Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

R.I.P. Jim Steinman

Songwriter Jim Steinman, best known for writing the Bat Out of Hell album for Meat Loaf, a number of hits for other singers, and a couple of musicals, died last week. He was 73 and had been ill for some time, ultimately succumbing to kidney failure. It took me a few days to figure out what to say about him. I think the best approach is to just tell my story of discovering and experiencing his work.

Back in 1975, as a callow 16-year-old, I was part of that first wave of over-dramatic adolescents who made the Rocky Horror Picture Show into the ultimate cult movie. I saw it a couple hundred times between 1975 and 1985, and I was Riff-Raff a couple of times at the old Covina Theatre. I’ve written at length about why I think that movie resonated with teens the way that it did and does. Anyway, being a devotee of RHPS, I naturally paid attention when anyone involved did any other projects. I first listened to the Broadway cast album of Grease because Barry Bostwick played Danny, and watched a couple of Susan Sarandon movies because of her performance as Janet, so when Meat Loaf (Eddie), had his first big hit with “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” I dutifully bought Bat Out of Hell.

I loved it. Yes, it’s overwrought, bombastic, pretentious, overblown, pseudo-operatic, over-produced cheese, wallowing in adolescent angst and hormonal excess. But in 1977, so was I. In June of 1976, when I graduated high school, I was 5’3″ and looked 11. In the year that followed, I grew 6″. My 18 was everyone else’s 14. As an anxious drama nerd, comics geek, aspiring cartoonist, and general weirdo/outcast, I was completely primed for Jim Steinman’s brand of melodrama. Todd Rundgren’s thundering guitar and Roy Bittan’s pounding piano only added to the power of Meat Loaf’s bellowing tenor and Steinman’s mythic apotheosis of edginess.

I was really not at all into any popular music or bands of the time; I didn’t listen to Top 40 radio or pay attention to any music apart from the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band and other Dr. Demento mainstays, but Bat Out of Hell was one of those rare instances where my weird taste happened to intersect with the Billboard charts. It doesn’t happen often. But naturally, Meat Loaf led to Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, and that same dramatic piano playing caught my attention the first time I paid attention to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” which led me to Roy Bittan’s day job, the E Street Band. Along the same lines, Meat Loaf’s backup singer, Ellen Foley, led me to NBC’s Night Court (Foley played the DA before being replaced by Markie Post).

Foley’s replacement on Meat Loaf’s tour, Karla De Vito, who starred in the music video for “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” put out her own solo album, Is This a Cool World or What?, which I still play today. I like her version of “Heaven Can Wait” better than Meat’s.

It got to the point that I could recognize a Jim Steinman song even if I’d never heard it before, no matter who recorded it, whether it was Air Supply, Barry Manilow, Barbara Streisand, or Celine Dion. I’m not really a fan of any of those artists, but I will still listen to their versions of his songs if I happen to encounter them.

Naturally, in 1981, I bought Steinman’s own solo album, Bad For Good, which included a song called “Stark Raving Love“;  A couple of years later, I was surprised to hear a lot of it reworked and recycled in one of the songs from Footloose, “Holding Out for a Hero.” I later learned that a major part of Steinman’s working method was to cannibalize his previous efforts. If a song wasn’t successful, he had no qualms about scavenging pieces of it for another try. Several songs from Bad for Good showed up later in Meat Loaf’s subsequent albums and the Bat Out of Hell musical, while others were pillaged for bits and pieces to be used in his aborted Batman musical, or in Tanz der Vampire or elsewhere.

I also ran into Steinman’s work in other weird places. Like, for instance, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! I think Chaykin was also a fan, because references popped up in the series a couple of times.

Raul the cat quotes “Bad for Good.”

Anyway, for a little over 40 years now, Jim Steinman’s music has been part of the soundtrack of my life, the closest thing to a guilty pleasure that I have, except I don’t feel guilty for it. Back before COVID, my kids bought me tickets to the touring production of Bat Out of Hell – The Musical, but then the tour was canceled before it got anywhere near the west coast. My bride had resigned herself to sitting through it with me, though she’s not a fan. In fact, out of all the terrible music in my library, the only thing that will make her leave the room is Steinman’s demo recordings from the quickly-canceled Batman the Musical. And I do understand why.

