Peter Criss is at home when I ring the doorbell of his big house in Monmouth County, New Jersey, which sits at the edge of a snowy, unshoveled walkway. But he doesn't answer the door. (There's a small sign next to it that reads IN CASE OF FIRE, PLEASE RESCUE CAT) I have to wait a couple of minutes before his wife of 16 years, Gigi, a former model, comes home to let me in.
Criss, who's cozy in his finished basement, wearing tinted glasses, a pale-blue T-shirt, black jeans and white athletic socks, has a policy of not coming to the door. He last did so a few years ago, and he didn't like the results.
"I opened up, and there's these six, like, skinheads from Norway," he recalls, in his thick, old-timey Brooklyn accent. "And they've got tattoos on their heads and black T-shirts. They look right from white supremacy. And they're like, 'We want your autograph! We flew all the way here from Finland.' They could've killed me. We're livin' in a crazy world. After John Lennon got it, and George Harrison gets stabbed in his own house?"
Criss has already died and been revived, at least twice. "I am a cat, and my lives are going out. I'm losing 'em," he says. He died for the first time after his Porsche crashed into a pole (his friend Fritz was driving, though Simmons blames Criss for the accident). And the other? "Oh, God, I can't even remember. Somethin' else stupid." He also survived breast cancer not long ago, and has become an advocate for other men with the disease.
Criss' basement could pass for the rec room of a prosperous New Jersey dentist who loves Kiss and dabbles in drums: There's a gleaming kit in the corner, along with guitars and amps for visiting players, plus a relatively modest collection of Kiss memorabilia. "I've been to those guys' houses," says Criss, settling in his easy chair, "and I get a feeling where I don't even know what to touch or where to sit. I don't like to live in a showplace."
Somewhere upstairs is Criss' most prized showbiz achievement, a People's Choice Award for "Beth." Criss co-wrote the song with an old bandmate, the late Stan Penridge, and Ezrin then heavily tweaked and arranged it for the Destroyer sessions. Criss is desperately proud of the song, but Stanley claims the drummer had little to do with its creation. "Peter can't write a song, because Peter doesn't play an instrument," Stanley argues. "Penridge came up with [sings], 'Beth, I hear you calling. . . .' Peter had nothing to do with it. Because if you write one hit song, you should be able to write two. That's the reality. Devastating? It's the truth. It was a lifeline that Peter hung on to validate himself, but it wasn't based on reality."
"I don't think that I can break this tie," says Ezrin, who was originally presented with a song called "Beck" that was less sympathetic to the woman in the lyrics. "I wasn't there when he was working with that co-writer."
"God forbid you get that credit," says Gigi, who sits by Criss' side during the interview, occasionally amplifying or correcting his answers. ("You said that already!") "Paul is so full of fucking shit," says Criss, "'cause as a lead singer of the band he never got to write the hit. That's his problem. They hated the fact that I wrote a hit record and won a People's Choice."
Criss grew up in tough parts of Brooklyn, where his drumming – first inspired by Gene Krupa's playing on "Sing Sing Sing" – was the only thing that saved him from a life of crime: He had joined a gang called the Young Lords, and his book is full of Mean Streets-worthy adventures. "I think I'm the first drummer, next to Mitch Mitchell and Charlie Watts, that incorporated jazz fills in rock & roll. There's not many of us."
Criss was intimidated by Simmons and Stanley's drive and book smarts, and they didn't go out of their way to make him feel comfortable. "If you're going to treat me like I'm a piece of dirt, then I'm going to be mean," he says. "And I would have to pull that out of my bag of tricks 'cause I didn't go to college. I didn't have the knowledge they had. And they would use that constantly, use words I didn't understand. I'm a kid from Brooklyn. I was not the smartest bulb in the band. They would literally embarrass me in front of people. You can only take so much of that after a while."
He doesn't deny that his playing was slipping under the influence of drugs, but he feels the band could have given him more chances. But like Frehley, what really kills him is that someone else is bringing the Catman to life. "I'm not upset that they got the bigger barrel of the monies and the bigger homes and the bigger cars and the bigger watches," he says. "But I'm pissed at myself that my makeup slipped through my hands. That's my cross that I bear."
On some tours, Singer has even sung a version of "Beth," which breaks Criss' heart. "How much more can you slap me?" he says. "How hard do you want to hit me? It's my baby – no one sings it like me. And I said to Gigi, 'You know what, it's like the Lone Ranger: You can take his mask off and put it on another guy, but it'll never be Clayton Moore.'"
Unlike Frehley, Criss remained relatively sober for the reunion years. "I wanted to prove to the fans that I was cool, I was better, I wasn't on drugs anymore, I was a new man." But they both bristled at their salaried status, and Criss was horrified when Frehley drunkenly confessed that the guitarist was making $10,000 more per night. Criss took to drawing a single tear on his cat makeup as the tours wound down.
Stanley and Simmons point out that Criss made millions of dollars, but he says that's not the point. "Come on, simple as this: Look at their houses; look at my house. I was being treated like a freakin' slob. They treated my wife like a whore."
Despite it all, he dearly wishes they could all get it together for one more performance. "I just wish there wasn't so much bad blood," he says. "I said to the Hall of Fame, 'Look, I don't own the makeup anymore, but if they would lend it to me, I would be happy to put it on.'"
On my way out, Criss shows off his collection of Kiss stuff. There's an amazing photo of the band in full makeup backstage with all of their parents in the 1970s; there are long rows of gold and platinum records, plus a plaque commemorating 500,000 8-tracks sold of Alive! He picks up a small, framed black-and-white promo shot of the band, just four young rock & roll superheroes snarling companionably together for the camera. "That's a great shot of us," he says, and sighs. "What can I say? I still love my band."
This story is from the April 10th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
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