January 4, 1962 – April 14, 2010
Brooklyn band Type O Negative was emblematic of the gothic/doom metal subgenre and culture, and the face of that band was Peter Steele (real last name Ratajczyk). Standing a menacing 6’8”, Steele was an intense character who, as many musicians do, channeled his personal problems into his music as a means of overcoming–an overcoming that he shared with his fans. To hear the fans tell it, Steele showed up onstage throughout his career with a smile, a sense of self-deprecating humor, and his glass of red wine despite suffering from depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction–even at one point being involuntarily committed by his own family. Though I knew of and enjoyed Type O’s music, I was never able to catch them live–to my obvious regret now.
Type O Negative was formed in 1989 by Peter and three of his friends, and with the release of 1993’s Bloody Kisses became a platinum-selling act–despite, (or perhaps because of?) the themes of war, sex, sadness, depression, and love that so defined the music and lyrics. “Christian Woman” and “Black No. 1” are both doom metal masterpieces that move in suites, in a grand tradition of epic metal anthems going back to Black Sabbath, one of Steele’s biggest influences. Frequently misunderstood by both fans and critics alike, the songs satirize religious girls and gothic girls, respectively.
Steele was able to write about them with such effectiveness because he knew (and fell in love with) both types of women growing up in Red Hook, Brooklyn–and at least one of those relationships ended horribly, which he stated nearly caused him to end his life. Can we imagine being even more prematurely robbed of the man’s wonderful discography? We should be thankful then, not only for Steele’s strength of character that helped him push through that, but also that he heard a radio advertisement one day asking for Type O blood donations, inspiring the name of his band and kick-starting his music career.
My personal favorite Type O Negative moment is their cover of “Cinnamon Girl.” The original artist, Neil Young, is one of my all-time favorites, and even I think they did his song better than the original. After hearing Peter Steele’s version, laced up with spooky organs, a booming beat, and his trademark rich bass vocals, I wanted to put my arm around Neil Young’s shoulders and say, “I’m sorry, old man…but you just got smoked. On your own song.” It could be my favorite example of a cover version of a song being better than the original.
The album on which it appears, October Rust, is even more multilayered and melodic than Bloody Kisses, an influence from Steele’s love of The Beatles. 1999’s World Coming Down found Type O Negative’s main songwriter in the midst of a deep spell of alcoholism and depression, so much so that few songs from the album were played on tour due to the emotional strain it caused him. Nevertheless, he held no ill will towards it:
“That’s like asking a mother with many children, ‘Which one is your favorite?’” Steele answered the question of his favorite Type O album. “I’ve had demented children, and I’ve had healthy children…they are still my children. Whatever album is where I was at the moment.”
Towards the end of his life, Steele was rediscovering Roman Catholicism and getting his substance abuse under control; his band had also released the well-received Dead Again album in 2007, which would be his last recording. He even openly proclaimed it in an interview with Decibel magazine:
“There are no atheists in foxholes, they say, and I was a foxhole atheist for a long time. But after going through a midlife crisis and having many things change very quickly, it made me realize my mortality. And when you start to think about death, you start to think about what’s after it. And then you start hoping there is a God.”
As he was preparing material for the follow-up album to Dead Again, Steele went into cardiac arrest and died of heart failure. He is buried at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, Long Island.
Bandmate Johnny Kelly posted this heartfelt statement the same week:
“It’s impossible for me to put into a few sentences what I am feeling at the moment Peter. I’m not sure if I should eulogize or roast you. Both good and bad, we went on one hell of a ride together and sadly, the ride has come to an end. You truly were a unique person. Your music touched many people. Myself included. Whether it was talking about The Beatles, power tools, how Pluto was no longer considered a planet or calling me at 3am asking me to drive to your house to have a fistfight with you, you always kept it interesting. It was a privilege to have been your bandmate. It’s something that I will always cherish.”
“Never mistake lack of talent for genius,” Peter warns on the back of the Bloody Kisses album.
Thanks to Steele’s songwriting talent, nobody will ever make that mistake with Type O Negative. We “can’t really lose you,” Pete, as the song below states.
Dead at 48, RIP.
Written by Matt P