write the lyric! That’s why I called you!” “No, man, you gotta [gibberish].” 

Anyway I couldn’t get him to write the lyric, so finally, in desperation, when I had my solo record come out, I actually finished the lyric because I couldn’t wait any longer. Bob liked it. It’s called Waiting For The Morning Light, about a guy on the road, sees the picture of his love next to the telephone and here he is staying up all night, you know, waiting for the morning light.


Cher had just signed to Casablanca. Kiss were the first act on Casablanca, but she was gonna do a disco record. The label president asked if I’d come by for Governor Brown, some kind of charity event, and also he wanted to introduce me to Cher. So I said, “Great, sure!” So I got there; I was just scouting to see who was there and I wanted more people for my solo record.

Cher, in the meantime, was forced to go to the party that she didn’t want to go to by Chastity, her daughter who was a big Kiss fan. Chastity told her, “You’ve got to go to this thing, Gene Simmons is going to be there!” So when she got there, I walked up and said, “Hi, I’m Gene Simmons.” But she looked confused. She was off-centre because she thought it was the female Jean Simmons in movies. Cher had no idea that the Kiss thing had infected her household through her kids; especially Chastity, who wore the make-up and did all that stuff, and Elijah too when he was little.

Literally that first night I said, “You wanna come with me?” So she hopped in the limo and off we went. It started that fast. Hey, you want my advice when it comes to women, it’s this: say what you mean and mean what you say. If you see a beautiful girl and you find her attractive, say those words.

Gene Simmons out on the town with Cher in 1979

Gene Simmons out on the town with Cher in 1979 (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives)

Diana Ross

I was going to buy Cher a Christmas present. By that time we were not living together and I was off touring, but I wanted to buy her something. But what do you buy someone who has everything? Cher said, “Call my best friend, Diana. I tell her all my secrets and she knows exactly what I want!” So when I was in New York, I rang Diana up and said, “Would you help me?” When I met her at her apartment she gave me a slice of chocolate cake… and then she gave me a different slice of chocolate cake. It happened very fast.

Thereafter Cher and Diana weren’t such good friends. But I continued to be close to both and valued our time together. The word ‘lady’ in the dictionary has photos of both of them. I had my own place in New York but I was living with Diana too, and Cher was often coming to New York to do Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which was her at the beginning of her acting thing. Cher didn’t want to stay in the city alone so I said, “Stay at my place.”

And so sometimes I’d stay with Cher at my place and sometimes I’d stay at Diana’s place. Everyone complicates things. Just simplify it and be clear with everybody. The only thing that bothers women is the dishonesty and not being clear. You see a Rottweiler coming towards you, it’s very clear what’s going on. You have to get out of the way because it’s a Rottweiler. so it’s clear. You see a French poodle and then it bites you, you’re pissed off! Be clear about who you are.

Gene Simmons out on the town with Diana Ross in 1981

Gene Simmons out on the town with Diana Ross in 1981 (Image credit: Tom Wargacki/Getty Images)

Michael Jackson

I knew Michael. I ran into him a few times. I met him the first time before he became the superstar, when he was sort of teenagey, when he was still a Jackson Five. This was in the Cher days, when Cher and I lived together.

I remember this shy kid who knew his stuff and actually suggested we did a record with this guy called Mutt Lange, who he liked very much. So, yeah, he knew his stuff. It would have been a great record.

Once when I was managing Liza Minnelli’s recording career, she was playing Universal Amphitheater and Michael came to pay his respects because she was one of his childhood idols. I don’t remember if he walked in with Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren… either one… and we both just hung out and shot the shite.

When I lived with Diana Ross, it was she who brought me to the Encino Compound and I joined Michael as he went to a corner juice place and had a glass of orange. That was all he had to eat that day. He fasted two, sometimes three days a week. That was his regimen. I was always taken by his innocence and he was always very polite and kind.

But as time moved on, and no matter what my fond memories and fond images of Michael were, with one allegation of paedophilia after another and another and another… Oh dear. I knew some of the musicians he toured with, and specifically one who quit because of seeing boys coming out of the hotel rooms. And then you factor in that his travel agent was put on the stand and in court said that she was authorised to fly to Brazil and bring boys back to America for him… Well, you know, where there’s smoke there’s fire. There’s no question in my mind he molested those kids. Not a doubt.

What we do know is Michael settled for $20 or $25 million to keep one suit dead and the other one was $3 or $4 million. Now what $25 million dollars means is if somebody said the most vile thing about me and I paid a lawyer $500,000 a year, I could defend that case for 50 years for the amount of money that Michael paid to make it go away.

Michael’s on tape going, “Give the kids Jesus juice.” Which is wine. I mean, it’s just endless. So on one hand he’s a sad kind of a character who seems to have been lonely… And incidentally, there’s never been a single female of any age that I’ve ever known about who has ever made a claim that she has had a physical relationship with Michael, ever. In fact, while he was alive, I never heard about mature men ever making that claim either – and believe me, you can’t keep it a secret. If you’re a celebrity, somebody somewhere will say, “Oh yeah, I shagged him.”

The only sexual references ever made about Michael Jackson that were made by anyone, anywhere around the world, have always been made by kids, and specifically males usually 10 to 14 years of age; never females, that age or older, and never grown men. Oh, I don’t think this is going away any time soon.

Eddie Van Halen

I went to see The Boyzz play at a place called the Starwood, and the first band is a group called Van Halen. By the second song they had knocked me out. I was like, “What the hell? Look at the guitar player, look at the singer doing acrobatics and stuff!” So immediately I was waiting for them backstage. I even curtailed my groupie activity – they were that good!

