By Brian Ives
It’s a strange time — even stranger than usual — to be Dee Snider. The band that made him an icon, Twisted Sister, will soon play their final show. Meanwhile, he’s launched a new album as a solo artist, We Are the Ones, which sees him returning to hard rock, after dabbling over the years in country (on CMT’s Gone Country), show tunes (on his last solo album, Dee Does Broadway) and reality TV as a cast member on Celebrity Wife Swap and Celebrity Apprentice.
Of course, it was on the latter show that he met up with the Republican Party’s nominee for President, which has led to some uncomfortable moments; namely, when Snider had to ask Donald Trump to stop using Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Snider was very candid about his conversation with “The Donald” in this Radio.com interview, and also about his reasons why he felt he couldn’t allow the song to be used in Trump’s campaign. He also addressed the end of Twisted Sister, and why he decided to stop now.
It’s strange that you are launching a new project at the same time that you’re closing the door on Twisted Sister.
It is bizarre. It is unexpected; it was not my plan. I didn’t end the Twisted years to move on to do a new record. I planned on the end of Twisted Sister as being the end of my musical career in the traditional sense.
And then I crossed paths with my producer/co-songwriter Damon Ranger, who challenged me to make new music. And I was prompted by my wife. When I actually tried my hand at writing some new songs for the first time in 30 years, she was unimpressed. And I said, “You don’t like it?” And she said, “No, it’s the same old thing.” And I said, “Well, I’m the same old guy.”
And she goes, “Isn’t there somebody who can help you write something new?” And I said, “Well, I did meet this guy.” She said, “Well, frickin’ call him.” And literally that was the impetus.
And I called Damon up. He said, “I can help you create the songs that you need for today’s audience.” And so it was a challenge. So I wasn’t expecting this chapter of my life at all, but it’s very exciting.
You’ve been with your wife forever, congratulations on that..
She’s become legendary; we’ve been together 40 years, and she does the makeup and hair and the bone logo. She did all that stuff. Someone said to me that “It seems like throughout your history she’s sort of pushed you at key moments or pointed you in the right direction.” And it’s true. We have an amazing relationship.
Twisted Sister tends to get lumped in with ’80s rock like Poison and Warrant; but you guys embodied a sense of rebellion that those bands lacked.
Well, thanks for that. A lot of the message of the ’80s bands was sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll; that was pretty much the common theme. Twisted never sang about any of that. Twisted’s thing was about fighting back, standing up, believing in yourself, “The Kids are Back,” “I Am, I’m Me,” “You Can’t Stop Rock and Roll,” “I Wanna Rock,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” these powerful, reinforcing statements.
This is the empowerment that Damon says we need now more than ever. He says, “You’re the voice of what they used to call the ‘Unwashed masses,’ the voices of the average Jane and Joe. The voice of the majority of people living day to day and being pushed around by the extreme left and extreme right. And you’ve always stood up for these people and screamed for them.”
So We Are the Ones is the title of the album, and songs like “Rule the World” and “Superhero” [embody that], and even the cover of “Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails, that’s an anthem from the late ’80s-early ’90s that in its own way is “We’re Not Gonna Take It”; it’s railing against the corporate machine.
That song was a surprising choice.
Once I started singing it, I said, “Oh, man, I feel the anger in this song. I feel the ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ in this song,” and I was able to deliver it.
I’m sure Trent Reznor was a fan at one point, whether he’d admit it or not.
Well, lemme say this: yes, he is. I did a show in the ’90s, before Twisted got back together. Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson were playing Madison Square Garden. Robin Finck from Nine Inch Nails and Twiggy Ramirez from Marilyn Manson approached me and said, “Hey, man, what do you think of doing a club set of Twisted material?” They had a night off between shows.
I hadn’t done Twisted in a long time. I’m like, “Yeah, okay. That’d be kind of cool.” And we went out as ‘The SMF,’ nobody knew what it was, but the word got out. It was packed, and Trent was there, and Manson was there, and all these guys were there, and they were rockin’.
So yeah, it’s strange where you find your fans, and you realize these bands that sort of rejected the ’80s hair metal ethos, were into it at some point in their lives.
At that time, you were working at a toy company, right?
Oh, man, that was a dark time. Getting that call, I hadn’t played music in a while, and the whole bottom had fallen out of the market, and nobody was buying what I was selling. And I was exploring new things, getting into radio. When I was started radio on Tuesdays I would answer the phone! I would do all the ads for the metal radio shows and stuff.
