There Will Never Be Another Pete Steele: A Conversation with the Author of Steele's New Biography, 'Soul on Fire'
The Green Man's legacy lives on in Jeff Wagner's new biography.
My life would not be the same today had I not crossed paths with Peter Steele on a chilly night in Dibuque, Iowa in 1987. I was seven years old when Bloody Kisses was released. I didn't not discover the Green Man on the radio or see TV clips of Type O Negative (even if their name was already present in all the merch catalogs) but through his second group, Carnivore, an untenable thrash band that caused panic in New York and elsewhere between 1982 and 1990. I read the name when a classic NYHC musician cited them as one of his influences in a fanzine interview. I also enjoyed Type O Negative later without ever seeing them...something that will probably never be possible now.
After a false announcement of his death in 2005 by the group itself (these guys have always been big jokers), Peter Thomas Ratajczyk died for real after suffering an aortic aneurysm in April 2010. It was a loss of great magnitude for fans of black humor and deadly music—the death of a genius, the real deal. We will not list the many achievements Steele notched in his thirty-year career, his eight perfect albums, or his unthinkable collection of panties; rather, this new biography of the giant himself seeks to eulogize and humanize the coolest vampire of the world, the scene's biggest troublemaker, the ladies' man, the legend. It's a tall order, but author and metal encyclopedia Jeff Wagner proved himself more than up to the task.
Noisey spoke to Jeff about Soul on Fire, his mammoth Steele retrospective (now available for preorder via FYI Press).
Noisey: When and how did you discover the music of Peter Steele?
Jeff Wagner: I was 14 or 15 years old when I first started seeing their name in fanzines in the mid ‘80s, and when I saw the first Carnivore album in a record store, probably early 1986, I read the text on the back cover and knew that I was taking the album home. I immediately loved the band after my first listen and have been a follower of Peter’s music ever since.
Carnivore was a prominent band in the crossover style, plus the collaboration between Agnostic Front and Peter Steele on the Cause For Alarm album.
Carnivore were an important facet of the hardcore/metal crossover, but it’s really Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front who deserve more credit. (And if we’re talking outside of New York, DRI and COC as well). Personally I prefer Carnivore, but historically I have to name these other two New York bands first. Peter’s contributions to that Agnostic Front album are important, for sure, but the band was around before that and went on to survive long after. So, I think Peter and Carnivore were important to crossover, but not totally vital to it. As with everything Peter did, it didn’t fit nicely into one single category. I think even the crossover Carnivore album, Retaliation, was quite a different beast than your “typical” crossover album.
I’d also like to talk about their outfits.
The Carnivore costumes were often compared to Manowar, because of the fur and weapons, and there’s probably some truth to that inspiration, as Manowar were a New York state band that played in the city a lot during Carnivore’s first years. And the members simply were fans of the band. But it was more the inspiration of the Mad Max movie series that Peter liked so much, that dirty, survivalist, post-armageddon look that fit Peter’s initial concept for Carnivore.
The accusation of misogyny and racism had always hanging over Carnivore. It seems people never got the Steele’s extremely black humor, but it seems sometimes he was not kidding too! How did you tackle this part of the myth ?
This is complicated, as was Peter Steele himself. It cannot be easily explained or answered, and I guess that’s why the book is 300 pages long. There are so many facets to this guy’s music and personality.
Peter was not misogynistic or racist. However, he did hate a large portion of mankind, and often seemed to hate himself. But I believe he directed his hatred toward people he felt deserved it. But then he was also into creating a fantasy world to escape into and write music for, as on Type O Negative’s first album, Slow, Deep and Hard, where a lot of these accusations stemmed from. And don’t forget that he didn’t like certain socialistic policies of the US government, such as the welfare system, and he particularly disliked the many people who used it as a crutch, as an excuse to do nothing with their lives. And he certainly has a right to that opinion. Lots of non-white people were taking advantage of that system too, and Peter knew that. He never turned it into a “black” issue or anything like that. He despised lazy, unintelligent, good-for-nothing white people just as much as anyone else. And then, if you add in Peter’s excellent, caustic, sharp sense of humor, and if you also consider that he loved to play devil’s advocate and stir up the pot and watch it boil over, then you get songs like “Der Untermensch,” “Race War,” “Prelude to Agony” and “Male Supremacy.” But racist and misogynist in real life? Definitely not.
Could a band like Carnivore still exist today?
I don’t know. I don’t really like hypothetical questions. I think metal and extreme music has branched out in enough directions that you certainly could have a band with similar traits existing, and in fact there are bands of equally provocative natures out there now. However, there will never, ever be another band like Carnivore
Peter was involved in music from a very long time before the success of Type O. I guess you come back on his first heavy metal band, Fallout. Did he want to make music his destiny from the start?
