By networking like mad, Criss landed his first recording session with a band called Chelsea in 1969, who did a record for Decca that featured John Cale on electric viola. Criss admits that the record “just bombed.” After the band broke up in 1971, Criss placed an advertisement in Rolling Stone that would change his life forever, which read: “Drummer willing to do anything to make it.” Succinct and ballsy, it drew the attention of two notable local rockers who were looking for exactly that brand of audacity – guitarist Paul Stanley and bassist Gene Simmons.
Criss chuckles, “So Gene called me, and he was like, ’Are you thin? Good looking? Do you have long hair? Are you willing to wear a dress?’ I was thinking, ’What is this, a transvestite band? I ain’t going into this.’ And he’s going on and on, would you do this, would you do that? I thought this guy was a really cocky son of a bitch. I’m a tough Brooklyn kid. I had to meet this guy just for the hell of it.
“Sure enough I went down to meet them in front of the Electric Lady Studios, which I thought was a big deal. Hendrix was playing there and all. And I remember walking down the street, and I was all decked out, had all my hair teased up, velvet pants on, that whole ’70s look, and there’s these two guys standing in front of Electric Lady. They looked like bums. I passed them up and went into the studio and asked somebody, ’Are Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley around?’ And this guy said, ’Yeah, they’re outside.’ I looked out the window and went, ’These guys asked me how I dress?’ These guys looked like bums!”
Bums or not, Criss still wanted to meet them. “So I went back down and said, ’I’m Peter Criss, nice to meet you.’ They said, ’Wow, we saw you go by, but we thought you were recording here!’ And we go into the studio, and it was so magical. We walked in the room and there’s Raymond Johnson, my old engineer from the Chelsea album, who was producing Wicked Lester – their band at the time, which they broke up. They got rid of their drummer and guitar player, they wanted to start fresh. They blew their whole record deal, but they didn’t care. I really admired their guts.
“So I walked in and Ron gave me a big hug. Gene said, ’You know this guy?’ Ron said, ’If you don’t hire this guy you’re out of your mind. He’s one of the hottest drummers around here. Trust me, you’ve got to get this guy.’ And Gene goes, ’Wow, unbelievable. Let’s play.’”
Play they did. And after 27 years, countless gold and platinum albums, sold-out arenas and one of the most successful reunion tours (1996—97) in history, KISS has certainly enjoyed the fruits of their labor. But it hasn’t all been glamour, wealth, fame and girls for the original foursome. The bloom began to leave the rose in 1980, after Criss quit the band amidst internal band strife and a very important personal development.
“I had a child,” Criss says with great reverence, “I’m divorced now, but at the time I had my daughter Jenny Lee. To me it was the greatest thing in this world. I had always wanted a girl. We had a beautiful house in Connecticut, and I wanted to raise my kid. I thought that the first ten years of a child’s life are the most important. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood. My dad was always working and never around, my mom was in the kitchen. I just wanted to raise Jenny, I wanted to travel, I wanted us to do everything. So I put the sticks aside, just traveled and took her all over the world and loved her.”
Criss moved to Los Angeles in 1984, and soon found himself toying with the drums again. None too soon he began wanting to play with people, only this time the fish weren’t biting. It turned out his staggering celebrity with one of the biggest rock groups in the world was not a blessing, but in fact a hindrance. “By 1989, I was still messing around and still trying to get a break going,” he says. “I would call people and they would say, ’You’re too big! You’re bigger than the band, you can’t play with us.’ It was ridiculous! I just wanted a gig. The L.A. scene was hard, and who I was wasn’t helping me. It was a curse.”
Then there was that fateful evening in 1996 that brought it all back to the beginning. MTV had created a critically acclaimed hit show, Unplugged, that featured bands like Nirvana, L.L. Cool J, Live and Aerosmith playing their hits in an intimate semiacoustic performance. Finally KISS was given the opportunity in front of a nationally televised audience to display their long-overlooked musicianship, without the makeup or firebombs, and with a little help from a couple of old friends.
For years KISS had toured with Bruce Kulick on lead guitar and Eric Singer on drums, and they played the lion’s share of tunes during the Unplugged performance, but for classics like “Nothin’ to Lose” and “Rock and Roll All Nite,” Ace Frehley and Criss sat in. It was pure joy for KISS fans. “It felt good,” Criss sighs, “The MTV Unplugged thing, that was just a special night. I’ll never forget it. And when I saw everybody stand and give us an ovation, and the four of us together again, it was magic. I remember some days I’d be driving to rehearsal and going, ’Wow I’m going to play with the guys again.’”
That magic continued through the record-demolishing reunion world tour with the original lineup, makeup and all. One problem for the guys – none of them were spring chickens anymore, and of course they were expected to one-up themselves from the mind-boggling shows for which they were notorious. With that in mind, Criss undertook a marine-drill regimen to get in shape.