Gary James' Interview With
Author / Photographer / Ex-Wife Of
Kiss Drummer Peter Criss
You want to talk about Classic bands, Lydia Criss was married to one of the members of a very successful Classic Band. That band was Kiss. Lydia was married to Kiss drummer Peter Criss. She has put together a coffee table size book titled "Sealed With A Kiss" (Lydia Criss Publishing P.O. Box 230666, New York, New York, 10023) it's filled with black and white and color pictures and documents. Really, the most comprehensive book ever put together chronicling the Kiss story.
Q - The first time I interviewed Peter was back on December 11, 1980, three days after John Lennon was murdered. I remember being instructed at the time not to ask about or bring up anything about John Lennon in the interview. I didn't know if Peter knew John or just liked him.
A - He just really liked him. We've met him. We just stood outside of a store. This was way before Kiss. We waited for him to come out of a store because Peter said he saw him walk in. We waited for about an hour and he finally walked out. Peter wouldn't let me ask him for an autograph. But I just shouted out to him "Hey John!" He turned around and I said, "Hi!" He goes, "Hi there." (Laughs). And that was it. I have a Paul McCartney story. I actually Kissed Paul McCartney on the cheek. I didn't even plan on doing it, but I was told he was going to be in WNEW, which is a radio station here (New York City) and I went down. I worked for a photo agency and one of the photographers said "Bring a photo of him so you can have him sign it, and I want you to have him sign my album." In those days you could get $500 for Paul McCartney's autograph. Now I'm sure it's more. So, I went down there and I got the picture signed first. It was a very old picture because I worked at a photo agency so I got some stuff from England. It was when he was really young. He said, "Wow! Where'd you get this picture darling?" He wouldn't sign the album. So, my friend got mad at me. I said "I'll go and have the album signed tomorrow because he's going to be at WNEW a second day, the following day. I waited for an hour in the freezing cold. Finally he pulls up and he walks into this other recording studio. My friend said, "No. Don't even bother. It's going to be a rainout. Don't worry." So, I brought my "White Album" and I had him sign the "White Album". He walked to the door and said, "Nice jacket," which was leather and I'm surprised he said that. (Laughs). I don't know if he was being sarcastic, but anyway he signed the album and then I see him talking to the guy I was standing with. There was only two people who knew he was going to be there. Then I see the guy gets a handshake. I said, "Wait a minute, I didn't get a handshake." So, I shake Paul Sand and pulled him toward me and kissed him on the cheek. (Laughs).
Q - What year was that?
A - The early '90s. I'm not sure the exact year.
Q - I've heard he doesn't sign anymore.
A - Maybe because he knows that people are making money off it.
Q - E-Bay.
A - Yeah, E-Bay.
Q - At the very beginning of your book you have a photo of The Beatles at Shea Stadium. Did you attend that concert?
A - Yeah. (Laughs). It says by Lydia Di Leonardo. That's my maiden name. That's who I was then. I was only about sixteen.
Q - The you remember anything about that concert?
A - Oh, sure. I remember the fact that you could not hear anything. It got to the point where the screams were so loud it took by the end of the song to figure out what song they were actually singing. My cousin was a little younger than me. My uncle had gotten us the tickets. My uncle said bring my binoculars. The World's Fair was right across the street. So, he took us to the World's Fair in the day and then this was at night. I said, "I don't want the binoculars. I've got my camera. I'll look through the camera. I'll look through the little lens." It was a tiny, little Instamatic camera. When it got to the point where they started playing, I realized how far we were and my cousin and I were fighting over the binoculars. (Laughs).
Q - At least you saw The Beatles in their heyday!
A - I saw The Dave Clark Five once in a movie theater, right on stage in a movie theater.
Q - Are you making your living as a photographer when you are not promoting your book?
