MetalSucks Exclusive: One Year Later, Peter Steele’s People Speak About His Life, His Music, and His Last Days
How would I like to die? I don’t know. It wouldn’t really matter so long as I thought I’d made a difference in the world.
— Peter Steele, 1962-2010
Peter Steele was 48 when he passed away on April 14, 2010. His instantly-recognizable baritone graced nine albums with his bands Type O Negative and Carnivore. As did his rusty, fuzzy bass tone, which seemed to represent the man himself: big, soulful, and unfiltered. And in his lyrics, the giant was revealed to be gentle, wounded but smirking, and a little paranoid. Best of all, these were sung to melodies and harmonies only rivaled in awesomeness by Gram Parsons, Jerry Cantrell, and freaking Paul McCartney. He was equally known for his humor and accessibility, the common rave being that Peter took pains to make people feel good. Or bad, like when trading brotherly zings with his bandmates on the commentary track for Type O’s video collection DVD, After Dark. In some measure, it felt empowering for us outsiders to have Peter Steele on our team. The world could keep its superhero fantasies. We have a real one.
So we miss the guy. His departure was sudden and, typical of Peter, ironically timed: A long period of turmoil had come to an end, say his friends and family, and a sober, focussed Peter was days away from a return from seclusion in Pennsylvania to his native New York. A late 2009 string of Type O concerts — which turned out to be his final shows — had marked the best Pete performances in years. Further, the band had just signed a new record deal with Napalm Records and booked a Staten Island rehearsal studio to undertake writing a new album. Nearby, an apartment had been found for Peter, also minutes from two of his bandmates’ homes. He was coming back; he was going to write songs to tell us where he’d been. His death seemed so cruel. It was hard to process.
A year has nearly passed, and we reached out to a few of Peter’s family, friends, and Type O Negative bandmates, who generously shared their thoughts, remembrances, and regrets. A massive round of applause for them, please, as it was an emotional task. In their speech, there often were just-perceptible sighs, shrugging intonations, and pauses to accommodate rushes of emotion. This has not been an easy 12 months for them. There was no shortage of topics either, from Peter’s flirtation with a law enforcement career to his legal peril, from his life as the 6’8″ baby brother to five sisters to his creative partnerships with three metal guys from Brooklyn, from the sophistication of his mind to the humility in his heart. With these words, we salute Peter Steele, we express our support to those devastated by the loss of a friend, brother, foil, confidant, co-worker, and co-goofer, and we share a community-wide hug for enduring negative year one.
I. “We were so proud of him.”
A. PAT RATAJCZYK ROWAN elder sister
ADF: What was it like when this larger-than-life guy from Type O Negative is your little brother? You knew him since he was a little kid.
Pat Ratajczyk Rowan: He was always a character ever since he was a little kid. He had five older sisters. He was always tormenting us, teasing us, and scaring us. Peter was excellent at sound effects with his voice. He started that when he was very, very young. He was a very funny kid. Extremely talented. Very smart. Growing up, he was just wonderful. We were so proud of him, so proud of everything he did. He was just so shy about everything. He never boasted about himself. He was very shy and very humble. Very grateful. Just a wonderful gentleman with women. Plus, he was absolutely gorgeous. He was tall.
When he first became famous, one of his teachers from school was on the radio talking about him in class; he could play any instrument that he picked up, just naturally. He excelled in his work because he had degrees in composition and orchestration. He was extremely skilled. You listen to some of his music … If you listen to it hard enough, you hear all the different changes; it’s not simple music at all. It’s very complicated and very smart.
ADF: I agree with that.
Pat Ratajczyk Rowan: I’m 65 years old. I don’t know that much about the music industry, but from what I’ve heard of heavy metal or goth music, it’s very simplistic. His music was not simple at all. It was very complicated. I’m not a musician so I don’t know the terminology; I just know what I hear.
ADF: We don’t have to be modest about this. He was a brilliant musician.
