GENE SIMMONS PLAYS... GOLF?
August 08, 2010
By Peter Ames Carlin

When we talk about Gene Simmons, we talk about the fire-breathing, blood-spitting founder of Kiss, whose kabuki-painted, comic book heavy metal has been familiar to head-banging kids (and their tormented parents) for nearly 40 years.

And so much more. The leering Lothario with his self-proclaimed thousands of conquests. The misogynist boor whose verbal harassment of National Public Radio's Terry Gross is one of the most notorious public broadcasting moments ever. The gleeful modern Barnum who summarizes his contempt for rock-for-art's sake by declaring that he "never wanted to be in a rock n' roll band, I wanted to be in a rock n' roll brand."

Or maybe he's the pussycat father in "Gene Simmons' Family Jewels," the documentary-style sitcom about the family he has with longtime companion (and 1982 Playboy playmate of the year) Shannon Tweed.

Simmons is all that and even more. And last weekend he was right here in Aloha, headlining Pacific University's fourth annual Legends Golf Classic, a high-dollar, star-studded fundraiser for the school's athletic programs.

Not because Simmons, or any member of his clan, has a connection to the school, either. That would be too predictable. This is all about Kiss guitarist - and Washington County native - Tommy Thayer. He didn't attend the school either but is nevertheless a member of Pacific's board of trustees, the one whose showbiz connections, along with his public-spiritedness and his unbelievably nice demeanor (call him the Homecoming King, it totally fits) make him one of the school's most potent fundraisers and attention-getters.

Much of this is due to the Legends golf tourney, which weaves golf, rock n' roll, pro sports and well-to-do Oregonians into a two-day event that is both a quick sellout and a huge fundraising tool for Pacific.

And here's how it all went down.

SUNDAY

It's 3 p.m., more than two hours until the festivities start. No matter, the camera crew for A&E's "Gene Simmons' Family Jewels" is already in tight formation on the Reserve's deck, capturing the apparently casual late lunch being enjoyed by Simmons, Tweed, Thayer and his wife, Amber. Hard to know what they're talking about (don't even ask to go out there, you can't), so let's think instead about Thayer.

The suburban son of a military officer-turned-entrepreneur, Thayer fell in love with rock n' roll as a middle-schooler, got a guitar (a blue Fender Mustang) soon after and that was that. A procession of garage bands led to Black & Blue, a metal band successful enough to score a major label deal and nearly a decade on the cusp of big-time success that never quite happened. Already friendly with Simmons (Black & Blue opened shows for Kiss) Thayer joined the Kiss organization as a kind of apprentice. He played on demo recordings. He fetched coffee. He worked as a road manager.

"I had the work ethic to be there on time every day and do whatever it takes," he says later. "Now I can proudly say that I've been in the top spot, as lead guitarist, for eight years."

Thayer's clear-eyed, goal-centric attitude is perfectly matched to Simmons' old-world industrialist perspective, and the older man (who is 60, 10 years Thayer's senior) gazes at Thayer with the paternal pride of an entrepreneur who already knows his company will be in excellent hands when he leaves.

"I could certainly play a role in Kiss' next generation," Thayer says. "It'd be a natural thing."

3:30 p.m.: Down in the pavilion, one of those huge white function tents that come wired for lights and sound, an all-star band (of sorts) prepares for the acoustic concert that will follow tonight's auction. Jack Blades (Night Ranger, Damn Yankees) leads the group, with contributions from Thayer, ex-Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine and a few others. They'll do songs from everyone's repertoire, (imagine an acoustic "25 or 6 to 4" and "Sister Christian") plus the Beatles, Stones, etc.

"Wait for the whap-boom before the tag," Blades instructs. They all know exactly what he's talking about. Meanwhile, "celebrity liaise" Lydia Ewing stands nearby, wielding multiple phones and handheld devices to make sure all the musicians and professional athletes are not only where they need to be, but as happy as they deserve to be. It's a breeze, she says, particularly compared with the years she spent performing similar tasks for the Clinton administration. So when Ewing's phone erupts with news that Kiss manager Doc McGhee's wife has arrived, unexpectedly, with a hotel-verboten lapdog, Ewing barely shrugs.

5:30 p.m.: Now come the attendees. The first car turns out to be not just a limo, but a Hummer stretch limo, glossy and black, which disgorges half a dozen middle-aged couples, divided evenly between nicely coifed women in light summery gowns and guys in khakis, designer bowling shirts and wrap-around shades. All stride past Pacific's event photographers without breaking stride, not because they're personally famous but because in the age of 24/7 celebrity media, everyone knows how to fend off the paparazzi.

