Jim Steinman is The Emperor in Black Leather
If music be the food of love; Give me excess of it
“Twelfth Night” Shakespeare
Let the revels begin
Let the fire be started
We're dancing for the desperate and the brokenhearted
“Tonight is What It Means to Be Young”
The overhead skies, darkening like a charcoal bloom, rumble with the surefire promise of oncoming storms. Lightning crackles like pyro from the gods, as a figure shrouded in a black leather jacket and matching shades roars in the distance. The air smells of exhaust, petrichor, and roses, the perfect blend for mourning but also celebration. Jim Steinman’s physical vessel has passed away, but the legacy...his legacy...looms large from the earth in Hewlett, New York, where Steinman was born, to the wind that floats through over Europe, Russia, and Japan, where his adaptation of Roman Polanski’s 1967 film, The Fearless Vampire Killers aka Dance of the Vampires into the musical Tanz Der Vampires was a notable success.
Rewind back to the early 1980s, all the way in Nowhereseville, Arkansas. My mother, herself barely in her early twenties, has replaced her first copy of Meatloaf’s near immaculate LP debut, Bat Out Of Hell, after playing her first copy so much that the grooves are almost non-existent and the cover is split like a rough-cut peach. My tiny pale hands are always leafing through her record collection, but always lean towards grabbing Bat Out of Hell. The artwork alone, illustrated by noted comic book illustrator Richard Corben, was incredibly compelling. Bright vermilion skies surround this insanely jocular man who arches on top of his motorcycle, with his long flaxen hair and anguished face spelling an existence that is intense as veins near their expiration date. Near him is a supernaturally huge bat perched on top of a mausoleum, which appealed to me, a wee being hatched out a weird monster kid, immensely.
The cover was equally fascinating but for very different reasons. In lieu of Heavy Metal-style fantasy-visual-braggadocio, it was a photograph, featuring Meatloaf, Jim Steinman, and an unknown woman whose ivory clad back is facing the camera. Meatloaf is in classic form, clad in a white ruffled men’s shirt, black slacks with matching jacket, sunglasses, and a red scarf in his left hand. The latter happens to be palming the tocks of the faceless woman in white, who is embracing Steinman. Jim is the only one of the three directly looking at the camera, looking at us, with no sunglasses and his stare squarely fixed on the viewer and listener. There’s little me, sitting cross legged on the eternally old and worn out olive-green carpet in our living room, taking all of this mad bats, hellish landscapes, Meatloaf grabbing some lady’s ass, and Steinman, with his long dark hair, already peppered with some gray, looking like the definition of enigmatic. The dark romantic idea of a mad but effortlessly brilliant composer aka a Mozart, Beethoven, or Paganini is one that has felt more distant and rooted in the annals of dust and parchment, especially in the age of pre-meditated pop and the Mabuse-like hand throttling the throat of mainstream platforms for new music. (Thank the gods for the internet and the eternal DIY spirit.)
I wouldn’t call Steinman mad, bad, or dangerous to know, but in both that photo and his body of work, there is the perfect storm of the Gothic, that dark glint of rock & roll, and an undercurrent of a smile. It’s that love of the grandiose, the drop of blood off the red petal, the loud hum of a engine meeting with the equal loud hum of sweaty, but often regretful lust, a choir of angels backing you up on this journey of love and loss, that Steinman played and implemented with all throughout his career that feels unparalleled with any of his peers.
Hell, did a cat like Steinman ever truly have peers? There is Todd Rundgren, who produced Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell and played that absolutely brain-blistering guitar on the title track. Rundgren is a genius but is even possibly more incomparable than Jim. Who else could there be? The blue collar jean rock of Springsteen? No. (Though E. Street Band Alumni and former Conan O’Brien drummer Max Weinberg hit the skins for Bat Out of Hell.) Steinman’s thumbprint combines Americana angst teenage kicks and drama alongside adult heartbreak and desire with a style and florid bombast whose DNA is rooting out of European soil.
One of his greatest collaborations was with the UK Gothic-rock sturmbringers The Sisters of Mercy and Steinman working with such a group was a divine fit. (Editor’s Note: Sisters Founder & Leader Andrew Eldritch has bristled and denied the Goth label. Labels are terrible, so I get it. That said, I love Gothic rock and 99% goths cannot be wrong.) Steinman made his bread and butter writing for and having his songs covered by pop acts ranging from Celine Dion and Bonnie Tyler to Boyzone, but his work on the Sisters’ “This Corrosion” and “More” makes one yearn for the man getting to work with more left of the dial artists. If there’s a Heaven above...well clearly, it has a black-clad, long tressed composer in its midst but also we could have the innumerable dream collaborations that Steinman could have been a part of. Imagine Jim Steinman working with Kate Bush, Glenn Hughes, Blue Oyster Cult, Rob Halford, Gitane Demone, Fee Waybill, etc etc??? To quote Blondie, dreaming is free.
