Dee Snider's still not gonna take it: "I don't know what 'great' [Donald Trump's] talking about. Is that when we had two sinks, colored and white?"

The hair metal legend talks to Salon about his Trump friendship, the election, Katy Perry and Twisted Sister's end

Published June 1, 2016 10:57PM (EDT)

Dee Snider   (Tim Tronckoe)
Dee Snider (Tim Tronckoe)

Look up the term "Renaissance man" in the dictionary, and chances are, Dee Snider's visage will be right there next to the definition. The New York native first made a name for himself in the '80s as the flamboyant frontman of the hair metal band Twisted Sister. He's spent the ensuing decades infiltrating all forms of media: TV (an appearance on "The Apprentice," the reality show "Growing Up Twisted"), cartoons (voiceover roles in "SpongeBob SquarePants"), radio (a long-running weekly show "The House of Hair") and even musicals (performing in "Rock Of Ages" on Broadway and penning his own holiday musical, "Dee Snider's Rock and Roll Christmas Tale").

Later this year, Snider's releasing a solo album, "We Are The Ones," written with Damon Ranger, who won an Oscar for working on "The Life of Pi" score. He'll also be closing the chapter on Twisted Sister after 40 years with farewell shows. The always-outspoken personality checked in before the long Memorial Day weekend, a week after he appeared at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and christened the museum's new "Louder than Words: Rock Power and Politics" exhibit with a stripped-down, slowed-down, Broadway-reminiscent version of "We're Not Gonna Take It."

In fact, Snider started the conversation by revealing, "We're getting ready to release that [song] in that form, because I think people need this message now more than ever."

So you're going to release it as a single?

The political situation is just disgraceful. The fact that our choice of candidates, it sucks, and the fact that our election is going to come down to, "I don't want him, so I'm voting for her" or "I don't want her, so I'm voting for him," that's not the reason to put a president in the White House. You put him in for what he stands for, not because you don't like the other choice.

I feel exactly the same way. It's very, very scary.

Oh, I know! The both of us are sitting there going, "What kind of fucking choice is this?" And this woman may be indicted on criminal charges, and we got this guy…He's clearly not presidential material, let's put it that way.

I get so upset when I'm online and see friends sharing things. I'm like, "You guys realize this is real life—this is not a meme, or an internet game." This is our actual country.

I think that is one of the problems, the disconnect. The disconnect for people that, you know, it's like reality TV. Reality TV is not really reality, you know. But this is reality—this is not some scripted reality show.

You know Donald Trump, because you were on "The Apprentice" and are friendly with him. How weird is that for you, then, to see how things are playing out in the campaign?

It's really weird. It's really weird. Donald Trump is a great guy, and a class act. And he's a friend. But like most friends—and I speak to everybody here—we don’t talk about politics, religion or sports when we hang out, because those topics…you know, that's taboo at all parties. Don't talk about religion, politics or sports. And I have friends who I know we stand on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to sports teams, and it comes to political beliefs—and we dine together, we hang out together, we vacation together. Great friends.

And my great friend called me up and said, "Hey, I want to use this song for my campaign," and I was like, "Yeah, go ahead." Three months later I was shaking my head going, "Holy shit!" I had no idea that he stood for these things, and I do not stand for these things. And I called him up, and I said, "Donald, people are thinking this is an endorsement, and I can't endorse the things you stand for. Please stop using my song." And he stopped that day, because that's the kind of guy he is. Like I said, he’s a great guy.

A lot of politicians have taken it upon themselves to use my song without asking. He called and asked. I asked him to stop, he stopped. But I just cannot endorse his political beliefs, which I didn't know existed, like I said. I've had great dinners with the man, but we never talked about banning all Muslims. That's a great dinner-stopper, you know? "Who right here [is] for favor of banning all Muslims?" No one talks about that over dinner. Can you understand my point, how you can be friends with somebody and not know—or endorse—their political beliefs?

I have friends like that, where you keep it on the surface, because otherwise we'd be at each other's throats.

I've got a really close friend, and our sports teams are bitter rivals. He wears the other team's hat, I'm wearing my team's hat, and we have ignored it for like 10 years. We've never mentioned our hats. And I'll tell you, these teams are bitter rivals, because that would be the end of the relationship. Yet he's one of my closest friends. You don't talk about this shit! [Laughs.]

