Dee Snider on PMRC Hearing: 'I Was a Public Enemy'

Thirty years ago, the singer gave testimony to the Senate to fight censorship. Looking back, he says he'd do it all over again

Twisted Sister's Dee Snider PMRC senate hearing in 1985. "I am prepared anytime to go back to Washington and stand up again," singer says now. Credit: Mark "Weissguy" Weiss

Twisted Sister were riding high in 1985 when they got wind that a committee calling itself the Parents Music Resource Center had singled them out, along with a handful of other artists, for ostensibly making obscene music. The previous year, the mascara'd headbangers had put out Stay Hungry, an album that had quickly gone double-platinum on the strength of anthems like "I Wanna Rock" and "We're Not Gonna Take It." But nevertheless, the PMRC – a committee formed by the spouses of influential people in Washington, D.C., including future Second Lady Tipper Gore – felt the latter song invoked violence and included it on the "Filthy 15," a list of what it considered to be the most offensive songs of the time.

Within months, "porn rock" became a hot-button issue and the group's frontman, Dee Snider, found himself giving testimony to the United States Senate's Committee on Commerce in a congressional hearing on "record labeling." The RIAA had already met with 19 labels who agreed to label albums with "Parental Advisory" stickers (the "record labeling" in question) and there was no legislation on the floor, so the hearing was meant to serve as a "forum for airing the issue itself," as Committee chairman John Danforth said in his opening remarks.

For Snider, it was a chance to show the world that he was not the dumb, aggressive metalhead palooka he felt the PMRC thought he was. As footage of his testimony shows, the senators present – including Al Gore – were not ready for him. "They really wanted [Mötley Crüe singer] Vince Neil," Snider tells Rolling Stone. "Vince is not very articulate. He actually is a life-styler, so he probably would have been half in the bag going in there. They would have smacked him around, because he's incapable of fighting at the level. As far as going and having an intellectual debate on something, he'd be pretty defenseless." Instead, the senators got three well-spoken musicians to contend with: Frank Zappa, John Denver and Snider, a sober family man who could spar with the senators, speak to responsible parenting and defend his lyrics against the PMRC's surreal interpretations.

"Ms. Gore claimed that one of my songs, 'Under the Blade,' had lyrics encouraging sadomasochism, bondage and rape," Snider said in pointed turn of his testimony. "The lyrics she quoted have absolutely nothing to do with these topics. On the contrary, the words in question are about surgery and the fear that it instills in people. ... I can say categorically that the only sadomasochism, bondage and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms. Gore."

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the Senate hearing, which Snider still considers a "pretty significant event." Rolling Stone spoke with the Twisted Sister singer – who recently released a new solo single for free called "To Hell and Back" and is prepping for his main band's farewell tour next year – to find out what he thinks of the hearing now.

Why do you think 1985 was the year the PMRC felt it needed to act?
It was the Reagan era. The conservatives were definitely holding sway on things. But it should be noted, this was a Democrat-driven cause, which is crazy. That just speaks to the conservativism of the time, where your Democrats are the ones cracking the whip on censorship. Al Gore was a conservative in liberal clothing.

What did you think when you heard that "We're Not Gonna Take It" was among the PMRC's "Filthy 15"?
I thought these women were very confused. And I quickly became aware that they only had had a passing glance at the content of songs. They just made some snap judgments. They saw the "We're Not Gonna Take It" video, "Oh, he's beating up his father, it's a violent song." They thought it was about violence against adults. They had not vetted the songs they had chosen very well.

How did you come to testify at the Senate hearing?
I don't know exactly. It's funny. I just remember my manager saying someone asked if I would go testify.

How did you prepare to give testimony?
Prior to arriving in Washington, I worked on my speech with my tour manager, Joe Gerber. He's a longtime friend and a very smart man. We worked on this piece for a couple of weeks. He attended some PMRC hearings.

What was the scene like when you arrived?
I was taken aback by the by the magnitude of this event. Even being a rock star, I had never experienced something that intense, where there's just protesters and satellite trucks and camera crews and news crews everywhere. It was a circus-like atmosphere with people from both sides protesting in the streets.

