Paul Stanley, the charismatic frontman for Kiss, has been a rock and pop culture giant for the better part of five decades. Onstage, he ignites audiences with his trademark bravado. But off of it, he shows a more subdued and thoughtful side that is exhibited through his painting – vibrant work that has garnered favorable reviews from both inside and outside the traditional art world.
He will be exhibiting his work at select Wentworth Gallery locations this year – his next appearance is at Wentworth’s Short Hills gallery, April 28 from 5 to 8 p.m.
In this conversation, Stanley discusses art and his joy in creating it, reveals how frequently he was (or wasn’t) recognized before Kiss shed their makeup, explains when he became funny, reveals a turning point in his life, and more.
Q: When musicians first start out playing, they often arrive at their influences through their limitations — if a guitar player only knows a few chords, they might gravitate towards the Kinks or the Ramones, and tackle more complex stuff later on. As you have continuously improved as a painter, have the kind of artists that you’ve tried to emulate changed?
A: That’s an interesting question. I don’t really emulate anyone. Whether it be in music or art or theater, I try to find inspiration rather than influence. But creativity is an ongoing journey, and you are certainly capable of things later on that you weren’t in the beginning. I recently started working on 3D plexiglass acrylic pieces. I’m now painting on actual guitars. So the scope of how you can apply your passion does broaden with your ability to facilitate it.
Q: Some rock musicians who have been at it a long while feel that it’s a challenge to come up with original musical ideas. Ann Wilson of Heart told me that it seems like everything under the sun has been played before, every chord progression has been used, etc. For a veteran musician, art sounds like it could be a lot more liberating than music.
A: It is for me, in the sense that for me there really are no rules. I started painting because I wanted an outlet where there was very little structure. The only limitation is the edge of whatever I’m painting on. As far as music, I find those comments kind of odd because, yeah, it goes without saying all the chords have been played, but everybody brings their own spin to them. Two people can play the same instrument and sound completely dissimilar. I think the key in music is to be quickly identifiable. That’s what makes for greatness.
Q: Is the collection of art that you’re bringing to the Wentworth quickly identifiable, and how could we identify it?
A: It is. I’m a big proponent of color and believe that color and vibrancy in art is really a validation of life, and celebrates life. I’m also finding new ways to apply it to different surfaces, which is turning out to be exciting to me, and should be very exciting for other people as well. Collectors are having very favorable reactions and, interestingly, quite a few of them have no connection to my music at this point. That is validating in itself.
Q: As a rock star, I’m sure your work faces greater scrutiny from inside the established art world. I have an amateur’s viewpoint, but I like your work – not only because of the use of color and the skill involved, but also because of how many different types of works you create. You’re not a one-trick pony, and I think that reveals talent, and design.
A: And your opinions are completely valid. One of the things I fight against is the idea that anyone has to qualify their opinion. The idea that an opinion is only valid if it has some sort of educated foundation is insanity. To me, it always goes back to “Good food is what you swallow, bad food is what you spit out.” When you’re eating, anybody else’s taste is irrelevant. Your opinion is valid.
Q: I’ve heard you share those sentiments before, and similar ideas show up in many Kiss lyrics. You always seemed to have a great distaste for pretension.
A: I do. I think pretense is rooted in insecurity, and often in disappointment or anger as well. When I’m around it, its very transparent to me. It’s a coat usually worn by someone who has no rights to it. I’d rather deal in the joy of doing something, as opposed to snobbery.
Q: I spoke with (Def Leppard drummer) Rick Allen about his art, and he credited you with being one of the people he had encouraging conversations with before deciding to display his work publicly. Was there ever a time where you questioned whether or not anybody wanted to see your art, or whether you were up to par?
A: I didn’t start painting for anyone else but myself. I think it’s important that when we do something, it’s not rooted in our desire to be validated. That could come later. Painting for me, was cathartic. It was something that I did because it was therapeutic. The fact that some people who came by the house saw my art and wanted to know who did it, was secondary. That was an unexpected gift. But the process of creating it was what was most important to me.
Q: Now might be a good time to say that along with your dislike of pretension, sits your dislike of self-imposed limitations.
