Monday, November 2, 2015

Book Review: Soul On Fire - The Life and Music of Peter Steele by Jeff Wagner

Type O Negative's enigmatic singer/songwriter/leader Peter Steele was truly unique, in both what he contributed to music as well as a human being. Though a majority of his catalogue is genre-bending if not isolated as it's own unparalleled flagship - the bands that he has fronted were often categorized in/or as a subgenre of Metal Music, and even there his views of lawfulness, government, and structure were more against the grain than the subject matter of a majority of even the most extreme offshoots of the genre. He was also a complete contradiction of what he appeared, often being referred to as a gentle giant, the icon's near 7 ft tall frame and menacing appearance (complete with incisors filed down to fangs) demanded attention in whatever environment it monolithically lurked, his physical presence was a walking contradiction of the withdrawn, introverted, kind man behind the murk. He died suddenly on April 14th 2010, and with that Type O Negative ended with the momentum of a jet car versus a 50 ton steel I-beam, and there was nothing more. No unreleased B-Sides, no live albums, no demos - just the wringing of the dead, dried up teet that was money-grubbing best-of albums that the band had no involvement with and a vinyl box-set release of all the old shit.

Soul On Fire is Jeff Wagner's tribute to the man, it is not a biography. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the read, and I fully applaud Wagner's efforts towards the project. Unfortunately, it was slightly doomed to be nothing more than a fan's tribute than anything more from day one, when the band members themselves refused to participate in the project. Wagner makes this clear in the introduction; also describing his own God-like projections onto the man that was Peter Steele, thusly churning forth the realizations from the reader that the book is being written by a man that really has the same relationship with it's subject that a majority of the fan base has; which is no relationship at all, except for through the music (and maybe one interview). I couldn't help but feel a disappointed comparison to Benjamin Nugent's Elliott Smith biography Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing; which basically consisted of acquaintances, producers, and an occasional barista's point of view on the mess of the man that was Smith and his music.

Wagner is quick to defend his work right from the beginning, defending his motives against the closest of Steele's companions, TON keyboardist and pseudo-fraternal companion Josh Silver, whom was most vocal about the project being unnecessary and disrespectful (I'm paraphrasing here). But Wagner kept on down the line; eventually recruiting ex-Carnivore bandmates, label representatives, neighborhood friends, and ex-girlfriends. I followed this project from the start, as a rumored inception through it's blossoming into an actual physical book; periodically checking in on Wagner's Facebook page which he dedicated to it's chronicling. Having heard all of the aforementioned speed bumps he encountered as they were happening kept my hopes low. It was only until the confirmed involvement of Steele's sisters that I became interested, shortly before it's release the Estate of Peter Steele (that being his surviving sisters) withdrew their endorsement of the book, based on their perception of a distortion of truth, and the work not being a celebration of the man's body of work. This also peaked my interest, as perhaps a reaction to a side of Steele that the family did not want revealed post-mortem - which is understandable, but it's also the foundation of any good biography, that and your subject matter still being alive enough to be involved. I'm not going to read something that I already know everything about. Unfortunately, for the most part that's what Soul On Fire is.

I've been pretty fanatical about this band for the past 20 years, they are my number one amongst a pretty damn diverse and large collection of musical acts. So, sadly, I've made an effort over the last two decades or so to read/watch every article, interview, review and so forth that made it's way into public media in whatever form. Actually it wasn't an effort at all, as I didn't even realize the encyclopedic knowledge I'd acquired of the band and their music that was made available to me until some of my peers began showing an interest in their music. And so, unfortunately I didn't really walk away from Soul On Fire with a whole lot I didn't already know, in fact I found myself asking 'what about this, or what about that' more times than not - to which Wagner usually got around to addressing at some point in the book. Except for Chapter 13, the final chapter - which actually enlightened me on so much I had wondered about for years following the last days of, and days after, Peter Steele's untimely demise. Any of the quotes coming from the members of Type O Negative themselves were acquired from past interviews and publications, and I recognized 90% of those and in some cases could even tell you the source without perusing the bibliography. That's not me bragging, merely showing you how pathetic my personal life is.

