I can’t pretend I really knew Type O Negative frontman Peter Steele, who died Wednesday , reportedly of heart failure, although I’d met and interviewed him several times.
I knew his music, from the early days of his lurid mid-’80s thrash band Carnivore to the sophisticated melange of Black Sabbath, Sisters of Mercy, Pink Floyd and the Beatles that he and his bandmates conjured with Type O Negative. I knew that he was an amazing performer, haunting and charismatic, commanding yet never pompous.
I knew that every time I interviewed him we’d end up talking about how dismal the music industry — and life itself — can be, how our greatest weaknesses can obliterate our most powerful strengths. And I knew that whenever we talked, whether it was casual conversation at an industry event or at a confessional sit-down interview about the personal and professional struggles he experienced during the creation of whatever album he was working on, that the conversation would be filled with laughter and I would leave feeling more positive about life.
There were probably only a few people who really knew Steele. Devout Type O Negative fans surely empathized with his pain and appreciated his knack for writing songs that were dark as night, heavy as a pile of bricks and — in their way — as catchy as anything by Justin Timberlake. And Steele’s deep, baritone vocals were one of a kind in metal. But as for what was really going on inside Steele’s head, that’s something he took to his grave. His personal life is largely a mystery.
Whenever people in music die prematurely, critics ponder who they really were and whether their art was a true reflection of their inner selves. Inevitably, if they wrote angry or heavy songs, they’re described as “complex.” It’s practically a cliché, yet it probably best sums up Steele — complex and contradictory. Steele wasn’t a simple guy. He was articulate, well read and intelligent. But it sometimes seemed like that’s not the side he wanted his fans to see. He’d mention his admiration for the historical figure Rasputin and then make poop jokes in the same breath. He often talked about how he was just an average Joe from Brooklyn whose happiest days were back when he worked picking up garbage for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
On more than one occasion, he emphasized to me that he’d have been a much happier guy if he never picked up a bass or sang a note. He compared his relationship with music to an affliction he had to endure and pulled no punches when discussing his distaste for record labels and mainstream goth culture. He was a contrarian to the end and wrote lyrics that were perceived as anti-Semitic (even though his keyboardist, Josh Silver, was Jewish) and homophobic (which he may have been). In 2007, the last time we talked, Steele told me, “That which does not destroy me just makes me more irritable, which I plan to take out on the band the next tour.”
Such descriptions make Steele seem like a sour, bitter man. He wasn’t. He was friendly, funny and had a reputation for being generous to his longtime bandmates — Silver, guitarist Kenny Hickey and drummer Johnny Kelly — and kind to the bands he toured with. In 2003, Type O Negative released what turned out to be their penultimate album, Life Is Killing Me. Although the title track is about the God complex that plagues much of the medical profession, the name says a lot about Steele. Obviously, the man was obsessed with mortality and prone to depression. On several occasions, he was very forthright to me about his battles with alcohol and cocaine and chastised himself about his lack of self-discipline. But like the leering, satiric wink of the album title, Steele made a joke out of his misery. He may have been filled with self-loathing, but he loved to make people laugh and he masked his pain with his morbid sense of humor.
Peter Steele held little sacred and took even less seriously. In 2005, following a bust for narcotics possession and a short jail sentence for assault and battery, Steele posted a picture of a gravestone inscribed with “Peter Steele: 1962 — 2005″ on the official Type O Negative Web site. It was a strange move that wasn’t particularly funny to the thousands of fans who feared he had died. For Steele, however, it was probably hysterical and the best way to deal with his turmoil. The band’s last album was 2007’s Dead Again, and is likely a reflection of how he felt at the time. His mother had recently died, he had gone through rehab for substance abuse and his personal life was in shambles. It didn’t help that Type O Negative’s record label, SPV, suffered financial hardships after Dead Again was released and its U.S. operation went under in 2009.
And yet, despite all the adversity Steele seemed to be turning a corner. He had re-formed Carnivore and hoped to release a new album with them, as well as another Type O record. In October 2009, Type O Negative toured with Hickey and Kelly’s side project Seventh Void and Destrophy, and Steele was as charismatic, funny and exciting to watch as ever. He also had a new motivation, which he discovered after his mother’s death and it’s something appropriately at odds with his image: Steele had become religious.
“I’ve always considered myself to be a Roman Catholic, but I’ve kind of gotten close to my faith because, as they say, there are no atheists in foxholes,” he joked in our last interview. “As I’ve reached and gotten over my little midlife crisis, I realized my mortality. And if the day comes when it’s like, ’Uh-oh, what if I really have to pay for all these f—ing sh–ty things I’ve done?’ That started making me think differently.”
No, I’m not gonna act like I really knew Peter Steele. But I’m sure gonna miss him.
Do you have personal remembrances of Peter Steele? Let us know in the comments below.