Peter Criss - Nine Lives & Counting

On April 10, 2014, Peter Criss (born George Peter John Criscuola) took the stage at the Barclays Center along with Gene Simmons, Paul “Ace” Frehley and Paul Stanley. Together, the four members of  KISS, who performed at countless shows across the globe for decades, accepted their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations in front of thousands of fans in attendance and millions of others  watching on television.
For Peter, a Brooklyn native, accepting his Hall of Fame induction in his hometown with the band members who entertained millions of fans worldwide was a humbling experience he never could have dreamed of when he was banging on his mother’s pots and pans as a child. It was also a moment when “The Catman” could embrace the forgiving lifestyle he has chosen later in life, as he put aside the  differences he and the rest of KISS had while they joined the ranks of The Beatles, The Who, and many other bands he admires in the Hall of Fame.
Peter now lives in Wall Township with his wife, Gigi, and enjoys the simplicity and convenience that life in Monmouth County offers. In the county’s relaxed suburban neighborhoods, the self-admitted recluse has found a kind of comfort he never experienced while living anywhere else in the country.
A survivor of male breast cancer, Peter makes appearances every year to help raise awareness of the disease for men and educate them on the reality of the illness. Peter discussed his battle with cancer and other trials with extreme candor, providing Living in Media with an in-depth look into the man behind the makeup. At The Breakers in Spring Lake, where Peter once spent a winter writing his 2012 book, Makeup to Breakup, it was our privilege to hear him reflect on his Hall of Fame-worthy career as a drummer, singer and songwriter, and founding member of one of the most iconic rock bands in America, and to reveal his regrets as well as his goals as he prepares to enter his 70s.

LIM: When did you move to Monmouth County, and what do you enjoy about living in Wall?
PC: We moved here 16 years ago. I’m married to Gigi, who is a Jersey girl. I like Monmouth County, and I like Wall. Trust me, I’ve lived everywhere. When I lived in, say, Peter transforming into his alter-ego, "The Catman," 1975.Hollywood, you had to dress up to go out shopping, to get anything, because people were always looking at you under the microscope all the time. Here I can walk around in wrinkled shorts and wrinkled T-shirts in summer, and all the people here are so cool about it. I never have to worry about what I look like when I’m going out.

LIM: So you don’t feel judged here?
PC: Yeah, and that’s very important. I’m a very reclusive type, I always have been. The town knows me. From Belmar down to Sea Girt, cops will wave to me. I could go into a pizza parlor and if I left my wallet home, they’d tell me ‘Ah, Peter, go ahead. We’ll see you.’ That’s a nice attitude because you feel like you’re living in a town that cares. When I got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, everybody everywhere I went congratulated me. I’d go to Foodtown and the butcher would go, ‘Hey, Pete, congratulations on the Hall of Fame!’ I kind of like that, because being a Brooklyn boy, I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone took care of everybody’s kids. I don’t care for people who think they are better than us. We all put on our pants the same way. We all get sick the same way. I learned that when I had breast cancer, that I wasn’t above anyone. I’m a Catholic so I believe in God, big-time. I realized when I got cancer that I was just like every other guy in the world. Living here keeps me grounded. People make you feel like you belong here. Now we’re building a place in Colts Neck, and I’m excited. It’s my dream place. We should be in there in a couple of years.

LIM: The last few years, you’ve made several public appearances to talk about male breast cancer. Why has speaking about it been important to you?
PC: I’m an ambassador for male breast cancer and I keep trying to spread the word about it. For the last five years I go out every October, I do the walks, go on “Good Morning America,” and it’s still, to  me, very pink. Look, I’m not a hero – I’m a musician. I just want guys to be aware. I never knew I could get it. I went to the gym and came home and found a nodule. I’ve been wearing spandex my whole life. I know my body well and I caught it immediately. I was very blessed, I had no chemo. It gave me the faith to go out and spread the word. I even come across women with breast cancer who don’t know men can get it. I see no commercials, no billboards. Sometimes in my battle to get this awareness across, it frustrates me because it’s not getting anywhere. But then I’ll get emails that would have you in tears from guys who read my articles and felt their breast and just caught their cancer in time. I also get horror letters that say they didn’t pay attention, didn’t listen, it’s too late and they only have another year to live.
In the world, I don’t know if I’m making any headway. They’ve got commercials, for Christ’s sake, for erections, for hemorrhoids, for losing weight, for depression, and there’s not one commercial where a guy comes out and says ‘Hi, I had breast cancer, men get it, and early detection saved my life.’ Bingo, that’s all I want.

