Gene Simmons: Rock god turned business tycoon

Gene Simmons has made a career out of doing a lot with a little. 

His band, KISS, featured members with little or no formal musical training but went on to become one of the nation’s biggest rock acts. Growing up in Haifa, he sold cactus fruit to workers at a local bus stop to help his struggling mother.  And, more recently, the mundane everyday activities of his family were at the center of a reality show, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” which had a six-season run. 

Now, Simmons has taken a simple concept — namely, work hard — and turned it into a book. “Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life, and Business” is a brash guide for the budding entrepreneur from a man whose band has sold more than “100 million CDs and DVDs worldwide and manages over 3,000 licensed merchandise items,” according to publicity materials, and who is worth, according to various websites, an estimated $300 million. 

The book, which was published in October by Dey Street Books, targets the wannabe Generation Y entrepreneur who is looking for guidance from an accessible voice. It is also for the casual reader who may not be interested in business advice but wants insight into the mind of an entertainment icon. Either way, the book is an enjoyable, if slightly redundant read, and it shows how Simmons is the embodiment of the classic American immigrant success story.

“Though I was born in Israel, I can tell you that it’s America that has become the Promised Land,” Simmons, 65, writes in the book’s preface. 

Simmons, born Chaim Witz, emigrated from Israel to the United States at the age of 8. He learned the language, worked a variety of jobs and eventually changed his name when he decided his ambition was to be in a rock band, noticing there were very few in that field with the last name Witz.   

“I didn’t take it personally. I recognized the facts. I realized that Robert Zimmerman had turned himself into Bob Dylan. That Marc Bolan from T. Rex had been born Mark Feld. And that Leslie West from Mountain had originally been known as Leslie Weinstein,” he writes. “They all reinvented themselves, changing their names, and their images along the way.” 

Equipped with just a bass guitar and a genius business instinct, Simmons, with the help of Paul Stanley, who is also Jewish, founded KISS in 1973. The band made the decision to manage itself and, although the members didn’t have the chops of, say, The Beatles, they had larger-than-life ambition and outside-the-box ideas: They wore elaborate face makeup on stage, oversaw a KISS movie (“Detroit Rock City”), and inspired action figures, comic books and more. 

Simmons, who lives in Los Angeles, relays all this as he blends advice with memoir. He describes his 1980s courtship with Shannon Tweed, a model-actress who became his wife in 2011. He fell hard for her, he writes, after dating the likes of Cher at the age of 29, and later, Diana Ross. (Cher was Simmons’ first girlfriend because, as Simmons advises his reader, success should come before love.) 

His relationship with Tweed has been a source of some of Simmons’ few failures — at least, as he tells it. Simmons admits he was not always faithful to Tweed, and berates himself in the book for his infidelities. 

Nonetheless, the book is mostly filled with Simmons’ glories. In addition to his Hall of Fame music career, Simmons also has a restaurant chain, an Arena Football League team (the L.A. Kiss), a record company and more. 

For a man worth so much money, Simmons proves surprisingly in sync with the everyman. In one chapter, he writes about the benefits of working at home and how cutting down on commute times is an important part of the journey toward realizing one’s dreams.  

Other tips are more brutal and discomfiting. At one point, he advises his reader to have self-confidence so extreme that it verges on the delusional, such as to only be friends with more successful people, and to avoid vacation days and down times at all costs. He cites the likes of Steve Jobs, Donald Trump and Richard Branson as people who are among his role models in the business world.

“Have a killer instinct,” he writes. “I still do. And I don’t have to. I would, arguably, make a living without trying very hard at this point. My bills are paid. I don’t have to write this book, or be in a rock band, or be partners in all the companies I’ve mentioned. Why do it? 

“Because I’m a champion. I pride myself not only on what I’ve achieved, but on what I dream of achieving. I refuse to sit on my thumb all day and talk about yesterday. That’s for wimps. I’m a today and tomorrow person … YOU first. Everyone else second.”   

