The title of this post is misleading. I don’t have the real story. I can only offer my observations. The real story of KISS isn’t a single narrative. There are many narratives that, when taken together, present a mostly-accurate view of the real KISS story. Finding the narratives you can rely on is the tricky part.
KISS has been a part of the fabric of my life since I was sixteen. I’ve been trying to find the narrative of their story ever since. Only now, with the passage of time, is it possible to begin putting it together. There are six books I believe are essential reading if you’re a serious KISS fan and want as much of the real story as you can get. I’ve read each of these books and I’ll review them here, offering a few observations as I go. The six books are:
The first book is “KISS: Behind the Mask — the Authorized Biography” by David Leaf and Ken Sharp. There were two covers for this book — one was print and the other digital. This book is a compilation of two manuscripts written by two different people at entirely different times. David Leaf wrote the first third of this book in 1979. It was never published it. Years later, however, after David got together with Ken Sharp, who’d compiled a massive number of interviews and commentary from the band members and their contemporaries, the manuscript finally saw the light of day, right alongside Ken’s work.
This is a great book that tells the KISS story in detail. It’s done in what’s called a conversational style, with members of the band, co-writers, producers, and contemporaries sharing personal memories and commentary. At the end of the book is a detailed album by album, song by song breakdown where the band rates every album from the first one all the way to “Psycho Circus.” Great songwriting and recording insight that puts you behind the scene. “KISS: Behind the Mask — the Authorized Biography” is essential reading.
Written by Ken Sharp with input from Gene and Paul, “Nothin’ to Lose” is a detailed look at the band’s first three years, written in the same conversational style as “KISS: Behind the Mask — the Authorized Biography.” This book also has some commentary and stories from the guys in the band as well as their contemporaries and people who worked with them. At over 500 pages, this is the most comprehensive look you’ll get of the band’s first three years, told from the perspective of not only the band members, but every Tom, Dick, and Harry that ever came into contact with them.
The next four books I feel you need to read to get the full story are, of course, the autobiographies of each of the band members:
The four autobiographies, of course, tell the core of the KISS story. As can be expected, some of the stories are told with a different slant. I do believe each of the books is an accurate depiction of the real story, changed only by the perspective of the author of whichever book you happen to be reading. More importantly, I don’t think any of the members set out to “lie” about any of the events in their lives — they simply perceive some of those events differently.
Each of the guys do a good job telling the story of his childhood before, and leading up to, KISS. They reveal details the public has never really heard about — the personal backstory that makes them who they are. The stories that center around the time of KISS getting together pretty much gel. For the most part, with the exception of some slightly different interpretations of the events around this time, the guys are on the same page.
It gets fun when they start talking about the roles they each played in the band’s success in later years, and particularly the details about Peter and Ace leaving and returning for the reunion, then leaving (or getting fired?) again.
One thing about the later years you can pretty much hang your hat on is that Paul Stanley is the most loyal to the band and was the one who kept it going when nobody else gave a shit. Even Gene admits that Paul kept the band alive in the 80s. Ace and Peter have nothing to say here because they haven’t got a clue about that period of the band’s history.
As for the reunion, there’s Paul and Gene’s story (they pretty much see events the same way), Peter and Ace’s story (the parts they agree on), and then Peter and Ace’s separate stories (where they each toot their own horns). Now, don’t get me wrong. I love both these guys, and I certainly don’t undermine their importance to the history of the band, but to say they are the most talented members and the only reason they are no longer in the band is because Paul and Gene are control freaks who edged them out for no reason is nonsense.
In their autobiographies, even while they accuse Paul and Gene of being control freaks, they openly admit to the very things Paul and Gene point to as their downfall. There are times in their books when they almost — almost — accept a little responsibility for their poor choices. Still, I get the sense they aren’t putting two and two together and realizing their poor choices are the reason they are no longer a part of KISS.
Paul and Gene pretty much tell the same story about Ace and Peter.
Now for a look at each of the books individually.
“Kiss and Make-Up” (Gene Simmons)
I think Gene told an honest story as he perceived it. As you’d expect, his book has the “I” factor. When there were events that may have been shrouded in ambiguity, Gene recalls those events in favor of Gene. When he doesn’t, you get the feeling he doesn’t for a reason that suits Gene. That’s not me putting Gene down. That’s just Gene. I actually love that part of his character. It’s the guy standing at the top of the stairs in his house with his arms open wide, telling the world to take in the glory of who he is.
“No Regrets” (Ace Frehley)
Ace does a good job telling his story, but he really avoids committing to many of the issues fans want to know about. He recounts the craziness the drugs and alcohol brought to his life and accepts the damage it caused in some aspects. He doesn’t spend a lot of time blaming Paul and Gene for his mistakes, but he doesn’t accept responsibility for them either, especially when it comes to events related to KISS. His book, for the most part, is presented with the same nonchalance (aloofness) Ace has portrayed through the years.
“Makeup to Breakup” (Peter Criss)
I enjoyed Peter’s book a lot. I think he unwittingly told the truth about many of the events regarding his role (or lack of) in KISS. As always, Peter tells his story with a little whine. I love the guy, as I do all the members of KISS, but Peter does play the pity-me tune to the hilt. He talks about his mistakes, but unlike Ace, he is more vocal about placing a good deal of the blame somewhere besides himself. I get the feeling Peter believes his version of the truth.
“Face the Music: A Life Exposed” (Paul Stanley)
I saved Paul’s’ book for last. Why? Because it rings truest to me. He told a deeply moving story about his childhood. He opened himself up in a way none of the other guys did, though Gene came close. I feel like his version of the KISS part of the story is about as accurate as you’re going to get, based on what he wrote in context to what the other members of the band wrote. From a songwriter’s standpoint, Paul’s book is satisfying because he addresses the songwriting aspect of KISS. From a musician’s standpoint, Paul’s book is satisfying because he addresses the performance aspect of KISS. His book also comes full circle. It has an ending that is satisfying — a natural conclusion to the story he told. As for the autobiographies themselves, I believe Paul’s is closest to the real story. Again, all stories have a slant, but Paul’s is probably the one slanted more toward reality.
Read these books yourself, particularly if you’re a KISS fan. Make your own conclusions. The real story is hidden somewhere within the pages of these six books — at least as much of the real story as we can possibly know without having been there.