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Thurs 10th October 2013 - A World With Heroes...

Who was it that stated ‘Never meet your heroes’?

Such a rule of thumb is clearly designed to leave those whom we idolise firmly on the pedestal that keeps them at 15 arm’s lengths from us mere mortals. How depressing would it surely be to encounter someone you’ve held in the highest possible regard, only for them to disappoint and depress you with bad gags, bad attitudes or simply bad body odour within seconds of touching the hem of their garment?

My answer to that is that it’s all a matter of chance. The chances are, if your ‘hero’ is a drink or drug-addled individual who lucked his or her way through life despite a blatant disregard for others to go with their talent or gift, then it’s not likely to go well is it? Although some of those who’ve been through torment by substances and emerged on the other side may be suitably repentant about the person they once were and have valuable lessons to impart on the easily influenced.

Gene Simmons of KISS is an individual who has been bloody-minded over the decades in his anti-drink/drug stance within the field of rock and roll. He is, some would say, the living embodiment of the American dream – a young Jewish boy born in Haifa, Israel who came to America with his Hungarian mother as a 6-yr old refugee, having no knowledge of the English language nor Western culture – and yet has cultivated, nurtured and presided over one of the most iconic acts/images in the history of rock n roll music and made many many millions of dollars through his tireless efforts to make KISS a recognised brand as much as a band.

He comes across in interviews as self-serving, boorish, sexist, arrogant and unwavering in his belief in himself. He cares little for criticism, nor indeed for critical acclaim. He and his KISS co-founder Paul Stanley will happily licence the KISS image to anything from Hello Kitty product lines to American Indoor Football teams (the LA KISS is a brand new AFL franchise for 2014) although they have steadfastly taken a principled stance and will never countenance the idea of KISS cigarettes or hard liquor…remember they still play the classic ‘Cold Gin’ in concert, but the ‘don’t drink and drive’ message is always hammered home before the song is played. And neither Gene nor Paul wrote the tune anyway :o)

My usual long-winded intro is finally getting to the point. Gene Simmons was recently booked to come to talkSPORT towers whilst he visited the UK to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the NFL International Series game at Wembley. Once the booking was confirmed for H&J’s show, the lads asked if I’d come in and help with the interview given my love of all things KISS. I didn’t hesitate in clearing a space in my diary.

I had met Gene (and Paul) some 20 years previous at a somewhat different stage in KISS’ notoriety – it was early 1994; the band had spent over a decade recording and touring without the trademarked (literally) make-up that had made them a household name in the USA, Japan, South America and Australia without making a huge dent in Europe and particularly the UK. It’s worth noting that the band’s 2 Top 10 hits in this country were during this post-Dulux period – Crazy Crazy Nights in 1987 and God Gave Rock and Roll To You in 1991 both reached No.4 – and many who bought those singles would have known nothing about the previous macabre image that so fascinated other parts of the world.

By the time 1994 had rolled around, KISS were not in a strong position as they once were. They were still selling albums, of course, but not as frequently as they had some 10 years before in the UK at least. But their credibility was beginning to get a shot in the arm courtesy of new 90’s artists who cited KISS as a major influence on them in their youth. Step forward Trent Reznor, Lenny Kravitz, Garth Brooks, Metallica…even Nirvana covered a KISS tune on an independent tribute album to the band.

Gene & Paul had seen this release and figured it was a good route to travel down – pretty soon, bands like Extreme, Dinosaur Jnr, the aforementioned Lenny Kravitz and more were being conscripted by KISS (well, Gene really – it was his project) to record covers of the back catalogue for a new album celebrating both the band’s music and the high esteem KISS were now held in by the new rock establishment. “Kiss My Ass” was that album, and Gene & Paul flew to London in early ’94 to ostensibly promote the album whilst dropping hints about a new KISS album in the works.

Steve Beebee was a good friend of mine who wrote for Kerrang! Magazine and had championed my own band Shotgun Wedding for a couple of years in print – without much success. But that’s not the point…I remember him ringing me at the guitar shop where I worked one day and asking “What are you doing Thursday, Ian?”

“Not a fat lot!” I replied, as Thursdays were my day off in the week from work.

“Fancy coming to London to meet Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley?”

“Piss off, you’re not meeting them, are you????”

“For a whole hour, mate. All to promote their new CD. Figured you might fancy it?”

“Bloody hell mate, I’m there with bells on!”

And so it was that, in a swanky Park Lane hotel suite, I sat with Steve a week or so later awaiting the arrival of 2 gentlemen who, along with Trevor Francis at St Andrew’s, had unquestionably shaped my childhood and left me spellbound at every turn. I was, to put it mildly, panning myself.

