“Between girls, drugs and an entourage he’d bring everywhere, Pete was out of his mind more than at any other point.” How I Don't Wanna Be Me gave gothic metal icons Type O Negative their last big anthem, but spelled the start of the end

Peter Steele in the Type O Negative video
(Image credit: Youtube (Roadrunner))

On November 9, 1995, Type O Negative’s Bloody Kisses became the first album released by Roadrunner Records to achieve gold certification in the US. Released two years earlier, the album’s fusion of doom metal, goth and hardcore had turned the band into stars of the 90s metal scene, and their six-foot-eight frontman, Peter Steele, was cemented as a talismanic icon. But their fortunes wouldn’t last. “We always had a very negative tint on everything,” shrugs guitarist Kenny Hickey. “We never patted ourselves on the back and there weren’t words of encouragement. Every time we came off tour it felt like, ‘Well, that’s it – better get a job.’”

Although they’d always maintained an air of pervasive pessimism – proudly adopting the nickname ‘The Drab Four’ – Type O’s fifth album, World Coming Down, was especially bleak. Its lyrical narratives of drug addiction and familial loss were taken directly from Peter Steele’s experiences at the end of the 90s. “Much of my recent time’s been taken up by funerals,” Peter revealed to Hammer at the time. In another interview, he quipped that “everyone else’s family is growing – mine’s shrinking”, responding to the interviewer’s polite congratulations that Kenny had recently welcomed his first child.

Although flippant, Peter’s comments hinted at deeper trauma he was trying to overcome. As he turned to drugs for relief, the issues compounded. “World Coming Down might have been our bleakest record, but Life Is Killing Me was our bleakest period,” says drummer Johnny Kelly, who joined the band after the release of Bloody Kisses and remained behind the kit until their eventual split in 2010. “Between girls, drugs and an entourage he’d bring everywhere, Pete was out of his mind more than at any other point.”

But in typical Type O Negative fashion, the band responded to adversity with pitch-black humour. As they began writing their sixth album – originally titled ‘The Dream Is Dead’, eventually released as Life Is Killing Me – they decided to reinject a sense of playfulness that had been absent from World Coming Down. “Peter specifically wanted us to have a lot more humour for Life Is Killing Me”, Johnny recalls. Not all ‘jokes’ were appreciated, however. Peter Steele had long courted controversy with his lyrics, the likes of Jesus Hitler and Der Untermensch seeing Type O dogged with rumours of Nazism in their early days. In response, the band wrote tongue-in-cheek Bloody Kisses track We Hate Everyone and explained the accusations away as a misunderstanding about their humour. But Life Is Killing Me song I Like Goils once again skirted too close to the edge. Anecdotally penned as a jokey response to the increased attention Peter had received from men after posing nude in a 1995 issue of Playgirl, the song’s lyrics veered into direct homophobia that has come under increased scrutiny in the years since its release.

“Peter liked to poke the bear like that,” Johnny says evenly, admitting that while he can’t speak for exactly what his bandmate was thinking, he didn’t think he was homophobic. “You always had to take Peter’s lyrics as something tongue-in-cheek. He was never trying to make a statement, other than to start shit!”

This combative nature came out in other ways too. Peter would argue with his bandmates during rehearsals and recording sessions, long drives out to their space in New York’s Rockaway Beach sometimes ending with the band piling back into the van and driving home without playing a note. “We’d part ways and at, like, one in the morning, the phone would go and there’s Pete, calling Johnny like, ‘I want to fight you in the street, right now’,” coming to us with these 14-minute opuses!” Kenny recalls. “He came up with I Don’t Wanna Be Me, this really cool punk rock anthem.”

The lead single and opening track proper on Life Is Killing Me – after doomy instrumental opener Thir13teen – I Don’t Wanna Be Me still crept past five minutes. Nonetheless, the song recaptured the band’s hardcore roots, albeit with a gothic, new wave twist as Peter playfully turned his self-loathing into a bouncy singalong. It set the tone for a record that, by Kenny and Johnny’s reckoning, was “all over the place”, but to fans captured their genre-blurring buffet of styles. “There were some songs to me that validated where it sits in the catalogue,” Johnny concedes. “Anesthesia alone makes it all worth it for me. Nettie is really cool, I Don’t Wanna Be Me is really out there and different from what we were doing, so that was cool. The band needed that variety and humour.”

I Don’t Wanna Be Me was ultimately the only single to be released from Life Is Killing Me. In spite of that, the band were able to shoot a video for the track, actor and comedian Dan Fogler donning a variety of costumes in front of a red theatrical curtain, pretending to be everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson to Britney Spears, Eminem and Peter Steele himself. “Dan was such a funny guy, we had a lot of fun with that shoot,” Johnny recalls fondly.

Released on June 17, 2003, Life Is Killing Me proved Type O Negative still had commercial appeal, even if the venues they were playing had shrunk. Breaking into the Top 40 of the US Billboard 200 at No.39, the album matched the chart position they had achieved on World Coming Down four years earlier. But while the goth aesthetic was making a big comeback in the US – propelled by the likes of Him and Evanescence – Type O weren’t able to scale the heights they had enjoyed the previous decade, even as they went on tour with Lacuna Coil and Cradle Of Filth. “We made some lifelong friends with those people,” Johnny says. “There were always laughs – even in the worst situations we could find something funny. Somebody else’s misfortune or misery was a good set-up for a punchline.”

Type O Negative would only release one more record – 2007’s Dead Again
– as on April 14, 2010, Peter Steele passed away from heart failure. Without their towering frontman, the band decided to call it quits. But for all the doom and strife they experienced over the years, both Johnny and Kenny look back with a sense of fondness and rue for what might have been. “My gut feeling was that the band never hit their potential,” Johnny admits. “So far as Peter’s songwriting abilities and whatever, there was always a sense that there was something more in there.”

“Because he always interfered!” Kenny exclaims. “It’s hard to maintain something on that wavelength that the band ran on. To be positive and hit your potential, you’d actually have to have some hope!” “Peter had optimism... right before he died,” Johnny says, deadpan. “He was optimistic and really excited about making a record sober, realising he hadn’t applied himself as he should have in later years. Our best record probably would’ve been the next one.”

“He was always a late bloomer, in everything,” Kenny agrees. “Our worst enemy was our bleak outlook. It’s hard to move forward and have energy if you don’t have some kind of positivity. If you look at The Beatles, Lennon was the dark one and McCartney was the light one. We were a band of Lennons. But... I wish I had him back and we still had that going.”

I Don’t Wanna Be Me remains one of their most enduring anthems, a testament that even when everything was falling apart, Type O Negative were a singular creative force. In the years since Peter’s death, numerous bands have acknowledged Type O’s influence, from the likes of Code Orange and Oceans Of Slumber, to Trivium and Pallbearer. Nobody has been more surprised by this than the former members themselves.

“At the time, a song like I Don’t Wanna Be Me really didn’t have the impact or staying power that it has now,” Johnny admits. “It’s only really a lot later when you start getting bands cover it that it seems to have built up and revitalised it.” “It was a sleeper hit, like one of those songs that takes a few years to really get popular – Dream On, Bohemian Rhapsody, that type of thing,” Kenny nods. “Type O were a sleeper hit all round, then!” Johnny adds with a chuckle.

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.