It’s time to pay homage to one of rock n’ rolls most enduring myths. Was Gene Simmons’ massive tongue achieved by grafting a cows tongue onto his own? Rumours have persisted since the 70’s that something like this happened. So get your gloves on as we investigate the fleshy underside of this legend.
The long-standing story of Gene Simmons’ tongue goes something like this. The guy had surgery to either replace or extend his tongue – with the tongue of a cow. That’s why he has a massive 7-inch tongue. The pink flesh you see slathering itself across photos of KISS is, in fact, the tongue of a cow. Gene commissioned a plastic surgeon in New York City in the early 70s and never looked back, or so the legend goes.
Musicians doing unnatural deals to secure their place in history is nothing new. They say that in 1936, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, in return for his mind-bending guitar skills. And when you hear him play, it seems he bargained well enough. In 1982, Rod Stewart reportedly had his stomach pumped to remove semen and prolong his life – but that’s story too vulgar to be mentioned in a food magazine. Actually, it turns out that Tony Toon, Rod’s publicist fabricated this rumour as payback for being fired. He said Rod had orally serviced a gang of sailors one evening, and needed medical intervention to stay alive. Rod claims all of this is untrue. If Gene’s story is true, how exactly did it happen? Is it even possible to sew a cow’s tongue onto a human? This was Manhattan in the 70s and most plastic surgeons were focused on the three pillars of life: breast enlargement, cocaine and golf. The dexterity required for a tongue transplant would have been all too arduous. Attaching nerve endings one by one inside the mouth of a singer? Sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. Better to stick with the rough and tumble of breast enlargements, where things just need to look perky, and never mind the functionality. And yet the tongue myth prevails.
So maybe, just maybe, the little-known Israeli musician (born Chaim Witz) did pull this off? History tells us he’s a persuasive guy. We know he went on to create one of the world’s largest merchandising empires, plus an army of followers, his personal fortune growing to an estimated $300M in the process. Perhaps he did jump the queue at the surgery on account of his tongue, with a bold vision to change the world of rock n’ roll forever. He just needed a new name, a new tongue, makeup, and the support of his bandmate, Paul Stanley. It was 1973 in New York when Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley decided they were looking for something new. Not satisfied with their current band Wicked Lester, they wanted to take to take their musical sound and image in a new direction. Something had to give – they quit, and started shopping around for new musicians to play with. Enter Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. A few rehearsals later and this group of four was set to take the stage under a new name, with Paul on vocals and rhythm guitar, Gene on vocals and bass, Ace on lead guitar, and Peter on drums. The venue was the Popcorn Club in Queens NY, and on 31 January 1973, there were just three people in the audience. Anyone staring into their beer when the band came on would have likely dropped their drink.
Backstage, something of a transformation had taken place with lashings of black and white makeup. It was an iconic depiction of four alter egos that has remained faithful to this day: The Starchild (Stanley), The Demon (Simmons), The Spaceman or Space Ace (Frehley) and The Catman (Criss). Stanley became The Starchild because of his tendency to be referred to as a “starry-eyed lover” and “hopeless romantic”. The “Catman” makeup of Peter Criss was in accordance with the belief that he had nine lives, because of his rough childhood in Brooklyn. In future, these faces were to become more recognisable than the face of American presidents. Mount Rushmore, eat your heart out.
This was KISS and to quote Gene himself, “the rest is KISS-story”. Asked about the concept behind the makeup in an interview by 90s fanzine Porkchops & Applesauce, Gene offered a description something like this. “At the same time that we were forming in New York, there was a very big glitter scene, where boys were basically acting like girls and putting on makeup. Y’know, all the skinny little guys, hairless boys. Well, we were more like football players: all of us were over six feet tall, and it just wasn’t convincing! The very first pictures we took when the band first got together, we looked like drag queens. But we knew we wanted to get outlandish. We weren’t a Grateful Dead kind of band that would get onstage and look worse than the roadie delivering our stuff. Which doesn’t negate what the Dead and other bands were doing; it just wasn’t us. Getting up onstage was almost a holy place for us, like church, so being onstage looking like a bum wasn’t my idea of respect. That’s where the makeup and dressing up came in. It would have obviously been a lot easier to get up onstage in jeans and t-shirts and go, ‘Okay, here we are–we’re the Ramones!’ And that would have been just as valid, but it would not have been honest.”
