Peter Steele: Towering, deep-voiced frontman of the goth-metal band Type O Negative
Friday 28 May 2010
The unsettling music of the New York goth-metal band Type O Negative may have been a minority taste, at its most effective on the soundtracks to computer games Descent 2, Blood and Grand Theft Auto IV or horror blockbusters I Know What You Did Last Summer, Bride Of Chucky or Freddy vs Jason, but teenagers, especially in the US, the UK, Scandinavia and Germany, loved the group and its towering frontman and primary songwriter Peter Steele, who died of heart failure aged 48.
Standing at 6ft 8in, weighing 260lb and sporting long raven hair and teeth filed to look like fangs, the deep-voiced singer and bassist growled his way through nihilistic, doom-laden material like "Love You To Death", "Everything Dies", "Everyone I Love Is Dead" and "I Don't Wanna Be Me", as if trying to articulate every teenage frustration and embody every parent's nightmare.
Yet Steele possessed a warped, black sense of humour, as demonstrated by his appearance on the cover of Playgirl magazine in August 1995 complete with the strapline "Type O Negative's naked Peter Steele gets rock hard for you". It was also well to the fore on album titles like 1992's The Origin Of The Feces or unlikely cover versions such as the Santana medley – "Evil Ways/Oye Como Va/Black Magic Woman", of course – included on a bonus CD packaged with their 2006 Live DVD Symphony For The Devil. "People don't get the joke, which is that we think we're the joke," he said in 2000. "I think all recent music sucks, and that includes Type O Negative."
However, the excesses of touring and the rock'n'roll lifestyle took their toll on Steele. In 2005 he spent time in prison for drug possession and for assaulting a love rival. "To be white in jail and to have long black hair and fangs is not an advantage," he said. "I was in maximum security, and there were some pretty scary people in there who are never gonna get out, so they had nothing to lose by messing with me. Fortunately, I'm six-foot eight, so I'm not exactly a target."
His time behind bars sparked off rumours that he had died, further fuelled by the appearance of a tombstone bearing his name and the dates 1962-2005 on the band's website for several months in 2005. He subsequently checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. "I was suffering from drug-induced psychosis, and I was doing some pretty insane things, like putting cameras in light switches and in shower heads," he said. "The paranoia was because of all the cocaine I was doing."
He was born Petrus T. Ratajczyk in Brooklyn in 1962. In his teens he discovered the Beatles, the Doors and in particular Black Sabbath, whose heavy, grinding sound proved a defining influence. Type O Negative went on to cover the song "Black Sabbath" for the 1994 tribute album Nativity In Black, toured with Ozzy Osbourne in 1997 and backed the Sabs singer on a cover of Status Quo's "Pictures Of Matchstick Men" for the soundtrack to shock-jock Howard Stern's movie Private Parts.
Throughout the 1980s, while holding down a day job with the New York City Parks Department, Steele played in two underground groups. The first, the hard rocking Fallout, issued the "Rock Hard"/"Batteries Not Included" single in 1981. The second, the thrash metal band Carnivore, hinted at what was to come, especially with the ill-advised "Jesus Hitler" on Retaliation, the second of their two albums, in 1987.
The following year he formed Type O Negative with Sal Abruscato (drums), Kenny Hickey (guitar) and friend and former Fallout member Josh Silver (keyboards). Released in 1991, their first album, Slow, Deep And Hard, opened with a lengthy piece entitled "Unsuccessfully Coping With The Natural Beauty of Infidelity" and set the tone for the collision of doom metal, industrial music and often unsavoury lyrics that became their stock-in-trade.
After the mock "live" recording Origin Of The Feces, they hit their stride in 1993 with Bloody Kisses, a landmark million-selling album for the US independent label Roadrunner Records. The band then bit the goth hand that fed them with "Black No. 1 (Little Miss Scare-All)", issued a "butt-kissing, sell out" version of "Christian Woman" as a single, and slowed Seals and Crofts' soft-rock classic "Summer Breeze" down to a mournful, tempo, a cover best experienced in sensurround sound during the opening credits of I Know What You Did Last Summer.
The band charted on both sides of the Atlantic in 1996 with October Rust, complete with a lateral take on Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl", and with the morbid World Coming Down in 1999 (which included a Beatles medley) and Life Is Killing Me in 2003. But tracks such as "White Slavery" made Steele's substance abuse all too plain. After reactivating Carnivore in 2006 he recorded Dead Again, the last Type O Negative album, the next year. In 2008, they played to half a million people at Przystanek Woodstock in Poland.
"Going through a midlife crisis and having many things change very quickly made me realise my mortality," he told Decibel magazine in 2007. "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. For me, it's a frightening thought to go nowhere. I also can't believe that people like Stalin and Hitler are gonna go to the same place as Mother Teresa."
Petrus T. Ratajczyk (Peter Steele), singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter: born New York 4 January 1962; died 14 April 2010.
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