Makeup to Breakup: My Life In and Out of Kiss
By Peter Criss
No band has aired more of their internal squabbles and dirty laundry in public than KISS. Gene Simmons has had a long running public feud with guitarist Ace Frehley. Simmons has not been kind to Peter Criss either.
Simmons and Frehley authored a somewhat milquetoast autobiographies airing their grievances, yet the pair were able to meet to discuss them. It’s safe to say that Peter Criss will not be meeting with Simmons to bury the hatchet after the release of his autobiography which is a no holds barred, graphic analysis of the band that was KISS.
Criss was born into an Italian/Irish family living in a poor section of Brooklyn. From the time of his birth, Criss was a momma’s boy – very much attached to his mother. That didn’t stop him from misbehaving and getting trouble as a youth.
Criss ran with some street gangs in Brooklyn and once stabbed a man in a gang fight. As a young musician, he was a regular performer at various mob operated night clubs. He started with drugs and booze at a young age.
Criss was in several bands as a youth, but none of them seemed to be going anywhere. Finally he posted an advertisement in Rolling Stone. Gene Simmons called him during a party and interviewed him. Simmons and bandmate Paul Stanley saw him perform at a Brooklyn night club. After hearing his raspy singing voice and incredible energy on drums, Simmons was confident the new group he and Stanley were putting together had found its drummer.
The rise of KISS has been well documented and Criss’ account does not differ from that of Gene or Ace. Criss says in those early days, all four of them were close friends with a common goal and a shared vision of how to get there. He says in the band’s early days, he was closer to Gene than any other member of the band, brought together by their love of sweet treats that they shared after concerts.
That close relationship would not last forever. In the band’s early days, Simmons and Stanely wrote almost all of Kiss’ material. Frehley contributed a couple songs to their second album, Hotter Than Hell. However, lacking confidence as a singer, he had Gene or Peter sing them. Criss did not contribute a song until the 1976 album, Destroyer.
Criss discusses life on the road with KISS. He initially roomed with Gene Simmons, but soon had to move out, preferring to room with Paul Stanley. He says Gene had absolutely horrible physical hygiene and was a slob. Simmons did not shower after concerts and usually reeked of body odor. He did not dry out his leather garments and the continually stunk.
Like Frehley, Criss concludes that Simmons had some serious issues when it came to sex. He says that Gene absolutely had to have sex after a concert and did not discriminate based on looks. If it had a vagina, Simmons would fuck it, Criss says. Criss does not hedge on his own lust for groupies, often entertaining several women a night despite the fact that he was the only married member of the band in those early days.
Criss says he’s often asked if Paul Stanley is bisexual. Criss does not answer the question definitively, but says that in KISS’ early days, Paul’s nickname was He/She for his rather androgynous behavior. Even Simmons, who was close friends with Paul, seemed to feel this way. Criss recalls a particular orgy after a Kiss show where there were several couples in the room with the band. Most were heterosexual, but there were gay couplings going on as well. Stanley had passed out drunk on a bed. He said that when Simmons saw that Paul was passed out, he interrupted his own coitus to get Paul out of the room. As Peter puts it, if one man had managed to stick his dick in Paul’s mouth, it would destroy the image of the band.
As he discusses the development of KISS as a stage entity, Peter says it was two gay men who made all the difference. Bill Aucoin, their original manager was gay and out to the band and his closest associates. Aucoin kept Kiss solvent in those early years by robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak.
Criss gives most of the credit for KISS' extravagant stage shows to a man named Sean Delaney who worked hard with the band to coordinate their onstage antics, moves, and dances as well has having strong musical input. Criss is convinced that, had it not been for Sean Delaney, Kiss would have been just another hard rock band who liked to wear makeup.
Peter said he was immediately drawn to Ace Frehley and the two became very close friends early in the band’s existence. Like Peter, Ace was a party animal. He could consume vast quantities of beer and cocaine and remain conscious. Peter enjoyed partying with drugs more than any other member of the band and found a soul mate in Ace Frehley.