Speaking of collaborators, it’s impossible to talk about Jim Steinman without talking about his most famous partner, one Marvin Lee Aday aka Meatloaf. Before the fates intertwined with these two men meeting and ultimately forming a partnership that resonated so strongly in the public’s mind eye that they would and will be forever linked, Meatloaf was doing pretty good for himself. He had done a some musical theater, recorded an album with “Stoney” aka blues singer Shaun Murphy called “Stoney & Meatloaf”, and appeared as Eddie in the film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s cult musical phenom, The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975.
1977 would be the big catalyst year for both Meatloaf and Steinman, since that is when their album, Bat Out of Hell, would finally come to fruition after working on it off and on for a few years. This album is prime B-I-G and must have felt like the underdog batting a million when it came out. (In the US alone, it batted fifteen-million to be exact.) This was rock and roll that was like nothing else, combining the grandiosity of musical theater with the one-two-three-boogie associated with the genre. Sure, prog rock was big and bands like The Who had already incorporated theatrical musical stylings with their Rock opera, but Bat Out of Hell is still a different animal. It’s not a concept album, at least in the traditional linear-storytelling sort of way, though Steinman would craft it into a proper stage musical years later. If anything, it uses its sweeping emotion, Gothic leanings, and earthy humor to paint the accurate picture of how one feels in the mid-throttle of not only desire-ridden hormones, but also big ole scary L-U-V.
Post-Bat Out of Hell gets even more interesting for Steinman, with him leaving his undeniable thumbprint in the realms of pop, rock, and cinema. Some of his most striking work resulted in two powerhouse classics for the 1984 Walter Hill film, Streets of Fire. Both “Nowhere Fast” and especially, “Tonight’s What it Means to be Young,” are some of Steinman’s finest work, bringing the big time evocative with high kinetic energy. Both songs are laced with heart pumping fervor while presenting hope and magic in the face of fear and dead end existence.
Dial back to 1981 with Steinman’s sole solo studio album, Bad for Good. The songs had originally been written for Meatloaf, but the latter was battling losing his voice, with Steinman taking on main singing duties. (With some help from Rory Dodd, whose own resume reads like a Create Your Own Adventure book, the Jim Steinman & Meatloaf edition, working with artists like Karla DeVito, Ellen Foley, Ted Nugent, Bonnie Tyler, etc etc. ) The critical consensus for Bad for Good tends to lean on Steinman’s voice being “inadequate” compared to Meatloaf, which feels unfair. Meatloaf, whether you love the man or not, is not like anyone else. From the singular name based on ketchup-covered meat-mixed dish to the ruffled-shirts to the long-hair and a presence that was one part Elvis and another part Texan-kaiju, there has never been any mere mortal quite like Meatloaf.
That said, Steinman’s voice is really good! This is rock and roll, not a night at the opera, after all. Steinman’s vox, much like the man’s words, has a lot of heart and feeling going on. This is to the extent that while Meatloaf would eventually record some of these songs years later, including “Bad for Good” and “Rock & Roll Dreams Come True,” Steinman’s versions are still superior. The earthier production helps and combined with Steinman’s vocals with their sweet and savory combination of force and vulnerability, remain steadfast gems.
Musical theater was a massive part of Steinman’s roots, so it was only a matter of time for him to fully return. He would work with Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1996 for the musical adaptation of Whistle Down the Wind, the 1961 film by Bryan Forbes, who himself would go on to direct Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and The Stepford Wives (1975). But the real crimson-colored jewel in Steinman’s theater crown would be 1997’s Tanz Der Vampire aka Dance of the Vampires. This musical adaptation of Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is ridiculous, over the top, and riddled with Gothic imagery and atmosphere. This is an aka for AMAZING. Also, Polanski took over directing duties for the original German production of the show, which must have been something to see.
Steinman working with material that directly involves the supernatural is a strong hand in a custom made leather glove. The only thing missing from Tanz Der Vampire is a guest solo from the giant devil bat from the Bat Out of Hell cover art. He also implements the medley from one of his biggest penned hits, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” into the song “Gott ist Tot,” but in a way that is organic in its seamlessness. Weaving past melodies and refrains was something Steinman would do off and on throughout his career, but in a way that, against all logical odds, always felt interesting and fresh. Clearly, if this is viewed as theft, at least the man stole from one of the best.
American composers are often viewed as rootsy creatures, akin to a Dorothea Lange photo with an electric guitar, but Jim Steinman was proof that a stateside composer could effectively bring the Gothic and baroque to rock & roll without coming across like a wannabe European. Also, unlike so many of his peers, there is a timelessness that will resonate and reverberate until this very land is barren and ash. Was some of it kitschy? Absolutely, but it was kitsch then, it knew it was kitsch, and inside and outside of those parameters, the heart and emotional depth still shudder and shake. Art is the only real truth in this mottled human landscape and we’re forever better for having Jim Steinman be the great kunstherz schopfer. (Which roughly translates to art-heart creator.)
Copyright 2021 Heather Drain