Complicated but kind: Type O Negative's Peter Steele
The hard rock world is mourning the passing of Type O Negative singer Peter Steele, who died last week at the age of 48 due to apparent heart failure. The Brooklyn based band couldn’t have asked for a more perfect frontman to deliver its bleak imagery and lyrical subject matter that was tempered by an incredibly dark sense of humor.
The group’s sound was as if The Beatles and Black Sabbath got together under a flickering streetlight on a rainy night in a dark alley. At times, like on “Everything Dies,” from the 1999 release World Coming Down, a track could start off as a sludge filled dirge before turning into a bittersweet but melodically passionate piece.
It was that juxtaposition that drew Goth, metal and rock fans into the Type O inner circle, at the center of which was Steele, imposing at close to seven feet tall, all muscle with a long, jet black mane and seemingly perpetual scowl across his chiseled facial features.
But despite his appearance, Steele was full of self-deprecating humor and a heart just as big as his over-sized body, and in the wake of his death, stories from fans and statements from fellow artists confirmed as much lit up the Internet.
“RIP Pete Steele - a nice (and very funny) man,” tweeted Trent Reznor upon hearing the news.
“Peter passed away from a heart attack,” said Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine. “Although we don't know what's going on, how he passed away and what any of the causes were, I do know that a heart attack from Peter must have been an extremely big explosion because that guy had one of the biggest hearts of anybody that I know.”
"I was so saddened to hear of Pete Steele passing away,” said Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler. “He truly was one of the nicest blokes I've ever met.”
Before linking up with Type O Negative in the late 80s, Steele spent time in the thrash metal outfit Carnivore, and in between had a job with the New York City Parks Department. He often talked about how he was most happy during that period in his life. This week, Julius Spiegel, Brooklyn Commissioner of Parks, took time out to remember his former employee.
"I remember Pete Ratajczyk [Steele's real name] not at all like the dark character some of the blogs have portrayed, but as a very hard-working, sweet and respectful guy, always eager to please,” he said. “Even after he had achieved notoriety, he would visit us, occasionally even coming to our hokey dinner-dances, just to reminisce.”
“He often joked, at least I thought he was joking, about coming back to work at the Parks Department."
The thing is, Steele probably wasn’t joking; because underneath the sarcasm, and the often defensive shield of comedy, was an intensely complicated individual. He had detailed his past addictions to both alcohol and cocaine, and a profound depression that often belied the jovial nature on the surface.
A few years ago, shortly after a tour was canceled due to the singer’s health problems, a tombstone bearing his name and the inscription “1962 – 2005…Free At Last" appeared on the band’s official Website.
It turned out to be a hoax, considered in poor taste by many, but not surprising coming from a band whose brand of humor led them to title a collection of singles and rare tracks The Least Worst of Type O Negative.
During the tour for that album, I had the chance to sit down with the band, which had made it a yearly tradition to play a Halloween show at The Trocadero for a number of years beginning in the mid-90s after being unable to find an available venue in New York City.
“Peter is a normal guy just trying to break out of his shell – I’ve always said that about him,” said drummer Johnny Kelly before Steele showed up. “He just wants to be a regular guy. Everywhere he goes, no matter what he does, he’s the freak on display. He’s got a unique look to him, people look at him like, “What planet did this guy come from?’”
That night, like any other Type O Negative show, Steele made himself the center of attention, his bass guitar draped over his shoulder and held in place with a chain instead of a typical strap, oversized bottle of Sutter Home red wine by his side and a deep baritone leading the foursome through hits like “Black No. 1,” “Love You to Death” and a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.”
But the Philadelphia Halloween shows were always something special, and on this night, after the encore, Steele came out with a box toilet paper, launching rolls upon rolls into the audience, who gleefully fired them back at the frontman, who egged them on from the lip of the stage.
Some he would catch and return to the crowd in waiting, and a few others caught him on the head. He finally took refuge behind his bass amp as openers Spineshank came out to join the fray. In one last moment of mischievousness, Steele held up a pumpkin that had “Type O” carved into it and jokingly threatened to send it into the audience. The cheers became too much and he finally relented and launched it into the crowd. Many others soon followed – full pumpkins that weren’t carved.
The aftermath had two massive boxes of toilet paper emptied and streams of it hanging from every inch of the Troc. Numerous pumpkins laid smashed on and off the stage that had been lobbed into the audience. And as the crowd began to disperse, it looked as if the man who wore his broken heart almost proudly on his sleeve was quite possibly happy.
The years that followed were filled with rumors that Steele was suffering from a disease, that he had spent time in prison for assault and that he was in a mental institution. Some of them turned out to be true. But in recent years, he often spoke about getting back to his faith, which was Roman Catholic.
“There are no atheists in foxholes, they say, and I was a foxhole atheist for a long time,” he said. “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.”