How old were you when you first heard about KISS and what were the circumstances by which you eventually became a KISS fan?
I was 7 years old in 1976 when I first saw and heard KISS on the Destroyer album. The look of the band and the song “Detroit Rock City” just completely blew my mind! I realized that I had stumbled upon a life-altering event. There was something really scary yet very intriguing about Gene’s character and I was immediately drawn towards him as my favorite member of the band. Even as a kid, I could never understand how certain other kids could possibly prefer other band members over Gene. It just didn’t make sense to me as a 7 year old. Peter didn’t breathe fire! Why would anyone care about him? LOL
(My 5 year old son likes Ace the best and wears a Frehley wristwatch to preschool every day. I still don’t get the attraction of Ace over Gene – but hey, at least my son’s into KISS).
What are some of your favorite KISS albums/songs and why?
As a kid, the songs that really knocked me out were the harder tunes like “Deuce”, “Watchin’ You”, “Let Me Go Rock ‘N Roll” and “Rock And Roll All Nite”. The Alive! album was really special to me, especially side three where Peter does that incredible drum solo and Paul verbally whips the crowd into a frenzy on “100,000 Years”. In third grade, when I was 9, the teacher let us kids bring one album to school for the last day of school at our class party. My buddy and I conspired to bring the Alive! record and purposely cued up the beginning of “Cold Gin” where Paul discusses the delights of alcohol consumption. The teacher dashed across the room from her desk and ripped the needle off the record. It was hilarious. Even back then, we delighted in knowing that KISS offended “old people” like our teachers and parents.
In my teenage years (and up until now as a 42 year old), I preferred the softer and deeper KISS tunes that Gene wrote. They really speak to me about loneliness, longing and the pain associated with being an outsider in the world. Tunes like “Mr. Make Believe”, “Goin’ Blind”, “A World Without Heroes”, “Only You”, “Under The Rose”, “Man of 1,000 Faces”, “Waiting For The Morning Light” and the like.
I’m currently over halfway finished reading your book Gene Simmons: A Rock ‘N Roll Journey in the Shadow of the Holocaust (which, as you already know from my Amazon review of it, I am enjoying immensely). How did the idea for the book come about exactly?
Well, my mom is a Child of the Holocaust and has always been hyper-aware of anti-Semitism and the ways in which things are connected to the Holocaust. Many years ago, we were talking about Gene Simmons and I mentioned to her that Gene’s mother was a Holocaust survivor and my mom immediately said, “oh, that’s why he adopted that character in KISS”. Being immature, I sort of shrugged it off, thinking “here we go again, everything always has to connect back to the Holocaust, right?” I put the comment out of my mind and life went on. Then, when Gene’s book KISS & Make-Up came out years later, I was really taken by how much Gene discussed his mother’s experiences in the camps and the ways in which it seemed to have really impacted his life. I flashed back on my mother’s comment from years earlier and I wondered
if there might just be a thesis to be explored there: how did the Holocaust affect the life and art of Gene Simmons? That’s kind of how the whole thing began.
Did Gene and/or his mother Florence (Flora) Klein give you their blessing to write the book at any point?
I tried to arrange an interview with Flora through Nick Simmons at a comic book signing event that he was involved in but nothing resulted from it. I sent Gene a few interview requests through the mail, through Facebook and through his website. No response. The thing is, I knew I had enough resources to easily write the book without Gene’s or Flora’s assistance but, of course, I would have loved their participation and added insight. Having their direct blessing would have felt wonderful. However, in the end, I did feel as if I received Gene’s blessing indirectly because he featured my Flora Army webpage devoted to his mother on his A&E television show. He thanked the efforts of The Flora Army on his Twitter site. And his Family Jewels producer emailed me that Gene was “honored” by what I had done in creating The Flora Army. So these acknowledgements felt wonderful, even if it wasn’t Gene himself calling me or writing me a letter saying, “gee, Ross, thank you for spending so much time saluting my mother as a hero. Your book is a real page turner”.
Did Gene, Flora or anybody in the KISS camp have any input in your writing of the book? If so, please discuss.
I felt that I received wonderful input and insights from the guest quotes of KISS insiders like Lydia Criss, Bruce Kulick, CK Lendt, Bill Starkey, Kim Fowley, Bob Kulick, Peppy Castro, Kenny Kerner and others that are spread throughout the book. Most directly, however, was getting to know and interview the sister and niece of Gene’s childhood bandmate and fellow fanzine creator, Seth Dogramajian. I feel that it gives the reader a little more insight into Gene as a shy but creative teen who was still attempting to find himself and decide which talents to focus most heavily on as a young man. I love the images that Seth’s relatives conjure up of the two boys working on their fanzines in the family living room with ink dust wafting through the air.
Approximately how long did it take for you to write the book?