Unfortunately, laying Steinman’s melodramatic angst on top of Tim Burton’s melodramatic angst, on top of Batman’s melodramatic angst, is just too much. It’s like “Death By Chocolate,” it’s just too much. A big serving will make you sick. That’s not helped any by some of the lyrics he came up with, which don’t really work in context with the gothic severity of the show’s concept. When you start your show with Latin chanting about darkness, a lyric like “forever is such a long, long time, and most of it hasn’t even happened yet” becomes ridiculous, no matter how earnestly it’s sung. The songs are obviously far from finished, but there’s a LOT of time wasted on singing inane phrases innumerable times, as if repetition will somehow make them more significant, and his extended vamp at the end of Joker’s song, “Where Does He Get All Those Wonderful Toys,” alternates between being tedious and embarrassing. It’s pretty clear why Warner Bros quickly pulled the plug on this production. And yet I still occasionally listen to the damn thing. Catwoman’s Song, “I Need All the Love I Can Get” is actually good, despite the absurd pseudo-biblical intro speech.

Naturally, I’ve been thinking for some time about what it is that so appeals to me about Jim Steinman’s work, and why I haven’t outgrown it, despite recognizing all of the things he’s often been criticized for. Sure, there’s nostalgia, reconnecting with the snotnosed kid I was when I discovered it, but there’s more there.

The main thing, I think, is passion. Jim Steinman’s songs are almost all about people consumed by overwhelming emotion, striving for intimacy and connection, and not just the usual “acceptable” emotions for men, lust and rage, though those are there in abundance as well. Despite all his stereotypical macho posturing, studded leather jackets and skulls and motorcycles, Steinman’s characters cry, they can be tender and vulnerable, express regret and longing, and a lot of other things that adolescent boys are told are not manly, and they do it with roaring guitars and Richard Corben cover paintings steeped in testosterone. In a lot of ways, his work is a slap in the face to the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood version of masculinity, the tough loner who keeps his feelings bottled up. Bellowing along to a Meat Loaf song in the privacy of one’s car is a cathartic experience.

For an example of Steinman’s naked passion, take a look at the iconic “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Ignore the weird nonsense in the video; the song tells a heartbreaking story, a (what else?) gothic horror melodrama. The singer fell in love with a vampire, believed his promise that he could give her eternal life, believed they would be together forever, and allowed him to turn her into one. Once she became a vampire herself, she discovered to her horror that vampires can’t feel love. She now knows he never really loved her, and that she can never love anyone again. But she remembers what it felt like to be in love, and she will live forever knowing that she will never love again and that she will never forget what she’s missing. Love is lost forever for her. It’s a total eclipse of the heart. How do you carry on when you know you can’t do a damned thing to reverse your mistakes? That song kills me, even through all the cheese.

It’s interesting to me that despite how borderline misogynist and stalkery some of his songs are, he has a real knack for writing ballads for women. It’s been suggested that his “edgelord anthems,” and indeed pretty much all of Bat Out of Hell, were intended to be satirical, that he was poking fun at the pretentious posturing of late-’70s hard rock. But, like Poe’s Law, in rock the line between extreme and satire is almost nonexistent, and humor is frowned upon in hard rock circles, so the audience took him seriously. I like to think that’s the case, because it does make songs like “I’ll Kill You if You Don’t Come Back” and “All Revved Up (and No Place to Go)” a little less cringy. It’s also interesting that several of his ballads have been recorded by both men and women without changing a line. It’s almost like he’s suggesting that men and women can feel and express the same hurts and hopes, that pain and desire are universal. Take for example his clever wordplay in “For Crying Out Loud” in which he re-works the title phrase to mean “I love you because you cry out loud,” a thing that a lot of guys ought to internalize.

Anyway, whatever the reason, whatever meaning and significance I may try to find in his work, the fact is that something in me responds to his work, with the result that Jim Steinman was the second most important songwriter in my life, right behind Harry Chapin, and nearly as influential on me, though in ways that remained largely subconscious and unexamined until now. When he sang “if you’re too scared to jump, then you gotta be shoved” in “Stark Raving Love,” one might take that line as something edging into rape culture, but when I hear it, I prefer to think he’s talking to himself, pushing himself out of his comfort zone and trying to live up to the swagger he pretends to have. I’ve applied it to myself when I have to psych myself into doing something I’m hesitant to try, and it does give me the shove I need.

