Exclusive Book Excerpt: Peter Criss, 'Makeup to Breakup: My Life In and Out of KISS'

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My mother had died three years earlier, on New Year's Day, 1991, and I still hadn't gotten over it. I had been very close to my mother; we had a very strange, deep relationship. We were more than mother and son: She was my closest friend. I was still hurt and grieving her. I had been concerned my whole life about letting her down. I always realized how hard she had worked for me to be something, how much it meant to her that I became something. And if I offed myself, how could I ever meet her again in heaven?

And what about my father? He was still alive; he'd be devastated. And I thought of the KISS fans, the greatest fans in the world. And then my eyes wandered a bit and I looked over at the fallen armoire, and next to it was a picture of my daughter. It was my favorite picture of her: Jenilee was about ten when it was taken, and she looked like a saint. And, miraculously, the glass wasn't cracked, it wasn't broken – the frame was standing up defiantly in the midst of all the rubble. That's when it just clicked. I had been going through some real bullshit, but no matter what, I still had my kid, man.

Suddenly there was an immense feeling of faith in that room. I began to believe that God didn't want to take me in the midst of this massive lunacy – that he had more in store for me. But the depression was so dark and so deep and the pain so acute; I was in the middle of a tug of war, almost like a battle for my soul. I could feel the force of the power I had holding back the trigger with the gun in my mouth. I had the power of life and death, right there and then. And I was in full control of me dying or living. It was very, very heavy.

But how could I do this to my little angel in the picture? So I pulled the barrel of the gun out of my mouth, put it back in its holster, and then locked it back up. And I resolved to go and finish the album and take my young band on the road and see what the future would bring. I cheered myself up and took my pillows and made a bed out of the mattress on the floor and slept right through the night. And then I woke up the next morning and got on with my life.

peter criss makeup to breakup kiss
Seated on the best seat in the world.
Courtesy of Gigi and Peter Criss


We were in one of the studios at the Record Plant in New York, arguing over something stupid, as we often did, when out of nowhere Bob Ezrin, our producer, came running into the room. He was wearing a T-shirt that read TIME IS MONEY and he had a crazed look in his eyes. Plus he was carrying a metal fire extinguisher.

"You cocksuckers are going to learn what this means," he said, referring to the slogan on his shirt. "You are not going to waste the fucking time that we're paying for arguing over what you're going to eat or when you're going to get some pussy or whatever the fuck your problems are, because you can't even tune your own instruments. I'm going to show you the value of time."

He proceeded to start spraying the contents of that fire extinguisher all over the studio floor, all over the wall, all over our instruments, all over our amps, even all over us. We were shocked and ran out of the studio and into the console room as we watched him maniacally spray down the room. Then he marched back into the console room and sat behind the big board, which had his name engraved on a metal plate that was attached to it. He was that powerful a producer.

"Now who's wasting money and time?" he asked.

Ezrin seemed out of his mind. Maybe the huge mound of cocaine piled up like a small mountain on the board had something to do with this outburst.

"How long is it going to take us to get back into the studio?" Gene asked.

"I don't really care," Ezrin answered.

That was the first day of working with the Boy Wonder, Bob Ezrin. And it wasn't even the worst one.

Coming off our breakthrough Alive album, we finally decided to listen to the people who kept telling us that our music should be more sophisticated, more like the Who and Led Zeppelin. I always thought that our strength was in our rawness and balls-to-the-wall energy. KISS was always a great three-chord jerk-off band, the best three-chord band in history. I could understand the desire for change: I was getting pretty bored playing the same boom-ba boom-boom-ba, boom-ba boom-boom-ba beat song after song. But as Gene loved to say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Yet now we were about to fix it after we had achieved our first major success.

We were all excited about working with Bob Ezrin, though. He had produced all the classic Alice Cooper albums and had done a groundbreaking record with Lou Reed. He was, from all accounts, a musical genius. He was also a major coke addict at the time. I had never seen that much coke in one place. I'm not talking about grams – it was more like bags full of blow that would be laid out in pyramids on the mixing board.

It was interesting that Gene and Paul didn't say a word about Bob's drug problem. They were both majorly antidrug, and if Ace or I would get fucked up on drugs, all hell would break loose. In Gene's memoir, he claims that when he saw all that coke on the console, he thought it was Sweet'N Low and put it in his coffee, but he didn't drink it. He must have thought the razor blade was a stirrer and the mirror was to admire himself in.

