Gene Simmons: David Bowie's Death Was Tragic, Prince's Was Pathetic

Gene Simmons of Kiss
Gene Simmons performs onstage during the 23rd Annual Race To Erase MS Gala, Beverly Hills, California, April 15. The outspoken star has apologized for saying Prince's death was "clichéd." Frederick M. Brown/Getty

Gene Simmons is happy to be alive. “Every day I wake up and I never take it for granted,” the legendary Kiss frontman says with conviction. At 66, the rock star is a similar age as recently deceased musicians David Bowie—who died at 69 in January—and Prince, just 57 at the time of his death in April. But if any man can defy the Grim Reaper, it’s Gene Simmons, armed with his unbridled, and infectious, joie de vivre. “I’ve always been delusionally upbeat and positive,” he adds.

“Bowie was the most tragic of all because it was real sickness,” Simmons tells Newsweek. “All the other ones were a choice.” Even Prince? “His drugs killed him. What do you think, he died from a cold?” (Prince’s body was found with prescription painkillers in his possession; however, his longtime lawyer denied he was “drugged up,” calling allegations of addiction “foolish.”)

[RELATED: A remembrance of Prince, who reinvented what it means to be a pop star]

Simmons is nothing if not frank. He continues: “I think Prince was heads, hands and feet above all the rest of them. I thought he left [Michael] Jackson in the dust. Prince was way beyond that. But how pathetic that he killed himself. Don’t kid yourself, that’s what he did. Slowly, I’ll grant you... but that’s what drugs and alcohol is: a slow death.”

Simmons’ is a level of candor that fans of the rock star—and viewers of his various reality shows—have come to expect, even appreciate. But for those not attuned to it, it’s not difficult to see how he can be seen as inflammatory—a recent example includes clashing with the members of N.W.A. over “the death of rap.” Simmons is characteristically unapologetic, although he manages to maintain a cool air of charm throughout the conversation. It’s almost as if he enjoys the controversy he’s bound to create. And that may be the mark of a true rock and roll showman.

Newsweek: Did you ever meet Prince?

Gene Simmons: I took Diana [Ross, his girlfriend at the time] to see him when he was first starting out. He was playing a club and we’d never seen anything like that. Backstage when we came up to say ‘you were great,’ we were expecting this huge personality and he was a very small, slight human being. He might have been five-foot-four, very shy, with his eyes to the ground, very self-effacing. He just couldn’t take a compliment: ‘Thank you, thank you.’ He spoke in a whisper. It was shocking actually. He couldn’t look Diana Ross in the face—he kept his eyes to the ground.

The one question I have is: When we all start out and we have these big dreams and you finally get your wish—you have more money than God and fame—what is that insane gene in us, well, a lot of us, that makes us want to succumb to the cliché of clichés: drugs and alcohol? 

Are you saying you’ve never dabbled yourself?

I’ve never been high or drunk in my life. I have to validate that: Except in a dentist’s chair where they knock you out. I’ve never been high or drunk. I don’t care if anybody believes it or not. It’s just a personal life choice. I can almost understand drinking or getting high if it made my schmeckel bigger, or made me smarter, but nothing happens.

Do the purported circumstances around Prince’s death hurt his legacy?

No. Your legacy becomes even bigger, you become more iconic, if you die before your time—Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and all that. They capture the youth.

Kiss in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Kiss—from left to right: Paul Stanley, Peter Criss, Tom Morello, Ace Frehley and Simmons—at the 29th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony, New York, April 10, 2014. Michael Loccisano/Getty

It is less iconic… at some point my hair and teeth are gonna fall out, at some point you’ll see pathetic Gene Simmons at 80 years old with a colostomy bag and a wheelchair—I’ll grant you it’ll be a studded wheelchair and I’ll have a hot nurse wheeling me around—but at that point the imagery doesn’t connect with young Elvis or Marilyn Monroe. If you die before your time it adds to your iconic nature. But I’m not willing to do that—sorry. I really enjoy getting up every day. If it means at the end I become a pathetic version of what I am, so be it. My gravestone will not say: ‘I wish I woulda, shoulda, coulda.’

You caught some flak recently for saying you “look forward to the day rap dies.” Did you mean that?

I didn’t mean that mean-spirited. I’ve got to watch my words. Of course I don’t want it to die. But it will. Rock dies, rap dies—doo-wop died. Remember this? [He sings in the style of doo-wop.] That’s dead. That Chuck Berry stuff is gone. Folk rock went. All things will pass. This idea that music will last forever is delusional.

I’ve been criticized for saying rock is dead but I stand by my words. From 1958 to 1988 we had Elvis, the Beatles, The [Rolling] Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Queen. From 1988 until today, give me the new Beatles? It doesn’t work, does it? Pretty fucking pathetic. The boy band is alive and well—One Direction is a very big band. The pop stuff is good—you’ve got Bieber and Beyoncé. But I don’t know how to tell anybody this, but it ain’t the Beatles. It doesn’t have the gravitas.

