Type O Negative fans could hardly be blamed for being skeptical when news broke in 2010 that the band’s frontman Peter Steele was dead. They had heard this before. In 2005, visitors to the group’s website were met by an image of a gravestone inscribed with the phrase, “Peter Steele—1962-2005… Free at Last.”
It turned out that the post was a practical joke by keyboardist Josh Silver and Steele, a man with a sense of humor as dark as the hair dye he rhapsodized in his band’s biggest hit, “Black No. 1.” But even some of their other bandmates weren’t in on the prank.
“I started getting emails and phone calls the next morning,” recalls drummer Johnny Kelly, who played with Type O since 1994. “Everyone was asking, ‘What happened, what happened?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I remember getting in touch with Josh and saying, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?!'”
Half a decade later, the news was no joke. On April 14, Steele, born Petrus T. Ratajczyk, died at his home from heart failure at age 48. Ironically, after years of heavy drinking and drug use, the iconic frontman was sober when he passed away.
The looming, muscular, six-foot-seven Steele cut his teeth in underground acts Fallout and Carnivore, but he’s remembered foremost as the cornerstone of Type O Negative, the self-dubbed “Drab Four” who fused the monolithic doom of Black Sabbath to the goth romanticism of Sisters of Mercy on classic albums like 1993’s Bloody Kisses.
Nearly six months after his demise, Revolver sat down at Steele’s favorite Brooklyn drinking hole, Duff’s, with Kelly, band co-founder and guitarist Kenny Hickey, and keyboardist and childhood friend Josh Silver to remember their lost leader.
REVOLVER What was Peter like as a child?
JOSH SILVER I grew up with him since I was 10 and he was very large even then. I think it was a problem for him to be six feet tall when you’re 13. People would see him and think he was 20. He would ride his bike and make crazy animal noises with this big Yankees horn. People thought that was pretty odd.
Were you two troublemakers?
SILVER We were destructive little fuckers. We’d blow up army men with M80s and we liked to burn stuff. We did something too close to a bunch of school windows once and they all melted.
Was Peter an angry kid?
SILVER I think his anger towards his entire catholic school education is pretty apparent if you’ve heard Carnivore. He didn’t have girlfriends growing up, which was also rough for him.
When did Peter start playing bass?
SILVER He was a guitarist at first and he picked up a bass because I was in a band called Fallout and we really needed a bass player. He didn’t want to sing originally, either. I pushed him into it. He was very uptight about his voice. He wasn’t great at first but he developed into a pretty decent vocalist. But I don’t think he ever enjoyed being a frontman.
During Carnivore and the early days of Type O, Peter was famously working doing maintenance and driving trucks for the Brooklyn Parks department.
SILVER He liked working for the Parks Department because it was predictable. Peter liked routine.
KENNY HICKEY One of the main reasons Carnivore broke up was because Peter hated leaving Brooklyn to tour. The furthest they got was Washington D.C., and he nearly had a nervous breakdown. He hated “rock and roll,” he hated the road, he hated, quote-unquote, “living like white trash.” He just wanted to create music.
Kenny, in 1989, you, Peter, Josh, and drummer Sal Abruscato started Subzero, which became Type O Negative. What was the first rehearsal like?
HICKEY It was hilarious. Peter was wearing reading glasses and had cut his hair short because he had just applied to be a cop. He was all clean-cut because he thought he was going to give up the rock-and-roll thing.
Didn’t Peter slash his wrists in 1989?
SILVER Yeah, there were a couple of times Pete tried to commit suicide. How serious was it? I guess we’ll never know. He certainly had a lot of scars and he was always self-destructive. He had multiple hospitalizations and suicide attempts. But when a lot of them happened, we said, “Oh, this isn’t a real attempt. This is just bullshit.” Because Pete was a very smart guy. If he really wanted to snuff it, he could have.
Why did Peter finally quit his job with the Parks Department?
HICKEY Before the Bloody Kisses tour, we met with the president of [the band’s label] Roadrunner, and Peter finally said, “Look, if you’re going to put all you’ve got into the band, then I’ll agree, quit my job and go on the road.” That’s how we finally got him to tour.
Did Peter have a hard time on the road?
