As the singer and bassist of KISS, Gene Simmons helped bring the theatre back into rock n’ roll. The group shocked audiences with their stunning live shows, which featured everything from fire-breathing performers to blood-splattered audiences and levitating drum kits. As a result, Simmons is one of the most written about hard-rock musicians of all time. He is also one of the most successful. In this article, we look at the roots of that success.
It’s never a popular decision, dedicating one’s life to rock n roll. Considering the scene’s reputation in the 1970s, it was a life choice that was often regarded as a one-way street to either sodomy or poverty for many would-be rockers. But Gene Simmons was one of the lucky ones. In an interview he gave in 2019, he described how his mother taught him a valuable lesson that shaped his career and which has subsequently helped him establish one of the most enduring careers in music.
“The wisest person I ever met continues to be my mother. She survived a Nazi concentration camp at fourteen when her whole family was killed. Her perspective on life is, ‘Every day above ground is a good day, so reach for the stars. As long as there’s nobody trying to kill you, what have you got to lose? You cannot fail.’ And she’s right,” Simmons began.
Florence Klein gave birth to Simmons (who was born Chaim Witz) on August 25, 1949, at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel. Florence and her brother Larry were the only family members to survive internment in Nazi concentration camps. Simmons spent much of his early life in Tirat Carmel and was raised in a practising Jewish household. As a child, he remembers his family being “dirt poor”, but that didn’t stop him from practising his guitar for hours on end.
Then, at the age of eight, he immigrated to New York with his mother, where they settled. His father, however, remained in Isreal. It was in New York that Simmons changed his name to Gene Klein to honour his mother.
As Simmons describes, Klein’s experiences in the concentration camp gave her a stoic outlook on life: “She’s also taught me that success is only temporary. She still doesn’t understand who pays me and why there’s so much money. She just can’t fathom it. When I showed her the first ten million dollar check I earned, she didn’t know what ten million dollars was, or whether it’s ten thousand or a hundred thousand.”
Simmon’s mother never took her son’s initial success at face value. Instead, she surged him to continue pushing forward. Simmons went on to describe how: “she looked at it and it looked like a large number and she said, ‘That’s wonderful, now what are you gonna do?’ She’s right. You knock somebody out, you’re the champion of the world, hey that’s great. OK, now what are you gonna do? Sit back? Or are you gonna get back in the ring and continue to pump your heart while you’re alive? Use it or lose it. I learned that work ethic from my mother.”
Simmons went on to note how his mother’s attitude has shaped his own parenting: “For one thing, they’ve never had an allowance. I strongly don’t believe in giving your kids any money for nothing, because when they go off on their own, their hands are going to be outstretched, going ‘Where’s my money for doing nothing?’ So it’s a good thing to keep your kids on a tight leash. Also, I don’t expect much from you, but what I do expect, you will deliver, or else. One is, you’re not allowed to get high or get drunk or smoke cigarettes – can’t do that. If you want to, I want to have a discussion. And tell me before, don’t tell me after. If you transgress, if you go against my commandments, you will find yourself in a desert camp digging holes, written out of the estate and the will.”