A Conversation With “Big” John Harte
“Big” John Harte is the former head of security for KISS. He also worked for Prince, Iron Maiden, and Billy Idol, as well as numerous TV and movie stars. His autobiography comes out this summer, and he has a Pledge Music campaign going on right now that you should check out. John was kind enough to speak with me about his impressive and exciting career.
What’s your favorite Eric Carr story or memory?
Eric Carr was the happiest rockstar I ever met. He was just beside himself about being in KISS. He was a KISS fan and once he got in the band, he couldn’t believe it. He was like a 12-year-old. He was mind-boggled. He was floored. He was so happy. We were in France one time, and Eric was trying to fit in. So, he asked Gene how to pronounce various words in French. Unbeknownst to Eric, Gene was giving him the wrong words but when Eric would speak them back to Gene, he’d go, “Yes, that’s good.” Then the woman who was serving us in the restaurant came over to the table and Eric started spouting these words at her that he thought were correct and she looked at him like she was thinking, “What the hell are you talking about?” (laughs) Of course, we all cracked up and, eventually, Eric started laughing too.
When did you start working with KISS?
I was brought in to work with the band in January 1976. We went to Europe and I assumed after that tour my commitment was over. Then Bill Aucoin asked me to stay with the band, and it became an eight or nine-year relationship.
When did you stop working with KISS
1983. I took them to Brazil, set them up for the first show. And then I left to go work with Iron Maiden.
Who made the decision for you and KISS to part ways?
It was management. The band’s management changed. It went from being Bill Aucoin to Glickman/Marks, which was an advertising company, not a music company. They were looking to cut costs wherever they could. They told me they didn’t need me year-round anymore. That didn’t sit well with me because I had a family and house to take care of. They were nice about it, but it wasn’t going to work for me. So, I worked out a deal to work for Iron Maiden and that’s what I did.
How many cameras did you smash over the years?
(laughs) Not as many as people think. We tried to be more level-headed than smashing them. What we would do was we’d warn photographers, “Don’t take any pictures.” Of course, someone would always try and they’d get caught. Then I’d get in their face and say, “I need to have the film.” Some people would give it over and others would try not to. If they really resisted I’d say, “One way or another, I’m going to have that film. It’s your camera, but I will get that film out of there.” They’d usually give me their cameras and I’d strip the film right in front of them. Some people would say, “You’re going to sell that?” I’d respond, “To whom? If I wanted a picture of the band, I could take it myself.” There weren’t as many broken cameras as you’d believe. There were a few. I’d hate it when they’d run away because I’d have to go chase them down, and I’m a big guy.
Is it true that KISS would pay the photographer for the film if they captured the band without makeup?
I would, sure. The band thought it was only fair to do that. I’d give them $5 or $10 bucks, whatever it cost for the film back then. It usually helped resolve those situations more quickly.
Vinnie Vincent recently emerged from seclusion. What are your memories of working with Vinnie?
Vinnie was really happy to be there. But he was also trying too hard. The band wanted someone who could color inside the lines, and Vinnie was doing more than that. He didn’t seem to understand that. He was doing longer solos, and the band wasn’t happy about that. Vinnie also didn’t like their makeup because it took too long to put on, especially in the beginning. When he was new, it took him even longer because everyone applies their own makeup. He also didn’t like the platform boots because he had bad arches. He’s have to put supports in his shoes. Being elevated like that really threw him off. He’d stumble around because of it, similar to the way Ace used to stumble around but for different reasons.
Gene and Paul have very different personalities. What was it like working with them?
Gene is very competitive. We’d play racquetball and he’d nearly take my head off with the ball. He really wanted to win. Gene is also very funny. He’d do and say things to get people to laugh. I used to call Gene and Paul “Bo” and “Zo.” So, collectively, they’d be bozo. (laughs) We had a good time.
Paul was a little more reserved than Ace and Peter. He had his own interests. He was into art and fashion. Paul would also listen to many other bands for their lyrics.
How about Ace and Peter?
Peter loved his drums, and Ace loved the gadgetry of his guitar. He’d experiment with different ways to modify his guitar.
Was there ever someone – for example, a husband or boyfriend – who threatened anyone in KISS because they had sex with that individual’s significant other?