Considering how iconic the KISS characters would become, it’s refreshing to know there was no real master plan, marketing team or stylist behind the original character designs, other than the band themselves. “Nobody else was involved,” Gene recalled to Porkchops & Applesauce. “I just remember being in a loft in downtown New York, and looking in the mirror and just starting to draw. It was very stream-ofconsciousness. What you see is really what just happened.” And who of us hasn’t tried to mimic the iconic makeup over the years? Standing like Gene in front of a mirror to draw the distinctive “Devil” shapes over your eyes. Drawing straws over who has to be the ‘cat’ of Peter Criss? We’ve all braved the grey sludgy aftermath of an all-night bender in the name of KISS. Parties that descend into a blur of smudged makeup, stubble and pink lips and tongues.
Gene Simmons had always been able to embrace change, and the process of transformation. Emigrating from Israel to New York with his mother in 1958 had taught him that nothing was forever. He could sculpt an image for himself in whatever way he wanted. A modest upbringing had taught him to be self-reliant and self-promotional. By the age of eight he was speaking four languages – skills that would stand him in good stead as the years progressed. And with the coming of age, came the greater realisation of his extraordinary tongue.
“I was oblivious, for the first thirteen years of my life, that I was endowed with a large oral appendage, my super-long tongue,” Simmons writes in his autobiography. “It really was longer than everyone else’s, and I was soon to find out that having a long tongue came in handy with the girls.” Hold it. A statement like that in an autobiography really should set the cow tongue record straight. Sounds like he was born with it. But then, Gene’s never one to confirm or deny anything too quickly if there’s a publicity upside.
It’s been said that he has slept with over between 3,000 and 5,000 women. This number is also neither confirmed or denied, but it seems a big tongue didn’t do his love life any harm. A regular feature of the KISS onstage banter between Paul and Gene went something like this: “If you want to welcome us with open arms, I’m afraid you’re also going to have to welcome us with open legs”. And according to Gene, there were no shortage of takers. Over the years he has famously had live-in relationships with Cher and Diana Ross, and he now lives with former Playboy Playmate Shannon Lee. The two are “happily unmarried” and have two children. One romantic quote said to be Gene’s is the famous: “ I love money, I love women, I like to work hard and I don’t use drugs. And it seems the music industry loves a tongue too.
There’s a famous photo of Debbie Harry at the Whisky-A-Go-Go Club in the 70s with her tongue poking out. She’s clearly high as a kite but her timing is spot on for the camera, and it takes the image to whole new level. The tongue is what saves her from being just another musician off their tits on camera. Jimi Hendrix also got his tongue out for music, when he famously played guitar with it. Raw talent. And even today, less significant musicians are using their tongues for currency on social media (though their names are not worth mentioning here.) Natural or enhanced, having a massive tongue proved to be great for publicity. In some ways it was more useful than an oversized appendage of the Ron Jeremy sort. A tongue can be flashed anywhere and everywhere. You can’t be shut down for opening your mouth and letting it all hang out – even in America. And perhaps most importantly, you can print your tongue on merchandise.
Contrast that with the fate of Jim Morrison of The Doors (RIP) who was famously charged with indecent exposure after potentially flashing his cock on stage in 1969. It was never proved either way, that the lightning fast wrist movement in front of his genitals was something more sinister. The police claimed he masturbated in front of an audience of school girls. More than 500 photographs were submitted as evidence and not one of them showed genitals. Yet the charge stood and was still unresolved at the time of his death in 1971.
But for Gene, the more photos the better. If that means spitting fake blood from an oversized tongue, and fire-breathing on stage, then so be it. If that means insuring your tongue for $1 million as a publicity stunt – bring it on. Even Madonna’s breast insurance of $3 million failed to achieve the same cult status as the tongue. No, Gene has taken this to a whole new level and has even written a best-selling business book about it called Build an Army of One. KISS has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide over the years, but it’s their branded merchandise that has defined their real success. Products and endorsements have included themed coffee shops, action figures, coffee mugs, baboushka dolls, makeup kits, Halloween costumes, automobiles, fake testicles, condoms, drumsticks, fridges, PEZ candies, M&Ms with KISS faces, barbecue sauce, KISS potato heads and perhaps the most striking of all, a branded coffin called the KISS Kasket (I kid you not).
When the time comes to meet his maker, Gene can look back on a slew of branded products and know that he and his band made Walt Disney look like an amateur in the world of merchandise. He can also pick up any piece of that merchandise and there’s a good chance it will feature his tongue.
Gene’s autobiography pretty much tells us that his tongue was naturally occurring. But natural or unnatural, when he climbs into the coffin, he will be sure to leave the lid open just a crack. Just enough to slip his tongue out, and slip the royalty cheques in.