When I got there, Edward and David [Lee Roth] and all the guys – they were babies – were telling me how excited they were that I was there. They were big Kiss fans and they often did Firehouse in their sets – you can go on YouTube and pick it up – and they were excited because there was a yoghurt manufacturer that was going to invest in them. I begged them and said, “Don’t do it! I’ll finance your demo and fly you to New York.” And I did.

I bought David his first pair of platform heels and some leather pants. I put them up in a hotel, got them in Electric Lady studios and got in Dave Whitman, who engineered some of our records and worked on Humble Pie and lots of other stuff. And we recorded about 15 songs and it’s still never been released.

I took the tape to our then manager, Bill Aucoin, and I let Paul hear it and the guys in the band. Everybody shrugged their shoulders and went, “So what?” And I’m going, “You’re killing me! Whaddya mean, so what? Listen to that!” But everybody was too busy with their life. So I got Van Halen to do a showcase for Bill but he still didn’t get it. He thought they were like Black Oak Arkansas, because Black Oak had a guy with long blonde hair [Jim Dandy] and all that.

So even though they were signed to my production company exclusively, Man Of A Thousand Faces Incorporated of course, Kiss were about to go out on tour with Love Gun. I said, “I’m tearing up your contract because I don’t want to tie you down. I can’t ethically, morally and in other ways keep you locked in if I can’t work on you. I’ve got to go out on tour. I’ll get off tour in six months, eight months. You’re free to go get your own deal. If you don’t get it in that time you can come back to me and we’ll try it again.” 

And within a month they were on Warner Bros and off into the studio. By the time we got off tour You Really Got Me was on the radio and it was a massive hit.

Donald Trump

Well, Donald is a huge fan of Gene Simmons. Mostly he’s jealous of my hair which is much cooler than his. Everybody thinks we both wear wigs, but no, we don’t. They’re all just jealous. I’ve known him off and on for a long time. Even though he comes from a good background and all that, he’s a self-made man, I’d like to think that he thinks like me. He would like to think he’s like me of course, but the bitch never will be and he knows it!

I like to kid with him because he comes off as this hard-headed guy because it’s part of the game, but he’s a pussycat. You’ve got to hand it to somebody like him. Like Richard Branson, who I know well too. Branson, Trump, self-made guys who continue to live by their own rules.

If you take a look at their business model, it defies logic. Branson will sit in a business meeting and when these guys toss due diligence numbers at him he says, “Look, just cut the shit. What is it? Don’t give me 10 reams of information, just give me the sense of it.” The big guys play the big games in simple ways, because at some point you have to say “go” or “stop” or “buy” or “sell”. At some point you have to make that assessment. You can overthink things.

It’s like being in the studio. It’s never been proven that the longer you stay in a studio, the better your record is. Or the more money you spend…

Robert De Niro

It’s just a hello, goodbye kind of relationship. But the interesting thing about De Niro for me is that he has a long and very public history of exclusively loving dark flesh. He loves black women. And so here’s the Kiss connection: Eric Carr, our beloved drummer who unfortunately passed away to cancer in 1991, had a really sweet and pretty hot black girlfriend named Pantera, before the band of the same name. I mean, you could tell, with a name like that she was gonna be hot! It’s not Magda, it’s Pantera. She was hot stuff. De Niro met them both and wasted no time on zoning in on Pantera.

The connection there was that one of the biggest fans that we had was this guy called Fat Vinnie, who must have seen 200 or 300 Kiss shows. He travels around the world, he’s had triple-bypass heart operations, and all the way through the recovery process he has still seen every show. Now, De Niro was about to start filming The King Of Comedy which deals with an extreme fan of Jerry Lewis, and De Niro wanted to meet one and get to know one. 

So Eric’s like, “Hey Bob, meet Fat Vinnie.” De Niro actually lived at his house because he wanted to get see what an extreme fan was all about. He fashioned his idiosyncrasies and his style of talking for the entire film on a Kiss fan! In fact, there’s a pivotal moment where De Niro said he wanted Fat Vinnie to come and work for him as his driver and personal assistant, and Vinnie said, “Sorry, I can’t – Kiss is going back out on tour!”

Simon Cowell

I like Simon! We understood each other right away. He’s the only honest one on American Idol. I’ve known Randy Jackson for a long time too. Paula Abdul and I were going to do some projects together. I was a judge on American Idol for a few episodes. But the only one who tells the truth is Simon. Just because you’re on television you’re supposed to say nice things, but in the real world, if you get off stage and you suck, you suck! And tough love is good. But he’s not nasty. Truth hurts.

There was this one guy who came on the show, a black guy with a gold, I think they call it a grill, where your entire teeth are covered by a piece of jewellery that you put on. You couldn’t understand what he was saying. He was so extremely bad that it was fascinating. It’s like Keith Richards’ skin. When I met Keith I was fascinated by his hands and fingers. Now most people would say that’s ugly, but it’s not – it’s fascinatingly beautiful in its ugliness. Have you held his hand? It’s like leather on a sofa and you’re fascinated by it.

I said to this kid on American Idol, “You don’t belong here, but you’re a fascinating guy. You should be in movies, because you look like a guy who could hold up a 7/11 [store] and be like that.” And sure enough, he was arrested for holding up a 7/11 after the show. He’s in jail as we speak.

This interview first appeared in Classic Rock 142.