A - Actually, no. I'm not selling photos right now. I'm not taking any. The only photos I take are if I go on vacation. I'm actually retired, semi-retired. The music business isn't the same as it used to be. It's hard to get into a concert. Nowadays I don't even like who is performing. It's not my type of music, but I do know other photographers that are still doing it, but I don't. I'm actually just making a living off selling my book and some other little things here and there that pertain to photography.
Q - I noticed that on the cover of your book it says, "An unauthorized recollection of the most successful theatrical rock band of all time." To have been authorized, would have meant you would have had to have gotten the consent of all four guys in Kiss?
A - I'm not sure if I had to get all four guys. I believe it would have been two, Gene and Paul.
Q - Maybe it should have been worded differently? A First Hand Account?
A - Unauthorized is what the lawyers tell you to put in there. That's what prevents legal actions, one of the things that prevents it from legal actions.
Q - And the book came out when? 2006?
A - Yes.
Q - And you self published this book, didn't you?
A - Yes. I really didn't know what to do. Putting out a book was not my dream in life. I was talked into it by the fans and I saw the fans reaction. I did have one fan who was very, very interested and he was a publisher, smalltime publisher. He talked me into putting out a book and then he went bankrupt, so I was like stuck in the middle. I had pulled out all my stuff and it was all being scanned. I had already worked on the text. My manuscript was done. I was told it wouldn't cost that much and I was talked into it again by some other fans and so I decided to do it, but I did question
Bill Aucoin. Bill Acoin was Kiss' manager and so I said, "What should I do? Do you have any literary agents that you know?" He turned me onto a group of girls that were like a group of literary agents supposedly. I was told by a lawyer that they're really not. He tried to guide me and I guess I wasn't paying attention and it turns out they couldn't get me a deal. They said they went to different publishers and one of them, I actually have a letter, one of them said Gene Simmons has flooded the market with Kiss books, so they didn't want to do a another Kiss book. I think I thanked the three of them, the three publishers, at the beginning of the book.
Q - That's what surprised me! Simon & Schuster, Random House and Harper and Collins all turn down this book of yours?
A - Yeah.
Q - And you have Ken Sharp with his new Kiss book making the New York Times bestsellers list!
A - I know. My book would have also. Ken Sharp is a friend of mine. I actually saw him about a month ago at a Kiss convention selling his book. We didn't get time to talk because we were both so busy, but he is one of them that talked me into doing my book. I said to him afterwards, "I'm sorry I self published it", because what happens with self-publishing is it's very hard to get a distribution deal. Nobody wants to distribute your book. If they do, they want astronomical prices and it's just ridiculous. I was talking to him and I said that and he said, "You did the best thing because this way you get all the money." He was sorry about one of his books. Right after it's out for a little bit, it's on the discount shelf. And he said it breaks your heart to see it being sold for $10. So, I keep that in the back of my mind and it keeps me going. I really would have preferred being in Barnes & Noble. I did approach them and they did say they would buy some of the books, but they wanted me to lower my price and they wanted me to lower it not just for them, but for everybody! So, it's a tangled little web that they weave. I'm not that savvy to untangle it, so I just went my own way. It's not cheap to publish a book. A lot of my friends go "At least you made your money back." I said, "Well, that's not the idea. You don't work for three years just to break even," It's all my memories, all the stuff that I've saved for years, my hoarding. Actually I'm not a hoarder. I'm a pack rat. (Laughs)
Q - No, you're an archivist.
A - I love an archivist. That's right. Basically, I'm very similar to Bill Wyman. Bill Wyman kept everything of The Stones and I did the same thing. That's whose book I actually pattern my book after. I like his format. I actually even went to his printer. It was in Italy. I didn't want my book falling apart like Kisstory did. I put my books in a warehouse and they were shipped from the warehouse. He said "Italy has the best paper in the world and you made a good move." I reprinted my book in 2012 and I went back to the same printers. They did a good job. Everybody seems to like my book.
Q - Everybody except Peter. Didn't I read somewhere that he was unhappy with you for publishing this book?
