Steve Coronel (ex Wicked Lester guitarist and KISS songwriter) talks growing up with the Demon and pre-KISStory
Steve Coronel is best known as the original guitar player in Wicked Lester, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley’s pre-KISS recording act. That’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg though and while people would possibly still be lining up to interview Steve were that the only criteria he has lots of other interesting conversation points. He knew the KISS guys way before the fame and makeup and in fact, recommended a young Stanley Eisen come over to his apartment to audition for a band vacancy his best bud from junior high ( Gene Simmons) had. He’s a pretty damn good guitar player to this day (as I heard during the course of the interview) and songwriter having written the songs “She” and “Goin Blind” which are now rightfully considered KISS Klassics among a lot of material for his post KISS band, LOVER. Steve is an interesting guy with an interesting and down to earth viewpoint on one of the most idolized and sensationalized bands in rock and roll history. I make no bones about my love for KISS and constant quest for more KISS information so with that, I dialed up Steve who was fun, engaging and totally up for my questions. Read on…
Legendary Rock Interviews: Hey Steve how’s it going?
Steve Coronel: Real good John, I was just rehearsing guitar…(plays a bit of blues scale with a nice tone). I’m still jamming.
LRI: I am still diggin some of your old songs. I caught your episode on Decibel Geek Podcast and really enjoyed it and I know you are doing a couple other interviews. Is it sort of surreal to be doing interviews again after all this time?
Steve: You know it’s a choice. I was recently interviewed for Sweden Rock magazine which was nice. I could have done these interviews a long time ago but I really don’t do these things for the ego boost. I have known people from that era in the 70s who were all about those little things they did back in those days and all about themselves. I realize I am a very small part of a very large organization. I’ve never wanted to embarrass myself by affiliating myself with things that I really don’t belong in. Recently, as tings have mellowed out a little bit more and there’s been so many years passed I have taken a little bit softer view on that time. That’s really my answer.
LRI: No, that’s a really good answer actually. I wanted to ask you about your musical stuff that you’re into nowadays because I know you’re enjoying that again. Are you thinking about putting something together and playing out live again?
Steve: Yes, we have a link with Sweden. KISS is playing in Stockholm and I’m going to try to set up a band to play there as well, we’re talking. I think it’s time, you know, I did my time with my wife and my family and I’m almost Gene’s age, a couple years younger than Gene. I look a lot younger than I am and still get asked at the liquor store which is really funny.
LRI: You have such a unique vantage point to the KISS story from having grown up with Gene. Have you thought of writing a book?
Steve: You’re probably the 6th person to ask me that John. I’m not sure how many people are going to wanna read a book of my memories of Gene although if you’ve listened to any of my other interviews it is pretty insightful for the die-hard KISS fans. KISS has an audience that are into every little fucking detail about these guys, how they lived, how they ate, how they shit (laughs). I could tell you everything about Gene from age 13 to age 21, everything, because I was with him all day, every day and the things I remember are unbelievable but to me it’s just the way it was. It’s not a big deal, it’s the same teenage stuff that all of us go through, regular shit. When Gene and I were together we were kids and we did what we did you know? If I did a book it wouldn’t be for the money. I’ve made a lot of money designing expos over the years. I’ve designed for every kind of budget, everything from 20,000 dollars to 44 million dollars, I’m not rich like a rockstar is but I’ve done okay. I’m comfortable talking about my time with those guys and I can tell all those stories all day long but I’m not looking to get paid for it. I’m realistic about that.
LRI: You went backstage on the recent KISS/Motley Crue tour? How was that?
