Book Review: “Makeup to Breakup: My Life In and Out of Kiss” by Peter Criss

Criss and the Catman

For what it’s worth, my fan-boy years with KISS started in 1975 and ended in 1979. If you’re trying to figure out what KISS albums that encompasses, it’s pretty easy: most of their best ones. The band had an incredibly successful run by being a rock band first, and then a rock band with a unique gimmick second. When the formula flipped, and the music wasn’t the most important thing, the band lost a lot of fans.

But in the 1970s KISS was legit — and not a clown act. Their songs were about the things that most hard rock songs are about: women, sex, and booze. They had a scrappy, but melodic sound in those early years, and a stage show like no other band at the time. Nowadays, it’s easy to point and say “Ah, KISS ain’t so great with all the explosions, lights, rising elevators and the like.” After all, most bands have to incorporate effects into their show to keep things interesting for their audience. But KISS was arguably an early adopter of a rock concert as a show, or more accurately, a spectacle that dazzled the eyes and the ears. Sure Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls were the inspiration for what became a KISS show, but in the pre-MTV era, a rock show like the one KISS put on was a rarity. The band also had a kind of mythic status for a young kid like me because the members of the group were never photographed without their makeup, so it added to the mystery of what they looked like without their face paint. Only years later did it become public knowledge that Gene Simmons is a total asshole — and an ugly one at that. Paul Stanley is a manipulator and an total douchebag, Ace Frehely was a drugged out mess, and Peter Criss…well, he tries to tell his story in “Makeup to Breakup” to show that he was just trying to enjoy the ride, and then got bullied and ripped off by his band mates. For the first half of the book, Criss recounts the early beginnings of KISS, the number of women he had sex with (he even received oral sex from Ace at one point during a threesome), the amount of cocaine and pills he consumed, the gallons of drink that passed through his liver, and the joy of finally earning his first million dollars. It’s quite the American Dream tale, but it gets marred with an annoying characteristic that becomes more pronounced in the latter half of the book: Peter is a complainer and a huge drama queen.

In incident after incident, Criss tells the reader how cruel Gene and Paul are to him, how their constant bullying got to a point where he’d threaten the quit the band (I had lost count how many times he said he was quitting), how lawyers, managers, and concert promoters would constantly rip him off, underpay him, and take advantage of his inebriated state to get him to sign off on legal documents that he didn’t even read. At one point, Criss had ten million dollars in the bank and thought he was set for life. He would have been if he had paid attention to his finances. But he chose to live in blissful ignorance because sex and drugs were more important to him than the financial largess he worked so hard to earn. He kept making excuses why money wasn’t that important to him, or why he didn’t understand all the complexities of being a millionaire rockstar, but when he had to downsize his life (he was never really broke, or homeless as some tabloids wrote), he realized that money was kind of an important thing and was first in line when Gene and Paul wanted to do a reunion tour with the original members of the band in 1996. Criss was able to beat his drug addiction through a substance abuse recovery program, he battled cancer later in life (and is a survivor), got into a bad car accident and came back to (mostly) full health, and suffered the loss of his mom, dad, grandfather, and favorite uncle in the space of only a few years. In short, he’s had his trials and tribulations. However, his personality is such that he’ll belittle someone for being a jerk or prima donna, and then a page later say how much he loves them. It’s a strange thing to read, but it becomes clear that his love/hate mood swings (and drug addiction) were at the center of his turmoil with the other band members.

Overall, “Makeup to Breakup” is half a good read. When Criss devolves into finger-pointing about why his career went off the deep end, or constantly blames Simmons and Stanley for screwing him over financially, his whining becomes tedious and his story less compelling.

Addendum: My first KISS album was “Alive.” Since its recording, there’s been a lot of speculation if it’s actually a live album or not. Peter Criss confirms that the only live element used on the record were his drum tracks. Everything else was re-recorded and mixed in such a way that it sounded live. Perhaps that’s why they called the record “Alive” and not “Live.” Their first three records failed to capture what the band sounded like in concert, so this was KISS’ opportunity to recreate that live sound — even if they had to do it largely in a recording studio.

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