THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN: A BIOGRAPHY; MAKEUP TO BREAKUP: MY LIFE IN AND OUT OF KISS

(Fred Kaplan; 655 pages; DOUBLEDAY, 2003); (Peter Criss and Larry Sloman; 384 pages; SCRIBNER, 2012)

TWAIN CRISS COVERS

 

One may ask (and rightly so), why are two such disparate (auto)biographies lumped together in one review? Well…

Short answer: These are actually the last two non-fiction books that I have read. Essay answer: I feel that, no matter how intriguing your subject matter (in Criss’ case, himself), at some point in the writing process, you’ve just gotta say, “Enough is enough!” In both instances, the story would have been much more enjoyable (and manageable) with… less! I mean, do you really care that on Clemens/Twain’s 63rd birthday, he was blessed with a healthy bowel movement? Yeah… okay… I’m exaggerating, but not by much. In the case of MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, a shaving (or, at the very least, a condensing) of a chapter or two wouldn’t have hurt. As far as Kaplan’s… uh… exhaustive (exhausting?) biography of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, shaving a couple hundred pages of minutia certainly would have made MY reading experience more enjoyable! His “no-stone-unturned” approach, while commendable, is fairly daunting. I mean, c’mon… in these hard economic times, everybody’s cutting back. Why not here?

Does that mean that I hated these books? No. Not really. At least, not completely. However, considering that I generally can read a couple of fair sized books in a week, the fact that it took over two MONTHS to complete THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN, certainly doesn’t appear that it will be on my list of favorites or list of “re-reads.” Mister Kaplan’s thorough examination of perhaps the first true rock star of American literature comes off as dry and just a little foreboding to the ordinary reader. Once you get past the 655 pages of minutia, there’s still another 70 pages of notes and an index to further dissect the information (if more you must have)! I have only found one book impossible to get through, even though I’ve tried on several occasions, but this one sorely tried my patience. I would be lying, however, if I told you that I didn’t learn anything about the irascible humorist. His early allegiance to the South during the Civil War and his beliefs regarding slavery, while well-known, nonetheless came as a surprise as to the depths of both. The support Clemens offered his older brother, Orion, and the loathing that he harbored toward that same brother as a result was also unknown to me. There is an indication that he felt the same way about the rest of his family, as well, including his much-loved mother. As much as he doted on his wife, Livy, and their three daughters, he also spent much of his time away from them, not caring to be bothered by the intricacies of a family life.

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

The struggles of the man Samuel Clemens to rectify his life and short-comings with the mythical Mark Twain and his celebrity are, as they say, the stuff of legend. But even a legendary life can surely be summarized in a more concise, entertaining form than is offered in Fred Kaplan’s THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN. Mister Kaplan is also the author of biographies on Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, among others. I mention those two because I was very interested in seeking them out, but after sinking chest deep into the morass of this book, I think I’ll look for other options regarding the life of those two.

Mark Twain (uncredited photo) Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

Mark Twain (uncredited photo); Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

I think that, like many others, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Peter Criss. At the height of KISS’ career, he seemed to be the most together guy in the band. When he fell from grace, I tended to give him the benefit of the doubt. After reading his tell-all autobiography, MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, I still feel for the Cat. Not because he was wronged by band mates Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, but because he was wrong in many instances himself and refuses to take responsibility. His cavalier attitude toward his sexual conquests collide head-on with his derision of Simmons’ and guitarist Ace Frehley’s sexual proclivities. He complains about Gene and Paul being all about the money, but he doesn’t see the hypocrisy of his abandoning his band, Criss, for the high-profile, high-profit KISS reunion tour in 1996 and quitting the band again – and turning his back on his one true friend in the group, Ace – when he discovered that Frehley was making more than he was per show. He attacks both current drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer for wearing the Cat and Space-Ace make-up when both he and Frehley signed their rights to the make-up over to the KISS corporate body (in other words, Gene and Paul) for a few thousand dollars. He spends paragraphs discussing how betrayed he felt by his second wife when he discovered that she was having an affair, but shows little or no remorse for the fact that he was having sex with two or three women every night on the road; to say that’s expected because he’s in a rock band just doesn’t cut it! My point is, we all make mistakes; it’s what we learn from our mistakes that matter. Unfortunately, for Peter Criss, all he’s learned is avoidance of guilt and buck-passing.

