7 Years Ago: Type O Negative’s Peter Steele Dies
At first it seemed like a bad joke. On April 14, 2010, reports started trickling in that Peter Thomas Ratajczk (aka Peter Steele), the hulkish frontman of Type O Negative, was dead. It was impossible to believe, and not just for the normal reasons. Steele had a legendary morbid streak and was no novice at defying death.
Since forming Type O Negative in 1989 out of the ashes of crossover metal band Carnivore, Steele had attempted suicide, overdosed, and even faked his own death in 2005 with a post on the band’s website. He seemed like a gothic metal Keith Richards, a guy who would tempt fate over and over and live to tell the tale. But on April 14, 2010, Steele, who had been sick in bed with the flu for a couple days, died from an aortic aneurysm at age 48.
There had been several occasions when Steele was battling with drugs and alcohol and was lying in the hospital, seemingly on the verge of expiration, but this wasn’t one of them. Just days before he died, he was proud about finally being clean and sober and excited about moving to a place near Staten Island to start working on the follow-up to the band’s seventh album, 2007’s Dead Again.
Type O Negative guitarist Kenny Hickey and drummer Johnny Kelly were getting ready to rehearse with their doom metal side project Seventh Void when Kelly received the bad news.
“I got a phone call from a number that I didn’t recognize, so I let it go to voicemail,” he says. “It was Peter’s sister. I called her up and said, ‘What’s up?’ and she was like, ‘We lost Peter.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and she said, ‘He’s gone.’ At the time, they didn’t know the cause of death.”
After he received the news, Kelly drove the rest of the short distance to rehearsal and told Hickey what had happened. “He started yelling at me: ‘How come you didn’t call me?!?’ recalls Kelly. “I was like, ‘I was going to see you in five minutes!’ I didn’t want to tell him over the phone. We were both in complete disbelief. It was like the end of an era, man. The end of an era.”
While Steele was clean and sober when he died, he abused alcohol and drugs -- especially cocaine -- for years even though he was on medication for a heart condition known at atrial fibrillation, basically an irregular heartbeat. “Who knows if he died from all the drugs over the years or something else,” says keyboardist Josh Silver. “He was diagnosed with the condition years and years ago, but if you take care of yourself and do the right stuff it’s something you can live with for quite a while. There are plenty of 90-year-olds running around with it.”
Hickey adds, “He always said that he felt the flutter in his heart, even when he was a kid, so he might have been born with it for all we know. He’s had four or five males in his family that have died from heart disease before 50, so it could have been congenital. Who knows? There is a price you pay for being so big, too.”
Steel was 6 feet, 7 inches; he wasn’t just large, he was larger than life. Though he claimed he was shy and suffered from stage fright, he eagerly embraced his role as spokesman for the band. As such, he had a deep voice and was surprisingly soft-spoken but had a razor-sharp wit and a hysterical, self-deprecating sense of humor. The singer-bassist claimed to be a misanthropist, wrote sarcastic lyrics that got him pegged by some as a racist and a misogynist. He repeatedly denied the accusations and those close to him insist the misunderstandings were all a part of Steele’s bizarre sense of humor. That said, he was arguably homophobic. He once told me in an interview that he wasn’t “anti-homosexual, just pro-heterosexual.” But lyrics to songs like "I Like Goils" suggest otherwise: “I know I'm strange but I ain't no queer, so take your rage and disappear / To make it clear that you can't bone me my tattooed ass reads 'exit only.’”
In 1995, during the height of the success of Type O Negative’s most popular album Bloody Kisses (which included the hit "Black No. 1 (Little Miss Scare-All)"), Steele posed full frontal nude for the centerfold of Playgirl. The move made a splash among the band’s female fans, and some of their male ones as well. “He got upset when gay guys came up and asked for his autograph with the picture,” recalls Hickey. “Some of them even came up to me. I was like, ‘I ain’t signing that. Get the f--k out of here!’”
Despite Steele’s public reputation, he was undyingly loyal to those who knew him and friendly to fans. Still, those who knew him best remember his excessive behavior, whether writing music or engaging in day-to-day activities. “Peter always did things in extremes,” Kelly recalls. “If he was going to work out, he was going to be as big as he could be. When it came to eating, he wouldn’t just sit down and have a meal, he had to have two or three meals.”
“If Peter did something that he enjoyed, that was pleasurable for him, he went all the way with it,” Hickey says. "It was just another extension of his obsessive behavior. Women, food, alcohol, he had to have mass quantities. He dreaded running out of anything. He’s the only guy I know who could do two eight balls and eat 60 dollars of Chinese food.”
Whether a result of his unhealthy behavior or a symptom of his heart ailment, Steele was hospitalized on several occasions both at home and mid-tour. Even so, he rarely took care of himself and often put his sense of humor above his health.
“There was one point he was in the hospital overseas,” recalls Hickey. “He had had eight different surgeons trying to figure out what was wrong with him, and none of them spoke English. They’re saying, ‘What kind of drugs do you do?’ Pete says, ‘Cocaine, alcohol and redheads.’ So he’s sitting there in a hospital, half-green. The doctors come back in three days later and say, ‘Excuse me, we need to know… what are redheads?’ They thought it was a pill or a drug.”
On another occasion, Steele was hospitalized near his home, but didn’t stay long enough to be treated. “He calls me up and I go, “What are you doing out? What are you doing home?!?, You’re supposed to be in the hospital,” Kelly recalls. “And he says, “I couldn’t take the food anymore.’ He was only a third yellow at that point. It was a miracle. He went from being green in a bed to two and a half weeks later, we were on tour, and he was performing. Stuff like that was always happening with Peter.”
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the primary author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen.
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