Pat Ratajczyk Rowan: In the lyrics, he could express things that people couldn’t say. He did all the artwork for his staging, or he advised people to do what he wanted for the staging. He developed his own font for his album covers. Everything that we could think of … The logos for the different bands that he had, he would develop them. He did the backdrops. If it was his project, he wanted to see it through from top to bottom. If it was good, that was great; if it was bad, he took the blame for it. He took the blame for things before he took the credit.
ADF: One of the things that people mention when characterizing Peter is his dark sense of humor. Was he like that around his family?
Pat Ratajczyk Rowan: He was funny. He was always funny. Being as smart as he was, he always saw a different side to things that people didn’t see. It wasn’t always dark. But he was always funny. Smart funny. It wasn’t sarcastic or nasty or belittling, just a very sharp sense of humor. He had a very quick mind.
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B. JIMMY DUFF friend/proprietor of Duff’s Bar in Brooklyn
ADF: What was it like to hang out with Peter? Why do you think an anti-social kind of guy would frequent your bar?
Jimmy Duff: He loved to be around like-minded people. He enjoyed the music, naturally. Duff’s is primarily a hard rock and heavy metal bar. Being in that environment, he was among people of his own tribe, for lack of a better term. At the bar, people are used to having rock stars drop in or whatever or bands and everything else, so it’s par for the course over here. It’s like, “Oh, look. Peter’s here.” People would say hello to him; everyone was very polite and cordial with him and vice versa. People didn’t want to bother him. Peter was there just like everybody else to enjoy the atmosphere and the music. He’d come from way over on the other side of Brooklyn, as opposed to going anywhere over there or T.G.I. Friday’s or whatever. He felt very comfortable at the bar. We loved having him around. He was awesome.
ADF: I read your Q&A with Peter on the Duff’s website. It sounds like you guys had a nice acquaintance. How do you explain your good chemistry with Peter?
Jimmy Duff: Sense of humor, really. That’s what it comes down to. Peter had the best sense of humor in the world. He was always cracking jokes. I’m of a similar mindset so we would get together and just fuckin’ goof around. He was a goofball; I am too. Birds of a feather, that’s all. It was a lot of fun to crack him up sometimes. It wasn’t that easy to get him to break up, so that was a lot of fun. That was the main thing right there.
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C. KENNY HICKEY (above, left) friend/guitarist of Type O Negative, guitarist and singer of Seventh Void
ADF: Peter had expressed that the happiest time of his life was when he worked for the parks department in Queens.
Kenny Hickey: Let me tell you something. Peter was a real artist in the sense that he created art because he had to. He was a very complex, tortured dude. I mean, we’re all tortured. But when I first met Peter and he had his full set of brain cells, his mind was like a fucking computer. He created music because he needed to. Slow, Deep, And Hard was created because this fuckin’ bitch just tore his fuckin’ heart out. He wrote it in his basement to express it, to get it out. He never [planned] to go out on the road. He didn’t want to be a rock star. He couldn’t give a fuck about being a rock star. On stage, in his own words, [affects low Peter voice] ‘I fuckin’ feel like a big goof.’ He never wanted it. Peter would’ve been completely, perfectly happy writing some songs in his basement, releasing records once or twice a year, working for the parks department, and driving his Grand Prix. And he was taking the test for the Westchester Police Department. He was working through the parks department.
ADF: That would’ve been crazy. Officer Peter Steele.
Kenny Hickey: I don’t remember why he didn’t get it. Maybe he didn’t pass the psych test. [laughs] Maybe it was just that Type O had started taking off. All I remember is that during the whole first tour, he was getting sick days from the parks department for like six months. He had to call in sick everyday. [laughs] He was getting paid to be out there [while] we’re all broke.
Peter liked order and routine. He would’ve been perfectly happy with that lifestyle. Routine, order, symmetry — these are the things that made him feel good. Punching the clock, knowing where he was going everyday. When he’d get stressed out on the road, he’d pick up a broom and start sweeping up the stage. In an arena. [laughs]
The first year into it — being in a band and being on the road — became his structure. It was organized chaos. It still had some kind of organized pattern to it, so he adjusted to that.
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II. “We each had things that the other didn’t have.”