We never had that scenario. But we did have some people threaten multiple times to kill band members. We had people open the band’s mail at the office, because they’d respond to it. Once there were four or five threats from a person, we had to call up the FBI, especially if we were going to be in the area in which they lived. Most of the time it was lovers quarrels, though. A girl would be into Paul and her boyfriend or husband would get jealous, stuff like that.
Have you stayed in touch with Gene and Paul over the years?
On and off I’d contact them. Every once in a while, when they were in town, I’d stop by to see them. They were always nice to me and my family.
You were on the KISS Kruise in 2017. What was that like?
That was mind-boggling and humbling. I had no idea the fans thought anything of me. Spending time with Lydia Criss, the Kulick brothers and everybody was just great. It was a really good time. Everyone was so nice.
What was it like working with Prince?
I did one tour with him. It was in 1987, the Lovesexy Tour. I was venue security for him because he already had bodyguards. I was with him for Europe and the United States, not Japan. I’d get to talk to Prince every night, briefly, after his shows. He was an exceptional musician. He really loved what he did. He never wanted to stop. I remember seeing him in the studio with the band; and when they were done, he kept playing. He wasn’t aloof the way people said. You could look him in the eyes and talk to him like a normal person, which is what I did. He wasn’t real talkative, but he’d spend two or three minutes with me each night.
Tell me about your time working with Billy Idol. What was that like?
I worked with Billy during the time his Whiplash Smile album released. Since Bill Aucoin was going through a dark time, personally, Billy Idol had free reign to make his own decisions, which isn’t good for a rock star. Billy was making friends with all of the Sunset Boulevard crowd and breaking shit in his hotel room. I had to sit him down and ask him, “What do you think you’re here for?” I had to try and straighten him out enough to get him into the studio in California to record the album, which he did. We had a great time in the studio. And they kept me on for the tour.
How long did you work with Iron Maiden? Any interesting stories to share from that experience?
I worked with them in 1983. Then again in 1985 and 1986. I had a great time with them. The first year I worked with them, I didn’t understand what they were saying half the time. Two of them spoke very low and when you add in their accents, I didn’t know what the hell they were saying. It took me a while to pick up on it, but they were fun. My favorite experience with them was going behind the Iron Curtain. We got to see and speak with fans that struggled to stay in touch with the western world. It was fascinating.
You have an autobiography coming out this summer. What made you decide that now was the right time to share your stories with the world?
I couldn’t say “no” anymore to Steve, my business partner. (laughs) We’ve been working together for 30 or 35 years. He often told me, “You need to write a book.” And he kept pestering me. I’d say, “I’m too busy working.” But then in 2015 I had open-heart surgery. I was forcibly put out of work and he said, “Now you have no excuse. You should sit down and finally write this book.” It’s a new experience, but we decided to self-publish it. I didn’t want to give up my rights to a publisher that wouldn’t understand what the fans want to read, so that’s why we’re self-publishing it and doing the Pledge campaign.
You have a Pledge Music campaign going on right now for your book. What are the details behind this campaign?
There are all sorts of packages available. The book itself is offered at a discounted rate. We’re looking at a mid-summer or late-summer release date. Also, the artwork is being done by Ken Kelly, who did the artwork for the KISS albums Destroyer and Love Gun. The original artwork by Ken will be available as part of the Pledge campaign, as well as t-shirts, autographs, thank-you notes. A lot of different things for people to enjoy.
Will your autobiography also be available as an ebook, so people can read it on their Kindle, iPad, or another similar device?
We’ve looked into that but we haven’t decided to do it just yet.
Aside from the artists we’ve already discussed, who else have you worked with?
After doing music security for so long, I got into providing security for motion pictures and TV production. On-location, set security, overnight security, that kind of stuff. I got to meet Will Smith, who was very nice, while he was filming Bad Boys. I also got to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger. I also met Burt Reynolds while he was filming Striptease. The difference between rock and roll people and motion picture and TV people is in rock and roll, the band gets the credit. In motion pictures and TV, the union people get the credit. For example, when it’s time to eat, the union people – the crew – is at the front of the line. Oftentimes, the stars in the movies and TV shows will defer to them, which was very interesting to see. It’s a different perspective on things. They’re pretty humble overall.