It's a little over 30 years after the PMRC, and it seems like there are some real full-circle moments happening in terms of hysteria over freedom of expression of all types, not just music.

The fight against censorship has been ongoing, there's no doubt about it. There's been blips on the radar and significant moments like stickering records. But then there's things like what's going on with Gawker. It is a freedom of speech situation, but where is the line? Outing a person against their will, showing a person's private experiences in a home setting. Is that a need-to-know? Is that the public's right? I mean, but still, it’s a censorship issue, so it’s ongoing.

Right now, there's an overall, bigger problem, and that is politically. And internationally, by the way. The country is in a mess. We've gotten ourselves to this place in time, where we're about to elect either the number one or the number two most unlikeable presidential candidate in the history of presidential candidacies. That’s the statistics. Donald Trump is the most unliked in history, and Hillary is the second most-unliked.

Eight years ago, everything seemed like, "America's turning a corner." And eight years later, it's like, "How did we get here?"

I'll tell you, my reading is, people are apathetic, and they thought, "The work is done." You know, "Bring on the black President—it's fixed." No, it's not fixed! And Donald Trump is showing, good God, these bigots—and there's a lot of them still—are skulking around in the dark shadows, and all of a sudden they've got someone speaking their point and they're jumping out and exposing themselves. Racism is not as bad as ever—it's come a long way, if you really want to be truthful about it. But it's very present. It's still an issue. And that’s not the only issue I’m talking about, I’m just saying, case in point.

People kind of go, "We're fighting, we're fighting, we're fighting—oh, we ended the Vietnam War, okay, we fixed the flaw. Cool. We're done with that." No, you gotta make sure that new way of thinking becomes institutionalized—you gotta make sure it stays. If you're lax in your fight, if you're lax in fighting for what you believe in, it will just slowly slip back to where it was. Donald Trump, it's all about making America great—judging by the things he stands for, I think he's talking about like the '40s. I mean, it's crazy! I don't know what "great" he's talking about. Is that when we had two sinks, colored and white? Two bathrooms? I don't know.

Yeah. As a woman, it's also scary.

Girl, I agree. I'm a pro-choice guy. To me that is, if you are not pro-choice, I am not for you. If you can't say that a woman has a right to choose—by the way, it's not that a woman should have an abortion or shouldn't have an abortion. It's they should choose for themselves, and not have a bunch of old white men telling them what to do with their bodies.

[Donald] called me and asked me to use my song, and I gave permission. And when I asked him to stop, he stopped. That's a class act. Paul Ryan started using my song, and he's out there on the stump singing, "We're not gonna take it." And the first line is, "We've got the right to choose"—and he's anti-choice! And I said, "What don't you understand about the words that you're singing? 'We've got the right to choose!' as you’re saying you want to get rid of Roe v. Wade?" It's mind-numbing.

People don't listen to the actual lyrics, just the chorus.

This goes back to the Senate hearings, you know, [which is part of] "Louder Than Words," where one of my songs that was being attacked was "Under The Blade," and Tipper Gore said it was about sadomasochism bondage. And the song was about my guitar player's throat operation. And I said, "I can't help it if she has a dirty mind." They're either not hearing the words and just listening to the chorus… And in fairness to Tipper Gore, I did write the words in a vague way, so people could put their own frustrations into it, or their own thoughts into it.

Like, "We're Not Gonna Take It"—the Rolling Stone review was, "What from who?" Three-word review, in 1984. And that was the point. Maybe it's your parents. Maybe it's your bosses. Maybe it's your teachers. Maybe it's politicians. Maybe it's your ex. The song is supposed to be for the masses, and it's supposed to speak for their particular frustration.

And that's a good song, that it's not obvious, that it does work on multiple levels and can be interpreted differently depending on your situation and perspective.

I think the best of the songs are like that. [Survivor's] "Eye Of The Tiger," it doesn’t say, you know, “Rocky’s gonna fight, he’s going to beat up Apollo Creed.” No—it's a general inspirational song that speaks to the situation, but also to a myriad of situations.

["We're Not Gonna Take It"], the words are there for you. They're for everybody, but they need to speak … They're pretty specific. It's not just about, "Hey, let's party and go to karaoke and sing 'We're Not Gonna Take It.'" That's great—keep doing that, people! I love it. At the same time, the song's supposed to mean more.

Besides the places you've mentioned, what's the most interesting place you've seen the song used over the years?

Going from its roots, I've seen it used at protests, and sporting events and political rallies. But now that it's a folk song, pretty much, I've seen it in cartoons, commercials for cold remedies and women's pre-menopausal medications. The most mind-blowing one was "Rock Of Ages." When Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing a Tipper Gore-esque character fronting a PMRC-esque organization trying to shut down rock & roll, and the song they sing is "We're Not Gonna Take It." Irony defined!

In the span of a several decades, that's how the song has evolved.

It's crazy. But at the same time, that's why I think it's time to slow it down, strip it bare into the words, to the message, and hopefully inspire some more people. Because this election, either way it goes, it's gonna suck. This needs to be a flashpoint for the world, to say, "We really have to effect change." And not just like, "Okay, we elect somebody—okay, it's fixed." No. You've got to be resilient, you've got to be stalwart. You've got to continue to press and push and pressure the people who represent us, to do the fucking right thing—pardon my French. Clearly, they're not. They have their own agendas. It's mind-blowing.

I know you're working on a solo album. Are these themes cropping up on that as well?

Absolutely. The record is very thematic. The album itself is called "We Are The Ones," which is basically speaking to the masses, really. I always say, "You have the extremists on the left, extremists on the right, and the middle—we're just trying to figure out the best-case scenario." [Laughs.] We’re not extreme left, we’re not extreme right, we just want it to be good, you know. And we’re going to try to figure it out. There's songs like, "So What" on the record. "Rule The World," "Believe," "Superhero." There's a number of songs on the record that really speak to inspiring people. The album is definitely, like I've always been, designed to inspire people, rile people up and remind people that they've got a job to do.

It's nice to hear music like that. So much modern music doesn't say anything –it's just sort of there. As a listener, you want to feel inspired after listening to a record, and fired up to do something.

There is stuff. You know, stuff like [Kelly Clarkson's] "Stronger." It's not a metal record. "Roar" — get past Katy Perry jumping around and stuff like that, and hear what's being said.

[The] producer of my album and co-writer of all the material on my album [is] Damon Ranger. He's the one who approached me and said, "Dee, I think there's an album for you, a contemporary album, a mainstream rock record, a metal-rock record that will speak to people today…" I said, "Really. Me. This guy? A 61-year-old guy." He says, "Absolutely, Dee. You're timeless. And you represent something, a spirit, and I think the right songs…"

And I heard his stuff that he's worked on before and I said, "There are songs out there that are inspirational." You see that sometimes they just get lost, and one of the things that gets lost is the fun of rock & roll. Don’t forget, rock and roll, first and foremost, it’s supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be [an] escape. It shouldn't be super-heavy. At the same time, as "Louder than Words" is showing, it can be inspirational.

Was Damon a fan of your stuff? How did he find you?

Damon found me. He's won an Oscar, [a] Grammy. Incredibly successful. He writes for Kanye, Pink. He approached me—we actually ran into each other at a radio show. And challenged me! I was ready to pack it in with Twisted, and I said, "Really—you got songs?" And he goes, "Absolutely." He sent me something, and we demoed it, and it led to a new record deal with Sony/RED, and an international deal. Now we have an entire album and a whole new movement. The album's released in September, but the single will be released before that, probably July.

I'm leaving metal behind and I'm going for the mainstream. But his thing was, besides me being iconic and being a voice and speaking to a certain attitude with people, is that I've also, over the years, expanded my appeal, audience-wise, while not servicing them musically. Through all the reality TV, Dee Snider's become a known commodity. And my radio work, and Broadway and television, you know, all of these things, like film. Those people aren't necessarily fans of alt '80s metal. So he says, "Give them a mainstream record that rocks, and I think you will give this audience music they're ready to hear."

You probably have fans that aren't even necessarily aware of Twisted Sister's career, which is crazy to think about.

Oh, I know! I walk down the street. It's amazing—my Q factor as they call it, everybody knows me—what they'll cite as their connection. A lot of times, it's not Twisted Sister; it's not my musical career. It's the other things they got to know me for over the years.