As KISS progressed and met with frustration because their studio albums were not selling, Gene and Paul became more controlling. They wouldn’t let him play the drums the way he wanted to. They would not let him sing the way he wanted to. Whenever he would introduce songs, they would nix them. When he did get a song past them, they would change it. More than anything else, it was these creative differences that led Peter Criss to become less engaged in the band and more engaged in partying.
He also claims that, when he would assert himself, Gene and Paul would remind him of how uneducated he was. They belittled his intelligence and sometimes subjected him to spelling tests just to torment him. Peter characterizes himself as the toughest and most emotional guy in the band. He admits to often threatening to quit if he did not get his way and sometimes threatening Paul and Gene with physical violence.
On one point, Simmons and Criss are in complete agreement: Bob Ezrin changed KISS dramatically and for the better. Simmons and Frehley both wrote of how dictatorial the domineering producer was in the studio when the band went in to make Destroyer. Simmons says the Ezrin rock and roll boot camp was just what Kiss needed and openly embraced it. Criss did not so openly embrace Ezrin at the time, but he says that Ezrin’s constant demand for perfection made him a better drummer and elevated his performance.
Criss affirms Simmons account of the recording of Destroyer where he claims that Ace Frehley performed on just a couple songs and that session guitarist Dick Wagner did most of the solos, including those on Flaming Youth and Sweet Pain.
While he does not put the blame directly at Ezrin’s feet, Peter claims that Ezrin played a major role in his addiction to cocaine. Ezrin used his abusive nature as the stick, but the carrot for Peter was cocaine. When Peter played well and did as Ezrin told him, Ezrin would supply Criss with large quantities of blow. He became an addict during the recording of Destroyer.
Despite his ongoing battles with Simmons and Stanley, the period during the release of the Alive! album and the recording and tour of the Destroyer album were great times for him. He was in groupie heaven. He was in drug heaven with plenty of money to throw around. He had wealth and fame and was living the life of a rock god. He also met the woman who would become his second wife.
Peter Criss provides many graphic details of his sex life in Makeup to Breakup including his wives. He says of his first wife, Lydia, that he loved her and she loved him. She supported him in those tough, early years. However, sex with Lydia was unsatisfying – especially after coming home after the dalliances with all of those groupies. In his second wife, Debra Jensen, he found someone who could meet and match his prodigious appetites for sex and drugs.
Criss dwells on his relationship and marriage to the Playboy Playmate and Coppertone Girl. He recollects that the attraction was purely sexual, which he concludes was a bad basis for a marriage. The two fought constantly, but enjoyed their mutual drug binges and what Criss characterizes as fantastic sex. When they broke up in the early 1990s, Criss laments that she spent so much of his money and was screwing their attorney. One can’t help but grin at the hypocrisy when he reads of Peter’s large cocaine purchases and liaisons with groupies on a nightly basis.
Peter battled Simmons and Stanley through most of his time in KISS, but the beginning of the end for him in the group came in 1978 when he had a car accident that delayed him getting underway with his solo album. Kiss’s 1977 tour of Europe was cut short because Criss’ rotator cuffs were giving him trouble from having played drums so long and hard over a long period of time. The car wreck not only set back his recovery, it injured him badly, leading to a long recovery.
The band had come up with the gimmick of having the four members release solo albums on the same day. The other three were already underway with writing and recording while Peter was on his back in the hospital. He says Paul Stanley stopped by one day, not to wish him well, but to tell him how badly he’d screwed up and possibly delayed the well choreographed release. Stanley said he had a message from Gene Simmons. Simmons would not deign to visit him and that he thought Peter was a major fuck up.
It was recovering from this accident that Peter Criss brought more woe upon himself. He was issued a prescription of Percocet for his pain. At first, he didn’t take them. One day, his friend, John Belushi was visiting him and told him that Percocet and champagne made for one hell of a buzz. Peter started abusing Percocet as well and was soon addicted to those as well as cocaine.
Criss recovered in time to record and release his 1978 solo album. The albums all bombed with only Ace Frehley achieving a top ten hit. All four albums together only sold as well as one KISS album.
