Dee Snider: "We used to wear women's clothing, until the night my wife showed up and I was wearing the same top she was"

Dee Snider revisits his first forays into rock'n'roll, brawling onstage, his iconic Twisted Sister look and how he stood his ground against the PMRC...

Dee Snider: "We used to wear women's clothing, until the night my wife showed up and I was wearing the same top she was"
Nick Ruskell
Paul McGuire

Do you want to rock? Not nearly as much as Dee Snider does, you don’t.

45 years after he first joined New Jersey metal heroes Twisted Sister, at 66, he’s just released the heaviest album of his long career, Leave A Scar. Produced by Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta and featuring a guest spot from Cannibal Corpse pitbull George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher, it’s a way from Twisted Sister bangers like The Kids Are Back and We’re Not Gonna Take It. But it still comes wrapped up in the same dominant, drill sergeant energy that made him a star in the ‘80s. Even if he had to rediscover that fire a little.

“In 2019 I told my family, my management, my band, I was done,” he says. “I said, ‘I’ve re-established myself as having value in the metal community, had great shows. And I said, you know, I'm ready. I'm moving into directing and writing and acting and things like that.”

But you just can’t keep a man like Dee Snider away from his calling, even when he says that’s exactly what he’s going to do. Fired up about people’s reactions to COVID (he boasts that he’s “proudly pro-vax”), the state of the world, and how a minority of “idiot extremists” can wreck things for everyone else, he may be older and wiser than he once was, but Dee remains a man with metal in his blood, fire in his belly, and a mouth that doesn’t take well to bullshit. When he says he’s the same cocky kid who in 1984 addressed the U.S. senate after the Parents’ Music Resource Centre (PMRC) deemed Twisted Sister one of the most harmful bands in America, it’s self-evident that he is. But like that kid, he’s also blessed with a fierce intelligence, one that the PMRC hadn’t reckoned on when they invited him to speak, thinking they were getting a knuckle-dragging moron.

Like Rob Halford, Dee is a lifer who’s given his life to metal, and to whom metal has given his life. And still nobody wants to rock as much as he does…

Your new solo album is really heavy, even for a metal maniac like yourself…
“Well, Jamey Jasta [producer and Hatebreed frontman] challenged me a number of years ago to do a metal record. I said to him, ‘Look at I am a true fan of metal. I am the guy who had the first Sabbath album, the first Zeppelin album, the first Blue Cheer and Grand Funk albums when they came out.’ I'm old! But I just didn't think there was a spot for me in the community, you know? And Jamey said, ‘No, there's a place and I know where it is.’ And he helped me find my spot. I've never used the same producers two records in a row before [like with Jamey]. It’s fucking exciting, man.”

And you’ve got George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher from Cannibal Corpse on it, which is a bit of a surprise…
“Somebody wrote in a review, when Corpsegrinder comes on, that it was Jamey Jasta’s idea. It was my idea! When I said George Fisher to Jamey, I think he thought I was talking about some guitar player from the ‘70s or ‘80s or something – like, I couldn't possibly mean Corpsegrinder!”

What was it that got you into into music in the first place?
“The Beatles. This year, I'm 66, and it just shows you the power of that 1964 Ed Sullivan television show appearance. My father had banned television in our house; we had no TV. But the day after the show, I went to the bus stop, and the buzz… I remember this asshole called Russell said to me, ‘Did you see them?’ And I’m like, ‘See who? We have no TV!’ And he said, ‘The Beatles – it's a rock'n'roll band. It was unbelievable. Everybody was screaming.’ And the minute I heard those words, ‘Everybody was screaming’, I said, ‘I want to be a Beatle’. I found out you couldn't be a Beatle, you had to be in a rock band. But it was the power and the energy that was coming from that moment, and I had to be a part of it. From that moment on, I never changed my position.

“I was often ridiculed for saying publicly, ‘I'm going to be a rock star.’ When I was working on a loading dock, unloading trucks, Rock Star became my nickname. So every time that there was a pile of shit somewhere that had to be cleaned up, they’d call, ‘Hey, rock star!’ and I had to go and clean it up. But I was on a mission from that day, the day after The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.”

How soon did you start work on becoming a singer?
“I was always in the Glee Club and stuff. And I sang in the church choir. But it was a couple of years after that, when I got my first solo in Glee Club, when I auditioned. The pianist, I remember, she stopped playing and looked at the music teachers and said, ‘This boy sings like a bird.’ Now, of course, I don’t sound like a bird – maybe like a crow – but I have a voice. I was actually trying to learn to play guitar, and I said, ‘Fuck this – singing is way easier!’”

