Kiss: Band member learns to never say never

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by Patrick MacDonald (Seattle Times staff critic)

The Cat has a cold.

Peter Criss, the drummer for Kiss with the cat-face makeup, is holed up in his hotel room in Winnipeg, plugged up and sniffling, and worrying about floods.

"We just came from North Dakota," he explained in a nasal Brooklyn accent. "It wasn't just a flood there, it was an ocean. You wouldn't believe it. And now it's moving up here. I just hope we can make it to the show and get outta here."

Criss is known in Kiss lore for being a hypochondriac, carrying around a doctor's bag of remedies (not all of them legal) in the early days. But he says that's all over.

"I don't get as many (illnesses) as I used to," he insisted. And as for drugs, "All my demons have been out of my life since '82. I've been really a straight guy. When my daughter was born in '81, I took her in my arms and told her, `You're not gonna have a father that's gonna die on ya,' and then I got to work on myself."

But Kiss Web sites on the Internet have been buzzing about Criss ever since he failed to show up for a concert last month in Columbus, Ga.

"My arms gave way," he explained. "It was the first show I ever canceled. It was that carpal tunnel syndrome. It scared the hell out of me."

He called Gene Simmons two hours before the show and said he couldn't play. Simmons and Paul Stanley, the band's two leaders, considered canceling the concert.

"But they decided the show must go on," Criss said. "Besides, they were worried about a riot."

Criss' drum tech filled in for him.

"It killed me," Criss said. "I'm in bed in my hotel room, my girlfriend has my arms in ice. It was the longest two hours (the length of Kiss' shows) of my life. Emotionally it really hurt me a lot. All sorts of stuff came out about it, but that's what really happened; that's the truth. I'm wearing braces now onstage and I'm OK. But I still have it and it's a scary thing to have."

Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley are back in makeup and performing as the original Kiss, but they're not officially members of the band. They're on salary, employed by Simmons and Stanley, who own the Kiss name.

"They kept the name going for 17 years (during which time Criss and Frehley were replaced by a series of other musicians), let's face it," Criss said. "They deserve a little more of the pie - but not the whole pie. What we got going is fair. I don't really feel like an employee, I feel like a member of the band."

Criss said even he is surprised at the way the reunion tour has been received. It's the biggest rock tour in years.

"We've been out, it seems like forever," he said. "I wonder sometimes what my home looks like. But I'm having so much fun. Putting on the makeup and the costume and getting back into those boots, I can feel my adrenaline flowing. The curtain drops and boom! It's like the old times. Those two hours are what I live for; they're just magic."

The reunion started more than two years ago when Criss took his daughter, Jennie Lee, now 16, to a Kiss convention in Los Angeles hosted by Simmons and Stanley. Simmons heard about Criss coming and invited him to lunch with Stanley. The three ended up jamming at the convention.

"I saw the look in Gene's eye. It was magic, that thing we had. It was a great time. We've all grown up a little bit and can forget past differences."

Criss persuaded his close friend Frehley to also come back, and the four made a surprise appearance on an MTV "Unplugged" show in October 1995. The audience reaction was so great, they knew they had something.

The reunion tour, which began last year, has already played more than 160 sold-out shows. It was supposed to stop at 200, but the tour has been so successful, Criss thinks it will be extended.

"It would be cool if we took it to the year 2000," he mused. "We could end it all with a big farewell show. It would be so huge - feggetaboutit! I mean, anything's possible.

"One thing I've learned is never say never. I once said I would never be in this band again, and here I am. And I'm so happy about it."