These fans were attending the Gene Simmons Vault Experience. Part box-set release event, part meet-and-greet, part Machiavellian business ploy, the event was being hosted for those who had purchased the new $2,000 Gene Simmons Vault; a literal 38-pound vault containing over 150 previously unreleased songs recorded by Simmons throughout his career (that includes track-by-track commentary) as well as 160 pages of previously unseen photos and even a hand-selected gift direct from Simmons’ personal archive. For $10,000—yes, you read that number correctly—these fans could have opted for the “Home Experience” in which Simmons actually shows up at your front door to hand-deliver your vault in person (which is actually quite an impressive enterprise for a figure of Simmons’ standing, despite the massive price tag, especially when you consider even Ringo got sick of answering fan letters from the comfort of his mansion in 2008). Of course, dismissing all but Planet Earth’s most aggressive and disposable-income-laden memorabilia collectors, it was evident these fans weren’t purchasing the vault as much as they were purchasing their opportunity to finally meet with Simmons one-on-one, even if for only a few minutes in the back room of an unassuming Philadelphia theatre.
I really didn’t know what to expect from this event at first. Simmons is easily one of rock n’ roll’s most controversial figures, simultaneously regarded as a legitimate business genius and borderline-cartoonish egomaniac. Perhaps those are just opposite sides of the same coin. In fact, you could say the same thing about Richard Branson, Kanye West, the President of the United States and literally any Kardashian. But it’s because of these traits, I’ve never really thought of Simmons as a musician. Not to say I don’t think of him as a slightly-above-competent bass player or songwriter. It’s more that I’ve always considered Simmons as a businessman, first and foremost. His product happens to be rock n’ roll, but could just as easily have been used Hyundais or moderately priced Swedish cutlery. Simmons is a man who clearly understands the finer (and obviously more extravagant) points of marketing, having built a multi-million dollar machine out of an—to be perfectly blunt—unessential rock n’ roll band. “Love Gun” and “God of Thunder” were fun songs, but they did not change the genre of rock n’ roll. KISS, however, changed the entire music industry. So, despite how easy certain Internet comment sections make it look, dismissing Simmons as some kind of know-nothing opportunist is simply impossible, regardless of whether his intentions were to record a few good records or earn his fortune by whatever means necessary.
It was this precarious balancing act between artist and businessman that became almost eerily tangible as my cameraman and I waited outside the Gene Simmons Vault Experience, flashing occasional glances of bemusement. Like a clunky allegorical scene from a rushed novel, the entire event seemed almost too obvious, too on-the-nose to possibly be true. Die-hard fans spending upwards of $2,000 for a box-set of Simmons’ demos, a few new pieces of memorabilia (including a commemorative oversized coin engraved with the words “In Gene We Trust” and a “Gene Simmons businessman action figure”) and a five to ten-minute meeting with the man himself. There isn’t a writer living or dead who could have conceived of an event that more perfectly captures the essence of Gene Simmons. “This article is going to write itself,” I found myself gleefully and, upon looking back on it, somewhat condescendingly muttering to my cameraman in hushed tones, as if not to alert the hive of the termite lurking amongst them.
As the last few parade-goers dispersed and the empty streets began bustling with traffic once again, the doors opened and fans began slowly funneling inside and upstairs to the balcony stage. The room was about the size of a small tavern, a skeleton crew maintaining the bar and serving drinks on one side, finger foods being heated in Thanksgiving-style foil containers on the other. Maybe 50 people in attendance overall, including the staff and members of the press. There were no banners, no pyrotechnics. A middle-aged woman with two kids sat at the bar, inspecting her carefully applied makeup via her pocket mirror. Other fans gathered in small circles, discussing everything from KISS to how far they traveled to get there. Simmons unassumingly took the stage to a mild, yet undeniably excited applause.
Simmons spoke for about an hour, dark shades on inside the nearly pitch-black theatre, cradling a Les Paul tuned to E (his preferred tuning is D, as he made quite lightheartedly yet borderline-hurtfully clear to the long-haired gentleman responsible for pre-tuning his guitars), breaking down and explaining his approach to songwriting in far greater detail than I ever would have anticipated. Citing a song called “Smile” written by silent movie era star Charlie Chaplin as his personal favorite, Simmons explained his thoughts on songwriting by half-singing the first few lines. “Smile, though your heart is aching / Smile, though your heart is breaking,” Simmons crooned as a transfixed crowd listened. “That’s a perfect song. Because the name of the song is “Smile.” The very first lyric you hear is ‘smile’. It ends with the word ‘smile’.” He goes on to compare this song against “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, noodling his way through the long-winded riffs and meandering lyrics. “It takes two minutes to get into the chorus,” says Simmons.
It was at this point I realized I didn’t know who this man was. What I expected from this event and from this man was the image I (and probably many others) have cobbled together from half-heard anecdotes and way-too-easy punchlines. I expected “The Demon” and found only Mr. Simmons. I expected a sales pitch and found only perfectly genuine and completely original insight into the mechanics of songwriting. In fact, even Simmons simply citing Charlie Chaplain as one of his favorite songwriters of all time will remain as one of the most mind-blowing and unanticipated things I’ve ever heard.
“The genius of The Beatles is they listened to Gershwin and, yes, Charlie Chaplin,” Simmons explained. “Hey Jude,” he sang. “That’s the name of the song. In fact, it begins even before the chord. That’s genius. The other bands can’t touch them. We can’t shine their shoes. That songwriting talent is–” an iPhone started ringing in the crowd, the tinkly ringtone melody interrupting his momentum. “Don’t worry, I’ll get that,” Simmons joked as the crowd laughed. “By the way, do they make that ringtone for men?”
Simmons stepped down from the stage and made his way through the crowd, bumping fists and smiling all the way to the private room next to the bar where he was to greet fans one-on-one and hand-deliver their vault. There were no velvet ropes, nor any need for security. Simmons was among his people. It was at this event I caught a glimpse behind the face paint and finally got to see the actual person: knowledgeable, humorous, insightful and above all else, genuinely grateful. The event immediately left me feeling somewhat bewildered, slightly unsure of whether or not what I was seeing was an act, or some kind of meta sales pitch. But it wasn’t. It was real. The part of me that only recognized Simmons as a businessman wanted to think these fans were just merely dollar signs, more cogs in the wheels of the machine Simmons has spent a lifetime building. And maybe there’s some truth in that (after all, this is still the man who merchandized everything from KISS table lamps to KISS coffins (“Kaskets”). But being there myself, it simply couldn’t have felt farther from the truth. Perhaps that’s his talent. Or more likely, the dualistic nature of one of the most complicated and intriguing men in rock n’ roll. Simmons needs these fans, and the electrified expressions on all of their faces told me they need him too.
Simmons will forever be a hero to some, a villain to others. And this Vault Experience, in particular, the price tag, suggests he’s not interested in winning over the latter (and why should he be?). Love him or hate him, this was Simmons at his very finest, showing authentic appreciation for his extraordinary career in the only way he knows how, the only way that could ever make sense—by wrapping it up in a 38-pound vault and selling it.
Photos/Illustration by Dan Dinsmore