LIM: Your wife also suffered cancer as well. How hard was that for both of you, and did it affect your relationship together?
PC: She had cancer before me. I’m 22 years older than Gigi, and I’m like, ‘This ain’t fair. I’m going to lose my wife, and she’s so young.’ Then all of a sudden, I got it. I cannot tell you the depression during those months.
But she’s something, my wife. She’s a survivor. She’s a majorly positive and spiritualNow it's Gigi's and Peter's time to truly enjoy their lives. woman. I really need her in my life because I’m not always a positive guy and I always think that I can’t do this or that and she says, ‘You’re Peter Criss. Of course you can do it.’ She’s my third wife and my lucky charm. We have a real relationship. It took me until my 60s to understand about this stuff. Gigi’s planted solid on the ground, and that’s important for me. She’ll do all my calls, deal with my lawyers, management, talk about my appearances. She’ll tell me that she’s got appearances and things like that lined up for me.

LIM: You don’t handle any of that?
PC: If I get on the phone, I won’t do anything. I hate phones, I don’t even carry a cell phone. I’m a 20th century kid. I miss phone booths. Technology has taken all privacy away from me or anybody who’s famous. It’s made me even more of a reclusive guy. I’m in a gym, I’m sweaty, I look like crap, and there’re guys in the corner snapping pictures. I had to quit the gym and build one in the house. I have to watch everything I do. That’s not cool. So, yes, Gigi is great at it. She’s very diplomatic. Being that I’m Italian, Irish and German, I have a really short fuse. Since I left the guys, there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to deal with anymore in my life.

LIM: Your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction was in Brooklyn. Did that mean something even more special to you, being from that area?
PC: Sure. It’s still home. I knew my mom and my dad and my grandmother were looking over me and were really happy. I got the biggest applause out of all four of us, being a Brooklyn boy. I felt that God gave me a little extra there.

LIM: During your speech you said, ‘You gotta forgive to live.’ Why?
PC: I believe I’ve come to work on that, forgiving to live. I heard it about seven or eight years back and I said, ‘How true that is.’ You carry the hate, as the Beatles would say, you carry the weight. You’re not a happy guy. And I had a lot of hate in my heart for a lot of things, and through the years I’ve been working on forgiving to live. It’s so true. When I just got rid of all that negativity about the people that  ripped me off and hurt me, it made it easier to get up with the guys and say, ‘I don’t know about you three, but I’m growing up, I’m in my 60s now, and you’ve gotta forgive to live, man.’ These vendettas we have, this hate for one another, is ridiculous. We’re old guys now. We’re grandfathers. To still keep that nonsense is ridiculous.

LIM: So it meant a lot to you to say that with the rest of the band up there on stage?
PC: Yes. Absolutely.

LIM: Drummers aren’t typically thought of as being the main creative member of a band. Did you think you had to go against that stereotype to perform at the level that you did when KISS started out?
PC: When I heard [Jazz drummer] Gene Krupa, who was my idol as a child, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. I got to use jazz and incorporate it into rock and roll, Peter singing “Black Diamond” – The Rocksimus Maximus Tour/World Domination Tour co-headlined by Aerosmith and KISS, 2003.which no one ever did. So if you really listen to KISS, most of the drum fills are jazz. That’s what made the sound of the band. When I started working the circuit, yeah, I noticed that drummers were always in the back. Once in a while I used to throw a drumstick and hit a guitarist or a bass player on the head. They’d look at me and I’d go, ‘Get out of my way, I’m playing back here, I want people to see me.’ And it didn’t hurt that I was a drummer who wrote the song ‘Beth,’ which won a People’s Choice award for the biggest song from the band. No drummer in the world has ever walked out like that, by himself, with an orchestra, and sang. I was the first to do that. I hear a lot of kids who say they play drums because of me, which blows my mind. Maybe it’s because of my cockiness of coming out and saying drummers should be out there. Drummers should be seen and be as important as the others. You should sing and do everything you can do if you’re a talent.

