Your roots are showing

(Originally appeared in De Groene Amsterdammer.)

IN 1991, TYPE O Negative toured Europe. They were controversial, as everybody knew, but why was less clear. There were rumors that Type O Negative sympathized with fascist ideas. Type O’s singer, Peter Steele, had formerly been the leader of Carnivore and used to sing quite unintelligible lyrics on the third and fourth world war. Carnivore put lots of death, nuclear winters, machismo and barbarism in their songs; they were in a way the musical accompaniment to the Mad Max-films.

After Carnivore split, Steele started Type O Negative. Their first cd Slow, Deep and Hard (1991) combines metal with hardcore. The songs burst with clever changes of tempo, mixtures of symphonic music and gothic metal. The record was received well; untill the lyrics were studied. Especially Der Untermensch, a song about junkies and jobless people, had to take it in the neck because of sentences such as: ‘Why don’t you get a job … Get off society’s back … You’re a waste of life … Send you back to where you’re from.’

It is not a very friendly song, but it is put in another perspective by the song immediately following it, Xero Tolerance, in which Steele sings about an ‘type A personality disorder’: ‘Hatred obsessing me, hatred possessing me, anger burning me, anger turning me into someone I don’t know.’ In this scrap and in others, it becomes clear that the singer is thinking things he’d rather not think. He comments upon himself. He laments the babies of junkies, cracked at birth, and the women whoring for their addicted lovers; he sings about his lover who is unfaithful and should therefore die, and interrupts these diatribes with idyllic lapses in which he describes other thoughts: ‘I gave till it hurt, thought it was right’ or ‘there is no pain like that of desire’.

Apparently he gets frustated in these romantic longings time and again, which arouses his anger, and finally he becomes a stranger even to himself. The record sounds like the angry, desperate resistance of somebody who’s at the point of collapsing. And the origin of that feeling was amply explained by Steele. Something with a girlfriend who’d left and Brooklyn going crazy. The world could just go to hell, as far as he was concerned. She first.

The rumors, based on these lyrics and on scraps of interviews, that Type O doted on fascism and racism, elicited a clear denounciation from Steele: ‘I am no fascist and do not want to be branded as one. I do not condone violence.’ From Brooklyn he sent heaps of faxes to Europe in which he explained that although he thought junkies should not be pampered, that did not make him a racist. His expression of regrets hardly had any effect. In Berlin punks and squatters issued a call for action and there were even posters which asked to murder Steele. Almost all gigs in Germany and Austria were cancelled or disrupted due to threats, bomb alerts, and demonstrations by leftist activists.

There were five bookings in Holland. The first gig was at De Melkweg in Amsterdam. By chance there was a radical demo that day. John van Luyn, programmer at the Melkweg: ‘Something against Shell or other. Some people handed out flyers against Type O Negative. They just walked on. A hundred and fifty activists made their way into the Melkweg. They cut the wires: electricity, telephones, the lot, and demanded that we cancel the gig that evening. Also, they had informed ethnic groups and broadcasting services, and they raised hell too. None of them had ever heard of the band, but suddenly they were all quite sure that Type O Negative was at fault. It was a complete chaos and we had to cancel the gig.’

Gert Gering, programmer of Atak in Enschede: ‘We knew they were controversial, but we had never eschewed that. Musically they were a breakthrough. I have read their lyrics. He is not a political buddy of mine, but then again: what’s serious and what’s not? And once you start to study lyrics, no rap group would ever get booked. Indeed, nobody ever mentions that there are always lots of skins at ska gigs. As for the protests, during that period the stricter right of asylum, expulsions and the neo-nazi attacks on migrants in Germany were a political issue. But what did these activists do? Block the airports to prevent the expulsions? No, they spread flyers against Type O Negative. We had trouble here too. A representative of the mayor came and told us that they wanted to post two juridical experts in the house to screen the group’s lyrics and who might intervene. Under those circumstances we did not want the gig, it was outright censure. So we cancelled. Anyway, I saw only two skins that evening. A few weeks ago we had Laurel Aitken, ska, and there were at least sixty skins. He even dedicated a song to them.’

