Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Peter Steele, the frontman, bassist and songwriter of Type O Negative, and a day of mourning for goths and metalheads — which I guess I’m about to come out as — everywhere.
Peter Steele and I go way back. I used to casually listen to Type O Negative through most of my teens and early 20’s, but never really thought too much about them before the day he died, taking the band with him. My cluelessness still surprises me as someone who tends to obsessively count her blessings from the life-sustaining to the laughably trivial (owning two tea infusers instead of one? #blessed). In retrospect, having Peter Steele around certainly was a blessing.
My introduction to Type O Negative came at the tender age of 15. My goth cousin, who was more than a little obsessed with the band and its vampiric frontman, proposed October Rust to me as a good “starter’s kit” and said it made “great cleaning music”. I thought, my soul is as dark as my cousin’s and I do clean my room every Saturday, so I might as well give it a try. I can’t remember what my first impressions were, but the album did stay on heavy rotation ever since. In fact, it became one of the first five albums I ever owned.
In hindsight, it was less about being a super fan and more about being immersed with the whole alternative teen aesthetic of the 1990’s and 2000’s, which was saturated with gothic, metal and occult influences. I watched Buffy, wore knock-off Dr. Martens and dabbled in witchcraft, so of course I would also listen to Type O Negative. Little did I know that I’d still be at it 20 years later, or that poor Peter Steele would have to die for me to start appreciating him at any conscious level.
I’ve later come to realize just how popular Type O Negative were during my teenage years. I don’t mean just in terms of numbers but also demographics: their fans were female, male, queer and straight. True, the gothic scene has always been rather diverse in terms of gender and sexuality thanks to its gender-bending aesthetics and valorization of personal and sexual liberty, but never before had goth been quite so mainstream. Type O Negative, along with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, were among the first bands to bring it to MTV, and Peter Steele became its posterboy.
At a glance, Type O Negative may have looked like any old metal band — they had the hair, the frowny faces and the dimly lit music videos down — but their unique combination of gothic sensuality, dark humor and raw emotion made them stand out from the crowd. Peter Steele was quite the enigma in an of himself: a tender-hearted giant with a resting barbarian face and the lowest baritone known to man, he managed to transcend the old (and by now outdated) internet divide between a male power fantasy and female erotic fantasy by being both. The music he wrote for Type O Negative paints him as the kind of person he was usually described by those who knew him: highly intelligent, shy and haunted by enemies within.
Just to be clear, this post isn’t an exercise in historical revisionism regarding Peter Steele’s ideological purity. He wasn’t perfect. I’m aware of the dumb things he said from time to time. At the same time, though, he blessed us with absolutely timeless, complex, technically accomplished and emotionally resonant music that managed to avoid many, though not all, of the misogynist, homophobic and racist pitfalls of his time and the less progressive segments of the metal scene (which has a different history from goth). It seems to me that despite his occasional blunders, there was always something about his presence that pinged our interest. So let’s talk about that something.
Peter Steele had a reputation as one of metal’s biggest sex symbols in the 1990’s. This no doubt had a lot to do with his appearance in the cover of a ’95 Playgirl magazine, but it wasn’t just that. He was obviously a looker — an unconventional one, sure, but a looker nonetheless — and admitted to working out to look sexy on stage. He didn’t shy away from the female gaze in his music either, singing of seduction and the devastating power of women over him. Lyrics such as “Am I good enough for you?” and “I’d do anything to make you cum” speak for themselves.
Even songs like Black No. 1, which is supposed to poke fun at his toxic ex-girlfriend, still sound like the (scarily talented) musings of a love-sick puppy. Peter Steele sounded like a person who was in constant awe of the very thing that was trying to kill him, whether it was a woman or existence itself, and isn’t that just the essence of goth? Turns out, it wasn’t just women who found his whole thing irresistible — it was men, too.
The queer male response to Peter Steele’s Playgirl cover has been well-documented (it was positive and enthusiastic), but I’m more interested in the handful of stories of queer sexual awakenings somehow involving him that have been confided to me over the years. Maybe Type O Negative was playing in the background of an early sexual encounter. Maybe Peter Steele’s Playgirl pictures were used. Maybe (definitely) he was someone’s root. It’s not that anyone’s told me that he “made them gay”, but they still found a way to mention him in the context of their stories. That’s the something I mean: a blip on an otherwise dark radar that seems inconsequential at first, but after several more times you kinda start to wonder.
Did Peter Steele love his queer fans back? The official story is that he didn’t, but I like to think that the reality is more complicated than that. Though he wrote the seemingly homophobic song I Like Goils after discovering that most of Playgirl‘s readership was male, he later admitted to being flattered by the advances of any gender (not both, any) and just having a preference for women. There were also other instances that made us go “iiinteresting”, like the release of My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend, a surprisingly sweet and earnest dark bop about a polyamorous relationship between one man and two women, and their cover of the song Angry Inch from the vastly underrated transgender road musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which Peter Steele apparently loved as much as I do.
I don’t think there’s much use arguing about a dead man’s identity politics, especially as we don’t know the full context of each song’s creation. For example, I Like Goils might be the homophobic manifesto it’s been made out to be — or it might be Peter Steele’s over-the-top response to experiencing very real sexual harassment from male fans after the Playgirl episode. I think he was getting at this in one interview to but never discussed it openly. I’m less interested in what he was than what he meant to his fans. He transgressed conventional ideas of masculinity just enough for women, queer men and sensitive straight boys to notice, but not too much to alienate everyone else. Type O Negative remains one of the most universally acclaimed 1990’s and 2000’s bands of any genre.