LIM: If you could go back, is there one thing you would change in your relationship with KISS and your life when you were younger?
PC: There are a lot of things we all wish we could change in our lives. I got very wrapped up in the whole crazy drug scene back in the 70s. But, as I say in my book, my business manager, lawyers, were all getting stoned. Of course, I was a kid, and I fell into the trap of drugs and alcohol. I’m human. I’ve made mistakes. I’d like to clean up some of that stuff because it clouded me. I wish I was a little more aware of some contracts I signed. Trusting people is not a great thing in the music business, or any business these days. If you said you loved me, I’d give you $1 million and trust you with everything. I really am that kind of guy. I wear my heart on my sleeve. It might be a big mistake, but I come from the heart. I don’t ‘b-s’ anyone. I treat people like I want to be treated.

LIM: Do you think that stems from the way you were raised?
PC: I had a really good mom and dad, real Catholic Irish-Italian people. They worked hard. They didn’t drink. I was raised poor but well. They made me buy my first set of drums, and that got me realizing what’s valuable, and if you work hard for it, great things come back to you. In my life now, giving back is very important to me. This breast cancer stuff that I do, or the kids I touch, the rewards are amazing. Even in my town, I love my policemen. I donate stuff to them. They’ll come over my house for coffee, I’ll give them signed drumsticks. I’ll donate to the firemen. When 9/11 happened, I went to New York and raised $9 million for those guys, just singing ‘Beth’ a few times. I try to do as much as I can do for the community. I’ll feel the same way when I get to Colts Neck. I’ll do anything I need to do there to be a part of the community.

LIM: Why did you write the book here at The Breakers?
PC: It’s a family hotel. The owners are unbelievably sweet people. Gigi knows them very well, since she grew up in Wall. She suggested it to me, that there’s a great hotel and there’s nobody there in the winter. When I got here in the winter it was like The Shining. My writer Larry Sloman was creeped. I told him, ‘Larry, nobody is going to come and get us.’ We had the run of the kitchen. I would come down here late at night, make a sandwich, coffee in the morning. They had a chef once a week that would make us a great dinner. I’ve become close to this place. Again, stuff like that you’re not going to find in New York City, Beverly Hills, or a lot of other places in the world. I don’t think people understand how cool Monmouth County and the Jersey Shore are.

LIM: So it was just you and your writer the whole time in the hotel?
PC: Yes. It was off-season. I would get up early in thePeter Criss Man of Courage Award by Peter Criss, a breast cancer survivor, was presented to Conner Phelps May 2015 at the annual The Beauty Ball. morning and take a walk on the boardwalk, have breakfast with my writer. We’d work five or six hours, then chill and maybe get together at two in the morning and write a few more hours. I put a lot of hard work and my heart into my book. There were a lot of things that were said about me from certain people, and finally I could tell the fans through my book that if I acted this way on stage, let me tell you why. If you started something amazing and you’re being treated like a second-hand citizen in a band you put together, it’s humiliating. Finally I could explain my feelings and tell the fans my side of the story, not just the Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley side of it.

LIM: Being a private person, was it difficult to put your story out to the world?
PC: No, it was cathartic. It was great. I really needed to get rid of the monkey on my back. There was so much pain and aggravation and deceit that I needed to dump. And I had to tell the truth of my addiction. Back in ‘82, nobody went to rehab, and they didn’t have many cures for cocaine, and that was my problem. I had to really fight through that. I got to explain that. I got to talk about my childhood.  A lot of the stories are funny, but there were some very meaningful things that I wanted to get off my chest. Again, forgive to live. I got rid of a lot of that pain and anger that I was holding inside of me.

LIM: Have you had any contact with the band after the Hall of Fame induction?
PC: No. And I don’t expect to. We didn’t perform at the ceremony. I wanted to. I felt that after 40 years of fans buying our records, giving me a nice life, the least you could have is 10 minutes of our time and play two songs. Mr. Stanley did not want to do it. He would not play with us. Ace wanted to play, but it didn’t happen. I felt like something was taken from me at a moment that was very important in my life, and it wasn’t fair to our fans.
Again, childish, ridiculous stuff. You’re 60-something years old, you’re still holding grudges? It really annoyed me. I didn’t hear from those gentlemen when I had cancer. I didn’t get one phone call. The only person who called was Bill Aucoin, our original manager who has passed on. Now and then Gigi gets in touch with Ace’s management, but nobody calls. We don’t call each other.

