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