This year, Twisted Sister is wrapping up this year, after 40 years together. Why was now the right time to wrap things up with the band?

It's been the right time for a very long time. I love the band—I love the guys—I'm proud of us. But I am really sort of a motivator [behind the band] calling it a day. I wanted to reunite—I wanted to end more positively. I wanted to fix the friendships and the relationships, and I wanted to go out on a high note. I remember, God, it must've been…2005? Around there. And we did a show in front of 75,000 people, it was a festival in Germany. Perfect show, perfect audience, perfect night, and it was all filmed, on like 20 fucking cameras. I walked off the stage and I go, "That was perfection. Can we stop now? It's never going to get better than that. We did it. We reunited it; we came back; we crushed it; we documented it. Can we leave?" And the guys go, "Well, Dee, come on, man." I'm like, "Ahh, okay." So that was already ten years ago.

But when AJ [drummer, Pero] died [in 2015], I said, "Guys, it's always been the five of us. Do we want to be one of those bands that's just slowly dying? Or people are getting sick. Or do we want the legacy to be the five of us strong?" And the guys said, "Absolutely the five of us strong." We have one other harrowing situation, and that is AJ left behind a mess of three ex-wives and children and no estate planning. It was like, "Let's do some shows for AJ. And let's do some shows, so we make money, and his estate gets some money, and his family and his children can have something."

Mike Portnoy has stepped in, from Dream Theater and the Winery Dogs, a classy guy—speak about class acts. We only did a dozen shows last year, and we're doing about a dozen this year. And that's it. Saying goodbye, and put some money together for AJ's family—families. That guy was prolific. I was the prolific songwriter in the band, and he was prolific in the Biblical sense.

I also love you're playing a solo show at Riot Fest in Chicago in September. That's such an eclectic festival.

It's the first Dee Snider solo show. It is not a Twisted Sister show—it's going to be all my new music. Hence my billing. They're like, "Oh, you gonna do Twisted stuff?" and I said, "No." And they said, 'Okay." I'm going out there doing all-new music. But because my music is designed for a mainstream audience, Twisted always had that punk mentality. The attitude is right for Riot Fest. It's going to be my first show and it's right when the record's coming out. Where does it go from there? I'm not exactly sure.

Is that nerve-wracking to be doing your first solo show after all these years?

Oh, hell fucking yeah! I've done solo shows where I've played Twisted stuff. Basically, you're going out there—it's Dee Snider singing the songs he wrote for Twisted Sister, "the voice of Twisted Sister." That's a different animal than going out and playing "We Are The Ones" and "Crazy For Nothing" and "Rule The World" and just laying this shit out there people have not heard. It takes me back to the earliest days of my band, when we would hit the road and we're opening third on a bill playing for audiences that didn't know who the fuck we were.

It is kind of like starting over. You have to claw your way back again and prove yourself.

I go, "What the fuck are you doing, man? You've achieved your dream. You're successful. You could just walk away and be done with it." But my primary motivation now is to be challenged. When Damon Ranger came to me and said, "I think you could reintroduce to a contemporary audience with new, mainstream rock music," that was a challenge. When they called me up and said, "Do you want to be on Broadway and 'Rock Of Ages'?" That was a challenge.

My son, who's an up-and-coming film director, he says, "Dad, you're a really good actor. I see you, you've done some things over the years. I think you need to do more acting." I said, "Well, well, well…" He said, "I'll put together a reel for you and I'm sending it out." Which he's done. That is a challenge. For me, it's all about new challenges. I wrote a musical, called "A Rock and Roll Christmas Tale," and it's been staged the last two holiday seasons in Chicago and Toronto. That was a challenge. This isn't my comfort zone at all—this is like, "What the fuck are you doing, headbanger? Writing a musical?" To get it staged was a huge accomplishment.

Why not? You only live once—you might as well.

Exactly. It's not about the money. It's about feeling invigorated and feeling like, "Yeah, I'm not just going through the motions. I'm doing something, I'm trying to do something. Life is just fucking amazing. I still do all my radio [shows]. I’ve been doing radio for 20 years and that continues on. So like I said, just because Twisted Sister is saying goodbye doesn’t mean that you’re done with Twisted Sister, it just means that I’m done with this part of my life.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Censorship Dee Snider Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gawker Music Peter Thiel Tipper Gore