KISS released Unmasked shortly after my thirteenth birthday. I begged my sister to drive me to the record store the day it was released. Brand new KISS! I couldn’t wait to get it on the turntable.
What an absolutely unlistenable piece of dreck. Hearing “Shandi” was my “say it ain’t so, Champ” moment. “I Was Made For Loving You” was a disco-influenced song, but “Shandi” was a flat-out disco song. I felt betrayed.
“What’s wrong?” my sister asked.
“KISS sold out.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s a disco album!”
“They’re KISS! They jam! They don’t make disco records!”
“I thought you were a fan. If you’re a fan you like them no matter what.”
She had a point about fans. My only option was to concede. I went to my room and pulled down all of my KISS posters. Peter Criss, their drummer, also packed it in around that time. Unmasked was the last KISS album to list him in the credits, though in reality Anton Fig played drums on the entire album.
That was pretty much it for Kiss and me for the next eight or nine years, and then the story picks up again in Los Angeles. I moved to Hollywood in 1988 and took a job at a record store on Sunset and Vine, just down the street from the Capitol Records tower. One evening I was in the stockroom checking in some new inventory when Pete, my Thin Lizzy loving coworker, came crashing in while holding his nose.
“Fuck, dude! My eyes are watering!”
A couple of more guys rushed in after him laughing and holding their noses.
“What’s up?” I asked them.
“There’s two homeless people out there reeking up the store.”
“I ain’t going anywhere near them.”
“I make minimum wage. I’m not getting that stench on me.”
What the heck, I figured. I’ll take one for the team. I opened the door and the guys were right — this couple was pretty funky. The guy looked to be around forty, gray-haired with the red, puffy face of an alcoholic. His lady friend was small, thin, somewhat toothless. My impression was that she was probably quite attractive at some point but the party just got away from her. They were standing near the cassette wall, which suggested that they were either looking to shoplift or looking for someone to ask if they could use the restroom. Either way, I didn’t see the point in not treating them like any other customer.
“Hey, how’s it going? Can I help you find anything?”
“Yeah, you got any KISS music?” the ruddy-faced guy asked.
“Sure, come on over this way.” We had every KISS tape and multiple copies of some, so they took up almost a whole vertical row on the cassette wall. “Are you a big fan?” I asked him.
“I’m a musician,” he said. In L.A. — or at least in Hollywood in the ’80s — it was mandatory that the sentence “I’m a musician” triggered the following Q and A. The Q’s never changed and the A’s rarely varied.
“Oh yeah? What do you play?”
“I’m a drummer.”
“Awesome. You in a band?”
“I got something going with some guys.”
“You having any luck?”
“Yeah, we’re going into the studio soon to cut our demo.”
It was at this moment that his companion caught my eye. She was beaming. “He’s Peter Criss,” she said quietly. I don’t know if she was whispering in an effort to prevent embarrassing her man or to save the record store from a mad rush of adoring fans.
“No way! Dude, I was the biggest KISS fan! What happened to you, man? Where you been?”
“Oh man, you know. I got caught up in drugs and all that but I’m good now. I got my new band and my lady and everything. It’s all coming together, man.”
“That is awesome. Hey, I’m curious: which is your favorite KISS record?”
He eyed the stack of cassettes. “Uh, these are all good. Yeah, good memories, man.” She looked at him like she’d pulled the lake’s biggest fish into her boat. He looked at me like a man caught in a fish tale. “I don’t think I’m going to get any of them today, though. You know, we have to pay for the demo and everything.”
“Oh, totally, but hold on before you go.” I ran to the backroom and grabbed a pen and paper. His face turned an even deeper shade of scarlet, his eyes darted nervously. “I can’t let you go without getting your autograph.” His girlfriend squealed. He exhaled deeply. Nice people, but standing directly in front of them at that moment was a terrible mistake.
He signed the scrap paper and handed it to me. “Thanks!” I said.
He looked at me with teary eyes, said “thank you” in a quivering voice and threw a big, stinky bear hug on me. His girl grabbed his arm tightly and led her big fish out of the store.
I walked back to the storage room and the guys were laughing hysterically. They’d watched the whole thing through the two-way mirror. I looked at the paper I was holding. “Peter Chris” was written in a trembly alcoholic cursive rather than “Peter Criss.”
“Dude, that dude conned you! That wasn’t fucking Peter Criss!”
“No you didn’t! If you knew you wouldn’t have let that smelly hobo hug you!”
There wasn’t any point arguing. A few years earlier they would’ve been the guys mixing suicides at the soda fountain rather than dancing with the girls. They were guys and I was an owl in the eaves watching them; watching fake Peter Criss and his junkie girlfriend; watching the brief flashes of love, pride, and happiness that a little fish tale provided them.
A couple of years later my bloated friend appeared on Phil Donahue for a confrontation with the real Peter Criss, who apparently had been living quite comfortably. My trembling buddy had sold his fish tale to a tabloid for a few hundred bucks. He’d even been rescued by Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr if I remember correctly.
I’ve often wondered if my complicity that evening in the record store triggered the chain of events that led to Donahue. Had he just met that lady the night before, for example? Maybe she said “You look like Peter Criss” and he rolled with it. Who knows? What I do know is that meeting the fake Peter Criss was likely more interesting than meeting the real one, though hugging the real one certainly would have been more pleasant.