Fallout is covered extensively in this book. That band was a hugely important step in Peter’s evolution as an artist. Before that he played in a couple cover bands with Josh Silver. Music was definitely bound to be Peter’s destiny. He showed leadership and creative qualities from a young age. He never wanted to be a rock star though, at least, not one where the spotlight was constantly on him. He would have wanted to retain his anonymity, but as we know it didn’t quite happen that way. And sure, he endured a lot of ups and downs in his career. This is all detailed throughout the book.
Was it a difficult book to write compared to your previous one? How did you proceed? I read you asked fans to participate too?
Writing any book is difficult. It’s tough work. If it’s not, you’re probably not writing a very good book. And yes, this one was more difficult than Mean Deviation. Mean Deviation was difficult in terms of the vast array of bands and movements I covered; arranging it and pulling it all together to achieve some kind of flow – that was tough. The Peter Steele book was technically easier, and it came relatively quickly once I had most of the interviews done (over 50 people) and had all my research in order. But it was emotionally much, much harder. It was a delicate balancing act between finding out the truth, and listening to numerous people close to him who had either differing opinions, or were so possessive of his memory that they felt they could speak for him, what Peter would want, what he wouldn’t want…he had an extremely powerful affect on people, and many who knew him closely brought their own level of possessiveness into the picture, and I don’t mean that in the pejorative. That’s just the way it is, and that’s just the power he had.
I had an initial thought of involving fans more than I did…that was an idea early on in the process. Once the interviews began with all the people that were actually close to Peter, a different story began to emerge, and I decided to go in somewhat of a different direction. However, I love hearing from fans of Peter’s, whether it’s a story, a question, an insight into the music, or whatever. I’m a fan too, and this is the kind of book his fans will be able to sink their teeth into. I wrote the book I wanted to write as an admirer of Peter Steele, and I hope other fans of his will look at it the same way as I do. The one thing I did do that totally involved the fans was print, on one of the color pages, a bunch of different tattoos people submitted to the publisher for consideration. The eBook version has additional tattoos printed as well. I like this because it shows the depth of dedication his fans have.
I assume it was a very long process to achieve, and the editor told me you had some last minute problems with the publishing?
It was an exhausting process. I had a lot of sleepless nights, actually. I wanted to get it all right, so badly, but it’s difficult when you’ve got three different people giving you three distinctly different viewpoints on the exact same issue or question. There were some delays that pushed the final print version back by 6 weeks, but that was par for the course with this book. Just a lot of trials and tribulations, most of which I won’t talk about, because it’s mostly a lot of boring behind-the-scenes stuff. What’s most important is that it’s finally out and I stand by it 100%.
How is it that nobody ever wrote a book about Peter Steele?
That’s exactly what I thought in early 2012! When I realized there hadn’t yet been a book about him, I felt I had to step up and write one. And I believe I have written an honorable one. I know some people felt it was “too soon,” or that “Peter wouldn’t want a book written about him,” but my reply to that is that someone was going to do it eventually, and I wanted to do right by him as much as possible. And as for whether or not Peter would want a book written about him: who is anybody to speak for Peter Steele??? I definitely am not attempting to speak for him in this book. He speaks for himself through his quotes, and through his music.
Are Mr. Ratajczyk's Catholic background and his Polish origins important things to consider when trying to understand his personality and his art?
Yes, I believe he identified with both of those aspects strongly. Catholicism was something he had a complicated relationship with. He identified as an atheist for a long time, for most of his career in Carnivore and Type O Negative, but as many people know he reverted back to his faith and embraced Catholicism in his final years. All of this is discussed in more detail throughout the book.
I didn’t know he worked in park maintenance in Brooklyn till 1994, and that it was a really fullfilling job for him. Is that why he was called the “Green Man”?
It’s because he wore a green-colored uniform as a park worker that he gained the nickname “Green Man.” He also identified with that name because he was a nature lover. He loved that job and he harbored a wish to eventually go back to the Parks Department once his music career was over.
Do you have memories of how Slow, Deep and Hard was received by the press in 1991? It was the grunge era, and I guess nobody was ready for that!
I remember that most reviewers didn’t know what the hell to make of it. I don’t think it had so much to do with so-called “grunge” but just that it was so harsh and confrontational, yet also so humorous. It was hard for people to understand. It had highly experimental moments and totally accessible moments and everything else in between over the course of really long songs. It didn’t look like anything else, didn’t sound like anything else, the song titles were very strange … it was a highly confusing listen for a lot of people. As a Carnivore fan who was really excited to hear Pete’s new project, I loved it. It sounded to me like a more experimental version of Carnivore, which is basically what it is.