You also went back-and-forth with N.W.A., particularly Ice Cube, for saying they don’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame...

N.W.A. is a legendary hip-hop act, perhaps the preeminent one—but it ain’t rock. The day N.W.A. goes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I want Kiss in the hip-hop hall of fame.

Kiss live in Vegas Kiss performs in Las Vegas. Taken from the band's new concert movie "Kiss Rocks Vegas." KISS

You can walk up to [Dr.] Dre and say: ‘What kind of band are you?’ He’s not going to say: ‘We’re a rock band.’ If you ask us what band we are, I’m not going to say hip-hop.

Ice Cube, we hung out a little and took some photos. I greatly admire him as a father. In this day and age, fathers have a horrible record—many fathers leave their families, whether they’re married or not. Our record is not good. But he’s a great father. We’ve gone back-and-forth on the Internet, but I respect him.

So rock is dead, hip-hop will die—is music in dire straits?

Everything has to evolve or become extinct. The pop stuff is phenomenal. Max Martin and all that—really great. If Lady Gaga got rid of the disco boys and sent them back to Las Vegas to get back on the poles where they belong, and dropped all the backing tracks, and put together a real rock band, she actually has the pipes and musical ability to rock out. She could be a modern Janis Joplin. Look what she did with Tony Bennett—really phenomenal. She could do what Madonna, Britney and Rihanna can’t.

J.Lo, Beyoncé and all that stuff, when there’s 50 percent or more of backing track, it’s dishonest. When you buy food it tells you if it’s got 50 percent sugar, 10 percent this. At least have the honesty to respect your fans: ‘You’re buying a $150 ticket, at least 50 percent of the music you’re going to hear is not live.’ Say it. At least then you’ll have the integrity.

That’s why I love EDM—electronic dance music doesn’t pretend to be live. It’s just a guy who presses a button. There’s a big light show and everyone has a great time. Fantastic. I find EDM honest. I find pop music, although it’s well done, is the place for producers and writers in the studio. Live, it’s patently dishonest—lipsyncing, disco boys and all that, it’s just dishonest.

Tell us about your new concert film, Kiss Rocks Vegas. Why has it taken so long for Kiss to make one?

We never like to do anything small. We don’t like to sit in one place that long but we did eight or nine shows [in Las Vegas in 2014]. We were planning a stage show and wanted to try out these huge modern digital screens and so we were going to initially rent the facility and then said, ‘Why don’t we just rehearse live and blow some shit up?’ The great challenge was to make sure we didn’t set the place on fire.

You’ve said in the past you regret voting for Barack Obama to become U.S. president. Are you happy to see him near the end of his term?

No. I think towards the end of his presidency... I voted for him twice; I wanted to be on the right side of history. I think once he became more aggressive and sent drones to kill the bad guys, and okayed sending the Navy SEALs to kill Bin Laden... yeah, proactive, aggressive foreign policy. Leaders must abide by the Geneva Convention—except when civilization itself as at the precipice. When Obama sent Navy SEALs across the Pakistani border he actually broke international law and killed Bin Laden, and probably some innocent people. Once he started doing that my opinion of him grew.

A passive world leader is exactly what the bad guys look for. By the way, the bad guys have no problem cutting off heads... we argue that we shouldn’t waterboard. The bad guys are laughing their heads off: ‘Wow, this is great, we can cut off their heads and they may not waterboard us.’ Come on!

You also previously backed Mitt Romney in 2012 saying America “should be run by a businessman.” Does that extend to Donald Trump in the 2016 election?

I do abide by the idea that politicians are not the best thing for countries. I believe business people are. Intrinsically, unless you know how capitalism works and how to create jobs, you’re going to get chaos. America had a balanced budget when [Bill] Clinton was president and now we’re approaching $19 trillion in debt. That’s because politicians don’t have the balls to say: ‘OK, America’s fat, it’s time to go on a diet.’ A leader has to do some stuff that’s not popular. You can vote them in, you can vote them out, but once you’re in charge, don’t ask everybody what you should or shouldn’t do—they are not qualified to know how economics and foreign policy works.

You were a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice with Trump. Are voters seeing the real Donald?

The Donald Trump that was on The Apprentice is the same one you see in front of everybody. He doesn’t read cue cards, nobody writes his speeches for him… if you see the animal and see the stripes on the animal, it’s a true description of the animal. If you like it you’ll vote for it, if you don’t you won’t.

Hillary Clinton is a humanist, she cares about people, but don’t kid yourself—she’s a politician. Politicians will lie to their mothers about anything. Trump, good, bad or otherwise, will tell anybody to fuck off because he uses his own money and doesn’t need your money to run. I think more business people are needed in government. The better off they are, the less you can buy them off. How many politicians have been bought off with cash?

Kiss Rocks Vegas is in select cinemas around the world on May 25. For more details, visit www.kissmycinema.com.