Why Peter Steele Mattered
If you are like so many music fans, you probably haven't heard of Peter Steele. But you've probably made fun of him. He was a mess of long hair, muscle, and baritone. He had tattoos coloring his shoulders and covered most of his 6'7" frame in black denim or cloth. His band was named after a blood type and he wrote mostly about death and destruction.
He may not have appealed to you, but he--and his band Type O Negative--serviced his mostly teenage male audience as few others have. The band sold scores of records, including 1993's platinum-selling Bloody Kisses, all while speaking solely to the makeup-streaked, black-hair-dye-and-angst set. Steele was Twilight Metal before Twilight Metal even existed. If only for style's sake, without Steele, there is no Hatebreed, AFI, or probably My Chemical Romance.
Steele died this week of apparent heart failure at age 48. Born Petrus T. Ratajczyk in New York in 1962, Steele found himself in metal and thrash bands in New York's seminal 1980s metal scene. Steele eventually steered Type O Negative as its singer, bass player, and main songwriter through its six albums.
Heavy metal in all its forms, more than any other type of popular rock, conjures a state of perpetual adolescence. Steele was, in many ways, this concept personified. When asked by their label to put together a live record, Type O Negative simply recorded an album and overlaid crowd noise. Not surprisingly, they named the record The Origin of the Feces and took a photo Steele's behind as the album cover. The label was not pleased at this adolescent prank and changed the cover. Type O Negative's first studio album, 1993's Slow, Deep and Hard, featured a cover depicting the point of sexual penetration, slightly pixilated out. Steele was not uncomfortable with his nudity, as he would later pose nude for Playgirl magazine.
Steele's lyrics had similarly teenage feeling, as he sang mostly of one-sided heartbreak, depression, and sex. While Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor was referencing Nietzsche on The Downward Spiral, Steele's philosophical experience involved writing songs about the weight of the world titled "Gravitational Constant: G = 6.67 x 10-8 cm-3 gm-1 sec-2" and consequently singing, "suicide is self-expression." As Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan relayed experiences of sexual abuse and childhood pain, Steele wrote a song about his breakup entitled "Unsuccessfully Coping with the Natural Beauty of Infidelity" (the song featured Steele screaming expletives toward his ex). Metallica wrote songs based on Hemmingway books, Type O Negative did interstitial tracks of tribal chanting and a woman screaming called "Fay Wray Come Out and Play."
It was this nihilistic sense of humor that got Steele and the band in plenty of trouble. Steele took nothing and everything seriously. Upon moving record labels in 2005, the band released a tombstone image on its Web site faking Steele's death. Indeed, no one was ever sure if Steele was joking when he created a false, quasi-Nordic nation Republic of Vinnland, including a flag. Though he grew up in Bensonhurst and was close with Jewish bandmate Josh Silver, Steele's half-baked deconstruction of American social welfare policy "Der Untermensch," may not have been the best choice of language and topic for a song. The "Nazi sympathizer" tag followed Steele throughout his life.
In metal terms, Steele was perfect for his time. Even Beavis and Butthead famously compared the video for "Black No. 1" to "a cross between Danzig and Megadeth," The band's funereal doom riffs were more the brainchild of early Tony Iommi than most bands before and after. Steele's compositions were extensive, often reaching beyond eight minutes and featuring slow, dirge-like time changes. By eschewing the trash tendencies of his peers, Type O Negative became a bridge from Sabbath to modern metal bands like Opeth and Sunn O))). Biohazard's Evan Seinfeld this week called Steele "my single biggest musical influence" and Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt called Steele "funny, intense, intimidating and overall, a good guy."
Neither Steele nor Type O Negative ever had the critical acclaim of Opeth, or the similarly funereal Isis--whose riffs and minimalism echo Steele often--because the band's records were placed in a time of thrash, punk and nu metal domination. But Steele was metal. He battled depression and drug addiction, even being institutionalized in both prison and a psychiatric ward at times in his life. He spoke to his teenage male fan base, and he spoke of their heartbreak. He seemed to live out their fantasies, appearing on the Jerry Springer Show on a segment about groupies. He shared their sense of humor, making poop and sex jokes until the end.
If you weren't a teenage metaller in the mid 1990s, you probably didn't know Peter Steele. But he will be missed. He was the teenage male's fantasy, a giant rebel who created worlds and perpetually flipped his finger to the nebulous "authority."