Gene Simmons and Dave Navarro: Ass Men

Originally published in Guitar World, July 2004

In an exclusive meeting with two rock icons, Gene Simmons and Dave Navarro get together to plug Gene’s new solo album, Asshole.

“I'm already too rich, and I don’t give a damn what you think. Does that sound arrogant?”

In his inimitable fashion, Gene Simmons is explaining the rationale behind Asshole (Sanctuary), his new solo album. While it contains a few trademark hard rockers, the disc finds the legendary Kiss bassist trying his hand at everything from tender balladry to alt-r&b to country schmaltz. “A lot of the stuff I write doesn’t fit Kiss and isn’t even guitar-based,” he elaborates. “After 30 years in rock, maybe I can take some chances. If a Gene Simmons record is just going to be some more Kiss songs, why bother?”

Simmons is seated in a sunny chamber at Headroom Studios. The site of many Asshole sessions, the Los Angeles recording facility is owned by ex-Poison guitar ace Richie Kotzen, who also played on several of the album’s songs. Simmons is perched on a high stool, his upper body covered in a shiny black bib, like a man in a barbershop or a candidate for dental X-rays. A comely young lady whom Simmons introduces as his cousin is carefully applying makeup to his rock vet visage.

As Simmons never tires of pointing out, Asshole contains a song, “Waiting for the Morning Light,” that he cowrote with Bob Dylan. There’s also a collaboration with the late Frank Zappa, titled “Black Tongue,” that features the entire Zappa family singing over a track Simmons fashioned from a snippet of Frank in concert. Another big-time collaborator is Dave Navarro. In fact, while Simmons is getting into makeup, Navarro is off in another part of the studio, adding his trademark guitar stylings to Simmons’ cover of Prodigy’s late-Nineties electronic hit “Firestarter.”

Right on cue, Navarro emerges from Headroom’s control room to enjoy a smoke in the studio’s sun-dappled courtyard. He’s looking trim as ever, dressed in rock and roll black, biceps stretching the sleeves of a form-fitting T-shirt. Goateed and grinning, Navarro strides up to Simmons and places a hand on his shoulder.

“What Bob Dylan might be to this man,” Dave volunteers, “that’s what this man means to me.”

“Oh, cut the crap,” Simmons responds.

Simmons and Navarro have been major icons for two subsequent generations of hard rockers. In the Seventies, Kiss took the sexual ambiguity out of glam and became one of the decade’s most influential acts. With his flamethrowing basses and hyperextended tongue, Simmons stood out as the sickest and nastiest in a notorious quartet of clown-faced bizarros. And at the dawn of the Nineties, Jane’s Addiction injected a blast of unabashed metal histrionics into alternative rock. Singer Perry Farrell was the band’s tripped-out philosopher and artist-in-residence, but Navarro was alt-rock’s premier tattooed love god, whose nipple rings excited as much hysteria as his fluid, fiery guitar style.

In conversation, however, the two rock stars couldn’t be more different. Simmons is as over-the-top offstage as he is on—loud, politically incorrect and unapologetic in his love of the almighty dollar. Navarro, for his part, is a master of ironic understatement. A guy who’s married to Carmen Electra doesn’t have to raise his voice to make an impression.

But then all great rock has been built on edgy contrasts. “We got a real yin-yang thing going here,” Simmons acknowledges, “but Dave and I share the same DNA.”

GUITAR WORLD How did you guys first hook up?

DAVE NAVARRO It was in 2003, when I was working on the last Jane’s Addiction album, Strays, with Bob Ezrin. Gene came down to the studio because he and Bob are old friends—Bob produced Kiss’ Destroyer. I don’t know if you know this, but I grew up listening to Kiss. My first show ever was Kiss with Cheap Trick at the L.A. Forum when I was 11 years old.

GENE SIMMONS One of three nights.

NAVARRO I went the second night. It was unbelievable. I’ve been a fan ever since.

SIMMONS It was 1977, right?

NAVARRO Yeah, ’77. My first show ever.