I can't help but feel like the Carnivore years, both in their original inception as well as their reincarnation in 2006, got a whole lot more coverage than was needed, and I feel like this is mostly because of the willing contributions of the Carnivore band mates, and the glaringly absent involvement of the rest of TON. This is most evident in the glossing over of the creative processes for each album; although, admittedly Wagner did a nice job of summarizing how each album came to be. I did enjoy the insight on some of the 'tricks' they used to capture the unique sound on Bloody Kisses as well as how a majority of Life Is Killing Me 's seedlings were initially composed by keyboard. I may be the only one out there who really wants to hear more about the concepts and how they came to fruition when it comes to each monstrous opus the drab four shat forth, but I think the majority may get bored with another 100 or so pages of that sort of detail. I guess I'm just funny that way.

I also couldn't help but roll my eyes and/or take with a grain of salt any quote from anyone involved on the Roadrunner label. Steele had made it quite abundantly clear how he felt about Roadrunner and the contract he believed he was a slave to in interviews over the years; a point of contention noticeably absent in the book. It addresses and sugar coats how they basically stole his work from him when the band recorded the demo that became the album Slow, Deep and Hard, as well as manipulating some of the band's catalogue without their permission in an attempt to produce more radio-friendly singles and necro-fuck their discography after the band had left the label in an un-permitted 'Best Of' album; and for those of us in the know that was only the tip of the iceberg. I understand business is business, but don't regale us with stories of the friendship you had with a cash cow you had chained up and were pumping. Yes, you supported Bloody Kisses; but after the next couple of albums didn't sound exactly like Bloody Kisses that support noticeably dwindled into just another act. I wonder if they only agreed to contribute to the book if Wagner agreed not to include any of Steele's ravings about his negative views on everything he felt Roadrunner had done to he and his bandmates over the years.

Wagner is a good writer, and his perspective on the music shares a kinship with my own. TON were fantastic at creating an entire world with their music; and it's not until you become familiar with said world and all the things referenced behind the scenes that you begin to truly admire the genius that the band was. When you know about the wet Red Hook roads, where the D-Train is going to take you, or you can make out that name being screamed behind the wall of lush sound in 'September Sun' because you know who it's about, it can reach you on a more personal level despite it's subject matter being intensely personal to someone else specifically. Wagner's relationship with the music and it's subject matter feels like a palpable dimension, much like the universe The Beatles created to their diehard fans; much like Type O's catalogue does for myself.  His descriptions, comparisons, and analogies of albums nearly mirrors my own, and his theories of certain songs - spanning a chronological distance of albums away - being extensions of each other are both interesting and personally relatable. Readers should utilize these ideas as a guide to what you should be getting out of this band.

His personal theories and perspectives unfortunately also creep into theoretical motives of what drove Peter to do some of the things he did, like become addicted to drugs, and return to a faith he loudly vocalized as being ridiculous later on in life - with a loose summarization of third party commentaries to go on he bases a every downward turn in the man's life on what he thinks the subject could have been thinking. Early on it's alluded that Peter made it a habit of never giving the same answer to a question in an interview twice, because he hated interviews, hated being misinterpreted, and wanted to keep it interesting for himself - so right there how do we know anything as valid from the horses mouth?

Soul On Fire, to me, is more a written documentary of one fan trying to piece together the enigma that was Peter Steele than it is an appropriate biography. There were a handful of moments of the man's life that were unveiled that I had no idea about prior to reading the book. The fact that this book even exists is awesome, because despite it's many short-comings; all of which were a result of a lack of cooperation from people who knew Steele best (including Steele - because, you know; he's dead again), it's still awesome to sit down at the end of the day and let the mini-series unfold in your head of the Brooklyn sheep-in-wolf skin's roller coaster ride of life, because it's still an extension of Type O Negative, despite their non-involvement; as funny as that sounds some of us need that closure after the sudden impact with which it all just fucking ended, and we're not going to get it from anyone in the band, as they've all seemed to appropriately moved on.  For die-hard fans of TON it's still a good read, but it's real purpose to me would be to serve as a 101 for casual listeners who want a quick catch-up to those of us who have been listening and immersed for the last 24 years; and maybe help elevate them to the next level of appreciation for this truly unique, and phenomenal band. Oh, and there are a lot of really cool candid photos.  You can order it here: