An interview with the one and only Bobby Steele
David Lee Beowülf
Bobby Steele is one of the most enduring artists in punk rock today. It’s actually amazing that he’s still alive: born with the debilitating spina bifida, he’s survived being beaten by English policemen, being run over by a New York City subway, having some of his toes amputated, lung disorders — I bet I could get away with adding leprosy to the list and he’d probably say, “oh, yeah, I forgot, I had a bout with leprosy…”
After being the Misfits’ guitarist for two years (before Doyle), Bobby wrote and recorded songs and toured the country as The Undead, developing a following which has maintained its loyalty for nearly twenty years. The Undead released a “greatest hits” collection late last year, Dawn of the Undead, and a new album, `Til Death, is due out this month. And there will be a summer 1998 tour supporting the new record.
I first met Bobby Steele in February 1996 at the Misfits’ “boxed set” release party. Since then I’ve maintained steady contact with him and found Bobby to be a veritable encyclopedia of the entire East Village Underground scene from the early 1970’s on to the present. If you’re in New York City’s East Village, there’s a good chance you’ll run into him either on his way to a punk rock show at CBGBs or heading to a record store, a guitar shop; once I stopped him on his way to K-mart. He needed to stock up on his supply of hair spray to keep his dark, black mane nice and spiky for the punk rock kids.
How many years have you been the Undead?
It’s since 1980. That’s 18 years, man. I recorded one full-length, Act Your Rage, that came out in 1989. And this’ll be the second full-length studio album. Other than that we had singles, and the Live…Slayer album.
What did you during the years between recording albums?
Practiced, played out and stuff. Basically I’ve always had a hard time really grasping the concept of what I was doing musically.
How about a record company that really wanted to rape you up the ass? And take you for everything you had and leave you on the side of the road?
Caroline Records has raped me on the Misfits shit for years! I made them offers, but they didn`t want to rape me on the Undead shit!
Has Florida been pretty friendly to you in the past?
Yeah, Florida always been very good to me. I have to hit Iowa soon, too. I have a niece in Iowa who’s 15 and she’s a martial arts champion. She’s into punk rock, when she was 3 she was beating up ten year old boys. If I don’t get to Iowa this year, I’m dead. She made me promise to play at her sweet sixteen party.
Who will you tour with in Florida this summer?
The Independents. I get along great with them. They’re the most professional band I’ve ever seen; they are on the road 300 days a year and they’re organized. I’m used to doing shows where I have to tell the guys “it’s time to set up” with the Independents it’s like they know what’s got to be done and they don’t play any games. I wish I could find guys like them to be full-time members of the Undead. If it wasn’t for Joey Ramone, 90% of the bands out there today, wouldn’t be out there. Joey is like the Chuck Berry of the ’80s; he inspired everyone. The Ramones laid down the rules for what good rock and roll was going to be for 20 years.
What’s the state that’s been the most unfriendly to you?
Most unfriendly? New Jersey, where I’m from! Well, New Jersey has always been notorious for not recognizing celebrities until they’ve been recognized by the rest of the world. Bruce Springsteen until he broke big; the Aquarian [a large, New Jersey music magazine] never did a single article on him until about until “Born To Run” had been a number one hit for months. Bon Jovi probably one of the biggest selling acts out of New Jersey, I never saw one article about him.
Isn’t that a good thing? About Bon Jovi, that is.
It says how bad the New Jersey music press has been over the years. Now the Aquarian’s been taken over by people who are on top of things. But for the longest time New Jersey…you’d be hard-pressed to find anything about the Misfits in old copies of the Aquarian except for ads for gigs during all the years we were playing in New Jersey.
So how long were you with the Misfits?
Two years. It’s a lot longer than three seconds…
Tell me about the new Undead album. What’s the basic story behind the greatest hits record (Dawn of the Undead)?
It was basically the Never Say Die 12″ and the Act Your Rage, and neither one of them was on CD. So instead of putting out two separate CDs, put them both on one and throw in a couple of extra tracks.
How did you find out there was a demand?
Just because CDs are where the market had turned. In 1990, people didn’t want to be bothered with LPs anymore, and I had sold 10,000 LPs of Act Your Rage within that year; if I can sell 10,000 LPs, I think I can sell at least as many CDs.
