Monday, November 26, 2012

Guest Review: No Regrets by Ace Frehley

Guest Review by Joe M.

I became a huge fan of KISS in the sixth grade. I find it amazing that a band gets to such popularity on word of mouth alone. The entire first wave of KISS took place without MTV, without YouTube and with very little radio airplay. I was a fan of Ace's, and I wanted to play guitar like him. He is the person who first inspired me to pick up the guitar more seriously. Later on they became too cartoonish for me, mostly due to the merchandising and Phineas T. Barnum-impersonating Gene Simmons.

I picked up Ace's book, No Regrets, because I was looking for another rock bio and my Amazon preferences led me here, as they say. My dear friend Kathryn reads and reviews them here, and somehow these have always proven to be great late-night conversation fodder for us. We enjoy sharing details of bands and their books and do, like most people, discuss what we read, watch, and listen to.

Ace starts his adventure in his youth and spends a lot of time talking about his seemingly nice middle class upbringing. He came from a loving home, had hard-working parents, went to Lutheran school, and all was a nice time growing up in the Bronx until he decided to join a gang. Ace's life moves more into juvenile delinquency, but all along he remains a student of the world and his surroundings. He can diffuse things with humor which he displays in abundance in this book with intelligence. Yes, I said it, intelligence. Ace is definitely a bright guy. Funny, too. He almost became a graphic artist instead of music, and even designed the KISS logo that we see today.

He takes us through the KISS story by letting us in on the early inner workings of the group. Gene and Paul were introverted, nerdy, and not the "ladies men" they would later turn into. Ace got his nickname by being the Ace, the one who got all the girls. He was a master at talking to girls. He had and still does have the gift of gab.

So does Ace let Gene have it in this book? I'd say he does, but he also is very kind. I won't reveal how the "Gene issue" goes but I think it's an interesting part of the book, but not all. Ace does not blame anyone for his misadventures except himself, and what misadventures! His drug use and abuse, alcohol, glue sniffing and car crashing is legendary. As someone who lives between where he lives and NYC we often heard stories by locals of Ace's misadventures. All are documented here.

The book is well-written, and he had help via Joe Layden and John Ostrosky, but having heard Ace speak in interviews the voice appears to be his. The events in the book, any of which could have taken his life, are described in vivid detail. He takes responsibility, and yes, this is a rehabilitated individual who chooses not preach about it. He's surprisingly sensible throughout and values his relationships and honors his family as much as humanly possible for a person in his state. There could have been more detail about KISS and his relationships in the band. This book is heavy on Ace and somewhat light on the rest of the band. There is great detail on the early days, and it gets lighter about the band as the book goes on. He does take the high road here, in a lot of places.

There is plenty of dirt, as these books are made for it, but there is not a lot of dirt on other people in here. Sure you'll get a good back story of the infamous Tom Snyder appearance (YouTube it, Ace was drunk and on fire!) but you won't get a lot of detail about Peter's departure or Gene's money-making schemes. Even with the lack of KISS dirt, this is a great read and I highly recommend it. It went fast, too fast, and was hard to put down. You don't have to be a KISS fan to appreciate it, the story of Ace is enough to carry the book because there is just so much story to tell. Amazing he has lived to tell it.

Rating B+

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review: Makeup to Breakup - My Life In and Out of Kiss by Peter Criss

I didn't become aware of KISS through the radio as I did with other bands, but through other kids during after-school care. Their older siblings had the records and merchandise, all of which trickled down to younger listeners. My earliest memory of seeing the band in the pre-MTV era was a television airing of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, much talked about the next day among the elementary school set. Perhaps it's fitting, considering the direction of the band's early marketing efforts - it's no wonder that the band's original drummer expresses frustration in his memoir that he preferred to work as a musician in a band like the Stones rather than a commodity in a group like The Monkees. I don't profess to be a member of the KISS Army (I don't own a single album or compilation), so at best I'm a casual listener and often captive observer, considering how expansively the KISS brand is still advertised.

I picked up Peter Criss's book, Makeup to Breakup, after my closest friend told me he was reading Ace Frehley's book (look for a guest review on that one soon). He went into Ace's book already knowing much of the story, being perhaps a more avid fan, and from the notes we've compared it may be safe to say Criss's book delves a bit deeper into the "KISStory."

The story opens with a jolt more intimidating than any full makeup live show, where Peter briefly contemplates suicide after riding out a rough California earthquake. While an unwavering faith in God and devotion to family ultimately pull him back, this event seems to symbolize the shaky ground on which Criss has walked through much of his life, from early beginnings running with gangs to false starts with fledgling bands until his first meeting with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.

