The memoir of Kiss drummer Peter Criss is endearingly needy and sleazy

The memoir of Kiss drummer Peter Criss is endearingly needy and sleazy

Over the years, I’ve delved deep into the world of Kiss without liking the band or its music. For this column, I’ve written about two books that prominently involve Kiss: C.K. Lendt’s Kiss And Sell, a fascinating tome about the business side of the Kiss empire, and Larry Harris’ And Party Every Day: The Inside Story Of Casablanca Records, which explored the rise and fall of the iconic label that gave the world Village People, Donna Summer, various disco demigods, and Kiss. Gene Simmons was, and probably always will be the, single most obnoxious interview subject I’ve ever had, and I covered Kiss’ gloriously misguided concept album Music From The Elder for My World Of Flops. Yet, early in the gloriously sordid memoir of former Kiss drummer Peter Criss, Makeup To Breakup, I began to realize that I’ve come to genuinely like these grease-painted knuckleheads. Blame it on Stockholm Syndrome or softening with age, but I have an awful lot of affection for Kiss and the tacky gothic universe the band created. 

It feels safe to say that at this point, I like Kiss more than Criss does. 

Makeup To Breakup positively vibrates with rage toward Criss’ former bandmates, Kiss’ management, and everything Kiss represents. Criss claims that extensive therapy helped him work through some of his anger toward Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, and Ace Frehley, the book’s unholy trinity of backstabbing hard-rock Judases, though I suspect that if Criss had written this book before working through his rage, it would have consisted of nothing but elaborate drawings of Simmons, Stanley, and Frehley being brutally murdered with a series of Saw-style torture devices.

But before Criss despised the other members of Kiss, he embraced them as a band of brothers on a single-minded mission to conquer the world. Makeup To Breakup affectionately chronicles the group’s oft-told tale of glory won, lost, then regained, from its humble origins as a band that combined the theatricality of Alice Cooper with the androgynous role-playing of glam rock, to its late-’70s peak as one of the biggest bands in the world, a money-making machine that left a trail of devastation in its wake.

Criss’ book is wonderfully sleazy and graphic even for a rock-star memoir. At the height of Kiss mania, Criss almost literally had to fight girls off with a stick. His entire universe was saturated with orgies, champagne, and cocaine freak-outs. There are levels to rock-star decadence. The beginning level is pretty tame. It involves drinking too much, the occasional blackout, indulging in groupies, and maybe smoking a little weed. On the second level comes cocaine, threesomes with groupies, and wrecking hotel rooms. Criss and Frehley quickly graduated to the most advanced level of rock-star decadence, one attained by the Mötley Crües, Led Zeppelins, and Iggy Pops of the world. The band went from smoking weed and chasing girls to fucking 19-year-olds in their signature make-up and costumes (the ultimate form of rock-star narcissism), doing mountains of blow, destroying hotels, hurling lunch meat on naked groupies then shoving them in hotel elevators (a stunt in which Marilyn Manson’s crew also engaged), and, in one of Criss’ more regrettable misadventures, dressing up like Nazis and knocking on the door to Simmons’ hotel room and demanding to see his papers. That would be an almost unforgivably offensive transgression under the best of circumstances, but Simmons is the progeny of Holocaust survivors (not to mention a mean, humorless bastard), so he was particularly horrified by his bandmates’ shenanigans. 

During the late ’70s, Criss’ onstage life was a Hammer horror movie with better special effects, and his offstage and backstage life was one giant Fellini-esque fuck-fest. As a street-fighting, Gene Krupa-worshiping, weed-smoking mama’s boy from New York, Criss was never particularly grounded or practical, but once his life became a surreal misadventure saturated in guns, sex, and drugs, he really began to lose touch with reality.

One of Makeup To Breakup’s most surprising, and refreshing, revelations is Criss’ acknowledgment of the central role gay men and gay iconography played in crafting the band’s image. Criss credits Sean Delaney—a choreographer, songwriter, and all-around renaissance man whom Criss says was a transvestite “in his spare time”—with helping create the group’s larger-than-life gothic persona. With its tight black spandex, bracelets, platform shoes, teased hair, leather, homoerotic choreography, and kabuki make-up, Kiss was the high-camp ideal of a hard-rock outfit. Kiss’ billion-dollar shtick was informed as much by the underground gay leather scene as Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. Delaney even took Criss on extensive tours of gay bars. 

Kiss’ manager, Bill Aucoin, was also gay, and in one of the book’s many sordid revelations, Criss writes that Frehley may very well have performed oral sex on Criss during one of the group’s many coke-fueled orgies. Criss writes that Frehley didn’t discriminate between men and women during drugged-out sex parties, possibly because he was so fucked-up he genuinely couldn’t delineate between actual women and dudes who were awful pretty. Speaking of pretty, Criss spends much of the book casting aspersions on the sexuality of screamingly flamboyant frontman Paul Stanley, whom the group nicknamed He She for his raging androgyny and effeminate stage persona.