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

 

Now, like the Clemens/Twain book, there are some enjoyable – even uplifting – moments (actually, more here than there). In particular, Criss’ wife Gigi’s fight with breast cancer and the ultimate revelation that he, too, had breast cancer was a wake-up call to everyone, males included, to do a regular self-examination. There are also some moments that could have been condensed (or cut completely!). Just about every person who reads this book is a KISS fan; they wanna know about Peter’s time in what was once the biggest band on the planet. As such, the first three chapters or so of the book (BK: Before KISS) could be cut down to one shorter, introductory chapter. The constant and continual references to dicks, titties, pussy and sexual gratification in its many forms get tiresome unless you’re a ten year old boy. Okay, Peter… we get it! You were a big rock star! The overwrought bashing of just about everyone who has ever been in Peter’s life tends to make this more of a “oh-woe-is-me” book as opposed to a tell-all. Manager Bill Aucoin and Casablanca Records owner Neil Bogart went above and beyond, financing the band and molding them into the juggernaut they became after the release of ALIVE in 1975, but one perceived slight from Peter Criss and they were finished in his mind. He never trusted them again and they became cannon-fodder in MAKEUP TO BREAKUP.

I have very fond memories of KISS and Peter Criss from their heyday in the ’70s. His raspy, Rod Stewart-like vocals were always a welcome surprise and his drum solo during “100,000 Years” on ALIVE is testament to his talents (and to his adoration of drum legend Gene Krupa). This book, though, leaves a rather bitter taste in my mouth. (DT)


NECESSITY IS (THE EARLY YEARS OF FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION)

(Billy James; 223 pages; SAF Publishing; 2001, Revised 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

NECESSITY IS COVER

Pieced together from various interviews with early band-mates conducted and compiled by the author, NECESSITY IS delves into the psyche of one of the true musical geniuses of the past half-century (maybe the only one, in fact): Frank Vincent Zappa. Mister James (a musician himself, who has worked with many of the Mothers quoted) is obviously a fan, and that’s alright. Really, unless an author wishes simply to vilify another person (or organization), why would he write about someone he wasn’t a fan of? It’s obvious, as well, that most of the gentlemen interviewed were/are fans of Frank and remained in contact with him until his death in 1993. That doesn’t mean that every quote or remembrance is pleasant. As is the case with many struggling bands (especially one with a dominant figure like Zappa), disagreements – and downright vicious fights – arose. The early Mothers (1964-1971) was a revolving door of jazz, rock, and avant-garde musicians, all struggling to be heard over (through?) the mayhem orchestrated by composer/arranger/guitarist Zappa.

The Mothers of Invention

The Mothers of Invention

Zappa was known as a task-master and this book confirms that estimation. Many of the quotes from original drummer Jimmy Carl Black, keyboardist/electronics genius Don Preston, multi-instrumentalist Bunk Gardner, and others relay (sometimes humorously) the love/hate relationship between the band and Zappa. Indeed, as Frank’s dominance and creative genius materialized, the original core group – the band who recorded the first album, FREAK OUT (1966) – of drummer Jimmy Carl Black, bassist Roy Estrada, vocalist Ray Collins, and guitarist Elliot Ingber were either forced to take a back seat to more “advanced” musicians (those who could read music, like Gardner, Preston and Ian Underwood) or asked to leave the group. In the case of Ingber, the first to be ousted from the band, a predilection for drugs was his downfall (highlighting Zappa’s strong anti-drug stance and no nonsense approach to his leadership role, Ray Collins remembers, “…He maybe smoked a little bit too much.” in regards to Ingber’s “drug abuse” and subsequent dismissal from the band). Ingber famously became a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, as Winged Eel Fingerling. Ray Collins seemed to wander in and out of the group, as he and Zappa butted heads or he would become disillusioned by the direction Frank was taking the band. Another problem, apparently, was money. Zappa had the group on a rigorous rehearsal schedule – several hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included – for which there was no pay. Frank and manager Herb Cohen had a habit of funneling money from paying gigs back into the organization, promising an eventual big payday for the band.

All of this information, including background and history on the individual Mothers, comes in the first chapter of the book. Rather than rewrite the book here and now, I’ll leave you to imagine, from the above capsule, the breadth and scope of NECESSITY IS as Billy James takes you through the late ’60s, the infighting and insanity of the original group, the later versions of the band with Aynsley Dunbar, Mark Vohlman and Howard Kaylan, the frightening and life-changing on-stage attack by a fan in London that crushed Zappa’s larynx and left him in a cast for a year, and, inevitably to the dissolution of the Mothers in 1971. James also goes into extensive detail regarding the lives of the principal figures after “Motherhood.” Late in the book, there is an extensive section quoting an interview with Zappa that supplies his side of the Mothers’ story, which does soften and enlighten the reader’s previous views of the dictatorial band leader. As is true in any disagreement between two (or several) people, you can probably temper both sides a bit, meet somewhere in the middle and come up with your own ideas about what really happened.

Mother Frank

Mother Frank

Mister James, while not an absolute master wordsmith, has produced a highly enjoyable and easily read book, covering the early history of one of the most infamous and influential bands of the rock era. With an extensive “Where Are They Now?” section, an exhaustive discography of everyone who was a part of the Mothers (including design artist Cal Schenkel) during the period covered in the book, a tour history through 1972, and a well-documented list of source materials, James has given us a history of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention that should be read (and owned) by every music lover on the planet. (DT)