A. JOSH SILVER (above, right) childhood friend/former keyboardist and producer of Type O Negative/New York City paramedic
ADF: I’ve always wanted to hear from you about the Peter Steele-Josh Silver creative partnership. What exactly does it mean that Peter Steele is the writer and Josh Silver is the producer?
Josh Silver: It was a great relationship, but a very hard relationship. Peter would always come in with a lot of ideas. It was like a dysfunctional family: We’d argue and fight, but we’d always end up with something we were both very happy with. We each had things that the other didn’t have. So, together, we made almost a sane human being.
He did some production, I did tiny bits of writing, and the other guys contributed as well. It wasn’t just me and him.
We grew up together. We grew up liking the same music. We grew up in very similar circumstances. I’ve known Peter since I was 11 years old and that was probably way before you were ever born.
ADF: Yeah, probably.
Josh Silver: [laughs] Probably!
ADF: I was born in 1977.
Josh Silver: Like I said, it was way before you were born. We were already in bands together in, I would say, 1973. We grew up together. [pauses] There was a lot of communicating without words. We knew what to expect from each other. We’d feel very similar things. There was a lot of unspoken communication. It’s very hard to put this stuff into words, know what I mean?
ADF: Is there a Type O Negative song that you consider to be an illustration of the Steele-Silver partnership?
Josh Silver: There was always a big variety. There were things that I did and didn’t love on every record. I always treat those things equally regardless of my feeling that a song was stronger [than another]. I can’t say there’s anything that I particularly love; there were a lot of things I liked. I can’t say that there’s a favorite. Things on every album always made me go, ‘Wow, this is great. Really happy with this.’ [About] other things, I said ‘Wow, this really should be a lot better. We’ll try to get it as good as we can.’
But the truth is that I always felt that our worst songs were better than a lot of other people’s better songs. Regardless of how egotistical that may sound, Peter was a really good writer. He had his moments of greatness and his moments of mediocrity. But the mediocrity was usually more musical than a lot of things. Even in his worst moments, there was always something to enjoy, y’know?
ADF: Fans know that, yeah. I’ve come to regard “September Sun” (from 2005’s Dead Again) as an exemplary Silver-Steele collaboration. Peter’s performance in each of its three acts are awesome, and the keyboard themes are mind-blowing.
Josh Silver: To be honest with you, “September Sun” wasn’t one of my favorite songs. I know why you would say that, as it seems to be more of a keyboard-oriented song. But songs like “These Three Things” … that was one of my favorite songs from that record.
ADF: Really. Why?
Josh Silver: I don’t know. It had guts. It had balls. I was never into the ballads. Songs like “Everything Dies,” “September Sun” … I’m not a ballad guy. I think I’m just a frustrated guitar player.
Josh Silver: Peter liked the ballads. They were never my thing. Again, regardless of my personal opinions about a song — it could be better, it should be better — I always can make the same effort for every single thing that we did together.
ADF: Huh. Could it be possible that your effort was greater on the songs you liked less? I mean, those songs you just listed feature some of your great performances.
Josh Silver: Uh, give me an example.
ADF: I think “Love You To Death” fits in this category.
Josh Silver: You’re talking about the piano stuff?
ADF: Yes. To me, at those moments, you two have equal presence in the song.
Josh Silver: Nah, I don’t see it that way. Type O uses instrumentation unlike most bands. We use keyboards for guitar parts; we use bass for guitar parts; guitars do keyboard parts. There were no rules. I understand why you would sit back and say, ‘Well, this is a keyboard song so it’s probably a good example of the Josh and Peter thing.’ But really, the standard rules don’t apply. I’ve done plenty of guitar-oriented stuff on keyboards; Peter’s done guitar stuff; Kenny’s done keyboard stuff. There really were no rules in this band. Things that people would swear are guitars actually are keyboards [and vice versa].
It was a very free environment. Anything goes. There was no right or wrong, simply things that worked or didn’t work. It was a weird combination of stuff and we never really questioned it. I think that’s part of what made it a natural thing.