Steve: It was brief but nice, it was nice seeing Stan and Gene again. I hadn’t seen Gene since about 1995 when we had met at a Japanese hotel on 55th street off of Madison Avenue. I was working at the Sony building as a designer at the time. We had dinner together and talked a couple hours, Steve Leber (former Aerosmith manager) and we were all munching on cookies together and I think he just thought I was part of the entourage because he was asking Gene all this stuff like “How much do we charge for tickets” and Gene was saying 75 or 80 bucks and then they started talking about going after callgirls and I was like “I gotta get going guys, I have to go home to my wife she’s going to kill me” (laughing) and Gene was like “Oh, Steve has to go home to his wife” and was pissed off at me and I was like “Whaddya want from me? I can’t get away with what you get away with, my wife is all over me, I can’t do that I’m just a regular married guy”. It was funny. I did hear from Gene back in 2001 when my mother died, I was out at my father’s place in California and Gene calls up and I said “How did you get me???” and Gene said “Your wife called me up and told me your mother died”. Now my wife is Jewish, I’m half Jewish but she and Gene are full Jewish so she had Gene’s number and she just calls him up and says “You better call Steve his mother died!!” (laughing) and Gene, the big star that he is, to his credit, he called me”. That’s the thing a lot of people miss about Gene. He has a great heart. Don’t mistake his arrogance and all of that on TV because he has a very kind and considerate side to him. Underneath all of that is a very, very good person. As a friend, he would do anything for me, if I really had a problem, he’d do anything for you. He’s a very sincere and kind guy but back to this recent backstage thing, it was not a long meeting but it was very nice. The show was FUCKIN great, I have seen lots and lots of KISS shows since 1974. They’ve changed everything that they used to do physically to digital media like the background and the fire lights and the logo but they have some great artists. As a designer, I was impressed. I really, really liked the show.
LRI: It’s been stated that Gene was not the most natural musician of the original four but in so many ways he’s always come across as an extremely musically intelligent person, he’s a huge FAN of music which probably helps.
Steve: The thing is, Gene enhances Paul. The funny thing I learned about Gene and Stan’s relationship and this has been something I’ve realized in the last three or four years is that Paul actually looks up to Gene because Gene kind of has the wherewithal to sort of control the situation emotionally as a father-figure to Paul. I didn’t really understand that but now I do. The reason I didn’t really understand is because Paul is more like me. It’s so funny because when we had a falling out in 1972 it was all about silly immaterial things and this time meeting him recently was the first time we’ve spoken in a while, we haven’t talked since 1976. When I saw Stan backstage at the tent, he heard Gene and I talking and he popped his head out, all six foot seven of him and he looked at me, and I looked at him and he extended his hand and said “Nice to see you” and I said “Nice to see you too!” and I think we finally have peace at this point. We had issues for a while about things that we spoke about and about girls and all these things and I think that’s really where my separation from the guys and the band occurred. It wasn’t so much about the music as much as it was these issues.
LRI: The famous story is one you’ve no doubt had to tell and retell over and over but it all started with a punch in the face right?
Steve: (laughs)…Yes, we were in 7th grade and it started with, I guess it was a jab, Gene jabbed me. He was really offended that I told him his singing “Barbara Ann” wasn’t any good (laughs).
LRI: But the greater part of all of that was that you guys bonded and connected via the music, hence the reason he was so flabbergasted by you saying that.
Steve: Yeah, it was no big deal. He wanted my opinion and I just said “You guys sounded like shit, I’m no singer but I can hear and you’re looking at me like you were so great and you weren’t you sounded horrible”. So he was pissed off and 220 lbs and I was 175 lbs and he figured he could take a shot at me which he did and before I could even think about what just happened, I looked at him and he immediately grabs my shoulder and says “Hey, I’m really sorry” and I’m just like “Well, what were you expecting me to say? Did you expect me to say you guys sounded great?”. I’m the type of person where I have no problem paying a compliment if it’s deserved, if he would’ve sounded good I know that he knew I would’ve told him but I’m not going to give you a compliment if you’re off-key and sound bad, which they did (laughs). But Gene was like “Oh my god, how dare you!!” I went on to be in bands with the guy continually, every moment, every band, from 13 to 21 years old.
LRI: So you and Gene were in “Long Island Sounds” together?
Steve: Oh absolutely!! We all wore the same paisley shirts (laughs).
