I didn’t become aware of KISS through the radio as I did with other bands, but through other kids during after-school care. Their older siblings had the records and merchandise, all of which trickled down to younger listeners. My earliest memory of seeing the band in the pre-MTV era was a television airing of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, much talked about the next day among the elementary school set. Perhaps it’s fitting, considering the direction of the band’s early marketing efforts – it’s no wonder that the band’s original drummer expresses frustration in his memoir that he preferred to work as a musician in a band like the Stones rather than a commodity in a group like The Monkees. I don’t profess to be a member of the KISS Army (I don’t own a single album or compilation), so at best I’m a casual listener and often captive observer, considering how expansively the KISS brand is still advertised.
I picked up Peter Criss’s book, Makeup to Breakup, after my closest friend told me he was reading Ace Frehley’s book (look for a guest review on that one soon). He went into Ace’s book already knowing much of the story, being perhaps a more avid fan, and from the notes we’ve compared it may be safe to say Criss’s book delves a bit deeper into the “KISStory.”
The story opens with a jolt more intimidating than any full makeup live show, where Peter briefly contemplates suicide after riding out a rough California earthquake. While an unwavering faith in God and devotion to family ultimately pull him back, this event seems to symbolize the shaky ground on which Criss has walked through much of his life, from early beginnings running with gangs to false starts with fledgling bands until his first meeting with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.
Criss and co-author Larry Sloman paint a rather vivid picture of the drummer’s youth and pre-KISS days. As with other musician memoirs I’ve read in recent years (Sammy Hagar’s for one), the requisite juvenile delinquency sets the stage for an interesting life. George Peter Criscuola stood out in school and in the neighborhood, and not necessarily in a good way. A stint in a gang helped toughen him for life on the road as a drummer, yet he left his tenure with KISS a victim in many ways.
Criss notes here that Simmons has painted him as the complainer in the group, and if Criss’s word is to be accepted over the other band members he has good reason. Criss’s desire to play in a band apparently conflicted with Simmons’s desire to play up a brand – profits from the KISS-logo condoms, coffins, underwear, etc. aren’t likely to hit Criss’s bank account, and the resentment is strongly felt in this book. It’s interesting to note, too, that Frehley had designed the iconic logo that the band markets with fervor.
But this is a review of Makeup to Breakup, not a critique of the band’s marketing strategy. I find that as I read books like Criss’s I become torn emotionally. The guy had millions at one point, and one might find it challenging to feel for him when he hits a low point personally and professionally, especially when you read of all the coke snorted, the women banged and tossed away, etc. In some chapters Criss appears unapologetic for certain actions, and when you come to the point where you want to close the book and leave him to reap what he sowed, you read about how the KISS machine drew him back in so they could make more money off the Catman, and you feel insulted right along with him.
What may win you to Criss’s corner, KISS fan or not, is his unwavering appreciation for his fans. Criss may never see a dime from sales of lunchboxes and t-shirts, but at the end of the day he knows the KISS Army formed for a love of the music, and his contributions are no less important than the other members’.
I imagine hardcore KISS fans will debate over whether Criss is entitled to his financial share of the legacy or if Simmons and Stanley acted with benevolence in giving Criss a “second chance” after years of drug abuse on the job. Either way, fans now have a third point of view of the KISStory to consider, and it’s worth reading.
Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.