A: Certainly. I’m always surprised when someone says to me that they can’t paint. I’ll ask them, “What does that mean? Does that mean that if you sit down and try to paint a bottle, that it doesn’t look like a bottle? Well that may be, but does that make it not good?” I think we all have to throw away our preconceived ideas about things, so that we can enjoy freedom.
Q: Songs are written in different ways, and for different purposes. Is art the same way? Do you do adequate work one day, and suddenly find yourself creating something special the next?
A: (Enthusiastically) Totally. I think at some point, though, you have to decide if you are only going to show your favorites. I find that too limiting. I never exhibit something that I don’t think is good, but I’m also aware that something that may not be my favorite, could be someone else’s favorite.
Q: Do you have any Paul Stanley originals in your home?
A: I have a few pieces in the house, but I like sharing my art with people I know will appreciate it. If I keep only a few pieces, they become more meaningful and they resonate with me more. I have a piece of mine in the entryway to our house, 4 foot by 5 foot, of (blues legend) Robert Johnson. That was to bless the house in a sense, and to pay tribute to one of the people who helped make everything I have possible. It’s also nice to know that the same piece hangs in Jimmy Page’s country home. This road I’m on always brings unexpected pleasures like that.
Q: Every musician your age has a “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” tale, but you have the most personally affecting story about the broadcast that I’ve heard. The Beatles’ long hair afforded you a special kind of liberation.
A: The Beatles were transcendant on so many levels. I mean, just the idea of seeing these four people who looked like they were in their own singular club, dressing the same, making incredible music, and with all this chemistry between them. The songs they were singing seemed to be pumped full of adrenaline, and celebrating youth and life. But their hair stood out to me — not only because they all had the same haircut, but because I realized that I could grow my hair like theirs and cover up my microtia (a congenital deformity of the cartilage of the outer ear, leaving Stanley’s right ear underdeveloped, and rendering him virtually deaf on that side). It wasn’t only their music that I loved, but everything they brought along with it.
Q: When you grew your hair out to hide your ear, did your parents still object?
A: Totally. As much as my parents meant well, they seemed clueless in many instances of my growing up, as to why I did certain things. They were not always the most supportive or intuitive.
Q: You published your autobiography in 2014, which, powered by stories like the one you just touched on, was extremely well received. Still, you had never been the kind of person to hang his dirty laundry out on the line. Outside of editing the book for length, were there stories you left out because you felt like they were too personal to reveal?
A: When writing the book, the way I looked at it — and I still feel this way — is that the best thing we can do is rid ourselves of secrets. You have to be fairly comfortable in your skin to reach that point, but it’s a good point. You’re free because you’re not hiding anything. The second book is well on its way, but I can tell you that I left nothing out of the first book. The point of writing it wasn’t to hold anything back. It was to reveal.
Q: The YouTube compilations of your onstage banter are very funny, and a big favorite for fans. You’ve always made it clear that there is a significant difference between Paul Stanley the person and the “Starchild” persona that owns the stage at Kiss shows. Painting a star over your eye doesn’t provide you with instant wit however, nor does it make you the life of the party. Those are your qualities, Paul. Were you ever seen as funny, or the life of the party, before forming Kiss?
A: That is a great question. (contemplates) I was an unhappy kid growing up, so any attempts I made at humor or at being the class clown were definitely misplaced. Someone who is funny and comfortable in their own skin is a different animal and a different kind of funny than I was. I was not the funniest guy. I’ve grown into funny. (both laugh)
Q: It might be one of the top three or four ways someone would describe you now.
A: I’m happy now, and I think that shows. At this point in my life, nothing I do is forced or calculated. Now it’s just, “For better or worse, this is me. If that works for you, great, and if not, change the channel.”
Q: When did things stop being forced or calculated for you?
A: I think doing “Phantom of the Opera” was a big turning point for me. (In 1999, Stanley had two successful stints in Toronto as the title character in the legendary musical.) Everything was heading towards that, and the road that I’d been on always lent itself to self improvement — to find what really mattered, and to find contentment, Doing eight shows a week of material that I was very emotionally connected to, without really understanding why until I did it, was certainly a milestone for me. (Stanley drew parallels between his character’s disfigurement, and real life challenges he faced with microtia.)
Q: Here we are talking about your involvement in theater, in art, and as an author. Highbrow stuff. You’re an intelligent man, well traveled, and fluent in matters beyond rock ‘n’ roll. Yet your main occupation is being a provocative lead singer for a wild party band, while dressed in a costume and makeup. For that reason, have you ever encountered people outside of rock ‘n’ roll who underestimated you?
A: Hmm. Underestimated …
Q: For example, we talked about pretension earlier. Did you ever live next to a lawyer or a surgeon or go to a function at your kid’s school, and feel like someone was looking down their nose at you because of how you earn your living?
A: No, not really. I’ve always found that I could certainly hold my own next to anybody in those situations, even though I never felt the need to. Anyone else’s ideas or perceptions of who I am, are theirs. It’s not my issue.
Q: Prior to taking off your makeup for that infamous MTV appearance in 1983, how often would people recognize you when you were out in public?
A: Not that often, but because of what I looked like at the time, I would tend to draw attention anyway. If you saw someone walking around with shoulder length blue/black hair, and platform boots, you would either think the circus was in town, or they were a member of Kiss.
Q: You’ve had surgery on your vocal chords, both of your rotator cuffs repaired, both of your knees done, and hip replacement surgery. Does that sound about right?
A: That pretty much sums it up. (both laugh)
Q: For you, rock and roll has been a contact sport.
A: Certainly. You have to realize there are no 65-year-old soccer players or basketball players, so I’m kind of in uncharted waters. The injuries have certainly been plentiful, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m thankful to be living in a time where modern medicine can do amazing things, but there’s no getting around the fact that we do age and we do change and we are not the same people we were 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
Q: You’ve acknowledged that your time onstage is finite and that you envision a world where someone could take over your function in Kiss, allowing the band to continue. The idea has its supporters and curious onlookers, but most of your fans seem to strongly oppose it. You’re in this strange space where you have people telling you that you’re great but your idea is awful. Is this something that you’re set on doing?
A: Yes, Kiss needs to exist. Kiss needs to continue because it sets the bar and it serves an important purpose. I’m flattered and totally understand when people say it’s impossible, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — those people are 50 percent wrong.
Q: I think every Kiss fan will acknowledge two is half of four, and that translates to 50 percent – but I think most would argue that you and Gene constitute more than half of what they love about Kiss.
A: Yeah, they say, “But you’re different.” I know I’m certainly unique, but I didn’t invent the wheel. I’m not looking for someone to mimic me. I’m talking about someone who can contribute to the chemistry, and contribute to the philosophy and the point of view.
Q: As a fan, would you be interested in seeing the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger and Keith Richards?
A: It’s a different thing. Kiss is singular. There is only one Kiss. We don’t abide by others’ rules, and they don’t apply to us. I understand your point, but in no way do I see the comparison.
Q: Kiss fans have such a proprietary interest in the band, and they express strong opinions on just about everything you do. Is one of the appeals of art for you that it’s autocratic? That nobody debates whether you should have used short or long brush strokes on your last painting?
A: I certainly like the singularity of art. But I’ve always tried to keep myself on a track where the most important thing is to be true to myself, and I believe that’s how I can please the most people, because I don’t believe I’m much different from other people. The problem comes when you try to guess what people want. I would rather do what I want, and assume there are other people like me.
Q: You recently shared a picture of your father on social media, as he was out and about for lunch at the tender age of 97. Not only is it great that he’s still with you, but it could also mean that you have the genes to live an extraordinarily long life. Unlike rock ‘n’ roll, art isn’t a contact sport. Can you envision painting for another 30 years or more?
A: I hope so. I hope the only time I am no longer creative is when I’m dead. I intend to go out pushing myself.
Paul Stanley’s web site is PaulStanley.com
See his art at wentworthgallery.com
Follow him on Twitter at: @PaulStanleyLive
Robert Ferraro is a former radio talk show producer and producer of Major League Baseball broadcasts, who interviews pop culture figures. Previously, he quit 50 menial jobs when he couldn’t find anyone interesting to talk to. This article originally appeared on his web site, ofpersonalinterest.com.