A - No. I don't know if he was unhappy. He never told me that. I haven't seen him in 15 years and that was the first thing I asked him, "Did you see my book?" He said, "Yeah." But he never mentioned anything about it. I did hear certain remarks that he made. But of course he's not going to be happy with it because sometimes the truth hurts. So what can I say? I didn't do anything to be malicious. I just wanted to tell it the way it was.
Q - I don't see why there would be any objections to your book. Have you read Peter's autobiography?
A - Yes, I have. There's a few things I'm upset about. I don't like being called a thief. He said I stole his stuff. That was my stuff. What is he talking about? Not only that, he said in his book, he also said I stole his photos, that's how I was able to do a book. Meanwhile, they're my photos. Not only that, in his book, he said he gave me everything because he felt bad for me. Don't do me any favors if you're going to give me everything and then call me a thief.
Q - I tried to interview Peter about the book, but I was told he was unavailable.
A - Yeah, well, I did hear him say he was retiring. So, I don't know what he's retiring from because he really hasn't done anything in many years.
Q - He wrote in his book, "I told Lydia I wasn't going to get a 9-to-5 job and because I had no money I wasn't going to pay for anything, even the wedding. I was going to single-mindedly pursue my musical career until I made it big. So if we were going to wed, she'd have to work a 9-to-5 job. Lydia had no problem with that. She believed in me and was prepared to be a good wife." I would think if a guy said to a girl, we can get married but I'm not going to work, the girl would say, "I'm out of here!" You saw something in Peter, didn't you?
A - Oh, yeah. Yeah, I did. A lot of my family couldn't understand it. They couldn't understand what I was doing with him. Peter had something about him that was very unusual. His friends will tell you that and my friends too. He had charisma. There was something about him. It's not that Peter didn't work. He did work weekends, playing music in clubs. It paid for some of the things. I did pay for the wedding. I did pay for the honeymoon. Basically the wedding pays for itself. You get gifts and it kind of evens out. I paid for the car. I paid for the honeymoon. It's not like he didn't work at all. I wasn't extremely happy about that. I knew he puts it where it seems I was willing to do anything to help him get there, but I did kind of want him to share the burden. It got to the point where when you're in love, sometimes it's more important than having to fight to get a job. He tried getting jobs. It didn't work. So, I realized that was out. (Laughs).
Q - If he worked Friday, Saturday and maybe Sunday, what would he do Monday through Thursday?
A - Well, he would be at home. Sometimes he would have rehearsals. Sometimes he would clean the house. I'd occasionally come home and there was dinner. So, I had a house husband. We were ahead of our time.
Q - And this was years and years before Kiss was even thought of?
A - Oh, yeah. It was 1970. I think Peter met Gene and Paul at the end of '72. It wasn't Kiss yet. Middle of '72 and Ace came at the end of '72.
Q - Did you go to Kiss rehearsals when they had the makeup on?
A - When I first saw Kiss play it was in their loft, a rehearsal in their loft. I mean, they would rehearse every day. I worked in Manhattan and the loft was in Manhattan, so I would get off work at 5:30 or 6 o'clock and I would go over to the loft and hang out with them for a while and then me and Peter would go home. He would drive in usually and we would drive home. So, I did get to see Kiss many times way before they were famous.
Q - Did you think Peter was on his way? This was it?
A - Not necessarily. He was in a band, Chelsea that had a record deal and I thought that was it, but it didn't turn out to be it. I figured it's better than him playing weekends. He was playing weekends with Kiss at the very beginning, but it seemed a little bit more encouraging that it was going to be, you know, something was going to happen because of the fact they were different. They weren't playing other people's music. They were playing their own stuff.
Q - And that would lead to a record deal, which it did.
