Why I Still Love Peter Steele, Goth Metal’s Late Vampire King, To Death
In spite of the overt, sometimes insidious sexism of the Type O Negative frontman's music, women like me found ourselves drawn to him.
Paul Bergen/Red Ferns
I was 15, knocking off school and watching Kerrang! TV from the squeaky white leather sofas in my then-boyfriend’s living room when I first saw him: Petrus Thomas Rataczyk, better known by his stage name, Peter Steele, bassist-vocalist and artistic force behind Brooklyn goth-metal four-piece Type O Negative. 6’8”, teeth field to little white points, long, loose hair and eminently in possession of what Wikipedia coyly describes as "vampiric affect," he was like a computer-generated paradigm of sexual dimorphism, waxen, wolf-eyed, Dürer’s iconic self-portrait and Satan in black jeans and crew neck. My first fateful glimpse came via the video for “Black No. 1 (Little Miss Scare-All)”, where Steele’s magnificent face looms in and out of darkness, contorts in animal desire, is pressed hungrily against the pale throat of an anonymous woman. And that crushed-velvet baritone. "She’s got a date at midnight with Nosferatu / oh baby, Lily Munster ain't got nothing on you."
An anthemic doom-pop ode to eerie women, the song was written about one of his ex-girlfriends (“‘She was so into herself” [Steele] explained to Alex Zander of Rock Out Censorship, “she once had me hold a mirror in front of my face so she could see herself climax.’”) With its macabre organ and lyrical fixation on the female subject’s pretension ( You want to go out ‘cus it’s red and glowing / You can’t go out ‘cus those roots are showing / Dye ‘em black), the song could be a read—a put-down of every dime store Elvira in a velvet choker who queues up to fuck men like him. But aged fifteen, uneasy in my Anne Rice-reading self, it was a ‘90s “Sheena Is A Punkrocker.”
And my next obsession was "Love You to Death," a crunching fantasy of mutually consumptive love: “Black lipstick stains / a glass of red wine / I am your servant / may I light your cigarette?” Here, even Steele’s soft intimations of subordination are edged with threat: “ the beast inside of me’s gonna get you, get you.” Both songs were lead singles, from Bloody Kisses (1993) and October Rust (1996) respectively, the albums that brought Type O and Steele into the searing light of the mainstream. The preceding records, 1991’s Slow, Deep and Hard and 1992’s The Origin of the Feces (the original release of which featured a zoomed-in photograph of Steel’s anus on the cover), lacked even such problematic romantic posturing. Slow, Deep and Hard, Steele claimed to have written in a single night after a break-up—an extended, vicious, murder revenge fantasy. From the opener, "Unsuccessfully Coping With the Natural Beauty of Infidelity": "You had cock on your mind and cum on your breath / Inserted that diaphragm before you left / practicing freelance gynecology / where there’s a womb there’s a way / with you it’s for free."
And the memorable pre-chorus chant of “slut / you fucking whore / whore / you’re a cunt / cunt.”’ By "Zero Tolerance," the narrator’s intent is more clear: “Staring down at your sweaty embraces / Put my tool right through your faces / well buddy I hope you enjoyed her / ‘Cause I’m an equal opportunity destroyer.” There’s also a bit of church organ. The album closes with a knowing tribute to the illustrious musical heritage of the masculinist revenge fantasy and also explicitly personalizes the album, with “Hey Pete,” a cover of “Hey Joe.” Here the gun is an axe, the “old lady” a “whore.” It is worth noting that Steele himself later disowned the work: “… it was only supposed to be a demo. I was drunk and pissed and wrote the whole thing in four hours […] If I had to do it over, Bloody Kisses would be the first album.”
Nonetheless, the record is monumental in its rage against feminine betrayal, its lyrical content startling even if it did originate in a place of hopeless rage. It’s also playful, a psychotic archetype inhabited so fully it becomes burlesque. And I find it funnier than I perhaps should, listening to it as a woman living in a society in which misogynistic violence remains entrenched, epidemic, and too often lethal. Three years before his death Steele served a 30-day jail term for the very real assault of a love rival. This, perhaps, hints at the nature of Steele’s dark allure—his literal embodiment, and apocryphal enactment (he signed Type O’s contract with Roadrunner Records, it is claimed, with a mixture of his own blood and semen), of the seamier tropes of gothic fantasy. He’s a Fellini fuckboy. He’s dangerous.