Did someone approach you about the new CD?
Just people writing to me wishing I had everything on CD. Back then, making a CD was a lot more expensive than it is now.
So this album, Dawn of the Undead is Act Your Rage and Never Say Die with a couple of extra songs.
The one unreleased track is “No Vices.”
When did you write that?
That was written in September August of 1982, I’d just gotten out of the hospital. Over the year, I’d spent 3-1/2 to 4 months in and out of the hospital, I’d had a misdiagnosis and the doctor told me I was going to be dead in a very short period of time. It turned out I just had a really bad case of hepatitis. So I got out of the Hospital and I couldn’t smoke weed, drink, take drugs — I couldn’t do anything! So the first day out of the Hospital I go to the Peppermint Lounge `cos some friends of mine are opening for Billy Idol. And I’m walking around trying to deal with being straight in this place and who to I bump into, literally, but Johnny Thunders. Probably the worst state I’d ever seen him in my life, I mean the guy was literally out
Wasn’t that the usual state for him?
Not for him, he’s usually stoned, but he was catatonic; he’d walk in one direction until he bumped into something when he’d change direction. I mean, he was out of it. Then the song hit me and I sat down and pulled out a marker and wrote it on the back of a poster.
Do you still have the poster?
I might have it at my parents house. I’m a total packrat. I’ve saved everything since I was 6-7 years old. I have weird shit. Drives my parents crazy, but somewhere in that pile of junk I’ve got real autographed 8x10s of the Dave Clark Five. I got a lot of stuff buried in that house. Somewhere I have a soundboard recording of Reagan Youth’s first show.
What about the new album?
It’s great, I play everything on this record, I recorded it myself. Some of the tracks were recorded right in this room here and some at my parents house, where my drums are. I played drums for a couple of bands that Jill [Matthews of Bobby’s other band, Times Square] was in. Get mad fuckin’ blisters, though, `cos I play like an animal!
“Strange Creatures” is a horror song; a kid’s fantasy about monsters in the closet and under the bed. Childhood phobias. Actually the one’s that been getting the best response is the last song, “Thorn in Your Side,” which is a slow ballad! It’s slower and kind of something I did almost as a joke. It’s not like I was trying to do a Velvet Underground thing.
I started with a really raw guitar, no backing band at all and it became a major production! It’s the fastest thing recorded on the album, it took six or seven hours to record. Most of the other songs took 30 or more hours to finish.
“Invisible Man,” it’s close to Ralph Ellison’s book in a way. Someone read the lyrics and said `oh, you’ve read the book,’ and I said “no,” and he told me what it was about and I said, “shit!” because what it’s about my friend Merlin who died on the street… He was just like a really great, nice guy and I started to think how people treat the homeless and how they must feel. You’re walking down the street and someone asks you how do you respond?
Kick them in the head?
No, you just keep walking. And eventually it’s got to eat at them — “am I really here?” “Are these people seeing me?” “I must be invisible.” Society ignores certain people.
I think a lot.
What’s this, there’s one horror song and the rest is just meaningful stuff! “All You Need Is Love,” is that the Beatles’ song?
That’s the Beatles’ song!
You covered the Beatles?
I covered the Beatles on there, man!
So instead of filling the recording studio with people, like they did, you had only yourself.
Right, just me, all by my fuckin’ self,
What was going through your head when you said, “I’m going to cover the Beatles.”
One night I was getting stoned, getting ready to go to sleep, listening to some old records, and I put on Magical Mystery Tour and I came to “All Your Need Is Love.” If you really make it just a slightly bit more cynical you have a really, really good punk rock song. I didn’t change the words at all, just the tone; it’s like, “there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done/there’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung,” it like, just got more cynical; it’s a heavy song.
Did you have to deal with Michael Jackson to get the rights to play it?
How were you able to cover a Beatles’ song without losing everything you own?
Nobody fucks with me!
Other than that…
Michael Jackson is a big fan of the Undead…
Doesn’t he own all the Beatles’ songs?