A - Yeah. The first couple of years we were married, Peter played in cover bands. He'd be playing the Top 40, a lot of Temptations, the songs that were hit songs of the day at that time. They did have rehearsals. Then Chelsea came along and they were all original too. But they didn't last very long. For some reason they only lasted maybe a year. Then there was Lips. Some of the people from Chelsea moved on with him, but then they were playing back in clubs and playing the Top 40.
Q - And lucky there were clubs to play back then!
A - I know.
Q - A band is lucky to get a club date these days.
A - I know. I just read The Lion's Den just closed. I'd been there to see people. It was happening. It just closed abruptly.
Q - It took quite a few people to get Kiss off the ground, didn't it?
A - Yes, it did.
Q - Where would Kiss have been without Bill Aucoin? Could they have achieve success without him?
A - Bill Aucoin was amazing. I loved him. I believe between Bill Aucoin and Neil Bogart and the people behind him are what got Kiss going. They believed in the band and they put their all behind them. Bill Aucoin, I'm sure you heard, at one point financed Kiss on his American Express Card.
Q - Yes, I have read that many times.
A - And Sean Delaney was the creative one behind Kiss. He came up with a lot of the stuff. Kiss might have had makeup in the day and they all dressed in black, but they had no money, so there was no money to elaborate on all of that. Eventually they did a more professional job with the makeup and their clothing was just totally, totally different. The leather outfits matching. That's one show I sat in the audience and that was the first dress rehearsal I ever saw and that's where I knew they were going to make it. I just started crying. (Laughs). Sitting by myself all the way to the side. I was just amazed that they did some of the theatrics and fireworks. I just said, "Oh, my God. This is it!"
Q - I interviewed Bon Jovi's manager Richard Bozzett. Bon Jovi opened for Kiss. So, I asked him what it was like to tour with Kiss. He said, "It was all business." I asked where did all these stories come from about the partying? He said, "I don't know. When we were with them, it was all business."
A - I would imagine once Peter and Ace were gone, the partying stopped. (Laughs)
Q - Gene and Paul present this image of life on the road as one big party.
A - I know.
Q - That helps sell CDs, concert tickets and merchandise, but the reality is probably quite different.
A - It might have been all business with Gene and Paul , but you don't know what goes on behind closed doors. (Laughs)
Q - Did you have any idea what was going on when Peter was on the road?
A - Well, I was out on the road with him a lot. Yeah, I know there was partying going on. I didn't know to the extent. I read things that I didn't know about, but I surmised. Another thing in his book, he says I was a very jealous wife, but he gave me the reason to be jealous. He talks about being with other girls in his book.
Q - How many girls and women dream of being married to a Rock star? How many girls and women wanted to be married to Peter Criss? And you were Mrs. Peter Criss!
A - Yeah.
Q - How great was it?
A - There are some extreme highs and there were extreme lows. It's really great standing on the stage of Madison Square Garden or going to Japan or accepting the People's Choice Awards, but it's also very lonely when you are sitting home alone. At the very beginning I used to work. I worked up until the end of '75. I remember I used to sit home on Friday nights and answer fan mail for Peter because he didn't want to be bothered. I thought the fans were really important. I even got one fan letter once and opened it up. It just happened to be the girl's birthday, so I called her and she started crying. She couldn't believe I called her. (Laughs). But I always liked the fans. That was the one thing I always used to tell him, "Sign some autographs. They've been waiting for you." He really didn't want to be bothered signing autographs. That was one thing he hated.
Q - Peter did, but how about the other guys?
A - I don't think Gene hates it 'cause he's the one that signs the most. Now they realize it's a way of making money too now. Years ago it wasn't. You would just sign an autograph. Now, they charge for it.
Q - Were you the "Beth" that Peter was singing about?
