16 April 2010

In Memoriam: Peter Steele, 1962 – 2010

Sitting here with the strains of "Everything Dies" ringing in my ears as I listen to Type O Negative's discography; several days later and it still doesn’t seem real to me that the metal world has lost Peter Steele.
That’s another rock hero I’ll never get the chance to sit and interview; another great band I’ll never get the chance to see live. I sit here, still in disbelief, though I’ve had time to digest the news. Maybe it’s because, giant that he was, Peter Steele always seemed larger than life itself. Maybe it’s because he was always able to laugh off any shortcomings or perceived failures/frailties with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. How could he have even been sick enough to have died? Are we talking about the same Man of Steel(e)? Initial reports of his death, 24 hours before it was officially confirmed, were met with doubt. I knew he’d been sick prior to this, and recent interviews with him made him look as though he’d aged a lot in the last ten years, but I never expected it to kill him.

I remember my first introduction to Type O Negative. Well before the Internet, when I was about fifteen years old, fledgling heshers like myself still had to read monthly rock magazines to find out what was going on in the metal world. I was reading an issue of Lonn Friend’s RIP Magazine, as I did nearly every month, and skimming past their Fresh Blood section. Fresh Blood was where RIP told us about the latest up’n’comers who had just been or were just about to be signed; this being 1990, that month’s Fresh Blood consisted mostly of flavour-of-the-month hair-farmer bands with lots of x’s in their misspelled names. Normally, I just skimmed past that section - my tastes weren’t really evolved enough to care much about unsigned bands then, and usually interviews with these unremarkable bands were the same old rehash. But in one issue, I distinctly remember seeing this band that didn’t look like they belonged alongside the rest of the foppish, makeup-smeared ladyboys. No, this band looked like a heavy-metal version of The Lords of Flatbush, a bunch of rocker thugs who'd as soon thump you then nick your wallet for looking at them the wrong way on the subway. The dude I assumed was lead singer looked like Dracula, Stallone, and Joey Ramone rolled into one, and if memory serves, I placed him as the lead singer because A) he was bigger –much bigger- than the rest of the guys, and B) he had a pickaxe in his hand.
Type O Negative, ca. 1990. Peter Steele (2nd left): Dracula, Stallone, Joey Ramone rolled into one.

Even the band’s name -Type O Negative- made them stand apart. The brief introductory interview was angry, sarcastic, and smart enough that I mentally filed their name in my head as a band to check out.

Of course, it wasn’t until the success of Bloody Kisses and “Black № 1” that I finally got around to actually hearing Type O, and instantly, they were unlike anything else I’d heard up to that point. Totally original, Steele and co. had a strong flair for melody - as crushing as their riffs were, there was always that intrinsic love of lush arrangements. Having been raised on my parents’ Beatles records, I could certainly appreciate what Steele & Co. were trying to accomplish with Type O by smashing together the influence of the Beatles with the crushing riffs of Black Sabbath. In hindsight, even the kinda cheesy vampire-goth shtick was appealing then too. Type O was hulking, dark and brooding, and it liked to dress in black. I could relate. I soon went out and got Slow, Deep and Hard as well, and that album’s hardcore-based, even-more-sarcastic approach appealed to me in a way that made me appreciate it more than Bloody Kisses. Then, when October Rust came out in 1996, I thought that it was one of the greatest things I had ever heard. I still say it’s one of my favorite albums of the 1990s, and I count Type O Negative among my favorite bands of all time.

But, as much as I always loved Type O’s music, I think it was always that self-debasing sense of let’s-not-take-this-too-seriously that struck the strongest chord with me. You never got the feeling that Peter Steele and his bandmates were anything other than a bunch of Brooklyn mooks who got lucky in their chosen career path. I mean, this was a man who worked for the Parks Board, claiming he had to literally clean up shit on a daily basis, and this was going on even after his band was signed to Roadrunner. Steele’s working-class ethic was something that I think sealed his reputation with a lot of Type O fans. The accepted myth was that rock stars didn’t have to work work day jobs, or if they did, they didn’t advertise them. But Peter Steele was a man whose ethic specified he had to work, earn a living, bring in money to take care of his family, earn his keep, do his part. Even if that meant taking a day job like working for the Parks Board, shovelling shit day in and out. It was something that sounded as drudging as the fans’ own jobs. No other rock star up to that point appealed to fans on that level.

The band were constantly taking the piss out of themselves, and this was nowhere more apparent than on the ‘live’ album Origin of the Feces, which I wound up wearing out on cassette after playing it nonstop. The story behind the album cracked me up to no end: Your record company gives you x-amount of $ to record a live album, so you spend it on vodka and instead recreate a live album in your basement studio, complete with bomb scares and insults leveled at the 'audience'? This was rock and roll as a comedy act, but the band had the chops and reputation to pull it off without ever seeming like clowns. One need look no further than the band’s varied choice of cover songs to get a sense of their self-deprecating sense of humour. My personal favorite was the cover of “Angry Inch” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I got a lot of insight about Type O from their choice of that cover than, almost as much as I did from their own material.

In the pantheon of rock stars I admire who died too soon, I’m seriously going to miss Peter Steele. Not least because I never got to see Type O play live, nor had the coveted chance to sit down and interview him – but mainly because he –and Type O- were true originals, a commodity that’s rarer and rarer these days. They kept threatening to retire after each release, as each album sold less and less, but I always thought I’d get the chance to see the band eventually.

Really, though, what else could he have done besides become a reluctant, disbelieving rock star? Rest well, Petrus. Your legacy is assured. Thank you.

1 comment:

Marcheline said...

Thanks for this well-written article. I was lucky enough to see them live - just once, in Nashville, TN. Still missing Peter, glad to have his music to get me through another November.