We were all raised with the Beatles; they did some really weird shit. Their instrumentation was incredible. They used things in all kinds of interesting ways that nobody had thought of. Peter was certainly into that. We all just let it go and just did whatever sounded good. Half the time we wouldn’t even remember what was on a song. Even when we were going back and listening to it, there’s so much on it. Who even knows what was on it?
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B. PAT RATAJCZYK ROWAN elder sister
ADF: It’s come up again and again that Peter was a one-of-a-kind person. His identity and his talents put together made him unforgettable. And if you hear his music, you know it’s him right away.
Pat Ratajczyk Rowan: On any of the websites, even Legacy.com or any of those places, everybody writes, “I met Pete in a store one day,” or “I was at a concert and he came up to me” or “He went over and lifted up my daughter.” Whatever it was, somebody has something nice to say about him all the time, how much they thought he was a wonderful guy: “Peter introduced me to this girl” or “Peter gave me my first job” or “Peter gave me advice about this” or “Peter taught me to play guitar” or “Peter showed me what guitar to buy and what manager to talk to.” Everybody out there has something [good] to say.
He was very much involved with the audience — sometimes to his detriment, too. He would give people his phone number, and they would be calling him from all over the world at all hours of the day and night. When he wasn’t home, my mother would be taking calls from Norway, Iceland, Japan, from all over. People who he met that he gave his phone number to would give him a call. He was very personable.
ADF: His phone number! That’s amazing.
Pat Ratajczyk Rowan: I think that people found … The thrill of it was that people don’t get to be in contact with stars, or anybody that’s famous. They look at them from afar, they can catch a photo of them or get an autograph. But Peter would walk into the crowd and start talking to people, being personable with them. He made everybody feel important. Everybody was important and he made them feel that way. He wouldn’t sit down and talk about himself. He’d ask, “How are you doing? What kind of jobs are you doing?” and “Oh wow, I used to do that kind of work” or “I know somebody who does that; that’s a hard job to do.” That’s the kind of person that he was.
ADF: Do you that made him susceptible to people taking too much from him?
Pat Ratajczyk Rowan: Everybody took advantage of Peter. People took advantage of him all the time. He was extremely generous. He shared everything that he had, even when he didn’t have to.
You’d go into his apartment and he would have just a little futon that he slept on, a stereo set, and stuff like that. He didn’t have his six gold albums or two platinum records displayed, or any reference to the movies that he wrote the music for. Nothing. He was very, very, very humble.
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PHOTO CREDIT: © 2007 Michael J. Carrasquillo -PHOTO LICENSE: Attribution, Noncommercial, No Derivative Works
III. “He was sober until the end.”
A. JIMMY DUFF friend/proprietor of Duff’s Bar in Brooklyn
Jimmy Duff: The last time I saw him was at the Type O show at the Nokia Theater [in October 2009]. But I’d seen him about a week earlier at the Starland Ballroom; that was the first show of the tour. He liked me to come out on stage, make a fool of myself, and introduce the band. He got a big kick out of that. It was his first sober show, so he was a little on edge. The show was really good.
[By the] last time I saw him at the Nokia show, he was a lot more acclimated to playing sober. It was a fucking great show, a great time, just a typical bang-up Type O show. Afterwards, he was in great spirits, laughing, and joking around. And that was it, man. I said goodbye to him when I left and he thanked me profusely for introing the band; I just did it to crack him up. But that was it. That’s the last time I saw him.
ADF: There must’ve been months after that when he didn’t visit Duff’s because he wasn’t drinking anymore.
Jimmy Duff: He’d been sober for a while [at the time of his death]. He had an ankle bracelet. He treated it like a second chance. He was sober until the end. Apparently, there were no underlying health issues that were bothering him. But he was pretty sick at the end. I’m not a doctor and I don’t have all the facts, but maybe if he’d gotten to a hospital sooner, he’d still be with us. I don’t know. The other things is with big guys like that — he was 6’7” or 6’8” — they don’t tend to live a long time. You don’t see a lot of large old men walking around. There were a lot of things that contributed. He definitely wasn’t drinking up to the time of his death.