Criss and co-author Larry Sloman paint a rather vivid picture of the drummer's youth and pre-KISS days. As with other musician memoirs I've read in recent years (Sammy Hagar's for one), the requisite juvenile delinquency sets the stage for an interesting life. George Peter Criscuola stood out in school and in the neighborhood, and not necessarily in a good way. A stint in a gang helped toughen him for life on the road as a drummer, yet he left his tenure with KISS a victim in many ways.

Criss notes here that Simmons has painted him as the complainer in the group, and if Criss's word is to be accepted over the other band members he has good reason. Criss's desire to play in a band apparently conflicted with Simmons's desire to play up a brand - profits from the KISS-logo condoms, coffins, underwear, etc. aren't likely to hit Criss's bank account, and the resentment is strongly felt in this book. It's interesting to note, too, that Frehley had designed the iconic logo that the band markets with fervor.

But this is a review of Makeup to Breakup, not a critique of the band's marketing strategy. I find that as I read books like Criss's I become torn emotionally. The guy had millions at one point, and one might find it challenging to feel for him when he hits a low point personally and professionally, especially when you read of all the coke snorted, the women banged and tossed away, etc. In some chapters Criss appears unapologetic for certain actions, and when you come to the point where you want to close the book and leave him to reap what he sowed you read about how the KISS machine drew him back in so they could make more money off the Catman, and you feel insulted right along with him.

What may win you to Criss's corner, KISS fan or not, is his unwavering appreciation for his fans. Criss may never see a dime from sales of lunchboxes and t-shirts, but at the end of the day he knows the KISS Army formed for a love of the music, and his contributions are no less important than the other members'. Remember, Criss co-wrote the band's highest charting single, and that's one thing Gene, Paul, and Ace can never take away.

I imagine hardcore KISS fans will debate over whether Criss is entitled to his financial share of the legacy or if Simmons and Stanley acted with benevolence in giving Criss a "second chance" after years of drug abuse on the job. Either way, fans now have a third point of view of the KISStory to consider, and it's worth reading.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.










Monday, November 5, 2012

Review: The John Lennon Letters by Hunter Davies, ed.

I was fortunate enough to be in New York City when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame annex was still open and promoting their exhibit on John Lennon's years in the city. Like the mother museum in Cleveland, the annex also forbade photography so I'm unable to share images other than what I can describe. One display that particularly struck me was a collection of John and Yoko's writings. As my companion and I studied the entire case I noted with interest the snippets of Yoko's short, instructive poetry. "Would you look at that," I told my friend, "Yoko invented Twitter."

I've also read somewhere, and perhaps Yoko said it, that were John alive today he would have embraced social media and made frequent use of it. We can only imagine (sorry) a verified Twitter account for John or a Facebook page he might use as a soapbox for political and social commentary. Maybe, too, like George Takei he'd push the occasional funny LOL Cat picture, having had a fondness for felines toward the end of his life. It would be fun to follow him, but after having gone through The John Lennon Letters one has to wonder how much we have lost since the social media boom. A co-worker recently complained that one problem with smart phones and the rise of texting and photo sharing is that this growing activity nurtures a society of people who won't look each other in the eye. One could argue that a society that accepts information in 140 character increments may one day lose appreciation for the art of the letter, and conversation. This collection of Lennon's correspondence does more than offer the fan a more complete picture of the Beatle and activist, but reintroduces us through Lennon a fading culture.

Within this thick book you'll find an impressive collection of written history from Lennon's point of view: everything from memos to doodles, and postcards and short notes to more thoughtful letters. Many are personal and many are professional - if you have read earlier bios of Lennon and the Beatles, you may have seen some before. A few that strike out in memory include Lennon's early love letters to girlfriend/wife Cynthia Powell and a few scathing missives to Paul McCartney post-breakup.

Editor Davies, also a Beatles biographer and acquaintance of Lennon's, includes with each entry what information he could find behind each entry. While perhaps not a complete collection, Davies gives us the full spectrum of Lennon era, from youth to middle age. Reading some of these letters will reintroduce you to Lennon's quirky sense of humor while also showing a compassionate side other biographers don't always showcase so well. Just when you think you've read everything about Lennon, too, a newer book tends to offer a surprise or two. Without going into detail, I will add I found especially interesting what Lennon had predicted about his older son, Julian, as well as a sense of loyalty to his mother's relatives, with whom he corresponded when possible.

The John Lennon Letters has the look and feel of a coffee table book - you could probably jump back and forth reading the letters and notes, but reading all the way through creates a more rounded picture of Lennon by Lennon. If you are mostly a digital reader now, as I am, you'll find the price for hardcover well worth the investment.

Rating: A

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

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