Warn It Out Loud

Kiss bassist Gene Simmons gives lessons on `seedy' music business

It may not come as big news, but the music business is full of graft. At least that's what Gene Simmons, the bass player of the famous masqueraded Kiss, says.

And Simmons ought to know. He and his band have managed to persevere for 28 years.

"The music industry is very bizarre," Simmons says. "About the only thing I can liken it to is the Wild West because this brand new music that was created -- in a sort of quintessential American fashion, of the people, for the people and by the people -- was really created by a shady element of society. They were guys that were involved in jukeboxes and so on."

Bringing some light into this shady area will be "The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll," a documentary airing Monday on Court TV. Simmons will serve as host.

Early on, the music industry was tainted, says the musician.

"Along the way, you've got a lot of people strumming guitars who can barely spell their name right, much less read or write music. And I'm one of them."

Not likely. Simmons is one of the more articulate participants in the industry who has diversified into acting as well as several other ventures. He actually started as a school teacher.

"School teaching was an attempt by me to satiate my guilt complex about not being too much of a hedonist in life, that is to say, not going out and enjoying life -- pleasure for pleasure's sake. I quickly found out at the end of a day of teaching that nobody clapped, nobody called me back for an encore," he says.

"So I confronted myself and realized that it wasn't humanitarian forces that made me want to teach, I wanted to be up in front of people. I wanted them to look at me and tell me I'm wonderful. I just had to figure what that stage would be."

He found that stage through Kiss but says it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

"People assume that just because you have a hit record, you can actually read and write music," he says. "That is not true. Most people play by ear and can barely strum an A-major much less an A-sus (see box). But we figure out what that thing is that makes everybody buy the records. Along the way everybody calls you `Babe,' `Let's do lunch' and all that stuff. And the wrong element usually winds up crawling in bed with us."

Part of the seedy side of the business also tends to shorten the shelf-life of today's hot new acts, Simmons says.

"The unfortunate rule-of-thumb in Rock 101 is that, because of the people you wind up coming into contact with while you're learning to play your guitar, you end up learning to say, `Do you want fries with that?' Because that's what is waiting at the end of the rainbow, usually. Rock 'n' roll is really not just the music. It's the music BUSINESS."

These days more than ever it goes beyond just a slick office type taking advantage of a starry-eyed newcomer. Sean "Puffy" Combs, Eminem, Tupac Shakur, Milli Vanilli -- almost daily some musician's name is dashed across the headlines.

"There have been, certainly, murders," Simmons says.

"Every day of the week you hear about misappropriation of funds it's a very, very shady business and you have to have a strong backbone to survive and to come out clean. Along the way, this special will talk a little bit more about that."

Burt Kearns, who is producing the special, says it will have a different tone than VH1's "Behind the Music" or "E! True Hollywood Stories."

"We really are going to be showing the secret history of the industry," he says. "And showing how criminality, court cases and illegalities -- and the shady people behind the scenes actually shape the direction of the music, determine what songs are on the charts, determine who performs those songs and really determine the soundtrack to most of our lives over the past 50 years."

Rock musicians do enough damage to themselves without the help of others, Simmons says. He notes that even the mighty KISS lost money more than once to promoters who would claim ticket sales were less than what they were.

"It's not just that chemicals tend to creep into the bloodstreams of a lot of musicians," he says. "But there are unscrupulous types who affect the music business and affect how and where you hear music. It's important to shed light on that because, just like at home, you shine a flashlight, the cockroaches go scurrying."

Chords 101

So what does bassist Gene Simmons mean when he says, "Most people...can barely strum an A-major much less an A-sus"?

Well, to put it in nontechnical terms (musicians -- OK some musicians -- will know what a "sus" chord is, and nonmusicians won't know the jargon), the "sus" stands for "suspended." Basically, a suspended chord sounds like it has to resolve to, in this case, a major chord. You'll know it when you hear it. A famous example: The opening chords of the Who's "Pinball Wizard." (Actually, that song is filled with sus chord to major chord progressions.)

Hey, at least Pete Townshend can play them.