A - Yeah. Well, there's a story behind that. The song was written as a nasty song because when he was in Chelsea, which was two bands before Kiss, the rhythm guitar player, Michael Brand, his wife Rebecca, which everybody called Becky, they were newlyweds, so she was always calling him when they were at rehearsals or when they were in the studio. She'd always call, "Mike, when are you coming home?" So, it got to the point, "Beck, I ain't comin' home. I'm busy. Leave me alone." That type of thing. That's how the song was originally written. It was just put aside. Nothing was ever done with it. It was written by Stan Penrich and Peter. Stan was the replacement guitarist in Chelsea and then moved on with Peter in Lips. So, when they wrote the song they just shelved it. Years later, Peter said, "I want a song on the album." Everything was Gene and Paul's. So, they gave him a song and he gave them "Beth". It was called "Beck", because of Rebecca. Gene and Paul didn't like it. Bill Aucoin loved it. And I think Bob Ezrin liked it, that's the producer. So, they decided to put it on the album, but they had to change the name. Now, Gene will never give me credit for this, I changed the name to Beth. I was in a limo with them and they were talking about it. It was just me, Gene and Peter and maybe Ace or Paul. I'm not sure. I just don't remember. I remember the three of us. I remember Gene saying, "We can't call it Beck because of Jeff Beck . It sounds stupid." So I said, "Well, how about Beth? Beth was Neil Bogart's twin wife's name and Beck was a twin also. I said, "That'll fit." So, they decided to call it Beth and they decided to make it a nice song. One of the lines in the song I actually said to Peter... They changed some of the lyrics. So, I actually wrote one line which I don't get credit for that either. The song was actually dedicated to me every night. Anytime I was at the show, Peter would bow to me before he'd go on his stool with his roses and sing the song. Then, when The People's Choice Awards came and they won that in '77, but it was for the Best Song of '76, they knew they were going to get it. They allowed me to accept the award. We sat at the table. Gene goes, "How are we going to do this? We're booked in North Dakota. We can't sit in the audience with our costumes on. Nobody is allowed to see us without the makeup." So I just said, "I'll accept it." And Gene said "Okay." I thought I was hearing things. I said, "I can?" That was ten days before the award. Believe it or not, I lost ten pounds in ten days. I was such a nervous wreck.
Q - What line did you write in "Beth"?
A - "You say you feel so empty, a house is not a home." That song was on, "Destroyer". The "Destroyer" album was right after I stopped working. See, I was paying all the bills up until the end of '75. Once I stopped working, that's when they told us to move to Manhattan and Aucoin started paying the bills for Pete. Not that he paid them. He charged them to Pete's account. Then Peter started paying the bills. Not until '75 did he do that. I'm a Scorpio and we have kind of this take charge attitude when it comes to money. I kind of felt empty. I moved into a new home and I had no responsibilities anymore. So, the only responsibility I had at the time, because he was touring, was to go shopping and get the house together, an apartment it actually was. It was kind of lonely for me. I felt like my house wasn't my home anymore, like it was his home. I had to hand over the reigns. That's what that line meant. Like I said, I never got credit for that.
Q - It's so strange to have this Theatrical Rock group enjoy a "hit" record with a ballad.
A - It was the B-side of one of their singles and the DJ decided to play the B-side. It started catching on. More and more people started playing it. That's what made it successful, because Kiss would probably have never released it as a single. When we were on our way to Japan I said I was so thrilled. I never dreamt of going to Japan. I never thought that would ever happen. I just thought it would be nice to say thank-you to all the guys in the band. I started with Gene. I went to Gene and said, "I want to thank you for making it possible for me to go to Japan." He said, "Don't thank me for making it possible. Thank 'Beth' for making it possible for all of us to go to Japan." That was out of the mouth of someone who knows.
Q - I see you had your picture taken with Christopher Reeve, in the '80s I assume. Was that an exclusive party?
A - It was an exclusive party. It was a party for Bob Gruen, the photographer that took the "Dressed To Kill" album cover. I work with Bob. Christopher Reeve was there. I thought it would be cute to say, "Hi Chris. My name is Lydia Criss." So, I did introduce myself to him. I'm sure he didn't know who I was.
