Photo courtesy of the author
Patton Oswalt has a routine about the first time he ever realized one of his parents was full of shit. "When you're growing up, up to a certain point, no matter what an adult says it's just gospel," he says, "and then there's that first thing where you go, 'I think that's fuckin' bullshit.'" For most of us, I imagine, that moment happens early.
For me, it hit well into my teens. And the realization was a lot harder to swallow.
This is the last time I'll mention this, so take it as a disclaimer: I'm going to talk about my experience of my father, Gene Simmons, plainly. That means I will, inevitably, talk about what he does for a living. I'm not going to avoid mentioning it, but I'm also not going to dwell on it needlessly. I'm going to talk about him as a human being separate and unique from his reputation, his persona, and the character he plays in daily life. I find that, generally speaking, rebellion for the sake of rebellion is as much a form of slavery as conformity. The magnet that pushes manipulates as much as the magnet that pulls—either way, an outside force is doing the moving. So I'll ignore whatever the expectations might be, and just talk about my dad.
Dad had this great big baritone voice. If he wanted me to do something, he would "make a deal" with me and shake my hand roughly, as though I were an equal partner in a business venture.
At 6'8", I tower over my father today, who stands a measly 6'2". But before I hit puberty, my father was monolithic. I remember feeling his physicality in my bones, and it was terrifying and comforting, all at once. When I heard that voice roll down the hall like a boulder, and those big boots smack against hardwood floors, it felt like the first time I saw the T-Rex in the original Jurassic Park.
Dad had this great big baritone voice. If he wanted me to do something, he would "make a deal" with me and shake my hand roughly, as though I were an equal partner in a business venture (that venture being something like 'don't hit your sister and you can have rainbow marzipan cookies later'). He would never use "baby talk." He would wrap us in fatherly platitudes at every possible moment—cliché's like, "every day above ground is a good day," and, "you only get the respect you demand." There's something to be gleaned from these, of course, even if they are endlessly repeated clichés. It's a good record, even if it is broken.
I also remember how all the other adults used to bend to his will. He was famous, he was successful, and everyone always listened when he spoke. People would kneel down to my eye-level and tell me, with sincerity, "You know your dad's a legend, right?"
All in all, I thought everything my father said was written in stone, and wrought from ages of experience and trial. But as I grew and he began to shrink, I started to see the cracks. I started seeing his pores, his grey hairs—those small flaws that made him human. I realized that he was a man, and like all men, he had (as Dr. Steven Novella put it), "a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative [his] brain is operating under."
This epiphany came to me in high school, when I started learning about drugs. My father prides himself (read: brags about it to anyone who asks) on never smoking, drinking, or getting high in his life—save for one incident when some "special" brownies were mistaken for... well, normal brownies.
He is still, to this day, profoundly anti-drug. Perhaps due to stressful encounters with drug addicts in the rock n' roll scene of the 70s and 80s, he resents drug addicts as people. In his experience, they made his life, and his work, more difficult than they should have been.
He has often spoken, and misspoken, about this topic. I remember watching the news with him in the kitchen as a teen, seeing tragic stories of drug addiction and violence, VH1 behind the music stories, and things like that. He would get quite emotional, always exclaiming something like, "Those idiots. They should be [insert medieval punishment x, y, and z]." My mother, ever the voice of reason, will smack him with a magazine or throw an Altoid at him for these outbursts.
And it is hyperbole, of course, but he does believe in harsh drug laws, and he has no sympathy for drug addicts. From talking at length with him about it, I know now that this often-misunderstood resentment is not a reaction to real, tragic, medical victims of drug addiction. He resents more the people they were when they made that first choice: the choice to do that first hit, plunge the first needle, to take the first snort. He cannot empathize with that first decision to gamble with what is, in his immigrant's eyes, a life in the land of opportunity. He believes the responsibility lies with the drug addict for trying it first, knowing everything we know in this age of information. To take that risk is to forfeit his sympathies. The man that gets killed by a bear after poking it with a stick deserves his fate. This is, more or less, his philosophy on drugs—if I can speak for him. And I admit, it sort of makes sense.