Paul immediately had his nose up Ezrin's ass, and before we knew it Bob was at Paul's house writing songs with him. The songs themselves were actually quite great, songs like "God of Thunder" and "Flaming Youth." What I didn't like was that they'd come into the studio and tell me how to play the song. It wasn't a suggestion and it wasn't a collaboration, it was "This is the way you do it." Of course I rebelled. Then Ezrin would pour out a mound of coke and use it to reward me for doing it his way.

So if the coke was to be our common ground, I wanted to get up on his level and do the same amount as he did, but it was impossible. Ezrin had a nose like an aardvark and I could never keep up no matter how hard I tried.

Ezrin really took us all to school. One time he was listening to us play and walked into the studio from the console room.

"What the fuck are you doing?" he screamed at Gene.

"I'm playing," Gene said.

"You're not even in fucking tune. Don't you know how to tune your guitar?"

He proceeded to show Gene how to perfectly tune the bass. Gene was a large, intimidating man, but I saw Bob ream him out and carve him a new asshole. And Gene just took it.

Bob did the same thing with me. I was trying to play a song and Bob blew up.

"You can't play this beat?" he screamed. "Give me the fucking sticks." He sat down behind my drums and played the beat and once he showed me and I understood the theory of it, it wasn't hard. But he had to make me look like a jerk to teach it to me.

We all learned an enormous amount from him. It was like being in a musical summer camp. He brought a blackboard in and he wore a little cap and he had a whistle around his neck that he would blow when we fucked up.

"All right, campers, put your instruments down, we're going to school." And he'd write on the blackboard and teach us the fundamentals of music theory. All while he was smashed out of his gourd on coke.

Working with Ezrin was the hardest experience of my life. For me, music is all about emotion and attitude. When you pick up those sticks, you have to feel it or else you're just tick and tocking – you're a mechanical clock. Most of the greats didn't play by the book, they played from the heart. But this was different. Ezrin actually wrote out every drum part for me and came up with some very intricate drumming that wasn't even in my musical style. I was a meat-and-potatoes Charlie Watts, Motown type of guy. Ezrin demanded complexity, so I got frustrated very fast that I wasn't giving Bob what he wanted.

Plus I was cutting my own throat snorting Bob's blow. I guess I could have just said, "Bob, I don't want to do no blow. I'm fucking up here." But I thought I could do the blow and cut it on the drums. I couldn't. My timing was all over the place. After Bob shoved a bunch of blow up his nose, it probably sounded even worse than it actually was.

So Bob rigged up a click-track box for me that he called the Cat Box. He wrapped it with silver metallic tape and drew my face with my makeup on it, and he'd take a drumstick and hit the box to keep me on the beat. I'd hear his click box through my headphones while I was recording. I'd be playing along with it, but all of the sudden I'd hear an extra beat and I'd get thrown off and I'd stop the recording.

"Wait a minute. You just switched up the beat," I'd say. "There's something wrong with that box."

"Nah, there's nothing wrong with the box," I'd hear him say from the console room. There wasn't. He was just fucking with me, playing mind games. As if this wasn't hard enough to do on its own. I started to really hate Bob at that point. But, as with most of the stuff that Bob did, he had a hidden agenda. After a while, Ezrin realized that I had a trigger temper, and he began to push me just far enough so I would begin to take out my anger on the drums. I would see him laughing hysterically and I would hit those drums harder than I ever hit them in my life. I just envisioned Ezrin's face on those drums and I hit them so hard it sounded nasty and evil, which was what he was going for all the time.

It was excruciatingly painful, but the outcome was genius. You listen to those songs on Destroyer and you go, "Holy fuck, those drums are amazing." But to get there, I went through hell and so did everyone else. Like Gene used to say, "If Peter isn't having a good day, nobody's having a good day."

As painful as these sessions were for me, they were doubly hard on Ace. Ace didn't respond well to Bob's tough love. Once you get the drums down and add the bass and the rhythm guitar, it's up to the lead guitarist to complete the picture. And then you're up there naked, you're on your own. Ace, like me, loved to play by feel. Ace's brother was a classically trained guitarist, but Ace hated his studied playing. Ace loved spontaneity, but Ezrin had other plans for him.

