My Cousin The Rock Star

James Toth of Wooden Wand isn’t the only musician in his family.

This story is part of James Toth’s upcoming book, A Reason To Live That Wrecks Your Life: Music and Other Mistakes, which chronicles his obsession with music while growing up in pre-9/11 New York City. 

Though she probably doesn’t realize it, my mother is the envy of millions of goth girls and probably more than a few goth boys. After all, famous heavy metal icon Peter Steele once confessed to having a major crush on her.

At the time of this revelation, in the mid-’70s, my mother found this admission of puppy love amusing and adorable. Peter, the young teenage cousin of her new husband, was merely a tagalong on the couple’s dates to Seaside Heights or Coney Island, not the Viking rock demigod, reluctant pinup model, and subject of reams of erotic fan fiction he would later become. 

The youngest of six siblings and the family’s only boy, the child my family knew as Pete Ratajczyk was precocious and weird. Excelling at impressions of various wild animals, he earned his keep on these frequent trips with his older cousin and his pretty new wife by keeping them entertained with his well-rehearsed guttural canine bellows, wild coyote keening, and lycanthropic snarls. Peter, though privately jealous of my father for winning the hand of what was then his ideal woman, was a lot of fun. 

By the time I was born, Peter was an adult, living in his parents’ basement, playing in a band called Fallout, and working for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Cousin Pete had a booming voice and long, onyx-colored hair; though he would always be referred to amongst family members as “little” Pete (to distinguish him from his father, “big” Pete), Peter stood almost seven feet tall, a height which, from my vantage point as a toddler, seemed far greater. No longer a bratty third wheel on rollercoaster-riding dates, Peter now effortlessly commanded a room, a talent I noticed even as a child, long before his public renown. Remember the character of Gaston in Disney’s Beauty & The Beast? Peter was like that. He’d enter the kitchen and with his mere presence instantly make everyone in the room appear smaller. A fit and hulking Peter would emerge from some basement room and say something mundane about traffic or the weather, and all eyes were on him. “That Peter,” one of my Deadhead cousins would say, “he’s such a funny guy.”  

As a child, I was terrified of Peter and his animal noises, which had grown more realistic and authentic-sounding with his passage into young adulthood. I would hear his wolf calls and run into the bathroom to cower and hide. 

This lasted only a few years. As I grew older and became interested in music, Cousin Pete increasingly seemed less scary than godly. His band had released an album, it was said, though this accomplishment was regarded by the older members of the family as something of an amusing lark. Peter’s “real” job was wearing green khaki pants and overseeing a road crew that one day might be pruning tall trees in Prospect Park and on another be picking up highway trash with pointed sticks.  

During one of the family get-togethers, one of Peter’s older sisters, noting my interest in music in general and in Peter specifically, set me up in the basement with a Walkman and an advance copy of Peter’s new album with his band Carnivore, Retaliation. I sat on the sofa and listened attentively to songs called “Jesus Hitler” and “Angry Neurotic Catholics.” This was the stuff! My father had long boasted privately that he taught young Peter how to curse (and also how to spit for distance), and on the evidence of this album, his tutelage was thorough:  

Tired of being pressured
To join their plastic army
You conforming clones will be sorry!
I won’t change for anyone
Keep fighting ’til I’m done
I got a right to be myself
And you can go fuck yourself

Years passed and Cousin Peter would become for me a beacon and a hero. Though we only saw each other a few times a year, Peter represented proof that it was possible to come from where we came from and still have a career in music. More than merely an inspiration in the abstract, Peter also took a personal interest in my nascent musical pursuits. Whenever he visited my parents he made it a point to make sure my guitar was in tune, and took the time to send me occasional letters along with his latest demo tapes, stickers, and t-shirts. Aware of my affinity for books about fucked-up things, he graciously sent me a hardback titled The Bedside Book of Bastards, a compendium of tales about notable cannibals, murderers, and despots which included Attila the Hun, the Marquis de Sade, and Liver-Eating Johnson. 

Peter’s popularity grew: his new band Type O Negative performed at Ozzfest and Peter was a close personal friend of Ozzy, Dimebag Darrell, and Glenn Danzig. Type O Negative was a regular fixture on MTV, including a memorable appearance on Beavis and Butthead. He posed for the cover of Playgirl, later boasting that, as per his stipulation, his was the first pictorial in the magazine’s history to depict an erect, rather than flaccid, penis. I remember the backyard family barbeque in 1995 when my cousins passed the issue around, having strategically placed Post-It notes over Peter’s genitals so as not to offend the older family members. Upon being handed the magazine, Peter’s elderly mother, my aunt Nettie, nodded in vague, dispassionate approval before handing the magazine back.

