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Five Years Gone: Remembering Peter Steele

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It was five years ago today that the Frankenstein-ian frontman and creative force behind goth metal juggernauts Type O Negative consummated his long courtship with lady death. In commemoration of this sad anniversary, here is the original obituary I wrote in my November 2010 column.

 

TRAGEDY IN B-MINOR

trag·e·dy
1 a: a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall of a great man
b: a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror

Normally around this time of year, I’d be gearing up for the usual round of Halloween shows by Brooklyn goth-metal group Type O Negative. Sadly, that tradition came to an abrupt end with the passing this spring of the band’s bassist, vocalist and driving force, Peter Steele.

The six-foot-seven übermensch with the deep voice and dark sense of humor formed the band in 1989 after splitting up his former group, legendary hardcore band Carnivore. Despite their notorious association with the color green, Type O were never really into weed; nonetheless, I’m paying tribute to Steele this month because … well, because I knew him.

I grew up with Type O Negative. As a young metalhead in Brooklyn, Type O were my band. They hung out with people I knew, sang about places I’d been. I was at their very first performance (as Repulsion) at L’Amour in 1990, and thereafter prided myself on never missing a single show. I collected every press clip and article, got them to sign a Slow Deep and Hard poster, and even fought for 20 minutes in the moshpit at a Carnivore reunion show to hold onto Steele’s homemade spiked “armor” that he’d thrown out into the crowd—a prize I cherish to this day.

Eventually, guitarist Kenny Hickey and I became good friends, and thanks to an odd twist of fate, I ended up renting out his mom’s basement for about three years. During this time, I was fortunate enough to be invited into the band’s inner circle. Keyboardist Josh Silver (the only pothead in the band at the time) was the first musical artist I ever interviewed for High Times. I visited his home studio during the mixing of Bloody Kisses and was among the first people to hear the demos. I spent three days on the road with the band during Ozzfest 1996 and roadied for Kenny once up in Connecticut. I hung out with them in Ace London Studios during their rehearsals for World Coming Down. I even spent Christmas with Kenny’s family and attended Josh’s wedding.

But despite all this, Peter was the one guy in the band I never really developed a friendship with. Was it because he had to lean so far down to talk to me? Or because I didn’t have tits? Or because, deep down, he never really took off that armor? I guess I’ll never know. What I do know is that he was a musical genius. In both of his bands, Steele pushed the boundaries of “decency” and humor. In the early days, his lyrics were often offensive for the sake of being offensive—filled with tongue-in-cheek violence and anger and taken to the absurd. His sardonic satire eventually evolved into an almost romantic nihilism. With songs like “Everything Dies,” “Dead Again” and “Life Is Killing Me,” Steele seemed obsessed with death—particularly his own. Over the years, he’d predicted, faked and even attempted his own demise. But it wasn’t until this spring that the Grim Reaper finally caught up with him.

It’s been suggested to me that the passing of a person so obsessed with death can hardly be viewed as “tragic”—but really, it’s the very epitome of tragedy in the classical sense of the word. Like so many tormented artists before him, he was melancholic, misanthropic and misunderstood, and in constant combat with the forces of alienation, alcoholism and addiction.

After several stints in rehab, Steele was supposedly doing better. The last time I saw him perform, he seemed to have grown a bit fat and sloppy, like some Elvis Frankenstein. But personally, I’ll always remember him as that proletarian provocateur onstage at the Limelight, the not-so-jolly green giant who took a handsaw to his bass strings at the Cabaret club, the almost Shakespearean antihero who wore his “inner conflict” on his sleeve.

Peter Steele was one of the most unique people I’ve ever known, and for me and so many of his fans, his passing truly feels “like a death in the family.”

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