Q - You mean he didn't know who Kiss was?
A - Oh, I didn't get into that. I was already divorced at that time. I didn't do that a lot. I kind of shied away from saying "I used to be married to the drummer in Kiss." But the photographer that was there, it wasn't Bob. Bob hired someone to take his pictures. He worked in the same photo agency as me, so he knew who I was and he thought it would be great to take that picture.
Q - I used to think that Kiss had the ideal situation. They were Rock stars on stage, and off stage they could take the make-up off and lead normal lives. Now, I realize if you're famous as the guys in Kiss were / are, it's not really a good situation to be in. And it dosen't matter if you're Peter Criss or Elvis or Kurt Cobain. Being famous is not good.
A -Yeah. I agree with that. One thing that they did have is people didn't know who they were when they weren't in make-up. That was kind of a plus in my opinion because we could go to restaurants and nobody would bother us. We even went to Madison Square Garden and he wasn't wearing the make-up. We went to see Fleetwood Mac and nobody knew who he was. We were backstage too and nobody knew who he was. We never had anybody bother us when we lived in Manhattan. We lived in a brownstone, which was not a doorman building. Nobody ever bothered us. I'm sure they saw the limos in front of the place all the time, but luckily we dodged that. We moved up to Connecticut and word did get around that Peter moved up there. There was a few incidents, but he didn't live there very long. We moved in '77 and by '78 he had met Debra, so we were starting to get divorced. He was on the road a lot, so maybe he lived there half a year. There might have been two or three incidents in the whole time he was there that people might have overstepped their bounds and came on our property. I feel bad for celebrities now. They're always being chased.
Q - What's amazing is that no pictures of Kiss without the makeup ever made it to the press newspapers and / or magazines.
A - I asked that question to Bill Aucoin. There's pictures of Kiss without makeup on. Barry Levine, who was one of the other great photographers of Kiss, came to Sweden with us and Europe. I said, "He took pictures without the makeup. How come you're not panicking or stopping him from doing that?" He said, "Well, because he knows better. If he does try to sell anything, he'll never work for us again." The same thing goes with magazines like Creem or Circus or Hit Parader or Rock Scene , in that day. They just knew not to sell photos or print photos of Kiss without the makeup. When there was some fans that did come around and did manage to sneak a photo, security used to actually buy their camera from them. Security used to take the camera and pay them for it. (Laughs)
Q - That was a tight operation Kiss had going for themselves.
A - Yeah. I was actually at a concert with Elvis Costello once. It was at The Bottom Line in New York. I was taking pictures and they said, "You are not allowed to take pictures." They said, "Give us your camera." They would have given it back to me at the end. I said, "Why don't you just take my lens! I can't take a picture without a lens." So, they took my lens. I took another lens out of my bag and put it on. (Laughs). I said "My ex-husband's security created this process of taking cameras and lenses."
Q - What question do you get most often at these Kiss Conventions?
A - "Was the song 'Beth' written for you?" That's the most asked question.
Q - Did you ever re-marry?
A - I did re-marry in the '80s. I was married from '85 to '89. That kind of ended the same way. I lost both of my husbands to a Debbie. (Laughs). So, I've decided not to get married again. I might eventually decide to get married. I'm with someone now, Richie Fontana, who is a wonderful guy. I'm with him twelve years. We don't live together. We live in different apartments. He was in a band in Aucoin Management. He was a drummer also. Somebody said to me, "What's with the Aucoin drummers?" (Laughs). He was in a band with Billy Squire called Piper and he played on Paul Stanley's solo album. I think he did the first four songs. He also worked with Laura Branigan. He was in a band called The Scat Brothers, which was also an Aucoin Management band on Casablanca (Records) too. They had a hit single. They were very big over in Australia. He has an album out. I've been with him twelve years and he's the best thing that ever happened to me. We are so similar. It's amazing.