Harry Hamelink, programmer of Nighttown in Rotterdam: ‘The occupation of the Melkweg was on all news programs. We had to decide what we were going to do and we thought it best to cut the protest’s head off. We cancelled.’ Noorderligt in Tilburg did too.

Only Scum in Katwijk held their ground. Marcel van Tol: ‘Of course we knew about the unrest, but we wanted to persevere. We got threatening calls and letters from activist who stated that “they would not refrain from using violence”. We talked with the police and the mayor and got their full cooperation. We refused to yield to such idiot activism. We were carefull though, we armoured the windows and the police promised to keep an eye on things. But Steele could manage no more. The riots had gotten to him and he went back to New York. In the end, only two members of the band played here. We were terribly disappointed. Their first cd is still being played here so much it’s completely worn out. They are a great band.’

Type O remained clad in rumours, no matter what. Just last year the music magazine Oor wrote: ‘The question whether Steele and his companions are fascists and/or racists, remains open. The protesters should have gone to court. Then we would have had an independant verdict on Type O Negative and its utterances.’ Beg your pardon?

*

THE YEAR FOLLOWING this disastrous tour, Type O released The Origin of the Feces, a faked registration of a live gig at Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. It’s a fight between a group and an audience. Even before they have started, the audience treats the band to a chanted ‘You suck, you suck’. Steele has a riposte: the public has paid to see them while they are getting paid, ‘so who’s the real asshole here?’ During the gig the venom is almost palpable. There is a – real or fabricated – bomb alert. Dogs howl. Sirens roar. Somebody throws a bottle or a glass which audibly shatters quite close to Steele. The anouncement that this is their last song, evokes cheers.

The album includes Kill You Tonight, a combination of previously record songs. In Kill you tonight Steele sings about an adulterous girlfriend who goes out on a Saturday night to pick up guys: ‘Where there’s a womb, there’s a way’. He sings about the dupe who is trying to suppress his anger, who soaks himself with booze and gets in the grip of a green monsters called jealousy. He finally gets up to sharpen his axe and to search her out. When he finds the wayward lover plus her one-night-stand, he does not only kill her but also the gent in dispute. He is, quite politically correct, an adherent to the priciple of equal treatment, also matters such as these: ‘I’m an equal opportunity destroyer’.

Yet another songtext that didn’t go to well, especially not among feminists. (There was talk of flippantly advocating the killing of women.) Played live, there is much more to it. The background vocals are even nastier than on the studio-version, where they already were rather hilarious. Steele grumbles angrily: ‘I know you’re fucking someone else’; teasingly, in a cheerful up-tempo, the rest of the band repeats after him: ‘He knows you’re fucking someone else’, and that ten times or so (‘I knohow’ – ‘He knohows’ – ‘I knohow’ – ‘He knohows’ – ‘I said I knohow’ – ‘He said he knohows’, faster and faster, ad infinitum, ad nauseam). Just before the double murder is about to occur, Steele kindly warns the listeners: ‘Second verse. Worst than the first!’

Embedded in the song is a restatement of Jimi Hendrix’ oldtimer about Joe who also waged a war against his adulterous lover. A few words apart, the lyrics are identical: ‘Hey Joe, where are you going with that gun in your hand?’ got turned into ‘Hey Pete’ with an axe and Mexico was relocated to Brighton Beach. Hendrix got away with it, with this chopping down of women, but then again: he was quite popular and was labelled politically correct.

For those adversaries of Type O who wallow in taking apart and songs, here’s a few hints that point differently. The lyrics contain lots of jokes and many sneers to political correctness. One number is called The misinterpretation of silence and it’s disastrous consequences, and it offers sixty-four seconds of sheer silence. Singing about hatred and doing so under the label ‘type A personality disorder’ seems an ironical reference to Adorno’s theories on the authoritarian personality. Recording a song on all-too-lustful lovers and mockingly titling it Unsuccessfully coping with the natural beauty of infidelity. Singing about suicide and then yelling: ‘I can see God!’ I think they’re just into fun death metal.