But Makeup To Breakup isn’t exclusively about homosexuality; dick size also figures prominently in the narrative. Criss brags throughout that his penis is so huge he calls it the Spoiler, because it spoils women for all other men. (Though I like to imagine it’s also because it gives away the endings to movies. So if a woman sleeps with Criss she’ll wake up sexually satisfied and cognizant of the twist ending of The Sixth Sense.) Criss also credits Frehley with an enormous cock, which he would whip out at the slightest provocation, in addition to being a frenzied public masturbator. As for Stanley, Criss writes that he was so lacking in the size department that when Kiss went on tour with Aerosmith, he took to stuffing his crotch.

Makeup To Breakup dishes the dirt, literally: The book repeatedly references Simmons’ refusal to bathe or wash his leather pants. In one of the many vivid details that make the book so compulsively readable, Criss writes that at one point Stanley had to share a microphone with Simmons, and that his breath smelled even worse than usual because his teeth were coated in his latest lover’s menstrual blood. In Makeup To Breakup, Simmons is relentless in his intertwined pursuit of women and money. When Simmons was in the manager phase of his career, for example, he both managed and made sweet passionate love to a 63-year-old Yvonne De Carlo. (Then again, if you grow up worshiping horror movies and comic books, it’s got to be a thrill to have sex with Lily Munster, whatever the age.) 

Criss conquered the world with Kiss, but his relationship with Simmons and Stanley quickly went from affectionate to troubled to cold to impossible. To his credit, Criss acknowledges that his bad behavior, cocaine abuse, and ego played a big role in his split from Kiss, but he still blames Simmons and Stanley for poisoning the onstage and backstage environment.

After Criss left Kiss, he entered a wilderness period where he formed new bands and tried to acclimate himself to playing 40-person shitholes like The Sandbox (so named because the floor was covered in sand) instead of stadiums. Where Criss’ Kiss cohorts treated him like an inferior, Criss’ adoring young bandmates worshiped him as a god. He was, after all, a real live rock star generously lending his talents, name, and fame to a bunch of unknowns. This was healing medicine for his ego, which took a never-ending series of blows during his time with Kiss. Criss’ mistreatment by his former bandmates made him treasure every accomplishment, no matter how small. Criss sees himself as an award-winning songwriter, for example, because “Beth” won a People’s Choice Award. Criss fails to mention that the People’s Choice Award is the Ford Pinto of awards shows, and that he shared the honor with “Disco Duck.”

Criss’ time in the wilderness ended when Stanley and Simmons realized there was a vast fortune to be made by swallowing their contempt for Frehley and Criss and embarking on a reunion tour that made them bigger and more profitable than ever. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that Criss eventually parted ways with the group again; given all the bad blood and sinister vibes, it’s remarkable he lasted as long as he did, for several tours that found the group performing to ever-dwindling crowds and smaller paychecks.   

The Kiss reunion did, however, offer him something rare and wonderful: a second chance, an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and return to a formative experience with the benefit of decades of experience and perspective, if not quite wisdom. Criss evolved in some ways; he no longer spent his fortune on blow or “entertained” a basketball team’s worth of groupies in his hotel rooms after shows. But he still found a way to sabotage the chance of a lifetime by loudly broadcasting his contempt for Stanley and Simmons, who treated him as an employee and underling rather than an equal. Then again, what did Criss expect? It’s been said that the definition of madness is to repeat the same action over and over again and expect a different outcome. For Criss, madness is agreeing to tour with Simmons and Stanley and expecting them to magically transform into considerate, respectful, and generous gentleman. 

Yet the greatest wound to Criss’ huge yet fragile ego came when he learned that Ace Frehley, one of his closest friends and only ally within the group, was making $50,000 per show while he made only $40,000. For Criss, this is the ultimate betrayal, the professional equivalent of stabbing him then setting his corpse on fire. Yet it’s really, really hard to feel sympathy for a man who makes $40,000 a gig yet feels he’s insultingly underpaid.

Makeup To Breakup ends with Criss reflecting on his own version of spirituality (even when fucking a dozen groupies a night, he always made sure to say his prayers), mourning the failure of an album of ballads he recorded (including a version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” that commented obliquely on his troubled relationship with Kiss), and recounting his triumph over breast cancer. Criss is a quintessential survivor. As he notes more than once, he really should have died at least a half-dozen times by now, a casualty of car accidents, drugs, suicidal depression, or Herculean self-abuse; yet he survived to tell a tale that may not qualify as art, but is a hell of a nastily fun read.

More Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club