LIM: How often do you see you daughter, Jenilee?
PC: Not as much as I would like. I’ll admit, we’re not as close as father and daughter as I would like to be. I love her to death. She’s given me a granddaughter now, and I love my granddaughter.

LIM: You’ve mentioned faith and God a few times. Is that something you found during your battle with cancer, or have you always been religious?
PC: It was always a continuous part of my life. Even through my insanity, in the morning I would say a Hail Mary and ask God to forgive me. I’ve always had faith. I still believe. I go once a week to church and pray. God saved my life. I truly believe that. He took my cancer and my wife’s cancer away. Faith is so important to me. You have to have it in this crazy world today.

LIM: Do people still ask you to put the makeup on?
PC: No. I think the fans wish maybe they’ll see me in the whole glory of the makeup and the outfit. Sometimes I’m crazy enough that I almost want to put it on just to see how I’d look in it again. When the makeup was on, I wasn’t me. I became my alter ego, I became The Catman. No one could see past it, so you could be anything you wanted to be.

LIM: Did you need that barrier? Did it help you, as a private person, to interact and be on stage in front of so many people?
PC: Yes. At first, taking it off and going out without it to 1,000 people who wanted autographs, I didn’t know what they would think. Over the years now, I’ve done a lot of interviews and been on television without the makeup. I got a lot more comfortable with it after a while.

LIM: Do you still see any bands live?
PC: If they’re in town I’ll go see Rush, Tony Bennett. Bob Seger is another one I’ll go see. I love Rob Zombie, and Johnny 5 has been like a brother to me. The people I’m telling you about are really genuine. They don’t have big heads and think they’re better than everyone. I don’t like hanging with guys who think that. I had a few in my band for a lot of years.

LIM: How are you different as a person now than when you were younger and in the band?
PC: When I was growing up I lived in four rooms with my brother, three sisters, father and mother. Then I’m going out and buying a mansion and a Mercedes-Benz all in the same day. For a kid like me, it was a lot. As most young musicians, I got trapped in the lifestyle. I misused the fame. I could get anything that I wanted. People kept telling me how great I was. I got caught in a bad place because when you’re constantly taken care of, then all of a sudden you’re not, you’re really lost. When I got a divorce with my second wife and found myself living alone again after 13 years of marriage, a child, having a real family with Thanksgiving and Christmas, I was alone. When all the friends who used to want to meet up for lunch or whatever weren’t there anymore, I knew I was really alone. I found myself struggling. Then all of a sudden, I did the reunion and people I hadn’t seen in years would call me. It’s phony, and I don’t like to live in that world. Again, that’s why I love Monmouth County. It’s a really down to earth place to live. I’m just Peter in town here. I ain’t no big deal, and I kind of like that. I want to be treated that way. I don’t want to be treated special. I’m not special. I’m like every other guy.

LIM: What do you think the future holds for you?
PC: Right now, I am an ambassador for male breast cancer and it’s become a big part of my life, but it does affect me at times when I see people who don’t have long to go. I’m finding, more so this year than in the last few, I’m starting to get some bad dreams and feel more emotional about it. I don’t want it to affect my health. I’m narrowing it down to where I want to become more of a writer, write screen plays, a children’s book. I’m thinking more of fishing on a boat and getting to enjoy my life a lot more. You can’t take money with you. I feel like it’s my and Gigi’s time in our life where we really love each  other and we want to enjoy the years, whatever I’ve got left. It’s not like I’ve got 40 years left. These are important times for me. I need some time now for Peter Criscuola, the kid from Brooklyn. I need to enjoy my wife and life. The money, what good is it if you can’t enjoy it or use it to help people out? I may put a little jazz band together. I do miss the stage. I miss the smell of greasepaint. You get that in your blood, and it’s hard to lose. But, I’m mellowing out.

Favorite Restaurants:
Four Winds in Manasquan
The Breakers in Spring Lake
Favorite Movies:
It’s a Wonderful Life
To Kill a Mockingbird

Favorite Bands:
The Beatles and The Rolling Stones
Pet Peeve:
Disingenuous people
3 People You’d Like to Dine With:
Al Pacino, FDR, and Abraham Lincoln

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20 Sep 2016

By Paul Williams