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B. JOHNNY KELLY (above, right) friend/drummer of Type O Negative, Seventh Void, and Danzig
Johnny Kelly: Peter was out in Pennsylvania so I didn’t see him a lot, but I used to speak to him on the phone all the time. But the last time I had seen Peter was at a funeral. His sister had passed away right around Christmas of 2009. I mean, Peter’s family … they’re not kids. Peter was the youngest of six children.
ADF: Are you still in touch with his family? Of course, you see Kenny for Seventh Void, but what about Josh?
Johnny Kelly: Kenny and I live parallel existences. We have since we were teenagers. The last time I spoke to one of Peter’s sisters [was when] his sister came to a Seventh Void show when we were opening up for Monster Magnet at the Starland Ballroom in February. That was the last time. Literally, the next morning I was on a plane to England to [join] the Black Label Society tour. When I was away, I didn’t really speak to anybody.
ADF: How often do you speak to Josh Silver?
Johnny Kelly: I sent him an email this morning. [laughs] I don’t speak to him nearly as often as I speak to Kenny, but I speak to him once in a while. A couple emails here and there.
With Peter, everyday was, like, an adventure. [laughs] The minute we would wake up, you weren’t really sure what person would come out from the back of the bus. [laughs] I was just happy for him and for the point he was at in his life before he passed away. I had my friend back. It was nice to be able to sit with Peter and have a regular conversation. Whatever subject it was that needed our attention, [we’d ask each other] ‘What do you think?’ It was nice to be able to do that with him. Just to be able to talk to him. A lot of times, he called me up and he’d be all fucked up or whatever, and I’d be like, ‘Dude, I gotta go.’ It wasn’t like that the last eight, nine months; that was cool. The final tour that we did, even though Josh wasn’t there, even though Josh couldn’t do it, it was great to see Peter on stage performing and delivering like he did when we first started out.
ADF: Everybody says that he was back to form on that last tour.
Johnny Kelly: Yeah! When we did the Jager tour [in 2008] and went to Europe before that [in 2007], Peter wasn’t in the best shape. There was a lot of baggage that came with that. But it was nice. I was really proud of him. At the time, you’d give him encouragement to keep it up. I’d tell him, ‘The result is there. People are talking about you, like “He’s back.” They’re all happy and excited about the band again.’ He was working hard and people respected that.
At the end of the show, we’d step off stage for the encore. [In the past,] sometimes Peter would take a long time to come back on stage, stuff like that. On the last trip, we’d step offstage before the encore, and I’d think that I had a few minutes to go to the bathroom backstage. But I’d hear Peter onstage playing around with his bass and talking to the audience. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. What’s he doing out there already?’ He was eager. He was enjoying performing and being out there. It was great in that way. He’d step off stage and he’d feel like he could play another two hours. That was really cool to be with him for that. Especially after everything that he had been through.
ADF: That cheers me up.
Johnny Kelly: I’m grateful that I didn’t miss it. I’m grateful that we were able to experience that. His last performances … that’s what’s going to be remembered — that he was there, he had changed his life around, he went out there and delivered. He kicked ass. Instead of tours before that when he wasn’t in the best shape. That’s what he left the world with. That I’m happy for.
ADF: If I put myself in your place, I imagine it’d be difficult to confront Peter about poor performances. Were you guys able to talk to him about it?
Johnny Kelly: [laughs] Absolutely.
ADF: I’m a chicken.
Johnny Kelly: We’ve all had our … Everybody’s different. We all had our own relationships with each other, but it still was something that I had to tell Peter. I’d tell him!
ADF: You guys are brusque New Yorkers.
Johnny Kelly: Yeah. Whatever happened, there was that certain camaraderie where we came from. It was hyper-critical and sarcastic, but we’d still be able to get points across.
Read part two here.
The MetalSucks tribute to Peter Steele concludes Wednesday as Peter’s friends, bandmates, and family talk to us about his last days in Pennsylvania, their lives since his death, Type O Negative’s post-SPV record deal, the album that almost was, and tons more.