Simmons makes it clear early on that what he says is only his opinion and the reader can take it or leave it. But there is enough here, especially Simmons’ words for recent college graduates — or, perhaps, for Simmons’ own two children, Nick and Sophie, who are in their 20s — that rings poignant and true:

“In the real world, once you grow up and Mom or Dad isn’t there to bail you out of trouble, there is no one there to help. And there will be no one there to force YOU to lead a smart life. And an economical life. And have a lifelong business plan,” he writes. “YOU will have to do that for yourself. But here’s the good news: YOU will get all the rewards. And take heed, regardless of your age: it’s never too late to get started. It’s never too late to get started NOW.” 

D’var Torah: Me, myself and I

Tom Wolfe dubbed the ’70s the “Me Decade.” A poor economy sent Americans away from the social caring of the 1960s and into a retrenchment of insecurity and self-focus.

Today, along with massive economic setbacks, we are enduring a decade of almost endless self-aggrandizing. We feel empowered by our consumer choices; there are millions of things to buy and watch and listen to, such that we spend our days jam-packed with stimulation. But what does this really bring us?

Beneath the barrage, our hearts feel unfed and unloved. Interest in social action has gone out of style, as has involvement in spiritual community, as we withdraw into our homes, replacing friendship with Facebook.

Los Angeles Times Op-Ed columnist Meghan Daum dubbed us a “nation of jerks” for our collective addiction to social media. Instead of connecting when we leave our homes, we “bang into each other when we exit movie theaters because we’re buried in our iPhones.” Almost daily we hear of new mass shootings, perpetrated by people whose only motivation is emptiness.

I propose we call the 2010s the “I Decade.” The individual has moved from “me,” the object of everything, to “I,” its subject. Generosity of spirit, the will to see all people as equal creations of God and to connect with them from a place of depth — the “Thou” of relationship as explained by Martin Buber — is gone from our popular culture.

By admiring self-determination and callous manipulation, and filling every millisecond of our time with shallow interactions, we worship the ultimate non-God: stuff. This is idolatry, the real meaning of the “I Decade.”

“Aleinu, it is upon us,” as we say at the end of every prayer service, to take direct action against this cancer on the Earth we call “I.” We need to restore the “Thou,” and fast. Doing so starts with us — each and every “I” — and the will to want to relate to others, and to God, as a truth as equal and as beautiful as our own. To find the strength to overcome shallowness and truly be present, to trust and to love, is the central struggle of life today for the spiritually alive person.

This is what we learn in this week’s Torah Portion, Shoftim, or Judges. In it, God lays out the key elements for living a good life, a life deserving of the land that God is about to give the Israelites. Central among these is the tenet to never set up a post as a thing of worship, or to bow down to foreign gods. The person found guilty of this must be stoned to death, God adds through Moses. “Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.”

Yes, that’s harsh. God wants us to know that it takes a hard-line policy to make a system function. In this case, the system is ourselves and our willingness to be distracted from truth and connection. To take a call in the middle of a conversation. To text while driving, watching movies, sitting in synagogue or taking a hike in the hills. To fill our time with pettiness, instead of giving our minds time to be open to the world, to think about our lives and how we are behaving in them, to truly connect through love. To be.

But how do we overcome so pervasive an addiction, especially when it involves devices and information we do need in order to get by in this modern age?

Medieval kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital finds the answer in our parasha, which begins, “Appoint judges at all your gates.” Vital notes that this is phrased in the singular (you, a specific individual), because it is meant to address each one of us, and our work to overcome the sin of chronic distraction.

We all have six “gates,” Vital says, namely, our eyes, ears, mouth, nose, hands and feet. At each portal, we must “station a judge,” a metaphoric guard, to enforce upon us limitations on what we look at, listen to, say, touch and run toward.

As the High Holy Days approach, take some time today to ask yourself — what am I doing to ensure that I spend my time meaningfully?

“Every intelligent person should take this [teaching] to heart, while he is still alive,” Vital said. “He will then merit to have the gates of righteousness open before him (at the time of death).”

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Avivah Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (