I Wanna Doc!: Dee Snider Revisits Twisted Sister's Tough NYC Past in New Film
Dee Snider of Twisted Sister
Courtesy of Music Box Films
"It is friggin' long. One thing it does, it gives you the experience of suffering through something."
Dee Snider is nothing if not brutally honest when it comes to appraising We Are Twisted Fucking Sister!, a new documentary that tracks the beginnings of his band's career. It takes 134 minutes just to reach the point where the New York glam-metal quintet sign their first record deal. (The film ends there, too.) But when you consider it took ten years for the group to break, the length seems appropriate: Overnight sensations they weren't. And suffer they did.
The hulking dudes dressed in drag — best known for 1984's Top 40 single "We're Not Gonna Take It" — logged five years of hard playing and partying before they even scored a gig in Manhattan. An interminable decade passed before they inked a record deal with Atlantic (label executive Phil Carson, the man who signed them, remarks in the doc, "Sure they suck, but they're going to sell a lot of records"). Contentious internal relationships — especially between Snider, who was not the original frontman, and guitarist Jay Jay French — were as trying for them as cracking the Manhattan club circuit. Being seen as legitimately hardcore was an essentially impossible task for a band dressed like women playing Bowie and Lou Reed covers for, as Snider lovingly describes their rabid audiences, "Camaro-driving mullet-heads."
"I look back and say I was a rube, and they treated me like one," recalls Snider, Twisted Sister's fast-talking, quick-witted singer-in-chief, referring to his bandmates. "They were city guys and I was not. I remember shitting in my pants the first time we went in to pick up [guitarist] Eddie [Ojeda] and Jay Jay [in 1976]. Eddie lived in the Bronx, and Jay Jay was up near Harlem." Raised on Long Island, Snider — then known as Danny — had fronted a couple of local bands; he'd go on to audition at the urging of Twisted Sister's agent before joining in 1976 after a successful Hunter Mountain gig that doubled as a tryout.
"They were friends from high school. I was the new guy. [Their treatment of me] created a little monster, and that little monster went off and wrote all the songs by himself and created every idea by himself. Rather than feeling like he was a part of something, he became isolated and sort of went off on his own and became his own person." Snider takes a breath. "But yeah. We didn't really get along really well."
The doc refers to French and Snider, respectively, as "the pragmatist and the peacock." When Snider first saw the finished film, made (and funded) by director Andrew Horn, he was reminded again of his own exhausting journey and the relentless push-pull of egos. "My sole purpose was to obliterate Jay Jay French and his songs," Snider says in the film. "I was maniacal and malicious. And I did it." For his part, French, who had been attempting to handle vocal duties pre-Snider, tells the camera that "if [the singer] came with baggage, I was willing to put up with it...to a degree."
"I didn't realize how the anger in me grew, how I would change from an innocent suburban twenty-year-old with dreams of 'I'm gonna be a rock star!' and how the joy was beaten out of me," Snider says. "By the time you arrived, you were battle-worn and battle-hardened. It wasn't joyful anymore. It was 'Well, it's about fucking time.' The joy was stolen from me."
In piecing together what Snider calls the band's Rocky-esque story arc, Horn used footage and photos provided by the band, interviews with the other Twisted Sister members, and accounts from longtime fans. "The beauty of Horn making the doc is that he is not a superfan," Snider offers. "He was an American expat living in Germany working on a documentary on Klaus Nomi."
It just so happened that Nomi's story touched on Twisted Sister's. A cult- favorite gay German performance artist who wore makeup and was more "Sprockets" than rock, Nomi, who had relocated to New York by the early Seventies, wanted to reach the mainstream and felt that opening for Twisted Sister might do the trick. But he was brutalized by the band's audience, sending the artist into a depressive spiral. "To us it was no big whoop," Snider recalls. "But it turned out to be a significant turning point in Klaus's life, so Andrew reached out to interview us for that. But then he wanted to tell our story. He worked on it, like, three years out of his own pocket and then started a GoFundMe. From the beginning, the band agreed we would not try to influence what he put together. We would not give him notes; we would not try to pressure him to tell anybody's one story. He was going to get the information, and as the director, he will create the story he sees in there. That's really why it was perfect."
Courtesy of Music Box Films
We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! lays bare the sweat, stilettos, and spitefulness that spurred the band's rock 'n' roll rise. The arduousness of the journey makes their success all the more impressive, and their fraught relationship with the city fuels the documentary's unfortunate climax. In the Tri-State area — Long Island, especially — Twisted Sister would sell clubs out multiple nights in a row, making thousands from each gig and maintaining the rock-star lifestyle within their own limited and seemingly inescapable suburban bubble. "We were a Tri-State band," Snider says of their simultaneous blessing and curse. But that's not where a&r execs were flocking to find new talent. "The clubs in Manhattan were small, and they didn't pay," Snider recalls. "We thought we were too good for them — 'We're not going to play for nothing in a hole.' "
Finally, they booked and sold out a huge show at the Palladium; the guest list included many an industry bigwig. It was to be the group's breakout performance. And then, just on the cusp of fame, the unthinkable happened: Ojeda suffered a grand mal seizure during rehearsals. The show was canceled.
"It was a tremendous blow," Snider remembers. "Every record company was coming. The dream was happening, and we were completely derailed." The concert was rescheduled for two months later, but the moment was gone: "New wave had hit; we were dinosaurs, completely off course. A&r and biz people were sending their secretaries to see us, because the whole scene had changed, and everybody had moved on."
We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! ends just as this merciless tide is turning. A stellar gig in England earned the band the deal with Atlantic; within two years, Twisted Sister's second record for the label, 1984's Stay Hungry, had yielded "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock," which became radio and MTV staples. The album ultimately sold more than 3 million copies.
Today, Snider has no problem going beyond the scope of the film and acknowledging the failings to follow. "I [was] absolutely a narcissistic megalomaniac," he says of the Dee we see onscreen. "And once I broke through, after all these years of struggle and people telling me no, now I was going to tell everybody: I was right, you were wrong. Fuck you. Shut your mouth, I don't want to hear from you. Nobody talk to me. You just will listen. Because the Dee is talking. The Dee is speaking. The Dee knows."
He readily admits that his combustible personality destroyed the band; it also nearly ruined his marriage, which hits the forty -year mark this April. By late 1987, Snider had quit Twisted Sister, Atlantic had canceled their contract a mere five years after it was signed, and the quintet had disbanded. "When the band fell apart and my career completely dissolved," Snider says, "it humbled me and made me a better person. To get knocked down is a healthy thing."
"The Dee" can laugh now. Twisted Sister still tour intermittently to appreciative crowds. Drummer A.J. Pero passed away in 2015, but with age, wisdom, and humility (plus that original onstage intensity), the surviving members carry on. This summer sees the group playing mega- festivals in the U.K. and continental Europe.
"There are the stories that people imagine, and then there's the truth," Snider observes. "Most of the time, it's not storybook. Most of the time it's a convoluted journey and a very precarious and delicate one — one that could have gone horribly wrong at any time. And yet somehow, you stumble through."
We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! opens February 19 at Cinema Village.
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