When Twisted Sister first took off around New Jersey and New York, you really grafted, playing shows every night of the week to thousands before you were even signed.
“Yeah, it was pandemonium. Like, a thousand people any night, even more than that quite often. But the drinking age back then was 18, and there was no photo ID. So you had clubs filled with a prime rock age, you're dealing with people aged 15, 16 – that is the metal moment. You know what I mean? A lot of times people age out; by the time they get in their 20s, they go to college and they grow out of it. Obviously not you, not me. But when you're in those teenage years, it’s right for rebellious punk, metal, hardcore, rap – that sort of really contentious music.

“It took five years to get signed – so many attempts, and so many rejections. But by day we’d get a rejection letter, by night we’d play in front of a couple of thousand screaming kids and it would boost us. We’d go, ‘Well, who knows better – the guy in the towers in his suits, who we’re learning more and more were pretty much lawyers, or the kids who are buying the records?’ So you know, it kept us going.”

Before you got signed you were invited to the UK to open for Motörhead. That must have been a confidence boost, right?
“That was like a mercy gig. Our management had become friends with Motörhead’s management, and they put us on the bill – we didn’t even have an album out yet. And if you look at the bill, we were like fifth down. But somehow, with someone cancelling and a couple of billing shifts, we were special guests, going on right before Motörhead at a football stadium gig.

“And this is ’82, so there's no Mötley Crüe or Poison yet. Anvil got canned off the stage at Reading because Lips [Anvil singer/guitarist] had fishnet sleeves on and was playing guitar with a dildo. People freaked! And at our show, we had to go on in the daytime, so it was a pretty terrifying experience that turned out to be one of those flash points in our career. And I owe that all to Lemmy, who intervened. He knew how they were gonna react to us. So he said, ‘I'll introduce you’, which was one of the most magnanimous gestures any headliner has ever done – to come out of the dressing room to introduce an unknown band. And that gave us enough of a window to show who we were and what we did. And by the end of that, it was one of the greatest ovations of my life. We had just crossed over and been welcomed by the British crowd. And that was a godsend for us.”

Where did the band’s look come from?
“I joined Twisted Sister in ‘76. They had formed in ‘73, as a New York Dolls-inspired glitter band. They wanted to be like the New York Dolls. So I joined this glitter band, and they were already fading out of that, but I loved all that stuff like David Bowie and T-Rex, as well as metal. So it evolved. And my wife was very big there. First of all, we used to wear women's clothing, until the night she showed up and I was wearing the same top she was – this one-shoulder lace thing. I was all excited, but she was like, ‘What? Why? Why did you buy top?’ And I said, ‘Remember I said I loved that top and asked where you got it?’ She thought I just meant I loved it, not that I wanted to buy the same one!

“So she started making our costumes. At first they were very feminine, but she just said, ‘You're not pretty.’ So she started changing it into sort-of tattered, colourful rags, taking it further and further away from the feminine look. Because, as she said, we weren’t pretty. And the make-up, she'd say, ‘Why don’t you try some eyeshadow?’ And I’d do my own and she laughed at me and said, ‘You're not doing make-up, you're doing warpaint!’ And then she kept working on the hair and the hair got bigger and blonder and crazier, but she really gets a lot of credit for that shit.”

Did you ever catch any shit for like wearing makeup and all that kind of stuff?
“Every fucking night! There virtually wasn't a night where I wasn't in a in a dust-up with somebody in the crowd. When someone would shout something, I would lose it, and get like all macho. And I’d be wearing literally negligees and stockings and stuff, and next thing I'm out in the crowd. When you're in these biker bars and things like that, and you were looking this way, you couldn't give an inch. You had to show that you were prepared to back the way you looked and your right to look this way. You had to be able to really a fight for your position.

“For a long time I didn't stop doing that, until one night in western Massachusetts. We were opening for Ronnie James Dio, and someone threw a bottle at me. I climbed right over the barricade and beat the shit out of the guy. Next day, I get woken up by my accountant, my manager, my lawyer, my promoter and my agent, all screaming at me. ‘What are you – crazy? You have money now, you can't beat people up.’ And I say, ‘What I supposed to do?’ So they got me this big fucking burly bodyguard who went everywhere with me. I remember the first time a situation happened. We were in a car, a limousine, we pulled up a light, and this other car, of all the fucking stupid things you could do, goes, 'Twisted Sister fuckin' suuuucks!' Door opens, bodyguard gets out of the car, pulls the guy out of the car, beats him up, gets back in the car, and we drive off. And he goes, ‘How's that, boss?’ I said, ‘It’s kind of like watching somebody else fuck your woman. It looks good, but it doesn't feel the same.’”