Did you meet with Frank Zappa and John Denver beforehand?
I met Frank for the first time in some office where we waited to give testimony. Our main concern was what John was gonna do. We never got to see him. We knew he should be on our side, but he was such an all-American boy. He was a movie and TV star and he had his annual Christmas show. He was literally coming in that day from an interview with NASA about possibly becoming the first musician in space. So we were like, "What is he gonna do?"

"John Denver made such powerful statements, likening the censorship movement to the Nazi book burnings. My God."

Were your fears warranted?
No. His testimony was the most damaging, 'cause it was so unexpected. He made such powerful statements, likening the censorship movement to the Nazi book burnings. My God, you shouldn't have seen the back-pedaling. He was righteous.

Did you look at the whole thing as something fun or something serious?
I took it very seriously that I was being judged solely on face value, and clearly these women had not done their homework. You can't just take a broad stroke and say, "It's all like this." To generalize is damaging. By "warning" parents, they were interpreting art. Who was gonna be the interpreter? Who was gonna be the judge and say what was and what wasn't offensive. Clearly they weren't the ones, because they were misreading the shit out of my stuff. So I didn't think it was funny at all.

Denver and Zappa wore suits to give testimony. Why did you wear a jean jacket and a tank top?
I didn't have any other clothes. There was no suit in my closet. Jeans, cut-off T-shirt, cut-off denim, hair, it was, "This is who I am." I was very proud of being a dirt bag in high places.

Your interaction with Al Gore during the hearing was heated. What were you feeling while he was questioning you?
I remember the look in his eyes. He was beside himself. The things that I was saying, using the protection of talking about Tipper as a "member of the PMRC" – not Al Gore's wife personally – if he could have taken me out back and had me shot, he so would have. He was livid. And I made him look like a fool on more than one occasion. When John Denver came out, Senator Gore said, "I just want to start by saying, Mr. Denver, I'm a huge fan of your music." Well, that didn't surprise me. And then, Zappa went out, and he starts by going, "Mr. Zappa, I just want to start by saying I'm a huge fan of your music." Really?  Joe's Garage, "Catholic Girls," really? So when they said, "Senator Gore, you have the mic," I said to him, "You're not going to say you're a huge fan of my music, are you senator?" And all of his peers laughed because he was such a fucking suck-up. That's how it started: I made a joke at his expense and it was on.

The one thing he had on me was the name of the fan club, the Sick Motherfucking Friends of Twisted Sister. So when he asked, "What does 'S.M.F.' stand for?" I got the proud distinction of being one of the few people to say "motherfucker" in Washington – well, on camera and not behind closed doors. I'm sure they all said, "That motherfucker Dee Snider" afterwards. But I kind of bitch-slapped him quite a bit, and I took some shots at his wife, as well.

How did you feel when you were done giving testimony?
I felt great leaving the place feeling like I kicked ass. But at the same time I remember when I was leaving, a reporter jumped in front of me and said, "Dee, how are you feeling?" And I said, "Dirty." That was the first word, without thinking, that came out of my mouth. I'd found out that these people in Washington are not better, they're not greater, they're definitely not smarter than anybody, and they're not doing stuff on our behalf. They've got their own agendas. It was really a rude awakening and disappointing for me to really see the truth, to have the curtain pulled back and to see that there is no great Oz.

How did you feel when you found out the RIAA agreed to sticker albums before the hearing?
Stunned! Stunned! We rolled in there and I was told that they already agreed to a modified sticker. It hadn't been announced but it was done. We're like, "What the fuck are we doing here?" I was mortified and really disappointed.

How did giving testimony affect your career?
I didn't realize that fans, much to my chagrin, want life-stylers. They really want people to be offstage as they are onstage, and I was a disappointment to the audience. Once they saw wholesale that I was smart and I was sober and I was very married and I was very sane – if you call what I do for a living "sane" – it hurt me image-wise. The fans were completely apathetic. They did not appreciate the significance of what was going on. I felt very abandoned. I was accused of being a phony, and I couldn't have been more real.

Did you lose fans because of it?
Well, I don't want to blame the demise of Twisted Sister [in 1989] all on the PMRC. It wouldn't be honest, but it didn't help. On a personal level, after the Senate hearings, my phones being tapped, my mail was being checked. I was now a public enemy. I don't know if I was Number One, but I was certainly someone they wanted to keep an eye on, because I humiliated a bunch of senators on their home field. But that didn't affect Twisted.