I remember the moment my relationship to Peter Steele went from casual to cultish very well. The events leading up to it still count as some of the strangest in my life. They’re also oddly symmetrical with the situation we’re in exactly ten years later, with the whole world on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Peter Steele died on 14 April 2010 as a result of a heart failure. A few hours before the news broke, there had been intense volcanic eruptions in Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull ice cap. Enormous amounts of ash from deep inside the volcanic bedrock were shooting into the air, covering large areas of Northern European skies and disrupting air travel. The terrible beauty of it wasn’t lost on mourning metalheads: it was as if all of Valhalla was welcoming Peter Steele to feast at its table.
At the time, I was a student at the Helsinki University and working part-time at a Zara stockroom. When the scheduled shipment of single-use fashion from Spain was cancelled due to the situation, I spent a very uneventful shift folding the same five pieces of knitwear and trying to look busy while doing it. Afterwards, I decided to call it a night despite having been invited by my friend to a show by the former Hole and Smashing Pumpkins bassist, actual grunge goddess Melissa Auf Der Maur at club Virgin Oil. I guess doing nothing for eight hours is more exhausting than it sounds.
At some point during the night, between watching Supernatural and reading smutty fanfiction no doubt, I got a text from my friend: Melissa was with them, unable to leave Finland and wanted to go sightseeing the next day. I thought, sure. Let’s go sightseeing with Melissa Auf Der Maur on a Wednesday afternoon.
So, the next day I joined my friend in showing Melissa around Helsinki. There was a ragtag bunch of us, some from the previous night’s show and some, like me, who were just tagging along; I made some new friends that day. I should mention that Melissa was 1) very nice and 2) the most effortlessly cool person I’d ever met. I immediately wanted to grow up to be like her. She was understandably also tired and anxious, having had the next five dates of her tour just cancelled by a fucking volcano.
Melissa had decided to whip together an impromptu show in Helsinki and livestream it on her website to do something nice to her fans in the cities she wouldn’t make it to. She had enough connections in Helsinki to quickly secure a room — a band training space, I think — from the basement of club Nosturi for the following day. We were all invited.
There were no more than 20 of us sitting on the floor of the tiny room the next day. It was there that Melissa started talking about Peter Steele, still processing the news from two days prior. I’ve forgotten some of the details, but she had known him to one extent or another. The last time they had met was around one year before his death. She spoke of a powerhouse of a man visibly diminished by his years inside the music industry machine, which he probably wasn’t emotionally and socially equipped to deal with. She said it wasn’t the Peter he knew, but a shadow of his former self.
”If you want to hear something dark”, Melissa Auf Der Maur said, ”listen to October Rust. It doesn’t get much darker than that”. And then she launched into an unforgettable performance of her own.
A few days later Melissa was finally able to leave Finland and I went back to listening to Type O Negative. I now understood that something had been both lost and gained the day Peter Steele died. I mean, maybe I was projecting due to the sheer mental hangover that comes with having a volcanic eruption in Iceland land you in the company of a living rock star for two consecutive days, but I’ve never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Peter Steele was dead. And I suddenly felt the weight of it.
So here we are, 10 years down the line and another global disaster in our hands, only the stakes are even higher. Air travel has been disrupted once more. People are stuck in foreign places, unable to get home. Artists have lost income and have resorted to streaming their shows online. Peter Steele has been in my life longer than any other artist. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t listen to at least one song by Type O Negative, often with headphones on while hiding from two screaming children in the bathroom.
We don’t know what we have until it’s gone. Untrue about most things, but painfully true about me and the Green Man. He died at the age of 48 from health conditions that would have been entirely treatable for someone a little less rock ‘n’ roll. I missed the chance to see the band at Helsinki’s Tuska Festival in 2003 because I wasn’t sure I had the money and thought I’d get another chance. The world missed several more decades of his music — he was reportedly excited about going back to the studio when he died, perhaps having beat the condition Melissa Auf Der Maur had last seen him in.
Most importantly, though, he missed a chance at a life and – dare I say it – true happiness. I’ve lost loved ones to the same kind of long, drawn-out suicide by self-neglect that he died of and I fear I haven’t seen the last of it. When I watch old interviews of Peter Steele, I’m struck by the familiarity of his mannerisms: the same boyish cockiness mixed with wit, shyness and humility that I recognize from so many of my friends and exes. It should’ve been obvious from the beginning, before the queer theory and overthinking everything. He had that thing I hate and love and never can quite quit.
Here’s my final thought: I’d like Peter Steele to still be alive today. Out of all the angry guys of my youth – the Trent Reznors, the Mike Pattons, the Brian Warners – he’s the one I would like to have a beer with, geeking out about Hedwig and The Angry Inch and exchanging a series of sarcastic quips meant to simultaneously conceal and reveal our innermost thoughts and neuroses. Though I don’t want to assume, I think we’d get along.
So thank you, Peter, for having been a constant in my life for 20 years. And thank you, goth cousin and Melissa Auf Der Maur, for making that happen.