LRI: You were also in bands with Paul, one band called TREE. Did you sense a difference between Paul or Gene’s passion for music or songwriting?
Steve: No, not really. Paul had some original songs and Gene had some original songs and I had some original songs. We also used to do lots of covers of course. We used to do Mitch Ryder, Mountain. I built Gene’s first speaker cabinet and we did “Devil With the Blue Dress On”. We were all very into writing and also into playing a lot of those songs from bands like that as well.
LRI: Do you remember when there was a breaking of the ice between Gene and Paul? Where they started to accept one another?
Steve: Oh yeah. It’s very clear and concise. When Gene met Stan at my apartment, Gene was very uptight, he didn’t like Stanley to begin with, before he had even heard any of his songs, because Gene didn’t like any competition. That’s not necessarily the truth, that’s just how I saw it, that’s my evaluation. So Gene heard his songs, and in my opinion Stanley was a very good songwriter, better than Gene and he really didn’t like it. I had also written some songs and I’ve said this before, many times, Gene always felt that in terms of songwriting he always felt there was Gene and then there was everybody else below him (laughs). So when Gene first heard Stan and his songs I was immediately looking at him to see his reaction to Stan and his songs you know, because I’m listening to his songs and thinking they’re pretty good. Gene’s looking at him and just goin “Hmmmm, I don’t know”. Gene’s ego was all fucked up at that moment.
LRI: Not to play armchair psychologist but do you think you and Gene’s friendship played into it as much as his ego, like maybe he felt he was not interested in sharing you with Paul given all the time he’d spent playing with you?
Steve: You know, it’s funny. Someone reminded me, because this all happened so long ago and it’s easy to forget and i may have blocked it out of my mind but apparently there was a phone call people have told me. Stan had called me to say “Steve, you have to make a choice, It’s either me or Gene”. I honestly never remembered that but a couple of people remembered that and told me about it. It was one of those things where I felt very uncomfortable, you know, you want to go on with your music and your career but there’s two people who are angry with each other. I had forgot that but thankfully it resolved itself of course. A couple of weeks later I saw Gene on his own and he had apparently thought about Paul and his songs and changed his mind, he said to me “I think it’s good”. So we got back together to play and the thing about Gene is once he embraces you and accepts you there is NO problem so we were all getting along and joking and when we got together it was like nothing bad had ever happened. We had a great, great chemistry together and worked together for months and months and months. It was very beautiful, very positive and very happy.
LRI: I must bug you about the details. Before there was Wicked Lester there was Rainbow. Were there a lot more gigs as Rainbow then there were as Wicked Lester? Did Rainbow get as far as having a logo or any type of fanbase?
Steve: Yeah, we had a logo that we made ourselves and we played quite a few gigs around Queens as Rainbow. Probably 2 or 3 times a month. We played Moby Grape, The Stones, The Beatles, Buffalo Springfield and stuff like that at a few clubs in Queens. I remember one real cool rock club and I remember that was when we first got Marshall amplifiers. Which was a pretty cool thing! We played out quite a bit, it was easy to do in the late sixties, early seventies. I remember we played an Armenian club and Gene and I both had Armenian girlfriends. I have stories I could tell you, oh my god.
LRI: So you’re saying you agree with Gene’s assessment that he only started playing to get girls?
Steve: Oh absolutely. We wanted to get laid. When we were in junior high school we were talking to girls but we weren’t getting laid yet you know?? We might have gotten into some grinding and making out situations but we still hadn’t actually gotten laid. We were both over at the home of these two Czechoslovakian sisters while their dad was at work and we were sitting on the couch with them. They were blue eyed, blond haired, very sexy girls. I remember it was a nice couch, stiff armed but nice back padding and Gene was on one end and I was on the other end with the two sisters in the middle and I reached my arm over and was holding Rose, one of the sisters hands and I thought “Gee, her hand feels kind of strong” and I look over the back of the couch and Gene was looking across and I see we were actually holding each other’s hands. So Gene and I just start laughing and the girls started laughing and it was just really, really funny. It became easier and easier to get girls as it became known that we were in bands and we were playing out. Girls would walk up and ask you to play a song and we would proposition them. We had a lot of fun back then.