But like many of his philosophies of life in general, my father takes this premise to an absolutist extreme, and makes liberal use of hyperbole. This has gotten him in trouble—and my family and I have lamented the resulting tabloid fodder he sometimes becomes.
It was during one of these situations that I realized that I disagreed with my father. There was a soundbite passed around, on television and the internet, and people were taking shots at him for his rough, often non-literal way of speaking. I realized that, though I wanted to defend him as a son, I agreed with his critics. Not a very profound sentiment on its face, but this realization carried a huge moment of cognitive dissonance. I hadn't considered disagreement an option.
My dad taught me, accidentally, that our heroes can be wrong.
I knew people who smoked pot. Most people I knew drank. But I could not bring myself to conclude, as he did, that any negative health impacts of those choices were deserved. Life is risk, after all. I realized that I don't believe marijuana and alcohol should be treated the same as heroin and cigarettes. To group them as altogether harmful is a baby-and-bathwater situation. I believed, and still do, that most drugs should be decriminalized, and should be treated (for the most part) as a medical issue, not a criminal issue. I believe that if we own nothing else, we own our own bodies, and should be free to do with them what we wish, as long as we don't harm others. I knew my father would never agree, and I knew why: it ran against the narrative he was operating under. That had been my narrative, too—until I changed my mind and wrote a new one.
Whether you agree or disagree with my opinion on drug use is irrelevant—the larger point is that he taught me a more valuable lesson, in disagreement, than he had ever taught me when we agreed: that no belief is sacrosanct. He taught me, accidentally, that our heroes can be wrong. If I had heard his opinion about drug addicts at a younger age, I would have agreed simply out of emotion, and because I considered him wise, and because he was my dad. It was the appeal to authority fallacy, and I was living within it, at least up until that moment. Even if I do turn out to be wrong about this, that feeling—that the authority mightjust be wrong—was an important moment in my development. If this godlike authoritarian figure could be wrong about something, then no one else, no matter how qualified or powerful they seem, could possibly be on such a pedestal either. It was the evidence that mattered, not the authority.
Once I caught sight of this chink in the armor, the rest fell away easily. He was no longer Superman to me.
I remember the first year I passed him in height. He looked up at me, then down at my shoes, then up at me again, and said, "This is ridiculous. I don't like this." I've only gotten taller, and our interaction has only gotten more comical. If I sit across from him at a restaurant, we will inevitably bump feet. And he'll slam his forehead on the table and say something like, "Unbelievable. I can't escape." The T-Rex, the colossus, is long gone. He is just a man, and more interesting for it.
I used to take my father's lessons as an eager student, wide-eyed and receptive. We never used to argue. Today we do, and sometimes things get heated, especially when it comes to politics or social issues. But through it all, I've found that he respects me more in the end, even if we never come to terms, than he did when I just passively agreed.
My disagreement with my father has also made his occasional chafing with the press much easier to digest. It happens at least once a year, and it simply doesn't bother me anymore. Strong opinions are just that—and no matter what you say, there will always be someone with a middle finger cocked and loaded in response, whether from the mob or from an individual.
It's important to kill your heroes. And, sometimes, you have to kill your father. Kill him so you can love him, and his flaws, better than one can love a hollow archetype.
This lesson applies as much to my father's professional legacy as it does to his fatherhood. He is worshipped and surrounded by yes-men almost constantly now. But his greatest achievements, arguably, were during times of friction, before the yes-men. When he formed the band Kiss, he was a gangly, awkward kid in New York. No one said "yes" to him. He didn't do well with women. People thought he was stupid because he couldn't speak English well. My father and Paul had to fight for every deal and every concert, had to fight against bad reviews and debt and day jobs, had to fight everything, in order to achieve what they did. They had to disagree with everyone. They had to believe that everyone else, every authority, was wrong.
So, it's important to disagree. It's important to kill your heroes. And, sometimes, you have to kill your father. Kill him so you can love him, and his flaws, better than one can love a hollow archetype. The most important thing he taught me is that—just like everyone else—sometimes, he is full of shit.
Happy belated Father's Day, Pops.
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