Bloody Kisses is a sulfurous album, contrasted with some darker and passionate lyrics about heartbreak. Was Steele a sensitive lover?
Well…….from talking to a number of his ex-girlfriends for the book, ones that he spent a significant amount of time with, I know probably more than I should about what kind of lover he was. Please do NOT quote this out of context! Haha. But yeah, I believe that he was an extremely attentive, sensitive lover. Much different than the supposed misogynist, pro-rape character he was portrayed as in years prior. Peter definitely gave and gave some more to his women. Beyond that, my lips are sealed.
When do you think Type-O-Negative turned into a "commercial band"?
No question about it: the Bloody Kisses album, and absolutely the combined impact of “Black No. 1” and “Christian Woman.” With the hard touring work of the band and committed promotional work of Roadrunner Records, and the cult status and controversy leading up to the album, it was bound to break. And they were simply amazing songs. They could not sit there and be “cult” forever. Peter wrote songs that were too good and too appealing to a much larger population than anything he had written before.
It seems Steele wanted to shut the detractors’ mouths and clean his past with songs like “We Hate Everyone” and “Kill All the White People”, didn’t he ?
Yes, those were deliberate attempts to have a “last word” on the controversy that had followed him up until then, and to wipe the slate clean so he could move forward with Type O’s evolution. And that’s exactly what he did. He never addressed the pre-Bloody Kisses controversies in song again after those two.
Ironically, their following album, October Rust, based on the concept on Vinland, reached gold status!
It was even more appealing and digestible than Bloody Kisses. The delivery was smoother, the songs were all unified in atmosphere, texture and direction. It was a masterpiece of production, and yet again, Peter wrote some really extraordinary songs. It’s not personally my favorite album by Type O, but songs such as “Love You to Death,” “Die With Me,” “Haunted” and especially “Wolf Moon (including Zoanthropic Paranoia)” and “Red Water (Christmas Mourning)” are amongst the best things the band ever did.
Photo via Reuters
Could we speak a bit on the Playgirl photo session he did, and the impact it had?
It was great timing. Had he done that in the Slow, Deep and Hard era, it would have fallen flat on its face. But when the Playgirl spread was published, it could not have appeared at a better time. It was a time when the band’s popularity was rising, and the Playgirl appearance sent their popularity soaring, at least with women! He had the look and physique to pull it off. It turned him into a household name. I think it can be considered a very tongue-in-cheek move. For a guy who never took himself that seriously, I got the feeling he thought it all was a big joke.
Who’s responsible of the Type-O-Negative artwork by the way? It’s always great.
As with the music, every idea for the artwork originated with Peter. There were instances where other band members had input, but generally the concepts stemmed from Peter’s mind, and he had various graphic artists at Roadrunner help him see his ideas through. I dedicated a good amount of space on this in the book, because I think Peter’s aesthetic/visual sensibility was as keen, as unique, and as impressive as his music.
The last three Type-O Negative albums were particularly hopeless. He was a cocaine addict, and also did time at Rikers Island. He seemed a bit lost in life. Were these records announcing the imminence of Steele's demise?
I had some people tell me “Peter was a private person.” And in some cases, that is absolutely true. However, all you need to do is read his lyrics to figure out where he was at in life, as long as you were able to navigate the self-deprecating humor and the extrapolation that many artists use in their composition. So he might not have been so private – just look at the lyric sheets! So yes, these records were definitely a mirror into what was going on his life and in his head. The book goes into deeper detail about some of these things and events that inspired his songs.
Who started the rumors of his death back in 2005?
The band itself! They posted a picture of a gravestone on their official website that summer, showing Peter’s name and a birth date and a death date. It was one of many practical jokes they played on their fans and the general public. When Peter did finally pass away, many fans didn’t believe it right away, thinking it was yet another hoax like the one in 2005.
Where were you and how did you react when you heard he was really dead ?
I was at home just starting my day, it was the morning after his death. The news was just starting to circulate, and as I said above, I assumed it was another hoax. Once I realized it was not, it hit me very hard, as I know it did everyone else who every admired the guy. I had been a fan of his throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s. I loved the Dead Again album and was glad he had found sobriety and direction again. I figured he was finding a new lease on life and that his creativity would continue to flourish. It was a horrible, horrible loss. His personality was so big, and his generosity and passion so enormous, I can only imagine how gutted his band mates, family and best friends were.
If you had to choose a Peter Steele equivalent nowadays, who would it be ?
No one. That’s one of reasons Peter and his music remains important, and why he remains revered by so many people. He was the one and only Peter Steele. There wasn’t one like him before, and will never be one again. And there will never be another band like Type O Negative, or Carnivore. These bands were extensions of Peter’s personality. They are singular and incredibly special.
This article originally appeared on Noisey France.