It’s important to note that Peter was by no means the “black sheep” of the family; on the contrary: everyone loved him, including the grandmas and grandpas and the doggedly religious members of my large family. Jeff Wagner’s biography of my cousin, Soul on Fire, accurately portrays Peter’s duality: the fact that this ostensibly dark dude was also an extremely generous, charismatic, and sensitive person, with a rapier wit and a strange — even corny — sense of humor. Peter was constantly making puns. As his much younger and starry-eyed cousin, it was years before I was privy to his famous darkness.

One Thanksgiving at my Aunt Nancy’s house, Peter seemed unusually despondent. He confessed to me that he wished he had never left the Parks Department. “Wait a minute,” I said. “You mean to tell me you’d rather be picking up garbage with a poker than touring with Ozzy?” “That life just made more sense,” he said.

Now an adult and now having my own stories to share of touring and recording and mismanagement and label snafus, I felt comfortable regarding Peter as a kind of contemporary; after all, we ostensibly had the same job. To Peter’s eternal credit, he never made me feel otherwise, even though he was touring on a giant bus and was playing arenas and had recently appeared on an episode of HBO’s Oz while I was touring in a decrepit Econoline van, playing to a few dozen people a night, and sleeping on floors.

Peter’s musical tastes were eclectic and I almost never heard him talk about metal. Instead, he encouraged me to buy albums by the ethereal dream pop bands he loved, like Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. He was also crazy about the Beatles. 

Feeling bold on the occasion of one of my family’s annual Fourth of July get-togethers, I decided to ask Peter about something that I’d long wondered about. “Hey man,” I said, “There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you. Why did you thank me on Bloody Kisses?”

Bloody Kisses remains Type O Negative’s most popular album, released at the height of the band’s fame. The list of acknowledgements on the insert is very small, and featured only a handful of names, mine among them. I was barely 14. It meant a lot to me.

“Why?” he asked. “Well… did it help you meet girls?”

I had to carefully consider his question. The kind of girls I was interested in at the time wore barrettes and liked Georgia O’Keeffe and Morrissey. Still, in some strange and roundabout way, yes, this minor claim to fame did help me meet girls. And anyway, I knew where Peter was going with this and I didn’t want to appear ungrateful. “Yeah,” I said, “I guess it did!” 

“Well, then. You’re welcome!” Peter howled. 

It didn’t occur to me at the time that the actual motivation for this tip of Peter’s very large hat may have been a way of acknowledging his close friendship with my father and mother. Or perhaps Peter viewed me as not merely a disciple but a scion to whom the family rock star torch would eventually be passed or whatever. Or maybe he just thought it would help me meet girls. With Peter, you never really knew. 

In the early 2000s my girlfriend took a college class on Staten Island and there struck up a friendship with a fellow classmate named Anita. When my girlfriend mentioned that I was a musician, Anita said that her husband was, too. “He plays drums in a band called Type O Negative,” she said. 

Over the next year Anita, the wife of Type O Negative’s drummer Johnny, would become an acquaintance, and my girlfriend and I would regularly babysit the couple’s young daughter, whose picture would later appear on the sleeve of the very first album by my then-new band, Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice. The fact that Peter and I were related was merely a curious coincidence. It’s a small world. 

I recall around this time gazing longingly as the members of Type O Negative prepared for one of their tours, running all the necessary tedious errands. By now I too had toured a great deal, and recognized the familiar adrenaline of even the most mundane preparatory tasks. There was, however, one clear and important difference: The tour on which Type O Negative was about to embark was important; it was necessary. Touring was how the band members made their living, and a large crew of drivers, tour managers, lighting people, merch sellers, roadies, and techs all depended on Type O Negative for their livelihood. In contrast, my own tours barely broke even and I was often plagued with feelings of futility, wondering if being a musician was something I was doing out of some pitiful, tragic vanity. But then I remembered what Peter said about wishing he was still working for the Parks Department, and felt a tinge of gratitude for my autonomy and my freedom. But only a tinge. 

The last time I saw Peter he was complaining about the homogeneity of bands like Nickelback and their ilk. “It all sounds the same,” he said. He had just gotten the large, bold, blue-black alpha and omega tattoos on each of his hands, about which a few of the older women in the family rebuked him lightly. Peter now also seemed to have trouble paying attention; he was jumpy and manic, his quick wit and constant punning not so much endearing as obnoxious. At the time my own metal band had recently been signed to a small but prominent indie label, and Peter seemed interested but distracted. Wary then as now of exploiting personal relationships or engaging in behavior containing the faintest whiff of social climbing, I played down my new band, even after Peter asked me to send him the music and said that maybe we could do a few small shows together once the album was released.  