How did success change things for you?
“For the worse. I mean, for the better, and for the worse. You had fame and fortune and success and cars and money and houses, and that's great. But then I didn't realise that we crossed a line where you become so accepted that you become rejected by the people who carried you to this point. And I was one of those kids, whose favourite band make it and they become everybody's band. We feel a sense of loss and abandonment and we take it out on the band. And you feel this loss. It's happened to you, it's happened to all of us. And it happened to Twisted Sister. I didn't read it, I didn't get it, and then suddenly, we're a pop band. I remember seeing our fan letter that said, ‘My favourite bands are Kajagoogoo, Duran Duran and you guys.’ What?! In what parallel universe is this even possible? And you know, that's the last thing a true hardcore metal fan wants – to share their band with a fan of Taylor Swift or someone like that. It took us so long to get to arrive. And then suddenly we were too popular.

“People would see me in photos with non-metal types, because I was going to events, like an MTV New Year's party or whatever. They would see me in pictures with, like, Kajagoogoo - not that I was in one but, but someone like that – and I didn't realise these things were being held against me. I viewed it as, ‘Hey, everybody! Look at where the fuck I am,’ like the unpopular kid with the hot playmate. I thought everybody was seeing it that way but they were seeing it as if I had sold out and crossed over.”

Had you?
“I felt metal should be mainstream, that it was worth everybody loving it. But really, that's what nearly killed it. By the ‘90s, when it became so popular, it nearly killed heavy metal. And I realised as I got older, metal has always thrived and survived because it's always been in the shadows behind the scenes – not the mainstream. And we have a huge audience, you know – there's metal shows that are 90,000, 100,000 people, they're amazing concerts. But at the same time, it's not good to cross over and become accepted by mom and dad and all the other pop fans. Fans don’t really want it to be legitimate – they want it to be a little edgy, a little scary, a little on the fringe, even though it’s in stadiums. Iron Maiden play stadiums, but the average mom and dad doesn't really know who they are. It's underground, in a way. But I love all metal. I truly love it all. One thing I try to say to young people and the community in general is that we are stronger together.”

When you went to Capitol Hill in 1984 to give a speech against the PMRC, were you nervous? You look really cocky in the video, but surely there was also a possibility of failure in front of everyone too, right?
“Recently I watched it, and I'm like, ‘Holy shit!’ I find myself talking to my younger self, like, ‘God, how the fuck did you even walk with balls that big in those tight pants?’ I mean, I'm amazed at the cockiness, the arrogance, the confidence. Where did it come from? It's stupidity! Raw stupidity! Not that I was a moron, but when they said, 'Would you like to speak?' I was like, ‘Fuck, yeah.’ I saw myself like the cover of the Iron Maiden record [The Trooper] where and he's got the flag, coming across the battlefield. And I'm leading the fucking battle. Little did I know that the industry, all the other bands, and the fans, for the most part, would fucking go quiet and leave me there by myself with my flag drooping.

“But I had this incredible confidence. I could handle it. I went in there and took it very seriously. A bit to my detriment, because to go and speak very openly and candidly on the world stage… So when I said, 'I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs. I’m married, I've got a kid, I was raised a Christian and I still adhere to those beliefs,' that shocked the room. But it also shocked the metal community. They were like, ‘What?! How can you be clean and sober and married and straight and intelligent, and still be this wild man on stage?' People thought those were mutually exclusive things, which clearly they are not.”

How was it in the moment for you, though?
“I remember arriving in Washington and the maelstrom of media attention was insane. It was back in the days where you had people with full satellite dishes on trucks. And walking in that room, it was just packed, and what you don't see on TV is all the cameras and media and writers, all staring. I had no idea [it would be like that], like, ‘Whoa this is really fucking intense’. For the briefest of moments I almost cracked. The kid in me was all cocky and ‘fuck you’, and then I look up and the magnitude hits me like a wave. You don't see it on my face, but I'm like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Luckily, the cocky Dee Snider that got me there just started screaming at me, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? Get it together!’ and I went and did my thing. But it was fucking intense, brother.”

You’re 66 – does rock and roll keep you young? “
“I’m a teenager 'til death! But that's not allowed in my house – I’ve got to be a dad, got to be a husband, got to be a granddad. And I am. But fortunately I can compartmentalise, and focus that enthusiasm and that energy into my creativity. Because when you get older you’ve got to pay the bills and you’ve got to be responsible and all those awful things. So how do you do that and still be filled with with pure joy of music and of metal? You’ve got to learn how to compartmentalise!”

Dee Snider's new album Leave A Scar is out now via Napalm.

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