When these guys called me from out of left field, and it was like, “Wow, you care about Twisted Sister?” “Hell yeah, we love you guys!” How cool is that?
So that was the beginning of realizing the music still had value, and it wasn’t gonna disappear forever; it just had a little bit of a dark period there in the ’90s.
“Metal” was a dirty word. That was the alternative era, and that was the period when people were fearful of even saying the word. Except for Pantera, God love those guys. They were so proud to be metal, they were defiant. It was great.
Talk about the decision to do the piano version of “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” You made a video help raise awareness for Criss Angel’s HELP (Heal Every Life Possible) pediatric cancer charity.
Well, the idea for the song came before there was any affiliation with pediatric cancer. Damon and I were talking, and he wanted to do some songs for the record that really featured my voice.
We talked about doing some kind of song with just a piano and vocal, and a discussion about “We’re Not Gonna Take It” came up. And the conversation was that this song that was so dangerous in the ’80s, was on the “Filthy 15” list, parents felt threatened by the video, which had become internationally popular. It’s almost a folk song; it’s a karaoke favorite, a rockin’ jock favorite. I mean, hell, it’s been used on a commercial for a women’s premenopausal medication. And while I’m totally against vaginal dryness, somehow I do think the message has been lost.
When the song first came out, a very smug Rolling Stone review was three words. It said, “What, from whom?” That was it. Ha ha, that’s the point, you idiots. I’m not gonna sit there and sing, [sings] “I’m not gonna take it from my father, I’m not gonna take it from my teachers.” I deliberately said, you write a song like this, you gotta let people see their situation in the lyrics.
So to me, any important cause can use this as a battle cry, and it will work. I’ve been reached out to by other things; other cancer organizations are reaching out. And I’m certainly happy to help because, boy, at a time where it seems the world is at each other’s throats, this is a subject that everybody can agree on, everybody can be unified on, left, right, center, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, whatever you are, everybody can agree cancer sucks and kids get a raw deal. It’s great to see people say, “Yeah, this we can all agree on.” And there’s no degree of separation with regard to cancer. Everybody’s got either a family member, a friend, or they know somebody that has had a brush with it in some capacity. It’s rampant; it’s terrible.
Some politicians have asked to use it as well, correct?
Multiple have used it. Only two have asked permission. Arnold [Schwarzenegger] was one, and Donald Trump was the other, and I granted permission to both of them.
I’m a big Arnold fan; as a matter of fact, Stay Hungry was dedicated to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and inspired by his words. “Stay hungry” is his phrase. And after reading a book about his sort of philosophy on life and everything, I was fired up, and I wrote the Stay Hungry album.
He didn’t even know that. So it was like a full circle thing when a hero of mine came and said, “Hey, I wanna use ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ as my battle cry.” I’m like, “Dude, you inspired me to write it.” And he’s like, “What?” And he had no idea.
Donald, on the other hand, is a friend. He called me, and the class act that he is, he asked permission to use it, and I granted it to him. But honestly, after finding out his political stance on a number of subjects, I called him up and said, “Listen, man, you gotta stop using the song,” and to his credit, he stopped that night. He said “Okay.” He’s a friend, and that’s the kind of respect he showed me, and I still respect him, even though we do not see eye-to-eye on some major topics.
That’s got to be an uncomfortable conversation. “I know you really want to win this thing, but I don’t want you to win, and I don’t want you to use my song.” How does that conversation go?
It was tough. It was tough. But he respected the fact that, where other artists were going to the press and trashing him [I didn’t do that]. He was gentlemanly enough to me and ask to use it, and as a friend I was gentlemanly enough to call him and ask that he stop.
It wasn’t easy.
The three subjects you don’t talk about is sports, religion and politics. I’ve got great friends who I know I disagree with on some of those subjects, and I know if we ever talk about them, that will be the end of our friendship. And we’re great friends, great friends.
And so I didn’t know some of his stances. My ancestors who were granted asylum here in America, they were immigrants. And if they hadn’t been allowed in and granted asylum, I would not be here.
What is your family’s lineage?
I’m Eastern European: my mother’s Roman Catholic, my father was Jewish. My father’s father was a persecuted Russian Jew. His mother had to say he had died, she reported him dead, and he escaped Czarist Russia, worked his way through Europe, came to America and was granted asylum. And if he had been turned away, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have and the life I have. I could not dishonor him.