“Send it to me over email,” he said. “I’ll send you my new album, too. What’s your email address?” 

“Oh, cool! I’m at oracle909 at aol dot—”

“—dot communist? Bwahahahaa!”

My memory of the last time I spoke to Peter continues to haunt me. 

I was spending a few days visiting my parents on Staten Island, as I often did whenever New York served as the departure point for one of my frequent tours, when my father answered the phone, spoke for a few minutes, and then handed me the receiver. “It’s Peter,” he said. 

I actually had to ask: “Peter who?” 

“Your cousin! Who else?” my father replied, incredulous. 

Peter told me he was hanging out at some bar on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, and asked if I was interested in coming out and having a few drinks with him. In addition to being my cousin, Peter had always been a friend, but his calling me out of the blue to come hang out with him — in hipster Williamsburg, no less — seemed odd. Williamsburg was close but not too close to Staten Island. I didn’t have a car, and it would have taken me over an hour to get there by bus. I made an excuse and told him to give me a shout next time he was there.

I feel sad imagining Peter now, sitting in an unfamiliar cosmopolitan Bedford Avenue bar, maybe flanked by members of Animal Collective or Interpol or The Strokes, feeling out of place, a stranger in a once-familiar land, looking in vain to connect with someone who would neither fawn over nor ridicule him. The fact that Peter and I weren’t especially close was another reason he may have felt like he could trust me; I was a familiar face, but not too familiar. At the time Peter was feuding with his sisters over his parents’ Brooklyn estate, and had recently been briefly committed to an institution. I wish I’d gone to see him. In retrospect, I can’t help wondering if by rejecting Peter’s offer to join him for drinks, I ignored a cry for help. 

I was at my parents’ house again a few months later when my father entered the room and told me that Peter had died suddenly of heart failure (later determined to be diverticulitis). I had to ask him to repeat himself.

“Yeah,” said my dad. “48 years old. Fucked up, eh?”

There’s a thing that can happen to you when you learn of something terrible that narrows your vision of the things around you. Whatever piece of furniture on which you happen to be sitting feels suddenly very material, as if you hadn’t previously noticed its significance, its mass, it’s very thing-ness; this chair or countertop you’ve always taken for granted and have never thought about instantly becomes, upon hearing bad news or maybe in the midst a vicious, devastating, or permanently transformative argument with a partner or friend, a conspicuous prop in a tragedy. I remember leaning back on the arm of my parents’ white and blue striped sectional sofa and thinking, “This stupid thing exists, and Peter is dead.” 

I am wary of making more of my relationship with Peter than there was. Over the course of my life Peter and I had a total of maybe thirty actual conversations, and as the years trudged on and Peter’s touring schedule became busier, I saw less and less of him. 

Still, Peter left an indelible impression on me merely by helping to illustrate, by example, an alternate path; his success confirmed for me at a very crucial time that life need not be a series of compromises, concessions, and fading passions. He also personified the old adage: The trouble with wishes is that they come true. 

In 2011, a tree was planted in Peter’s honor in Prospect Park in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, not far from where my dad and Peter grew up. I have never been there.  

One of music’s greatest qualities is its potential to provide a kind of immortality. My father, a man with a lifelong affection for and almost supernatural rapport with dogs, has always maintained a bank of play-phrases he deploys whenever he is giddily roughhousing with a pet. To a dog jawing a bone or toy, my father, grabbing one end of the object, will mock-command “Gimme that!,” punctuating the words with a quick intake of breath through his clenched teeth. (Method Man sometimes uses this technique when he raps.)  

A few years ago, my father asked me if I owned a copy of the Type O Negative album Life Is Killing Me. The album contains a song called “IYDKMIGTHTKY (Gimme That),” throughout which Peter does his best imitation of this, one of my dad’s most identifiable and enduring catchphrases. When I hear the song now, it reminds me not so much of Peter, but of my dad. I hear it as Peter’s tribute to his older, cooler cousin with the hot wife, a nod of belated gratitude to the man who taught him how to curse and spit.

James Toth is an artist/musician/writer living in Green Bay, WI. He has written about music and culture for NPR, The Wire, Stereogum, Aquarium Drunkard, and The Quietus, among others, and recently completed a draft of his first book. He currently plays in the transatlantic rock band One Eleven Heavy.