The Rise of Gene Simmons, A Klezmer Ballet

Program Notes

Chaim The Music-Maker tells the story of Gene Simmons' (from Kiss) rise to fame as a Yiddish folk tale. Despite the playful nature of this piece, it's actually a rather personal venture for me.  When asked to write a piece with specific guidelines, the first thing I always do is to try to find a personal connection to the subject matter. As a Jew commissioned to write a Klezmer piece, the connection would seem obvious, but it was actually a bit complicated in that Judaism doesn't really play a particularly big role in my life. I never go to synagogue, I didn't have a bar mitzvah, I eat bacon (often on cheeseburgers) etc. So I had to think back to the last time Judaism actually did play a somewhat active role in my life. When I was nine, it was my dream to play guitar in a heavy metal band, but I found that there were no Jewish role models in that field. As a pessimist always looking for reasons why I can't do something, I decided that there must be something in our blood that prevents us as a people from being capable heavy metal musicians.  Though it seems silly in retrospect, to a nine year old with a dream, it was actually a pretty significant crisis in my young life.  Just as I was ready to shift my focus to something a bit more tame, I heard that Gene Simmons was both a Jew and a heavy metal musician and my entire outlook changed. (Some might argue that Kiss is hard rock, but they can suck it!)  So when asked to write a Klezmer piece, my mind immediately went to Gene Simmons.  Following that theme I decided to pay tribute to both Simmons and his Judaism and tell Gene Simmons' life story as a Jewish folk tale. I actually see the piece as a ballet, but since there were no dancers to tell the story through movement, I added narration before each section.

For those reading unfamiliar with Kiss, they are true pioneers of heavy metal.  Not only do they paint their faces, but each member of the band has a different persona.  Gene Simmons' persona is "The Demon." He not only dresses up like a demon, with huge silver boots, armor and lots of leather, but he also breaths fire, drinks fake blood, and most importantly, sticks out his incredibly long tongue - it's actually something he's known for. What I find so interesting
about Gene Simmons, though, is just how far removed Gene Simmons, "The Demon," is from Gene Simmons, the Child (actually born Chaim Witz in Israel).
He spoke mainly Hebrew until he was 8 when he came to America with his mother.  At that time he was in Yeshiva and would have Jewish studies all morning, regular subjects in the afternoon and then Jewish studies again in the evening.  In his teens he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and decided that he wanted to be a rock star. He says it had nothing to do with the music, but happened because  A) His mother hated them, and B) he saw how they could elicit uncontrolled screams from young women and decided that being a rock star would be the best way to meet girls.

He was obsessed with TV and Comic books and as an immigrant was in a position to observe American pop culture as an outsider. In many ways as well as a fan, this allowed him to be a student as well. He refers to Kiss as "Americana" and I think he means that it was essentially a synthesis of everything he gleaned from American pop culture in the 50's and 60's.  Specifically, many parts of his costume were taken directly from comic books - his makeup for example is the wing design from the Marvel character The Black Bolt. More generally, though, I think the larger-than-life nature of everything they did was really drawn from America's penchant for spectacle.

Another interesting thing about kiss is that although they contributed so much to music, they treated their band as a commodity. These were not a bunch of crazy satanists who painted their faces as part of some ritual or because they were immersed in the underground New York club scene, but a bunch of great musicians with good business sense who painted their faces because they knew it would make them stand out from other bands at the time.

That's essentially the subject of my piece, I realize that I haven't said anything about the music, but as music was really meant to be heard, I'd encourage anyone interested to come to the concert.