From start to finish – with rewrites, waiting for quotes that people would promise me, changing my mind about book cover designs every week and having to add important things that Gene was doing just as I thought that I was finished with the book – it took close to six years. When you consider that my time was divided between a full time job, a wife and two young kids, I suppose that’s not too long, relatively. What helped was all the planning and mapping out of chapters that I did well ahead of time. That kept me focused and productive. I still gave myself permission to go on “tangents” if I felt they aided the book. However, for the most part, when it was the day for me to write the “Gene calls his mom to tell her about KISS’s latest tour of Japan and all the products that will soon be unleashed upon the world” chapter, then that’s what I was going to spend the evening working on.
Briefly discuss the process that you employed when writing the book.
I started with index cards, each one containing a general topic that I wanted to be sure to cover. From there, as I mentioned, I gave myself latitude to free associate when necessary. In fact, sometimes what I thought would be two separate vignettes ending up naturally merging into one. If it worked, I didn’t worry about it. Stephen King wrote a good book called On Writing where he explained that he liked to have a basic story idea but that he didn’t like to know exactly how everything would unfold because, he figured, if he was surprised by where his story ended up, th
en certainly his audience would be as well. So I tried to keep that in the back of my mind as I was writing. Just get into a zone and go. See where it takes you. Often, I was pleasantly surprised. Other times, crumpled pieces of paper were tossed into the waste basket.
Have you gotten any feedback about the book from Gene, Flora, anybody in their families or any of the other KISS members? If so, who and what did they say?
I haven’t yet received feedback from any of them. Which, on the one hand, can feel disappointing but on the other hand, not hearing from anyone can be a positive, especially if that someone that I’m not hearing from is a Simmons attorney trying to stop the book. Quite honestly, I never really expected Gene to publicly acknowledge the book. He’s not making any money from it, so he really has no reason to publicize it. Also, I know that he has his own book coming out soon with author Ken Sharp, so he may not want to tout the competition. Who knows? I mailed Gene a copy and I hope that he’ll read it. I’d love for him to realize that the fans find the more substantive aspects of his life to be far more interesting than all the talk of his sexual exploits and the usual shtick.
As a writer, who are some of your influences and why?
Although I have a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature, I’d be lying if I told you that I sit around reading Henry James and Franz Kafka. To me, there’s nothing better than reading biographies about troubled rock musicians, the tragic lives of early movie stars and oddly notable recluses such as Howard Hughes and Brian Wilson. Give me a book exploring the bizarre happenings of The Rolling Stones’ Altamont fiasco or a detailed account of the messy infighting contained in The Beatles’ final years and I’m good to go.
Writers who influenced my particular book reflected the specific topics at hand: Holocaust writers such as Elie Wiesel, Carl Friedman, Viktor Frankl and Art Spiegelman were certainly influential and invaluable to me. Rabbi Simcha Weinstein and Arie Kaplan both wrote amazing books about Jews and the history of comic books. One of the best Gene Simmons/KISS books is a very early one written by John Swenson called KISS: Headliners because it captures tons of great quotes from Gene long before he developed his now well known canned answers. I also tapped into some excellent books regarding Children of Holocaust Survivors by authors like Helen Epstein and Aaron Hass.
Are you planning on writing any more books? If so, please discuss. If not, why not?
In my mind, I’m already envisioning a sequel called Jewish Star: The Continuing Adventures of Gene Simmons. I’ve been jotting down ideas as they come to me but we’ll see. It would have to be different enough from the one that I just published or it wouldn’t be worth it.
Discuss your Facebook group, The Flora Army.
After Gene’s autobiography KISS & Make-Up came out, I became very interested in Flora’s story. I would start threads about her on various KISS chat boards and kind of gained a reputation as “that guy who’s always talking about Gene’s mom, Flora”. Slowly, others became interested as well, realizing that to fully understand Gene Simmons, one needed to go directly to the source of all of his dreams and fears and goals and burdens – his mother, Flora Klein. So, one afternoon, I made it official and modified the KISS Army logo to read THE FLORA ARMY and created a Facebook Group Page devoted to Flora, Gene’s childhood, the Holocaust, Jewish Comic Book pioneers, ’60s sci fi/horror fanzines, etc.
I had around 100 members and things were progressing at a slow and steady pace until Gene’s TV Producer announced on our page that THE FLORA ARMY was to be featured on the A&E series Gene Simmons Family Jewels. After that episode aired, our membership shot up to 25,000 members. Shannon Tweed linked us to her Facebook page. Gene tweeted a shout out to THE FLORA ARMY. It was a wonderful feeling to think that we helped spread the message of Flora’s heroic story of survival to the world and, hopefully, reminded a great many people of the dangers of hatred and prejudice.
Feel free to discuss any of your other endeavors here.
I have been a Counselor for 16 years and I just recently decided to return to school to earn a second Master’s Degree in Holocaust Studies in the hopes of teaching Jewish Studies courses in the near future. Writing and completing my Gene Simmons book has been incredibly rewarding and I now look forward to this new area of study and potential second career in my mid-forties. I would like to thank you, Andrew Jacobs, for being such a gentleman and providing me with this opportunity to tell you a little bit more about my book, Gene Simmons: A Rock ‘N Roll Journey in the Shadow of the Holocaust. Let’s do this again in six years when the next book is released.
Ross Berg – January 2012