Thomas Wictor

Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed L.A. Music Journalist

Since Bass Player had never written anything about Gene Simmons, I pitched him to Jim Roberts. Jim agreed, telling me it would be another feature article, my third. I contacted Simmons’s publicist, who asked if Gene would get the cover. That decision was out of my hands. Jim said he never made deals and had to see the interview first. The publicist and I called back and forth a few times until I threatened to move on to another project.

Simmons himself called me without warning a few days later and wanted to do a phoner, which I refused. The point for me was to meet him and hone my chops. He abruptly hung up, called the next day, and asked if I could meet him in half an hour. When that didn’t work, I cleared my schedule and waited until he called a third time and we worked out a deal to talk at the studio where Kiss put the final touches on their new album. I interviewed Simmons on January 28, 1996.

The interview began with him actually taking my tape recorder out of my hands and cradling it in his lap as he sat on the sofa with his legs stretched out on the coffee table. He went into his standard interview, which I let him do for a while, and then I started in with questions I’d never heard anyone ask him before. I don’t know how I figured this out, but with someone as famous as he is, it’s a complicated dynamic: You can’t be too deferential, or they get bored because everyone kisses their rumps all the time, but you also can’t be too familiar, because then you’re disrespecting their hard-earned position in society. The key is to simply be perceptive. I took my cues from my interview subjects; they always let me know exactly how to interact with them.

When speaking to Simmons, I remembered a story I’d read about the actress Ethel Barrymore, who was a legend in her day. At a party a stranger kept addressing her as “Ethel.” Finally, she shouted, “Ethel, hell! Just call me ‘Cuddles’!” So you have to show that you’re not a sycophant, but you’re also not in any way taking liberties. I can tell you the exact moment I won him over: I referred to myself as an insignificant insect, and he whistled the way you do when you witness a terrible disaster or something you simply can’t believe. At that point he knew I was camping it up for him, and he knew that I knew he was camping it up for me, and everything was going to be okay. It was something neither of us acknowledged, of course; if I’d punched him on the arm and said, “Aw, ya nut!” he would’ve rightfully cut me off at the knees.

Initially, the Gene Simmons interview was the most difficult balancing act I performed in my career. When I asked him my most combative questions, I actually got out of my chair and sat cross legged on the floor at his feet, like an acolyte. From this position, I could then really challenge him. An extremely intelligent man, he knew exactly what I was doing and appreciated my strategy. All was well, as long as I didn’t overstep my bounds by acknowledging the art we created together. That would’ve been boorish and disrespectful and would’ve shown unearned familiarity. It also would’ve put me at the center of the story. My goal was to telegraph to Simmons that he was entirely the focus; he’d set the agenda; and I’d make him shine by playing the straight man. He got it—understanding that in no way was it manipulation—and ran with it. I always shudder at interviews I read, thinking, No, no! Why’d you ask him that?

Though the interview was originally supposed to last no more than an hour, he gave me two. We had a huge, shouting fight over tone when I told him I could tell different brands of bass by the sound, and he said I was full of it. The fight wasn’t real, but we had to pretend it was. It’s very hard to be deferential while yelling at someone, but it can be done. I told him that he was full of it because the tone of the bass in his songs changed and so did his instruments. If it didn’t matter, he wouldn’t have changed tone or basses. He eventually admitted that tone is important, but he refused to tell me a thing about his equipment, settings, or anything technical. At least twice in the interview he said he needed to be on the cover; what I did to allay his concern was to present him ever more opportunities to say outrageous, entertaining things. It was up to him.

My policy as an interviewer came perfectly naturally to me, but I soon discovered it was almost unheard of in the field of journalism: I always offered the musician the opportunity to read the article before I submitted it. If they had any problems, we could talk about them. The article was about that person, after all. For the vast majority of the artists I interviewed, this rarely resulted in anything noteworthy. Their people would contact me and say that everything was fine, or they’d ask for a tweak here and there, and I’d turn in the article.

At the end of this interview, I asked Simmons if he’d like to see the article before I submitted it. He closed his eyes, turned down the corners of his mouth in an expression of colossal indifference, slowly shook his head, and went, “Naaaaaaaaah.” I thought, “Why you” But years later, I realized that he knew it was going to be great, so he didn’t have to worry. Gene Simmons was the only artist I ever interviewed who didn’t ask to see the article before I submitted it. I now recognize the huge compliment he gave me.

When the interview was over, I called Jim Roberts on the studio pay phone and told him Gene Simmons had just concluded the most exceptional interview I’d ever heard him give. It would blow everybody’s socks off, but he wanted to know if he’d get the cover. To show you the measure of the man who is Jim Roberts and to demonstrate a supreme example of his skill, savvy, courage, and perception, as well as his trust in methe insignificant insecthe said, “If the interview is as good as you say it is, then yes, he’ll get the cover.” I put him on the spot, and he came through for me, just like that. I asked a studio staffer for a notepad and wrote “Dear Gene: I just spoke to my boss on the phone. You got the cover. Congratulations and thank you. Tom Wictor.”

The Kiss reunion tour with the original lineup was announced in April of 1996. Simmons hadn’t said anything about it, and I wondered how that would bode for the new album, parts of which Simmons had played for me during the interview. I actually loved the song “Hate,” which in my opinion is Kiss’s best work. The lyrics, vocals, and bass are outstanding. My article, “Gene Simmons: Call Him Doctor Love,” was published in the July 1996 issue of Bass Player, creating a firestorm. The most gratifying letter in response to it was from music journalist Matt Resnicoff, a writer I admired greatly.

Congratulations to Thomas Wictor for an interview that does justice to a personality as colorful and routinely ignored by the “credible” press as Gene Simmons. It was likely the best Simmons piece ever. And the fact that Kiss’s underrated recordings were analyzed by Karl Coryat with such literate care makes a strong case for Bass Player as one of the most insightful and important music magazines.

I seemed to have pulled off the impossible. Winging it every inch of the way, I’d transformed myself into a serious music journalist Gene Simmons would speak to for two hours and whose work was worthy of praise from the likes of Matt Resnicoff.