HICKEY Change was always hard for him. It was upsetting for him to leave the state or not be in his own bed. He was like, “I regret the day I left the Parks Department.” Although in the end, he really loved going on tour. I think he spent so much time on tour that it eventually became his normal safety zone. It switched over.
Mötley Crüe invited you out during the Bloody Kisses cycle. Any memorable stories from that tour?
HICKEY It was pure insanity. We were the premier white-trash stripper band. Every night when we came offstage, these desperate fat guys working for us would round up the strippers and you’d go to the front and there would be 20 sets of legs. The bus was shaking, music was blasting, people were dancing every night. It was the exact opposite of what you’d picture the band would be, like, by listening to our music.
Peter would give a guy $100 bucks if he brought a chick backstage and he actually got laid. He was with two, three different girls a day. And then he decided to design the band towards getting more girls. 1996’s October Rust was intentionally sensual. That was Peter’s “pimp record,” and it worked. It’s a great record, but it was designed to score him women.
Were those Peter’s happiest times?
JOHNNY KELLY Peter was never happy. He wasn’t happy with the way he looked. He wasn’t happy with his family life. He wasn’t happy with anything.
In August 1995, Peter was a Playgirl centerfold. Did you know he was going to pose for the magazine?
KELLY Yeah, we talked him into it. I thought it was so outrageous that if you’ve got the balls to do it, go for it. And it worked. Here it is 15 years later, it’s brought up in every interview. That’s what we’ll be remembered for 25 years from now.
Was he upset to find that a large percentage of Playgirl‘s readers are gay men?
HICKEY He just got upset when gay guys came up and asked him to autograph the picture. Some of them even came up to me and I was like, “I ain’t signing that, get the fuck out of here.”
Did Peter know he had a heart condition?
SILVER He was diagnosed years ago with atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular heartbeat.
HICKEY He always said that he always felt the flutter in his heart, even when he was a kid, so he might have been born with it.
And sometimes he would just get sick. There was one point where he was in the hospital before a Hatebreed tour. The dude was green from his feet to his head. He had yellow eyes, jaundice, and he ended up in the hospital. Eight different surgeons were trying to figure out what was wrong with him and none of them spoke English. They said, “What kind of drugs do you do?” And he said, “Cocaine, alcohol, and redheads.” So the doctors come back in three days later and are talking to me and say, “Excuse me, we need to know what are redheads?” They thought it was a pill or a drug.
A few years ago, Peter moved to rural Pennsylvania with his new girlfriend. Did he like being away from the city?
SILVER He hated it. Peter liked the woods, but he was bored out of his mind.
HICKEY One day he calls me at 2 in the morning and goes, “Can I tell you a story?” At the time, he was living with his girlfriend and he had another girl on the side. He says, “I was at the other girl’s house, and then I got a call from my girlfriend saying she was going to be home in a few minutes. I got dressed in pitch black, wasted out of my mind. I get in my Jeep and I’m driving down the road and a bear jumps out in front of me. I swerved off the road and hit a pole.” So the cops show up, arrest him, his main girlfriend comes to bail him out and picks him up. He goes back to her house—and here’s the kicker. He gets undressed and she says, “What are you wearing?” It turned out he had his other girlfriend’s panties on because he got dressed in the dark when he was really drunk.
KELLY I don’t believe the bear part. But that accident is what made him get sober. He had to go to court and they put an ankle bracelet on him that detects alcohol consumption. The cops said, “If this comes up dirty, you’re going to jail for six months.” He didn’t want to go to jail again so he took it serious and straightened up. And he was clean and sober from then until the day he died.
Was Peter in a relatively good headspace at that point?
HICKEY Yeah, he was sober, coherent, and really excited about working on the next Type O record.
Was it a complete shock to you when he died?
SILVER I was surprised, but to be honest, I was shocked that he lived as long as he did. His lifestyle was so unhealthy that I couldn’t believe he was as strong as a horse most of the time.
HICKEY There were many times where we were like, Oh-oh, this is it. A million times. Nobody could consume like him, nobody. Nobody could drink as much as him, nobody could do as much drugs as him, nobody could eat as much as him, and nobody could fuck as much as that man. He was the only guy I knew who could do two eight balls and eat $60 dollars worth of Chinese food. The only guy.