GW Dave, did you ever don Kiss makeup as a kid and pose in front of the mirror?

NAVARRO Absolutely. We used to take cardboard cut-out shapes of guitars, glue them onto broomsticks and do Kiss shows in my house. I didn’t even own a guitar back then, so I had to make one out of cardboard. And naturally, after Gene and I met, we’d see one another around town. But I don’t know how it came to be that I’m here in the studio now recording guitar tracks for Gene’s album.

SIMMONS I know how it came about. This hip English producer, the Overseer, was assigned to produce this one stellar kind of track on my album—a cover of the Prodigy’s “Firestarter.” And the idea was, “How do you make it different?” It’s a very exciting song but it didn’t have guitars on the original. And if you’re going to have anybody rock out on guitar—to use the parlance of the street—it should be Dave Navarro.

NAVARRO When I got the call to work with Gene, I didn’t know if he wanted me to wash his car or play some music. Either way, I was in. And when I found out he wanted me to play guitar, naturally I was very comfortable with the idea. And since we’re doing a Prodigy track, I wanted to approach the guitar with more of an electronic vibe. So it’s more of a Pro Tools, cut-up approach. Less performance-oriented.

GW In reviewing your careers, one thing that emerges is that you both come from bands that have had a somewhat androgynous image.

SIMMONS Androgynous? That’s a big word, like “gymnasium.” Where’d you get that word?

GW Writers know lots of words. And you two have inspired countless thousands of young men to wear makeup. Any makeup tips you want to share?

NAVARRO You know, it’s the kind of thing where, if you’re asking for tips, it’s probably not for you.

GW But think of the poor reader. The guy’s gonna slop on some eyeliner and look like a dope.

NAVARRO Frankly, I’m all for it. Because the more dopes there are out there, the better I stand out. So readers, give it your best shot.

SIMMONS For Paul [Stanley] and me, our first attempt at makeup was in a pre-Kiss band called Wicked Lester. It was very drag, kinda like a bad version of the New York Dolls, who we loved, but whose look was kinda just bad David Bowie. We then ended Wicked Lester very quickly and decided, Okay, if we’re gonna wear makeup, the only way we can do it is to be ourselves. None of us had training in makeup design or anything. We just started fooling around. What came out for me was the expression of the superhero/horror/science-fiction sort of genre that I always admired and still do. So I guess my makeup advice is, be yourself.

GW Dave, do you ever regret missing the height of Seventies rock and roll decadence—the Kiss era?

NAVARRO I don’t really regret anything. I’ve certainly had my share of decadence. Whether it was in the Seventies, Eighties or Nineties, decadence is all the same.

GW Yes, but is it? Was decadence more decadent in the Seventies?

NAVARRO I was only a kid then. But I don’t think people were as aware as they are now that sex and drugs can kill you.

SIMMONS You know what it was about the Seventies? There was a culture of groupies. Groupies were proud. Sable Starr and Pamela Des Barres were famous groupies. If the right rock band was in town—Zeppelin or the Stones—and if a girl was with Mick Jagger or somebody like that, she was really somebody. It’s no more or less viable or credible than the girl who says, “I just married a doctor.” So what? “I just did Mick Jagger.” Same difference.

NAVARRO I’m sure I would have loved it back then. It wasn’t quite like that when Jane’s Addiction started coming up. The groupies were more picky and I was always too sensitive. I always ended up falling in love with whoever I took home. And the next morning, they’d ask me to sign something and I would feel so used. It wasn’t working for me.

GW One other thing you two guys have in common is coffins. Gene manufactures and markets a Kiss coffin and Dave has been known to use coffins as home furniture.

NAVARRO How many Kiss coffins have you sold so far, Gene?

SIMMONS Thousands. Bars buy them because they’re moistureproof, so you can put your cold drinks in there. They’re five grand a pop.

GW Dave used to have a coffin for a coffee table, although I don’t know if he still does.

SIMMONS What a great idea! What was inside?

NAVARRO There was nothing inside but, uh, you know, different things have taken place inside it. I can tell you that.

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