And I think people forget too quickly that this is America. All of our families, unless you’re Native American, come from immigrant families. And it wasn’t too long ago when every one of our families was the odd man out, and they were the people that were being shunned. You just have to watch Gangs of New York and see how the Irish were being treated in the late 1800s, it was terrible. It was terrible. They were treated as scum, you know what I mean?
Personally, I’m a Second Amendment guy, and I feel we should be stringent, and we should be strong on the borders, and we should be super careful, but to actually just block an entire religion or stop a race of people from coming into our country, that’s not what America is. That’s not what this country’s built on, and I can’t stand behind that.
There have been the downtrodden masses since America started. It’s always been somebody. It was Italians at one point; it was the Irish at another point. And now we’re seeing the Syrians and Middle Eastern people coming over, and they’re suffering, and it ain’t easy. We should be as careful as we could possibly be [in allowing people to immigrate], but to actually just ban people, that’s not what America is.
Ask Bono, who’s not even American. He said, “America is the greatest idea in history. It’s the greatest idea ever. Don’t lose that.” He said, “Ireland’s a country; England’s a country. America is an ideal, and the world needs that ideal.” And we gotta remember our place in this world. We welcome people. We don’t turn them away.
I wonder if Trump believes all the things he says, or is he just playing to the crowd, because he’s playing to win?
Well, we don’t talk about those subjects, but we certainly spend time together, and I see how he acts, I see the man that he is, and I agree [with you]. He’s a showman. He’s got a well-versed WWE approach; he’s done a lot of work with the WWE. That’s the kind of thing he does. He knows that there is this part of America that responds. They’re very reactive and very intense, and they’ve got some strong feelings, and he’s feeding that.
But perception is reality. And if you represent something dark and not positive, it doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, you still are the figurehead for that movement.
My band was uncomfortable. Well, they had mixed feelings. Some are pro-Trump, others are not pro-Trump. But it was like, “Hey, we’re all being defined by this.” And that’s not what the song was about. The song was sort of a song for everybody, not just for one voice.
When you did country songs on CMT’s Gone Country, or doing Broadway tunes on your last solo album Dee Does Broadway, does that change you as a musician?
I learned to have a more open mind. I know there are hardcore metal fans who are going to be angry with me for this change in musical style and angry at me for turning my back on the traditional heavy metal. And I understand that, ’cause I was one of those people. But after really experiencing these different things, and going to Broadway and doing Gone Country, I’ve learned to appreciate and be open-minded about other music. It’s broadened my palate, for sure.
You had a lot of people from different genres in Twisted Sister’s “Be Chrool to Your Scuel” in 1985.
That was a potpourri of special guests. And Twisted Sister had risen in popularity to that point where everybody was aware of us, and we were crossing over appeal-wise and even respect-wise with what I did in Washington [testifying against the PMRC, along with Frank Zappa and John Denver]. People suddenly were showing appreciation. So when I wrote “Be Chrool to Your Scuel,” I had this vision of not only dueting with Alice Cooper but bringing in guest artists.
We didn’t have a piano player, so I reached out to Billy Joel, who I knew had been in a metal band called Attila at some point. And I remember calling him up and going, “Listen, Billy, I know metal’s not your thing and all, but I just think…” and he stopped, and he goes, “Metal’s not my thing? I was playing metal when you were in diapers, kid.” He got mad. On sax we had Clarence Clemmons [from the E Street Band]; we really wanted a sax solo, so who do you call for a sax solo? Clarence Clemmons, he’s the guy. And the song had a real classic ’50s rock ’n’ roll overtone, so who are you gonna get to do a classic ’50s rock ’n’ roll guitar solo? Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats. So we wound up bringing in just a whole group of people that you wouldn’t normally find on a metal record.
It was not viewed as a positive thing by the fans, much like on Alice Cooper’s Muscle of Love record when he started bringing in Liza Minelli, LaBelle, the Pointer Sisters and all these people that he became friends with, it turned off the true metal fans and hard rock fans, whatever you wanna call ’em. They viewed it as kind of a “selling out.” As opposed to me, I viewed it more as “getting in.”
A lot of fans of a genre don’t want it to change too much.
Well, with my new record, We Are the Ones, I know a certain percentage of my audience is gonna just say “No,” flat out. I get it. But there are others I know who love and are passionate about the old school ’80s stuff, that they also enjoy Foo Fighters, and they enjoy new bands, and they enjoy what’s going on today.