As I’ve written before, some things just resonate on a visceral, primal level, often without the listener’s awareness, and ultimately, I don’t care if his songs and production are cheesy and melodramatic; that’s part of why I love them. He told me that it’s okay, indeed good and healthy, to feel things, even oversized passions.

Jim Steinman, for crying out loud, I loved you.

Requiescat in Pace.

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  1. conrad1970

    Well this is sad news, I loved the overblown excess of Steinman’s work and Hi collaboration with Meatloaf was just perfect.
    I think his crowning achievement was Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, a true classic.

    R.I.P Jim

  2. Edo Bosnar

    On the Catwoman song, “I Need All the Love I Can Get”, I have to say that you weren’t kidding about him cannibalizing his own material. I immediately recognized that as the refrain in the Sisters of Mercy hit “More” and when I looked it up, sure enough, the song was co-written by Steinman.

  3. Le Messor

    I just heard about his death, too. That’s rough, man.

    He’s one of those composers I’ve always been able to recognise, whoever is singing – whether it’s Meatloaf, or Bonnie Tyler, or Barry Manilow, or Air Supply.

    My favourite of his collaborators is Bonnie Tyler – and I just found out in the last week (from a totally unrelated video) what Total Eclipse Of The Heart is really about.

    And Buzz Dixon is right – he’d’ve done a great Bond theme.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    The thundering piano was the thing that I came to love about Steinman’s stuff and learned to immediately recognize it. probably helped that my mother was a music teacher, when I was young, and I had been put through piano lessons, before I stupidly rebelled (some mean kids in the class, at a Yamaha Music store). I kind of have a thing for that kind of bombastic rock music, like Steinman, or Queen, when Freddy would be in his glory. I went to see Streets of Fire based on the music video running on MTV, for “Tonight is What It Means to be Young,” which is Steinman’s stuff. Loud, bombastic, and set to wild visuals of a motorcycle gang trashing a concert, cars, guns, explosions and fights. So, I went to the theater and hated the film with a passion, due to Michael Pare’s zombie performance, the horrible attempt to mash up the 50s and 80s style and only thought Willem Defoe came out of it with anything worth praising. The only reason I didn’t walk out of the theater was the music. I bought that soundtrack album and play it often. It’s not all Steinman, but all of it is great, with the mix of his stuff, the Blasters, The Fixx, Ry Cooder and even that Dan Hartman song that gets played to death these days. Still, my favorite is still Steinman’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” as it is the perfect call for a hero, ever. Didn’t think it was used well in Footloose (in terms of the scenes they put it in); but loved the version used for the spy tv series Cover Up, with Jennifer O’Neill and John Eric Hexum (who was accidentally killed on set, during filming). A few years ago, I set out to make a music mix that told a thematic story, mixing heroic-sounding songs and stuff to represent villains, then conflict, epic battle, loss, the horror of a world controlled by the villains and a counter-attack by the heroes. The horror stage included things like Black Sabbath’s “The Mob Rules,” and Iron maiden’s “Fear of the Dark.” That one is followed by the Bonnie Tyler “Holding out for a Hero,” which is then followed by the William Tell Overture (what other piece of music would signal the approach of a hero?).

    I always though Steinman was the guy to put music to Kirby’s 4th World (or the Eternals).

  5. Andrew Collins

    Somehow I missed the news of Steinman’s passing, so this is a sad surprise reading this. I first discovered him through his work in the late 80’s with Sisters of Mercy on the Floodland album. I didn’t see it mentioned in your write-up so I’m not sure if you know about that one.

    I also had no idea that’s what Total Eclipse Of The Heart was actually about, either. I don’t think I’ll ever listen to it quite the same way again.

  6. Andrew Collins

    Oh, and Steinman was also the original producer on Def Leppard’s Hysteria album but was fired by the band after only a few sessions and replaced with Mutt Lange. I would love to have heard a Steinman version of Hysteria, given that Leppard in their 80’s heyday could be pretty “bombastic” in their productions too.

  7. I’m not sure if I should commend you or condemn you for not starting this piece with “it was long ago, and far away, and so much better ….”

    Probably commend.

    I love pieces like this that appreciate someone who is perhaps not a huge mainstream or even nerd culture name, but expresses an appreciation for their work that makes me take pause and re-examine the work in question.

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