LRI: I can remember when I first heard about Wicked Lester as a KISS fan. Do you recall when the decision was made to call the band Wicked Lester?
Steve: As far as I know that decision came from Gene. I came down to rehearsal one night and he was already there and I think Stanley was already there as well but I’m not sure who else was. Gene says “I have an idea to change the name of the band to Wicked Lester”. Personally, I thought there were so many hot rock bands out there at the time, from the sixties on that had really cool, simple names and the name Wicked Lester to me just did not ring a bell. We always had arguments and I challenged him, I said “What do you mean Wicked Lester, what is that supposed to be?”. I remember the conversation, he explained it to me like he would to anybody, “Oh, he’s this mischievous little guy, he’s a little devil” and all of this and I was like “Well, what does that have to do with a great rock band? We wanna be everything to everybody and not have some weird name that doesn’t appeal to the public. There’s the Who, Cream, Rolling Stones, The Move, what in the hell is Wicked Lester, it sounds like a nasty little person” and Gene says again “Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, he’s a little mischievous guy”. I was really surprised that a guy who dreamed as big as Gene and had as big of intentions as he did would want to call his band Wicked Lester.
LRI: I also remember when the bootleg of the Wicked Lester album started to really become widely circulated. What did you think when you first started seeing it make the rounds?
Steve: I was aware of the bootlegs. You know the thing that you have to remember about that studio recording was that we had a guy named Ron Johnson. He was our producer. Now, I’m not saying I was anybody but this was a guy who’s whole thing was based around a song called “Me and You…..and a Dog Named Boo”. Now, that was where he came from and I was an arrogant young kid with a mind and a heart and he was this “Me and You And A Dog Named Boo” guy. I looked at it like this guy didn’t produce Hendrix, he didn’t produce Janis Joplin or any of the bands we liked or came up on and he didn’t work with any of them he produced “Me and You….And a Dog Named Boo” and I was already weary. Here he was, taking my song “She” and putting bongos on it and Brooke Ostrander’s flute on it and although Brooke was a very good player, it didn’t belong on that song. You can bastardize songs and try to adopt them to your way of thinking as a producer but that doesn’t make it right. As history proved, with KISS redoing it on Dressed To Kill and Alive, it proved me right, that song didn’t need that treatment.
LRI: I’ve heard you play and you’re easily capable of playing all of that material. How much of your own playing do you hear on the album and how much is the other guy, Ron Leejack? Does that annoy you, do you even enjoy listening to those tapes?
Steve: There are some parts on there that I can clearly hear as my playing. As for whether or not I like the album, I don’t know, that’s kind of a hard question to answer. At this point it’s part of America’s musical history so on that end I have to like it because I was a part of it and played on those songs but on the other hand, I wish we could have taken those songs and recorded and played them a little bit better because it would have been that much nicer. That stuff isn’t terrible but it was nowhere near what we were capable of and it’s a shame that we didn’t get more of our own songs on there and that we had to work with Ron Johnson as our producer instead of someone who might’ve better understood a rock and roll band. It was kind of shortsighted compared to what the result could have been. We were a rock and roll band that was being molded by a producer who was not rock and roll.
LRI: Were you surprised a few years later to hear that the guys resurfaced in a much more straight ahead hard rock way with KISS?
Steve: No, because Stan was such a good hard rock writer. I say Stanley because it was predominantly Stan who was so good at writing and understanding those pure rock anthems, he was very into the Move and Free and he was just a very good anthem rock writer. Stanley is just a really, really great writer and you cannot take that away from him. As I said earlier, Gene, you know, Gene’s my friend but he was not on that level, he wrote cartoon songs, you know, things like “Stanley the Parrot” and all of these crazy ideas that were interesting but not at all rock anthems. Stanley knew how to take an idea and turn it into a really great rock and roll anthem and that’s a real talent. You know, all the time we were playing together we were so loud, we could barely hear ourselves playing but it’s clear that Paul had that ability.
