08/15/2015

KISS' Gene Simmons on Giving Back

By Steve Baltin / Billboard

Outspoken KISS icon Gene Simmons is a journalist’s dream, always good for colorful quotes on a variety of subjects. Like when the subject turns to Kiss’ place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Simmons questions why acts like Madonna and Donna Summer are in there. And he wonders: “When is Led Zeppelin going to be in the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame?”

But Simmons has a softer side as he talks about his many philanthropic endeavors. He’ll be participating in two charity events. The first is Aug. 16 at Lucky Strike in Hollywood, where he and Johnny Depp will bowl and lead an all-star jam that also includes Gilby Clarke, Nuno Bettencourt and more to raise funds for Mending Kids, an organization that raises money to send doctors around the world to perform operations on kids in need. The second event will take place Aug. 18, where Simmons will be interviewed at the Grammy Museum following stand-up sets by the likes of Bill Burr and Jim Jefferies as part of Comedy Rocks. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Sophie’s Place, a charity set up by his daughter Sophie Simmons, which also benefits children.

Simmons spoke to Billboard about the importance of giving back, as well as his plans for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Tell us about the event Sunday.

Mending Kids does great work. All the funding comes in from contributions, and MendingKids.org sends doctors, on their dime, around the world to provide free operations to children with physical deformities, facial, spinal, anything, where otherwise they would have a life of pain and suffering and perhaps death. So Johnny Depp and I are gonna bowl August 16 at Lucky Strike in Hollywood, so people should go get their tickets. Space is limited, it’s not one of those huge events, so there’ll be high-end people and a rock band, everybody’s gonna jump up and jam. Johnny will play a few songs, I’ll play a few songs, a few other knuckleheads will jump up, and all the proceeds go to MendingKids.org to provide children with operations that they would normally never have.

Have you ever jammed with Johnny before?

No. We’ve met and chatted some, but never been onstage with him.

Are there covers you’d be particularly excited to do with him?

We have no idea. We’re just gonna do it loosey-goosey -- which is not a bad name for a band, not a good name come to think of it. But you get up there and just let it roll. There’ll be a good bunch of musicians; it’s gonna be a good night. But anything you do too slick doesn’t come off heartfelt. It’s less about the show and the celebrities and more about the good and what we’re all trying to do for kids.

How did you first ever get involved with the organization?

A few years ago, I was introduced to Mending Kids by a friend. It started off as business, and then the more I looked into it, the more I saw these are legitimate doctors who contribute their time and effort and they try to raise funds.

You did a benefit for them at House of Blues with Kiss and Tom Jones as well.

I put the deal together, negotiated with the House of Blues to give us the space for free, I booked Arsenio Hall and Tom Jones and the guys in Kiss contributed their time. I called Penn Jillette, who hosted the evening, and I called Mark Cuban to broadcast the event on AXS. It was a big night, raised a lot of money, and then as we all do, we get busy with the rest of our lives. Then Mending Kids called me about a month back and said, “Look, we’re having this event, can you please promote it?” They said they have Johnny Depp. I said, “That’s all you need, but I’ll be happy to step up and I’ll bowl and you can auction me off and we’ll jam and do all that.”

What do you look for in charities you work with?

The most important thing is that most of the money goes to help make a difference. There are large organizations that cost a lot of money for offices and staff, I tend not to get involved with those because enough of the money goes to buy people cars and pay office rent and stuff like that. They’re well-meaning, but they’re expensive. The lean, mean organizations that don’t have a high overhead means that more of the money gets to help people. Children are my soft spot, actually.

Has that always been the case for you, or became more of an issue for you as you got older and became a parent?

I’m not from America [Simmons was born in Israel], and when I was a kid, we had nothing. We had an outhouse out in the woods that was a hole in the ground and that’s where you went. We didn’t even have toilet paper; we had rags and you’d wash them and reuse them. That’s where I came from. I never saw a toilet or a toothbrush until I was about 9. And I’m not tugging on anybody’s shirt sleeves to get any kind of sympathy. Six months after the country became independent, I was born. And so in the beginning, there was very little infrastructure. And one day a care package showed up and there were cans of peaches and a Bugs Bunny book; not a comic book. I still remember it: Bugs Bunny is going over the hill and he’s being hunted by Elmer Fudd and all that. Of course I couldn’t read English at the time and there was a torn sweater. And when that care package came in, all of a sudden I had the sense that somebody cared, and it started there.

Are there moments you’ve gotten to see the effects of what you do?

We’ve worked with Wounded Warriors for years, and a tour or two ago, a buck out of every ticket was given directly to Wounded Warriors. And the last tour in America we found a vet who had nothing when he came back home. He had three kids and a wife and they were trying to figure out where they were gonna live, so we pooled all the money and brought him up onstage during a show. We talked onstage about how we all think Superman and Spider-Man are cool, but the real superheroes actually volunteer and risk life and limb for an idea, which gives us the freedom we have. I don’t want to get too cornball about it, but there’s nothing like our armed forces. So onstage we surprised our vet with a brand-new house all paid for. To watch the joy and the tears of the family and the vet was something. The entire audience was cheering and happy and crying, it was a thing to behold.

And you have another charity event next week, correct?

Two days later at the Grammy Museum. I was asked by Bill Burr and a few of the other very funny guys to come up there and either be made fun of or joke back and forth and some of the proceeds are going to Sophie’s Place. That’s SophieTSimmons.com for anybody that wants to contribute and save some lives.

Who have been the comedians you really admire and enjoy over the years?

The guys I liked were dangerous and they weren’t politically correct, some of them were racist, some had anger issues and drugs and all that stuff. But because they were dangerous they were really funny. Sam Kinison I thought was just a killer. I knew Andy Kaufman, and he got a bad rap. But at his height, no matter how politically incorrect and how insensitive he was, Andrew Dice Clay -- I’d never seen anything or heard anything like him. In his own way, George Carlin must have pissed off lots of people. There are a lot of guys. But basically I’m not a fan of comedians who talk about why did the chicken cross the road. I don’t want humor my mom would get off on. I like humor that you can’t believe what comes out of the guy’s mouth.

Like many comedians, Kiss has always been very outspoken and it took so long for you guys to get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Never cared about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do I care that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame decided to bring Madonna and LL Cool J into it before us? No. I have no idea what those artists have to do with rock and roll. When is Led Zeppelin going to be in the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame? But stranger things have happened, and I’m the last guy in the world to complain about anything. In fact, I was thinking of buying the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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