Celebrity deaths hardly ever have a real effect on me, but when it was announced on April 14 that Peter Steele, the singer, bassist and songwriter for Brooklyn Gothic metal band Type O Negative, suddenly died at the age of 48 from heart failure, I actually felt like I had lost an old friend.
I’m sure almost every devout Type O fan felt the exact same way, since anyone that seriously followed the band knew that they were being affected by more than just great music. Every musician likes to think that his or her work is good self-expression, but few artists have communicated their full identity as fully and unabashedly as Peter Steele did in his 21 years of fronting Type O Negative.
Steele, born Peter Ratajczyk, was once asked which Type O Negative album was his favorite, and he said it was impossible to choose, because each release ‘was a reflection of where I was at the time.” It was a very accurate answer: Life seemed to never stop throwing shit at Steele during his Type O tenure, and he dealt with it all in a courageously blunt manner.
When Steele wanted to write a song about his cocaine addiction, the numerous friends and family members he recently lost or considering suicide after his girlfriend cheated on him, he didn’t worry about making it poetic or letting the listener ‘make their own interpretation.”
He just went and addressed those issues in a confessional, almost ranting form, as if he couldn’t stand the idea of hiding his thoughts from his music.
Every serious music fan has a moment of realization that songs aren’t just enjoyable to listen to, but actually have meanings that relate to his or her life and emotions. For me, becoming an avid fan of Type O Negative was that moment. Besides Nirvana, Type O Negative is the only band I can say I’ve been listening to ‘all my life.”
Of course, it’s not like my mom tried Baby Type O Negative on me when I was in the womb I was probably about 12 or 13 when my sister finally introduced them to me. But as far as my memory is concerned, it goes like this: I spent all my time listening to music just for amusement, and then Type O Negative came along and opened up my mind to deeper possibilities.
Although it would be a few years before I actually understood the emotions Type O Negative’s music dealt with before I had any serious heartbreak or sadness that I knew only beloved music could help with I was fascinated by simply hearing such things discussed so openly in song. I felt like I was getting life lessons from someone much wiser than me even after listening to the same songs years later, it still felt that way.
The humor of Type O Negative also added a lot to their appeal. The morbid material of Type O’s music became such a trademark that it was easy to overlook how funny the band often was. They started one of their albums with the sound of a scratched disc repeating itself, and they ended another one of their albums by telling fans they hoped the music ‘wasn’t too disappointing;” they had self-explanatory songs like ‘Kill All the White People,” ‘We Hate Everyone” and ‘My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend.”
They also enjoyed deprecating themselves. The band’s greatest hits album was called ‘The Least Worst of Type O Negative,” they recorded a fake ‘live album” where the audience boos them after every song and the concert abruptly halts due to a bomb threat and Steele told one interviewer, ‘I think all recent music sucks, and that includes Type O Negative.”
In both songs and interviews, Steele was a master of cynical, morbid hilarity. It was as if he knew full well how bad things in his life were, but wanted to joke about it as if to convince himself and others that everything was OK.
As Steele said, it was hard to really weigh each Type O release against another. 1996’s ‘October Rust,” in which the band found their best balance between Gothic metal and beautiful balladry, has always been my favorite, but their discography never felt like just one release after another.
Each album actually felt like another installment in an ever-running commentary on Steele’s life, which is why every album took so long to come out, and why every single one was so devastating.
But their most recent album and now, their last one was the most shocking. After the release of 2003’s ‘Life is Killing Me,” Steele all but disappeared for a few years, even faking his own death on the band’s Web site as a joke on his absence (and subsequently giving fans false hope of another prank when the real thing happened). He went to rehab, did some time in jail for drug charges and in the end, he emerged a devout Roman
Catholic and channeled his new beliefs on 2007’s ‘Dead Again.”
Seeing how Steele was always as devoted to atheism as he was to morbidity he sang ‘Fuck you God!” repeatedly in the chorus of one song and often called Type O Negative a ‘non-prophet organization” this seemed like the most bizarre thing he had done in his very bizarre life.
‘Dead Again” did get preachy at times, but it still sounded exactly like good old Type O Negative, and Steele didn’t make the new perspective seem all that bizarre or misguided. He took it very seriously, and in his typical fashion, he didn’t care what his fan base would think of it. Steele had made a very mature, un-self conscious step toward optimisim.
‘There are no atheists in foxholes, they say, and I was a foxhole atheist for a long time,” he said in 2007. ‘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.”
Having found this new lease on life only a few years before his demise, Steele managed to get one last joke in on his fans and himself: Against all odds, it seems he might have died a very content man.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.