Paul arrived first, breezing into the room with an easy charm and a winning smile, promptly plonking himself down on the sofa next to me and offering a firm handshake before looking at me for a second and saying merely “Steve Harris!” as though I were a dead ringer for Iron Maiden’s bassist. Makes a pleasant change from the Daniel O’Donnell and James May ones I get nowadays. But I digress.

Gene arrived a couple of minutes later, all brooding intensity on the surface as I might have expected from the man who portrayed a fire-breathing, blood-drooling monster on stage for a decade. And by and large that intensity remained for the whole hour’s interview. But alongside that intensity and desire to ‘sell’ the product, there was, from both men, a great deal of self-deprecating humour and no small amount of praise and well-wishing to the other original members of KISS, Peter Criss & Ace Frehley, stating unequivocally that they were as important as anyone to the initial rise to success that the band had in the mid 70’s.

Little did we know that this praise was all part of a grand design to reunite with Ace and Peter, which Gene and Paul did the following year on the MTV KISS Unplugged programme, and subsequently the KISS reunion tour in 1996/7 where the make-up was re-applied, the gargantuan 70’s stage set was re-constructed and tickets sold quicker than Usain Bolt running for a bus.

I left that 1994 interview slightly dazed and bewildered that I had spent such an inordinate length of time listening to KISS being interviewed right in front of me. But the ‘never meet your heroes’ line never once crossed my mind. They had been everything I had expected them to be; professional, courteous, focused and business-like.

And that is why Gene is still making money and is still touring/making records with KISS nearly 20 years on from that interview. So, when the talkSPORT interview was confirmed, I knew that nothing much would have changed in his demeanour and that I would once again enjoy his company.

Being in talkSPORT - a working environment that I love so dearly having spent the last 10 years working there on pretty much every show on the schedule – and talking to Gene about KISS-related stuff is just about as good as it gets for a day in the office. Gene casually sauntered in with his bodyguard (no need for a ‘posse’ – one bloke does the job just fine for Gene) and I re-introduced myself. Of course, he didn’t remember me from Park Lane 1994 (why would he?) but before long we were chatting away about everything and nothing whilst we made him a huge cup of coffee to take into the studio with him.

He did everything that was asked of him prior to the live interview without a single complaint (voicing a question to Alan Brazil, recording a plug for H&J’s show) and the 10-minute live interview with Paul & Andy itself was a hoot. It was a real honour to be sat there with him asking questions, but all too soon it was over and he had to head back to his hotel for an NFL Twitter Q&A.

There was just time for me to prostitute myself before he departed. Grabbing a copy of my ‘Prove You Wrong’ album from my bag, I presented it to Gene, giving as brief a potted history of what it was about as I could so as not to bore the bloke. He accepted the gift with thanks and turned the CD over to look at the song list for a few seconds.

“Nice titles…” he swiftly proclaimed.

“Well if you like the titles, Gene, I’m sure you’ll love the riffs and stuff” I quickly spluttered in reply

“…I Wanna Be A Has-Been…” he went on, looking at Track 15 in particular. I explained the story of the song based on the phrase ‘better a has-been than a never-was-a” and said explanation elicited a fist-pump from the great man!! I was exultant! In the midst of all this, photos were taken, sunglasses were exchanged from Gene’s face to mine (I haven’t seen that photo yet!!) and suddenly he was gone.

Everyone in the office has long since known about my devotion to KISS (lest we forget my 5 years hard graft at the tribute band coalface with Dressed To Kill). The huge wave of piss-taking and gasps that came my way from colleagues as Gene disappeared was to be expected! But in amongst that piss-taking was an understanding of how much I’d enjoyed meeting a hero. Sporting heroes arrive at talkSPORT towers on a daily basis – hell, I work with a good number of them every week – but when a left-field guest like Gene shows up there, then that’s different as most only know sketchy detail about the man and what he’s achieved. I knew as much about him as I’d know about Trevor Francis – and I remember how nervous I was before I first interviewed him as Birmingham City manager!!

I suspect everyone in our office has someone outside of sport that meant a lot to them growing up and indeed in their adult life who they will never get to meet – how fortunate am I that I have met that person…twice. It’s not lost on me I tell you.

So meet your heroes, I say. Relish it. So long as you know that they’re going to be compus mentis when you do meet them. It helps avoid embarrassment-on your part and theirs.

Gene, you’re a bloody legend. And a true gentleman at that. Now then…any chance of a UK tour? :o)

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