When the bad prepared for their next album, Dynasty, it was their new producer, Vinnie Poncia – who had produced Peter Criss’ solo album – that told the band that Criss could not drum anymore. This is interesting because Peter does not mention this in his book at all and seems to hold Poncia in high regard.
Nonetheless, Peter was not resentful. He didn’t want to spend time in the studio with the other members of the band. His only appearance on the album is playing drums and singing on his own composition, Dirty Livin' which he said Stanley and Simmons changed and screwed up. He was replaced by Anton Fig on the rest of the album although Criss received credit for drums on the album sleeve
The 1979 Dynasty tour was a disaster. Ticket sales were horrible – despite the album having a top ten hit in I Was Made for Loving You. Peter says on this tour, Paul took delight in publicly humiliating him. On stage, Paul would, in front of the audience, instruct him to slow down or speed up tempos. After this public humiliation, Criss says he was done with the group. He even confesses to deliberately screwing up tempos to make his band mates look bad in retaliation.
Thus emerges the great controversy of KISS. Was Peter tossed out of the band or did he quit? Criss says he quit at the end of the Dynasty tour. Simmons, Stanley, and Frehley have all stated that he was tossed out because his skills had deteriorated so badly. Frehley claims to have voted against it, but was outnumbered two to one.
Kiss went on to record Unmasked while not announcing Criss’ departure. They did a video for the song, Shandi where Peter appeared. His likeness was used on the cover and he was given credits for playing drums although he did not play on the album.
Perhaps sensing that KISS was on the decline and the departure of a member would only do more harm, Simmons and Stanley invited him back to jam, just to see if he was still willing and able to play. Criss says he deliberately botched the session, forcing the others to get rid of him. One wonders. . .
His post KISS years were not a happy time for Peter Criss. He continued to struggle with cocaine, painkiller, and alcohol addiction. He tried to put together bands and record solo albums. The albums did not sell. Criss claims he was blackballed by the industry. Again, one wonders. . .
He was forced to take his band on the road to play a series of small dive bars and clubs. This stood in stark contrast to having played Madison Square Garden. The groupies were gone. The jets and expensive hotels were gone. Peter Criss fell into a major depression which he medicated with more drugs and booze.
Furthermore, his personal finances were a wreck. He learned that many of the tax shelters set up by KISS’ management were bogus and that he owed more than $1 million in back taxes. He didn’t have it. Between him and Debra, they had gone through is vast fortune. They downsized homes and sold off possessions. When they relocated to the West Coast, Debra began having an affair with their lawyer. Peter says several people tried to tell him about the affair, but he refused to believe them. He sensed the increasing emotional distance between the two and finally confronted her. She admitted to the affair and the two split.
Criss hit rock bottom in 1994. That’s where the book actually opens, with Peter Criss, alone in his Los Angeles apartment, with the barrel of a .357 magnum pressed to the roof of his mouth. It took a major earthquake at that very moment to dissuade Criss from the suicide solution. He eventually entered rehab to get his major drug problem under control and was forced to file bankruptcy.
Criss had a brief emotional reconciliation with his bandmates in 1995 when he appeared at a Kiss Konvention. He reached out to Paul Stanley, asking if he could bring his daughter to the convention so that she might learn about her father’s legacy. He said Simmons held him in a long embrace and welcomed him back. Stanley was also quite excited about Peter’s return. Criss says the sentimentality was faked. They were just happy to have him back because it would generate publicity and record sales.
Criss I quite cynical about the whole KISS reunion. He notes that KISS tours after he left were disasters, losing money. KISS was losing money and fans as they tried to become a hair band to keep pace in the 1980s. He’s certain the only reason they invited him back was to attract attention and make money. He performed Beth at that convention at the request of the band.
A reunion tour was soon in the offing after the original band performed on MTV’s Unplugged. The tour was an enormous success, but Criss was constantly unhappy. He was no longer an integral part of the band. He was an employee making $40,000 per show while Stanley and Simmons were pocketing millions from ticket sales and merchandising and retained complete creative control.