6 p.m.: Auction items: Rounds of golf with celebrity guests from Simmons to ex-Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti, every musician in sight, a herd of retired jocks (NFL, MLB, NASCAR, PGA, LPGA) and actor Clint Howard, who has been in a ton of movies, not all of them directed by his brother, Ron. Plus the usual high-end auction prizes: vacations; Amber Thayer's designer jewelry; Willamette Valley wines; on and on. And there's the open bars and the circulating platters of free drinks. Do you suppose there's a relationship between a person's alcohol consumption and an impulsive decision to bid $10,000-plus for a guitar autographed by ex-Eagle Don Felder? How about a registered (No. 4256) Pete Rose-signed baseball?

6:20 p.m.: It's Pacific president Lesley M. Hallick, who was the provost at OHSU for 20 years before taking Pacific's top job last year. She's also a trained microbiologist and spends her downtime raising cattle on a ranch in Scappoose. Now her job involves chatting with Simmons, which Hallick admits strikes her as a "surprising" turn of events.

"I'm not really a Kiss expert," she admits. "I'm more a folk music fan. But I'm learning. And Gene is a lot of fun."

6:55 p.m.: Simmons enters the pavilion tent after everyone is seated. He's wearing lizard-skin (it appears) cowboy boots, designer jeans, a pinstripe jacket and dark shades. And his hair all but defies description. It's definitely thick and inky-black, textured in a way that seems contrary to its natural inclinations.

7 p.m.: Dinner is served, along with opening remarks from emcee Lisa Guerrero, who you may know from "Monday Night Football," "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" or her current gig on "Inside Edition." She's smart and funny and full of unapologetic jokes about the tidal wave of alcohol sweeping through the tent. The whole night, she decrees, is a drinking game: "Whenever anyone asks for money, you take a drink." The audience, which clearly requires no such prompting, howls.

8 p.m.: Everybody loves Thayer. His "spirit and incredible generosity, his willingness to circulate through the tent, distributing handshakes, hugs and smiles-for-the-cellphone-cam with unending cheer. He's eager to chat but later. "Definitely, I'm psyched to do it. Now just hang out, have some fun, enjoy yourself, OK?"

10 p.m.: "The Oregonian, The Oregonian, The Oregonian." This is Simmons talking. He first heard the paper's name in 1974, he explains, and always hated it. "Who came up with that? What were they thinking, that everyone had to know precisely where they were located? I think it's time to re-brand."

MONDAY
12:30 p.m.: Another day, another mass of cameras, microphones and reporters gathered around Simmons. A double ring this time, with local news cameras shooting in front and A&E's cameras capturing the scene from just beyond. Random phrases float up. "The backbone of what America is all about," Simmons says. "No excuse for whining." When time runs out, Simmons calls a halt. "Nice to see you!" he chirps."Now, get out!'"

1 p.m.: Simmons has never picked up a golf club, so the A&E cameras know exactly what they're after: awkwardness, good-natured humiliation and a flash or two of progress. He provides plenty of the former, then by the fourth tee shows a glimmer of the latter in a drive that lands surprisingly close to the distant green. Dan Dutton, the former CEO of Stimson Lumber, has taken on the role of alpha-golfer, telling the others when to hit and where to aim, and is duly impressed. "You're really gettin' it!' he proclaims.

3 p.m.: Thayer, on the other hand, is a natural leader of his own foursome. Not just because that's his name on the tournament, but also because he can nail soaring drives and sink tricky, 30-foot putts, while making the whole affair look breezy and, really, no hassle at all. "Let's go for it, guys!" he calls at one point. Then, later: "Another birdie! And a beautiful day, what else can we ask for?"

Pacific University certainly scored with its unlikely trustee, just as Simmons' informal apprenticeship program reaped a fine new rock n' roll executive. No wonder they fit so easily with the corporate executives, lawyers, stockbrokers and other big-money college donors. They're all playing the same game, spinning the wheels of commerce in their own particular ways.

"He's an intelligent person, not that guy you see with the painted face," Dutton says approvingly of the man he'd coached through his first 18 holes. "That Kiss brand is one of the more high-profile brands in the country. He's a very successful businessman, so to have him take the time to come out was fantastic."

Turns out, there's more than one way to party every day.