Actually, I applied to Sony/ATV, who own the rights, but all I had to do was put a small down-payment of $70 towards the royalties. I got permission to put it on CDs and LPs and they wanted royalties advanced for the first 500 copies of each. It wasn’t bad at all. My old manager managed the Bad Brains and they got sued for doing “Day Tripper” and he was dead set against me doing this. The Beastie Boys did “I’m Down” and they got sued.
“I’m So Happy” isn’t really a happy song. In `93 I played in Tampa and met a girl and had a good time and the song is about the one night stand…
I didn’t write the words to “They Lied,” Jill’s [Matthews] Father wrote them. It’s about his own inner conflict about the contradictions you face in life.”Slave to Fashion” is about seeing all these people who jump onto trends. Not specifically anything, but individual people who are chameleons, one day they’re punk rockers, then Adam Ant comes out and they’ve got the pirate outfit with the patches and a few weeks later it’s Culture Club and they have hair extensions and they’re wearing a dress. They just jump from one trend to another trying to buy their self esteem.
“Til Death” is about being sincere and loving somebody but being obsessed. I tied obsession and sincerity into it. I played with words “Shadows” is about being in the Misfits, and about being lied to, about being fed false hopes.
“I’d Rather Do My Drinking Alone” was co-written it with Dave Street, he managed the Misfits in `79 and he’s mainly a comedian, he’s written several Undead songs. He comes up with some great lyrics, too! We had just released the 9 Toes Later single and he’d gotten a copy to some friends of his who were managing .38 Special at the time. And they were really blown away by the thing! And they came back to him and said why don’t you write for .38 Special. So We’re like “Oh, a country song, a challenge!” So he wrote the lyrics, I wrote the music and it turned out they didn’t want us to write a country song! They wanted us to write a typical Bobby Steele/Dave Street rock and roll song, which we ended up never doing.
Do you ever wake up in the morning and go FUCK!?
Yeah, every now and then.
Where are they now? One horror song, but you can count “Shadows.”
The rest of the album is a look in my brain, a journey into the center of my mind. The Undead never were a Horror Rock band, the Undead is basically a punk band that touches on everything When I left the Misfits, they weren’t a horror band, although it was little by little going in that direction. There’s a couple of horror songs on Static Age, but it’s not a horror record. And it gradually became a total horror band. When I started the Undead, I didn’t want to be a Misfits clone band and lock myself into one category. I’m a songwriter and I write everything from classical music to punk music; I wanted the Undead to be an extension of me, not an extension of the Misfits. A lot of our fans are into horror, I love horror moves, the whole horror thing, but I’m a lot more than that, this is the multi-dimensional Bobby Steele. Oh, I met Dee Snider at the Chiller Theatre who says he’s always looking for new music for his movies, I’d like to get into that, too.
On the cover of the new album, it looks like you don’t have a nose…
I don’t! We took it off for that picture.
Do yo think people will look at it and go “ahh a vampire-goth record” and buy it?
I hope so, it’s like all the Slayer fans who bought Live…Slayer who thought it was a Slayer record. And all the Undead fans who bought Slayer’s Live…Undead! What was really hilarious was that it was totally unplanned, that record came out the same day as Slayer’s Decade of Aggression and stores were accidentally putting Live…Slayer! in the Slayer bins! And it sold 40,000 copies! People were writing to me saying “I was thinking this was the new Slayer album but I’m really surprised!” I gained a lot of fans over that and I think Def American wanted to sue me. Either way, when I made the record, the album title is not on the front of the sleeve.
I think a lot of Danzig’s stuff is really good, I don’t like all of it, but some of it is great. The last album was a major disappointment `coz there actually was a couple of really good songs on it, but the production was awful. There wasn’t any punch to it.
Do you talk to him at all?
No, he’s afraid to talk to me. I’ve tried to talk to him. He talks to Steve Zing of Chyna, though; Steve can sing, man!
One last question: how have you managed to survive?
I’m the second son of the seventh son of a seventh son.
Bobby Steele will soon be up on the web with connections through the Misfits Bible website, which will be back on the web this summer, after being down for a few months, until then, contact Bobby Steele at email@example.com, he loves to hear from anyone and is currently working on breakthroughs concerning the medicinal benefits of marihuana. He would love to hear from fans of his music as well as serious inquires regarding pot smoking for health!