The insults would continue. When the band announced that the original would record their first studio album with the original lineup since 1979’s Dynasty, Simmons and Stanley asked Criss not to play, but claim that he did. Criss played drums on one song on the Psycho Circus album and sang one number. He said that, as he sang, Paul Stanley hovered over him, constantly stopping him to tell him how the part ought to be sung.
The final insult came when Ace Frehley confessed to Peter that he was making $10,000 more per show than Criss. This led to a rupture of a friendship that had endured for more than 20 years. Frehley and Criss no longer speak. Peter Criss appeared with the band one more time for KISS Symphony: Alive IV, then was gone for good.
After two failed marriages, Peter Criss finally found his soul mate in Gigi Criss. The two were married in 1998. The pair would battle cancer together. Both had breast cancer. Peter Criss kept the disease a secret for a long time before emerging as a spokesman for male breast cancer.
Before wrapping and saying everything is good in his life now, Criss addresses the infamous 1991 tabloid mess that started rumors that he was a homeless drunk living under a bridge. The controversy started with an article in the tabloid, The Star. Roseann and Tom Arnold read it. Being big fans, they set out to find the destitute drummer. A middle-aged groupie did find this “version” of Peter Criss and flew him to her home to stay. It turned out that the whole thing was bogus. The man claiming to be Peter Criss was not Peter Criss, but a mentally ill homeless man that bore a passing resemblance to the KISS drummer.
Criss agreed to appear on Phil Donahue with the imposter and the groupie who claimed to have had an affair with him in the 1980s. Criss was quite angry with the man and let it show. His ex-wives Lydia Criss and Debra Jensen called into the show to offer support.
Today, he and Gigi reside in New Jersey and he is all but retired from the music business.
Peter Criss’ account of the rise and fall of KISS makes Simmons’ and Frehley’s look quite vanilla. While Simmons bragged about his sexual exploits, he was not nearly as graphic as Criss. He is unabashed in describing the sex and drugs that surrounded the band. While Gene and Ace complained about each other in their respective biographies, Criss is much more personal and biting in his comments about his former bandmates. Despite this overt bitterness and anger toward Stanley and Simmons, there is an underlying affection for their early years together when it was them versus the world.
Criss’ autobiography rewrites several chapters of Kiss history and seems to be thoroughly honest, sincere, and emotional. Criss makes no bones about being a very emotional person with a hot temper and easily bruised feelings. That is reflected in the text of the book.
But there’s also an element of self-pity that does not reflect well on Peter Criss. Criss was a good, but not great drummer. His song writing skills were average and the material he recorded with KISS – with just a few exceptions – were usually the weakest material on their albums. Yet, he is quick to blame Stanley, Simmons, KISS management, the recording industry, his ex-wife and everybody around him for his musical failures.
I am a diehard KISS fan dating back to 1976 and quit following the band after the Dynasty album. I agree with Criss that the band went downhill after it lost its original lineup. It wasn’t that Criss was a better drummer than Eric Carr or Eric Singer. When Criss left, the chemistry of the band was destroyed with Stanley and Simmons calling all of the shots.
Aspiring musicians should read Peter Criss’ autobiography as a cautionary tale. KISS is not the only band to endure tensions over creativity and song writing credits. Most bands do. Great bands like The Who and Queen – two bands who battled internally constantly – keep it together by keeping their problems internal. Brian May of Queen and Roger Daltrey of The Who have both stated that that internal struggle, while being frustrating and painful, made their bands and their songs better. Stanley and Simmons, in their need to control KISS music, destroyed that internal tension that improves most bands.
Makeup to Breakup is an easy, entertaining read. The narrative is raw, unpolished, and reflects Peter Criss’ personality as a tough guy from Brooklyn. While Simmons’ book seems to try hard to write a palatable, glossed over history of KISS and Frehley’s book talks mostly about his drug and booze binges, Criss comes across as the most honest and forthright – and probably the truest account of what happened to him and the band he helped make The Hottest Band In the World.