Dancing and Laughing With Gene Simmons All the Way to South America

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Duff McKagan is the founding bassist in Guns N' Roses and the leader of Seattle's Loaded. His column runs every Thursday on Reverb.
I grew up in a really great time for rock and roll. Three-chord songs with a couple mean riffs and rebellious lyrics were the audible backdrop to my formative years. KISS' first live record, Alive! (duh), was an epic collection of riffs and chords that filled in a few questions I had about chicks and fire. Saddled up next to my Sex Pistols, Cheap Trick, and Stooges records, KISS was the needed antidote to the likes of Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Kansas (nothing personal here, guys . . . I just couldn't relate).

I don't take much for granted these days. My music career has been sprinkled with fairy-dust. I do realize this. At this point, I've had the opportunity to play music with many of my boyhood heroes: Iggy Pop, Steve Jones and Paul Cook from the Pistols, and the Cheap Trick Zander/Nielsen duo. These are the dudes I once air-guitared too.

Last month, I got a call to do some gigs in South America -- which, as I've said many times before, is a kick-ass place to play -- with a mishmash of musicians: Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, Billy Duffy of the Cult, GNR's Gilby Clarke and Matt Sorum, Mike Inez from Alice in Chains, Ed Roland of Collective Soul, Sebastian Bach, Billy Idol's Steve Stevens, and yes . . . Gene Simmons of KISS.

I'd never played with the KISS guys. They didn't have guys like me play on their records, and they don't do side projects. That's OK too, of course.

Here it was, in South America, finally a chance to see THE Gene "God of Thunder" Simmons in action. But would he be cool to travel with? Would he see right through all my rock bluster and into my teenage geekdom? Would I be shooshed or made small by the dude who I dressed up as for Halloween in sixth grade? I hoped for the best as we boarded the plane in Los Angeles bound for Paraguay.

Long-distance air travel with a ton of people shoved together can really "thin out the pack." You can see into the soul of a man on an 18-hour flight. As some got tired and cranky after fuel stops in San Salvador and Lima, Mr. Simmons just settled in, as if being stuck in a metal tube with strangers were a common everyday experience. I suppose it probably is for him and his wife Shannon. They told jokes and stories -- and wrestled. For me, this initial experience provided a first look at how this guy would lead by calm example on this whole trip. I like that stuff.

Backstage, at the second gig in Buenos Aires, Sebastian Bach plugged in his iPod to a rather large boombox, and cranked up some Boz Scaggs, and then some Sly and the Family Stone. Gene Simmons suddenly appeared, and started dancing . . . really well. He did some disco dancing, the "mashed potato," the "twist," the "hustle," and some good ol' stripper dancing. We all stood rather agape at this spectacle. The God of Thunder has real and bona fide SOUL. What the?

Gene's whole life story is fascinating. Born in Israel, he moved to Brooklyn with his mom when he was 8. He spoke not a word of English, and had to learn about life on the mean streets of New York as his mother toiled away in a button factory. His first real American inputs were burgeoning rock-and-roll pioneers like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Middle-school dances were next, and he instantly noticed that if he learned to move the lower part of his body while dancing, the girls would go crazy. Ah HAH! Starting a rock-'n'-roll band was the natural next step for our young protagonist.

Gene has a natural love for music to this very moment. He can name just about any hit song, who produced it, who played on it, and who wrote it. He knows the little rock factoids that I had never heard about before (Doris Day + Sly Stone? Awesome!). His sense of humor was always on point and sharp as shit.

Gene is a rock-'n'-roll hero to me because he is just simply a stand-up fucking dude. That is the good stuff, if yer asking me.

I'm going to dust off my KISS Alive double record and crank those jams up. I know how to play guitar these days, but I think the air version of my chosen profession may just make a reappearance.

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