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On “October Rust,” or: Goth at Heart

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Technically I’ve been to two Type O Negative shows, but my memory of both sets is practically non-existent. The first time around was when the band co-headlined a brief tour with Cradle of Filth, which stopped in at The Quest Club in Minneapolis in the fall of 2003. At the time, Cradle of Filth’s set blew me away with its endless intensity and on-stage theatrics (video of both bands’s sets from the tour’s stop a month later in Philadelphia are now online: Type O here and CoF here), but what I remember most clearly from Type O’s set is the density of the music, peppered with the dry wit and charm of the group’s frontman Peter Steele.

The second time I saw the band was in 2007 at First Avenue in Minneapolis. I was drunk, and while my memory of the night is spotty I recall getting sweaty in the pit before leaving the show early to hang out with friends at a bar. That night I met a wonderful woman through a friend, who I recall having some sort of discussion with as it relates to existentialism. I think my ability to drunkenly recall Kierkegaard’s name earned me about a month of dates before she finally figured out how full of shit I was. Maybe it’s ironic, then, that a quote of his has kept returning to me while revisiting these thoughts this past week: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Silly as the connection is, and as full of shit as I still might be, the concept feels genuine as it relates to trying to make sense of whether the reasons I’ve constructed for appreciating Type O Negative’s music are what first attracted me to them, or if I’m revising history somewhat to paint myself as a more intelligent listener than I actually am.

I could be wrong, but their rendition of “Summer Breeze,” as featured on the I Know What You Did Last Summer soundtrack — of all places, is where I think I first heard the band. From there, October Rust was the first of their albums I got a copy of. It remains a favorite, but this is where that sense of revisionist history gets a little dicey. Musically, the music on October Rust is so beautiful, Steele’s voice so unique and bold, the bass so thick, the songs so dense, that I can only imagine that the sound alone is what I connected most with at that time. That’s largely true now, as well, though. The other day a sentence came out of me that seems to sum up how I’ve listened to music for most of my life, “Even now, music remains mostly a patchwork of sounds that make me feel different things, but rarely does a song’s lyrics impact me.”

Beyond the music though, there really was an underlying sense of humor carried by the band that connected with me. For example, and it’s wholly stupid, but the first two tracks on October Rust are throwaways: the opening being 38 seconds of static with the second being a mock introduction to the album itself. Again, it’s stupid, but in acknowledging their own self-awareness of just how stupid it is the band sets a tone that helps re-contextualize lyrics throughout the entire release. It’s a balance that I would like to think I appreciated as a teenager, but one that firmly admire now.

Take, for example, “Love You to Death.” “Black lipstick stains (on her) glass of red wine / I am your servant, may I light your cigarette? / Those lips move, yeah I can feel what you’re sayin’, prayin’ / They say the beast inside of me is gonna get ya, get ya, yeah…” Over a sprawling seven minutes the song teases BDSM imagery (which in itself is something to consider as it relates to humor — to fully immerse oneself in a dominant or submissive role is incredibly powerful and sexy under the right circumstances, but in others entirely ridiculous… There’s no way the band was oblivious to this. Just consider the line, “I’ll do anything to make you cum,” which is from a song called “Be My Druidess,” for Chrissake), but ultimately the song takes flight over a simple lyrical call for validation from a partner, “Am I good enough… for you?” Who doesn’t crave that recognition? Who doesn’t want to feel that love? When Steele moans the words it’s like they resurrect every relationship I’ve ever had… which is also kind of funny, given the right amount of distance from those emotions.

The other day I was listening to a podcast where a line was thrown out as it relates to this balance, saying that without a sense of humor what we’re left might only be dread. Accurate or inaccurate as that might be, taking the thought deeper, dread is so closely tied to self-seriousness, and in those places of anxiety and depression the mind refuses, almost stubbornly so, to acknowledge the lighthearted mechanics of whatever situation it is that has led an individual to that place. This is where it connects to October Rust for me. Throughout the album, Steele’s voice carries the most simple lyrics in conveyance of such incredible feelings of romantic dread — as with “I think she’s falling out of love” (“Burnt Flowers Fallen”) or simply, “Yeah, I miss her” (“Die With Me”) — but to focus only on those specific moments, or those specific feelings, would be unfair to the very emotions in question, reducing them to a binary categorizations of “good” or “bad.” That two-dimensional way of thinking neglects the range of emotions that life conjures: the pendulum of experience which allows us to take life deathly seriously one moment while laughing in the face of dread the next. I don’t see how else the well-crafted “Wolf Moon” could take lyrics about craving the taste of a menstruating woman could otherwise exist, let alone communicate as such a genuine and beautiful piece of music.

Peter Steele drove the band thematically, musically, and (I assume) aesthetically, and I can only imagine how much of this contrast was the result of his artistic vision (fuck, that’s a pretentious term). Maybe, then, part of relating to the album is relating to aspects of who he was. There’s no dearth of mention about his Playgirl shoot or Jerry Springer appearance in practically every piece written about the man (though I appreciate his spot on Ricki Lake more, for whatever it’s worth), but this October Rust-era interview does well to speak for who he was beneath any silly headline. In the interview he’s sarcastic, self deprecating, and honest in a way that a “goth” singer has no right being. Maybe that’s why Steele’s death in 2010 felt sort of personal. Because in a way, I wanted to be him.

Through much of their music, but October Rust in particular, Type O Negative created for me a safe space that could be visited at any time simply by putting on headphones. In the exists everything already mentioned here, but also no room for argument over whether any of it — the music, the feelings, the lyrics — were authentic or “real.” (My own insecurities around “authenticity” led have led to some strange places over the years, including reaching for some rather unusual “credible” goth references in my non-review of the band’s 2007 show, but that’s beside the point.) The reality of the matter is, the image of who Peter Steele was, was someone who I wanted to be. Only now am I the age he was when October Rust was released, and it’s especially true now that I admire the balance of who he was trying to be — that attempt to embrace the realness of what sex and love are, and what they can be, with the utter absurdity of those realities is what I might most identify with now. That is, when I’m even bothering to actually consider the lyrics in the first place.