In his 1993 study of gender and metal, Running with the Devil, Robert Walser examines the misogyny of metal in the late 80’s, when the genre’s female fanbase grew exponentially and the aesthetic culture of metal music shifted in a new and flamboyant direction: “Visual images, narrative, and the music itself combine… to represent women as threats to male control and even male survival. The mysteriousness of women confirms them as dangerous Other, and their allure is the index of their threat. Female fans… are invited to identify with the powerful position that is thus constructed for them.” I find Walser’s critique in some ways reductive in its failure to account for the liberating sonic qualities of metal appreciable even in its most obviously sexist iterations, and the co-ed camaraderie myself and many other female fans have found within the scene. But his assessment of the interrelation between metal music’s prototypical femme fatale and that music’s female audience is more illuminating when applied to the sensuous, atmospheric goth metal of the ’90’s and ’00’s—a scene with Type O at its vanguard—than the glam and hair metal bands who were the basis for his study.
With Bloody Kisses and October Rust, Steele abandons the overt and violent misogyny of Type O’s first releases in favor of more insidious forms of sexism. Hits like “Christian Woman” (‘ A dying God-man full of pain / When will you cum again? / Before him beg to serve or please / On your back or knees’), and “My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend” ("They keep me warm on cold nights / We must be quite a sight / In our meat triangle / All tangled’) still relied on crass stereotypes of feminine sexual inversion. But for me, it was—is—Steele’s vampiric, bestial persona that make these songs palatable, celebratory, even liberating, his sad green eyes the crucible in which the junk metal of goth girlhood was transformed in to something altogether more emancipatory. The objectification of women in evidence on songs like “Christian Woman” cut both ways.
In 1995, with the encouragement of Type O’s record company, Steele posed as a nude centerfold for Playgirl magazine. “When… [Steele] speaks, his voice… is an intimate revelation, a sexy serpent coiling around your libido, filled with the promise of ecstasies such as we imagine in our dreams,” runs the breathless intro to the spread. “His gaze is potent, serious, yet underneath lurks a playfulness that bubbles to the surface without warning.” Curiously angular and characteristically remote, Steele broods his way through a set of images with aspirations both sublime (resting on his side cradling a bouquet of freesia, balancing a salver of red candles improbably on his crotch) and quotidian (genially supporting a gyrating girl in a transparent lace blouse, nibbling on a spiral phone chord), cradling his erection. Gothic pornographic, but without the ironic underpinnings of Marilyn Manson’s later experimentation with the same aesthetic.
A series of palpably awkward media appearances followed—Steele folding his towering body into a spindly chair on the set of the Rikki Lake Show, flicking dark hair out of his face to stare down Jerry Springer. The ‘bubbling playfulness’ evoked by Playgirl is there—but coupled with a real unease as the cute goth groupie peels her vest top off her shoulder to flash the camera her Type O tattoo, as the Kim Basinger lookalike in the audience expresses her desire to have her naked body wrapped up in his hair. He looks like he doesn’t belong there, an ashy smear on celluloid. Steele later expressed his annoyance at finding out the vast majority of Playgirl’s subscribers were men. The supposition they would be otherwise strikes me as touchingly naive, coming from a presumably worldly, touring rock star. Or perhaps idealistic: frustration that the vision of alternative sexuality and romantic escapism presented by the music of Type O, and embodied by Steele, became foregrounded by camp, played for aberrance and freakishness, at the point it met the mainstream—Steele and his fans lined up like specimens beneath the drab lights of a TV studio for coast-to-coast consumption.
By the time I watched Symphony for the Devil, Type O’s 1999, Jackass-inflected tour film my love for Pete is marrow-deep, totemic and untouchable. Everything dies? Try me. Aside from the footage of the band performing (at the 12th Bizarre Festival, in Cologne), where he’s miniaturizing a bottle of red wine by proximity each time he reaches out to take a gulp between songs, there isn’t much to like. Sharpie swastikas are drawn on sleeping bandmates, women are fat-shamed via loud-hailer, sex acts are filmed with implied lack of consent. And I remember that our heroes can disappoint us and that desire is terribly ungovernable.
Steele died in 2010 of an aortic aneurysm. He was 48. At the very end of “Love You To Death,” as the song falls apart like a shambling thing, he repeats in refrain “Am I good enough for you?” softening his baritone, drawing out the o’s. I find it unbearably touching. It was the first time I’d ever really considered a man could think he was unworthy of, or truly subordinate to, female desire. I think of the times Pete has been a shibboleth for me, among women; a dark passcode into shared experience that the best music sometimes becomes. The model backstage with her willowy legs folded into a Bloody Kisses t-shirt, the tattoo artist who gets up to play “Love You To Death” when as his name is mentioned. The smile that passes between us, the understanding, the yes.