The third cd Bloody Kisses (1993), more gothic and with more doom than ever, really dollops it out. To erode any accusations of racism, they do a song consisting of the one line ‘Kill all the white people, then we’ll be free’, with background vocals by a bunch of black singers. In another song Steele explains that the left takes them to be fascists and the right accuses them of communism – so why the fuck bother with anybody’s opinion at all? Black No. 1, more or less a hit thanks to MTV, contains the joke I like best. Steele sings about a fake vampire lady with dyed hair: ‘Your roots are showing. Dye ’em black.’ Roots, of course, do not only refer to the undyed hair at the roots of one’s scalp, it also functions as a codeword in politically correct thinking (somebody’s roots are apparently untouchable, the ultimate retorical bromide that kills off any possibility of debate). For those who abhor all essentialism, this one is priceless. And to top it off, on the t-shirt accompanying the cd Type O claims responsibility for almost all major disasters of the past two millennia: from the crucifiction of Christ and the decay of the ozon layer to the Gulf-war and aids.

*

LAST WEEK, TYPE Type O did their first real tour in Holland. There were thankfully no riots, partly due to a reserved press policy, partly due to the fact that Type O gave a return game with their applauded Bloody Kisses. All three gigs were sold out and there was nothing wrong with the audience, except perhaps that they were overdoing the sing-along. ‘There were some tall stories during the pre-sales, but everything was fine. There were two skins present at their gig here,’ says Van Luyn of the Melkweg, ‘but then those two are here almost every night. We call them the family skins. But really, skinheads have no use for this music. It is not mean, aggressive, in fact it’s rather romantic. As if one were to translate the Sisters of Mercy to the present time, but on a higher level. I like their sense of drama.’ Harry Hamelink, programmer of Nighttown: ‘It was a great gig. Many laymen consider Steele to be a macho, but instead he was very open, he really tried to make contact with the audience. He’s a lot less bitchy than most metal musicians.’

And Steele himself? I sat on a chair in the dressing room. Steele, who is over two meters high, towered over me with his arms folded. He looked downwards, suspiciously, and started explaining right away.

‘Again, I do not condone violence. I did not want these riots. I would have thought people were smarter.’ The explanations and excuses that by now have become lock, stock and barrel, tumble out; but I do not care to hear them. I told him I enjoyed the gig immensely. He peered down once more. The distance was indeed huge. He sat down next to me. ‘Relieved. The sound was not as good as it might have been, but we were finally able to play.’ Are his lyrics a comment upon political correctness? ‘Oh yeah -What you eat, what you think, who you see, who you have sex with and how – nowadays everything is scrutinized and analyzed. All we want is to play. We’re just four musical clowns from Brooklyn, I do not want to be taken that serious, not in this way.’ He was very friendly towards the audience, I mention – he even warned the stagedivers to take notice of where their friends were, to prevent them from crashing. (There was this guy who had taken Gravity a bit to literal and who had to be taken out with a nasty head wound.) ‘I just react. When the audience is sympathetic, it works: then we can establish some kind of contact. But when they are aggressive I must first of all keep my footing. By abusing them and scowling, if I have to.’ We continue talking. He is amiable but I can’t think of any good questions. Do I want whisky? A beer? No, he’s never heard of Adorno, but it sounds interesting. Type A personality? ‘That’s me.’ He seems restless. He wants to go into the house. Meet some fans.

‘I think they should tour the clubs once more, to rid themselves of this crazy legacy,’ says Hamelink of Nighttown, ‘and then they’ll break through. They are good enough to become a major band.’ ‘Next time I won’t be able to book them,’ says Van Luyn of the Melkweg. ‘They’ll be too big.’

But he advises them to take on a tour manager. ‘They didn’t even check tickets sales. You can bet your ass that in Germany they’ll be swindled out of three thousand per gig.’


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