LRI: Gene did have some good ideas though and some really freakin weird lyrics it seems. Do you agree that your songs you wrote “She” and “Goin Blind” are two of the stranger songs in the KISS catalog? They seem to be both weird and sexual at the same time.
Steve: (laughs and busts out an absolutely killer take of the “She” guitar lick). It’s so funny. I remember coming up with that riff and that progression and I said “Gene, what do you think of this?” and he says, “Let me think a minute” and he starts writing these words about “She walks by moonlight and noone really knows” and I’ve known him since we were thirteen and I just start laughing. I’m like “She walks by moonlight?? What in the hell are you talking about?” and he was like “Yeah, you know, I’m thinking of Pocahontas walking by moonlight on these stepping stones through the forest” and I just look at him and go “What in the fuck are you talking about???!!” (laughs). I was like trying to figure out where we were really going here, I was trying to write like a really heavy Leslie West, Mountain song and he’s talking about Pocahontas by moonlight. But somehow he pulled it off because it turned out great to their credit. I was really surprised by how well KISS did it with the drums and guitars, it was very powerful and they pulled it off.
LRI: It was also one of the earlier versions of Gene writing about girls taking off their clothes so that’s pretty cool.
Steve: Yes, that is true!
LRI: KISS managed to survive all kinds of roadblocks that would derail most bands, taking off their makeup and keeping with the times in the 1980s. Knowing the guys as well as you did, were you surprised they were able to pull that off and become an MTV band?
Steve: No and knowing them it sometimes felt like I was in there with them and they did exactly what I would have done in those circumstances. The times had changed, it was time for them to take the makeup off and look like sexy rock stars and that’s what they did. I think they did a great job of it as well. They had a lot of competition with younger bands that were on the scene like Motley Crue and Van Halen and all of these groups and they managed to stay up there not only through their videos and their albums but with their brains. People forget, these are not your stereotypical dumb rock stars, these two guys are smart, smart guys. They’re not your average drunk in the corner, no idea what to do rockers. They devised a plan and they adhered to it.
LRI: I’ve heard numerous times, sometimes from the band’s own mouths, that there were members of Wicked Lester that didn’t like the ideas for dramatic staging or makeup or costumes and it’s usually been written that it was MULTIPLE members who didn’t agree to the image and show. For the record, were you one of them?
Steve: No, not at all. It is true that I was more concerned with developing the songs and the music first and then focusing on the show and the makeup and all this other stuff but I wasn’t against it at all. I guess I really underestimated how important it would be in the long run, I really couldn’t have possibly imagined how simple that image part of things was to people and god bless em, I mean, I’m glad. I’ve made royalties over these recordings and these songs that were published so I really am glad but it is kind of crazy. The passion and dedication of KISS fans almost freaks me out, I’ve seen grown men, cops and doctors with their kids on their shoulders at the KISS shows and they’re telling me this band gives them a reason to live. It is kind of funny to me but I would have had no problem putting on the boots and the makeup had I felt that the songs and the music and everything was in place. To me that was the most important thing and I wasn’t about to say otherwise then, especially with no money at stake. I just felt very strongly that the songs needed to be worked on first and foremost when we were doing Wicked Lester.
LRI: Thanks once again for talking to us Steve. Where can people stay up on what you have going on and where you’re gonna be?
Steve: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me John. I would say check out my Facebook page. I’m thinking of putting some of these new songs we are working on here on the page and that’s the best way to stay current on what’s going on. I’m having a lot of fun playing and working with some really talented players.
Steve Coronel’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/steve.coronel.12
Sites That Link to this Post
- Intervju med Steve Coronel - Destroyer- Kiss Army Sweden | December 30, 2012
- Kiss - Pagina 898 | November 23, 2013