So the end of Twisted Sister is just about here. How do you feel about it?
This is not Scorpions’ three-year farewell tour, and then they changed their minds. This is not Ozzy Osbourne’s “No More Tours” tour, where you buy the shirt, then he comes back two years later.
And by the way, I’m glad those guys are still around. I love those bands. But don’t tell us you’re leaving. Don’t tell us you’re leaving and get us to buy the damn T-shirt, okay? Just say “I’m staying forever,” and I can deal with that. I love Blue Oyster Cult. Their tour jackets say “On Tour Forever.” Fine! Perfect! I’ll go with that. Stay forever! But don’t say you’re leaving and make me have to buy an overpriced ticket and not disappear.
For me, it’s a matter of wanting to walk on the stage with a degree of dignity… well, the word “dignity” is a bad word. I’m just looking to leave on a high note. And somehow I’ve managed to stay in shape. I can perform at a level that people expect from Dee Snider, and they’re not disappointed. But I’m smart enough to know that it can’t go on forever. People say, “Yeah, but you’re still crushing it.” I say, “Yeah, but I don’t wanna make the same mistake of staying until I’m not.”
And then you have those David Lee Roth/Van Halen shows from their last tour. When they first reunited, I was hearing great things about Dave. And now this last one, it was sad. And David Lee Roth is a great frontman. He’s legendary, and they’re a legendary band.
And I saw a review of one of our shows that started by saying, “When a reunion is good, it makes you feel young again, but when it’s bad it makes you realize how old you’ve gotten.” And that’s so true, and I’ve experienced both ends of that, seeing reunions and I’ve just been fired up like I’m back in high school, and then, I’ve seen reunions that have been sad. And I just want to leave while we’re still firing people up.
And so I don’t ever want that Mike Tyson crawling around on all fours trying to find his mouthpiece moment in my career. And so this is the farewell. And I love the guys, we love each other, we’ve been doing some amazing shows all over the world. The reviews have been off the chain, which is great, and then on top of everything else, we’re filming everything, documenting everything for future releases.
But the We Are Twisted F—ing Sister doc is out, which I’m so happy about, because people are finding out the true story behind Twisted and how it came to be. And it’s not what most people thought. If you weren’t from the New York area, you didn’t know about what we went through. You didn’t know how hard we fought.
And you can’t watch that doc without having your perception of the band changed. And I’m seeing it everywhere I go, from other artists to people in social media, people commenting, things like, “I’ve never cared for this band, but watching that documentary, I respect them.”
And that’s really what I want for this band at the end of the day. Because we’ve had our moment in the sun, but we were more than that. We influenced a lot of bands in the Northeast, and we represent something. We represent that Rocky-esque refusal to stay down, to keep getting back up and keep fighting. And that’s an important story; people need to hear that.
What was the band meeting like, when you decided to finish up? When you decided on when and where you would play your the last show?
Well, we were talking about when to call it a day for a while, knowing that calling it a day was something that needed to be done. And we reunited a long time ago, in 2001. So we’ve been reunited longer than we were together the first time. And we’re still the same guys.
Anyway, so we’d been talking about it, and then [drummer] A.J. [Pero] passed away. And when he died we said, “It’s always been the five of us.” And was asked, how are we gonna end this thing? How do we wanna end this thing?
So we felt that with A.J. passing, it was time. Because of A.J.’s estate situation, which was a mess because he has two ex-wives, a current wife, and children from all three, he had a lot of responsibilities, and his family needed us to keep performing, at least for a while. And so rather than saying “We’re done” then and there, we said, “All right, let’s put in a little more time here, help the family out, and just make it an official thing of it.” And then it’s the middle of 2016, it’s the 40th year, there just sort of was a symmetry to it all. And so this is the year.
After the last gig, and you walk off stage for the last time, what happens? Do you all go out to dinner together?
Our approach to the farewell show is not like mourning the death of the band; it’s celebrating the life. I have said onstage, “View this as an Irish funeral. Break out the beers, raise a glass, and let’s all sing along” and take that approach.
So I know as the days dwindle down to a precious few, I know that the significance of what’s happening is gonna set in more. Right now to function and entertain and deliver what people wanna deliver, I can’t be maudlin. I’ve got to just be positive and fire it up.