What happened was we had crossed over now from being a "hardcore," "street," late-teens band to the pop world where Duran Duran fans were coming to see us. So if the fans had to give up anybody, they were happy to give up Twisted Sister. When Mom and Dad, who followed the news, drew a line in the sand and told kids, "You can see that Mötley Crüe, but not that Twisted Sister." The kids were like, "OK, I was kind of over them anyway."

Do you have any regrets then about appearing before the Senate now?
I'm glad that I did it. I pride myself on doing the right thing, and that was the right thing. And in retrospect, it was the first time, career-wise, it was positive for me because people started to view me as more than a one-note horn.

How do you feel about record stickering now?
It wasn't about helping parents to choose for their kids. It was used to sequester certain records; certain chains wouldn't carry certain albums. The major chains were demanding record companies make alternate, censored printings of albums. That is another level of censorship. If a grown man or a woman walks in and they want to buy this new album, they aren't necessarily getting the artist's version. They're getting the version that corporations want you to hear.

The fans did not recognize what was happening. They're like, "Oh, it's just a sticker. It lets us know what the real cool records are." That was the moron's take on it. It was frustrating that people, the fans, were so apathetic and not smart enough to understand the significance of what was happening.

Looking at Twisted Sister records, none got stickered except for The Best of Twisted Sister. Did you protest that?
The Best of has a live concert and, live, we go, "You motherfuckers, let's rock," so that's why it had the sticker on it. But we weren't that band.

I did have a problem with a band I was in called Widowmaker. I'd created artwork and got it back from the printer and there was a sticker printed in it. And I was like, "What is that?" He goes "We decided to put that in." And I go, "I don't want a sticker. It's voluntary. I don't volunteer." They go "We put it on all the records. We're volunteering you." Like, no. That shows how stickers can be misused.

Have you crossed paths with Al or Tipper Gore since the hearings?
No. When Al become vice president, the thing that was even more mind blowing to me was that Tipper became Second Lady. And they were denouncing everything they did, because Clinton was running as the rock & roll president, and they're backpedaling. He had all these explanations for their behavior and their sabotage of rock & roll. He was distancing himself from all that shit.

There's a lot of irony here in the past three decades: Irony that the Gores are separated, and I'm married 33 years and I've been with the same woman for 39. The Gores' children have been arrested for possession, and none of my children have ever been arrested for procession of any narcotics. I'm not making fun of the Gores' separation because marriage is tough, and I've been married 33 years and I can't guarantee 34. I mean, it's a process. And raising kids, it ain't easy. They're out of your control, and they do things and they don't always do things that you're proud of. But no one should be throwing stones. No one should be pointing fingers. No one should be passing judgment on others. Don't be so quick to judge. And the Gores should certainly not have been.

"What constitutes obscenity in music is not in question. There is no time the government should step in."

So what constitutes obscenity in music and when should the government step in?
What constitutes obscenity in music is not in question. Something can be obscene to one person and not obscene to the other, and therein lies the problem with art: Who is the arbiter of good taste? Who's gonna decide what is obscene and what is artistic? When you're dealing with the first amendment and the right of free speech and the freedom of expression, if you want to stand by those rights and those beliefs, we unfortunately have to allow everybody to have artistic freedom. So there is no time when the government should step in.

In your testimony, you said you expected to be "well retired" in nine years' time. What were you doing in 1994?
By 1994, I was flat broke. I had lost every penny I made. I was riding a bicycle to a desk job for $200 a week answering phones in an office, having people come in and go, "Aren't you that guy ... ," and lying and saying, "No, I'm not," because I was so embarrassed. It was not exactly the ride I expected. I was desperately trying to regroup and reinvent myself and figure out what I was going to do for the next 50 years because the money ran out. But I found life after rock & roll. I did radio, reality television, movies and all kinds of other things. So I'm doing well, but I'm not "well retired." It turns out it's not that simple. It wasn't so funny but it's ironic.

How do you feel about the hearing now, 30 years later?
All my concerns were justified and everything I was worried about played out just the way that I feared. There's still a desire to censor and shut us up. I am prepared anytime to go back to Washington and stand up again.