I didn't get to witness Ace's arguments with Ezrin because the minute my drum tracks were done, I was out of there. Why would I want to stay around to listen to Ace getting reamed out for the next five hours when I could go home and have fun or go to a club?

Ace was drinking and partying with his friends a lot, and he started missing sessions. One time he actually told Ezrin that he couldn't record because he had a previous engagement to play cards with his pals. Ezrin didn't take too kindly to that and called one of his own ace session guys, Dick Wagner, who came in, nailed the songs, and left. The consummate pro. Wagner never got the credit, but it's him playing on songs like "Beth" and "Sweet Pain." Ace was furious he had been replaced and felt that Gene and Paul were traitors.

When Ezrin started working with us, one of his criticisms was that all of our songs were about sex. He felt that to get to the next level, we had to expand our palette a little bit and try to reach a broader audience than the fifteen-year-old boys who were our fan base. Ezrin found that vehicle in a song I had written with Stan Penridge.

Back in the Chelsea days, Stan and I had written a joke song to knock our bandmate Mike Brand's wife, Becky. She would always call him during rehearsals wondering when he was coming home. So the song originally went, "Beck, I hear you callin', but I can't come home right now / Me and the boys are playin', and we just can't find the sound." So we were knocking this guy's wife: Shut the fuck up, quit calling.

I wanted to get a song on Destroyer, so one day Gene and I were in a limo and I started singing "Beck" to him. I knew that both he and Paul would never go for a ballad, so I sang him a faster version of the song and he seemed to dig it and suggested I play it for Ezrin. But when I sat down with Ezrin, he immediately understood it for what it was.

"This is a ballad. I hear it on the baby grand. This is going to be a hit record," Bob enthused. "I'm going to get the New York Philharmonic to play on this."

"Yeah, right. In my fucking dreams," I said.

Ezrin just smiled.

"This little song says so much in so few words. ‘I wish I was home, but I can't be,'" Bob said. "Everyone will relate to that – businessmen, doctors. It's a universal theme."

He wanted to make one lyrical change, though. He thought we should change the name from Beck to Beth. I was fine with that. Ezrin's man Dick Wagner, who played acoustic on the track because Ace was out in space somewhere, loved the song, too, and immediately thought it could be a hit.

But Gene and Paul kept resisting it. They didn't want a ballad on the record. That's when Bill stepped in. He had heard the basic track, and he thought "Beth" was a hit. So when Ezrin hired the New York Philharmonic and we went down to record the session, Bill suggested that everyone in the orchestra should wear those fake tuxedo T-shirts and that I should go down in full makeup and take photos with the orchestra.

"I know you've been going through hell with them over your song, but I love it to death," Bill told me. "So let me make you feel good."

Bob was in full tails and a top hat and played the baby grand piano. We must have had more than twenty-five pieces in the orchestra. And when they finished the track, I was crying my eyes out, it was so beautiful. And the orchestra was clicking their bows and Bob stood up and called me up to take a bow as the writer. When I was bowing to the room, I never felt so proud in my life.

With the track completed, we then had to go in and record the vocal. I went into the studio and Bob lowered the lights to get me in the mood. Just then, in walked Gene and Paul, and they sat down on the couch in front of the board. I was shitting a brick, all alone in there, about to sing KISS's first ballad. Meanwhile, those two fuckfaces were sitting in the booth stone-faced like they were at the zoo watching an animal through the glass.

"Okay, take one," Ezrin said.

All of a sudden, my legs began shaking. I was so scared I thought that my voice was vibrating when I began to sing. I looked and saw that Gene and Paul were grinning because I was really struggling.

"What's the matter, Peter?" Bob said.

"I can't sing like this," I said. "These two cocksuckers are sitting there laughing – "

"Hey, assholes, get your fucking asses out of the room," Bob screamed at them.

They left, and Bob closed the door. Then he sat down behind the console again.

"Okay, Peter, let's do this. Sing it for me."

We did a couple of takes and Bob suggested I go up a little higher. I did, and it was beautiful.

"I love it, I fucking love it," he said, and called me into the console room to listen to the playback. He had the engineer make a quick mix, and then he called Gene and Paul back into the room.

"Listen to this," he said.

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