Book Review – Soul On Fire

September 18, 2017 — Leave a comment

Peter Steele is buried along with his parents in St. Charles cemetery next to an airfield in Farmingdale, Long Island, New York, twenty minutes from where I grew up. Coincidentally, my grandparents are buried near the same plot.

When I visited both those gravesites with my fiance and my dad, the Type O Negative frontman’s headstone was etched with Lord of the Rings-type font, the family name “Ratajczyk” proudly emblazoned along with “Steele.” Fans had left graveside mementos, letters, roses, and even an empty bottle of red wine with a note stuffed inside it. Left and right of the tombstone the Greek letters for Alpha and Omega are engraved, mirroring the tattoos Steele got on each of his hands towards the end of his life.

Looking at it, I recalled his identity as a Polish-American Catholic and became more interested in his life beyond his music, which I had enjoyed since age fifteen.

This engrossing and human book, Soul On Fire, is about these two identities: Peter Ratajczyk the family man from Brooklyn, and Peter Steele the unlikely wine-guzzling rock star.

Peter Ratajczyk came from a large family, grew up with five sisters, and had many neighbors and colleagues who held him in high esteem. Peter Steele enjoyed a strong working relationship with his bandmates and gained an extended family of thousands of fans worldwide. So there was no shortage at all of interviewees for Soul On Fire–plenty of long discussions, from hearing about his songwriting process in the studio from a producer or hearing about the first time he heard Black Sabbath as a kid from one of his sisters’ record collection. There are also plenty of hilarious quotes from the man himself–I laughed hardest at his explanation for the song “I Like Goils.”

To me, Type O Negative is one of the great New York bands. The quality of the man’s music has always spoken for itself to me. I was much more intrigued by the offstage life, upbringing, and beliefs of Peter Ratajzcyk, which this book goes to great lengths to dig into. By the end of the first few chapters, I could easily see why Peter was held in such regard not just as a musician, but as a person.

And that’s all due to the way he treated people–the same way both before and after he became famous. Before reading this, I never knew that even after achieving fame and success, he continued to live in his family home on Eighteenth Street in Brooklyn to personally care for his mother, who was terminally ill. I never knew that if he could not become a professional musician, Peter would have been happy indeed just as a regular, blue-collar worker for the New York City Parks Department.

A lot of time is spent exploring the concept of what “home” meant to him–that Peter would always rather have been at home with his family, his cats, and his record collection than anywhere else.

Even if that “anywhere else” was onstage at Wacken Open Air Festival, baptizing the crowd with your favorite red wine and shouting, “The power of Christ compels you!”

Even if that “anywhere else” was infamously posing node for Playgirl magazine.

All these events are given the biographical treatment–how they came about, the reaction, and the aftermath. But as hilarious and awesome as these incidents are, they are always balanced by Steele’s life outside of the spotlight. Offstage, Peter was a relentless autodidact, adopting the outlook of the lifelong learner of both music and everything else. The guy rivals Lemmy Kilmister for his admiration for numerous musicians beyond the safe zone of heavy metal.

“Everything you absorb, you ultimately secrete,” as Tom Waits said, and when you read about Peter’s tastes in music growing up you start to piece together where those inspirations bore fruit in Type O’s music. And not just Type O Negative, by the way–there is plenty of exploration of his older bands, Carnivore and Fallout, as well.

As a continually exploring Catholic myself, I was most looking forward to reading about Peter Steele’s re-embracing of the Roman Catholic faith after many years of disavowal. There’s a bit of that in the chapters about Peter’s final months, including a cinematic visual of him singing Christmas carols during Mass at St. Ann’s Monastery in Scranton. It is often said theologically that a soul in its “dark night,” in total torment, depression, and despair (all of which Peter had plenty), would lead to one of two outcomes: the grave or the cross. For Peter, it seemed to have been the latter. An even deeper dive into his return to Catholicism and his beliefs would have been a tremendous soul-searching opportunity for fans reading this book who may find themselves in the same place as Peter.

That being said, this is a biography, and there are limitations to it all.

The grave would still come for Peter, after the cross. He was gone too soon, leaving un-demoed plans for Double Crossed, the would-be seventh Type O Negative album that would never come. “Unfair” and “tragic” doesn’t even begin to describe it, especially as Steele was clean, sober, and performing better than he had in years at the time of his cruel passing. As it is now, 2007’s Dead Again remains the final Type O Negative document.

The touching, beautifully-written final chapter echoes my own prayer that although someone else may now live in his family’s Eighteenth Street home, Peter Steele has found a new home beyond this one.

Soul On Fire did pretty much everything it was supposed to do for me, which was deepen my appreciation for Type O’s music and hearing their songs in a new, better, and deeper light. And it gives yet another reason to know that truly great music can come from just a regular guy, living just down the block from you, doing New York proud in his own way.

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