Turn around, bright eyes…
Baby, we can talk all night, but that ain’t getting us nowhere…
You took the words right out of my mouth…Oh, it must have been while you were kissing me!
I would do anything for love…but I won’t do that.
Rock and roll dreams came through time and time again for Jim Steinman (1947-2021). This singular artist – a composer, lyricist, librettist, producer, musician, singer, and storyteller – merged rock with a powerful theatricality. His songs for Celine Dion (“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”), Air Supply (“Making Love Out of Nothing at All”), Bonnie Tyler (“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Holding Out for a Hero”), Barry Manilow (“Read ‘Em and Weep”), Barbra Streisand (“Left in the Dark”), Boyzone (“No Matter What”), and Meat Loaf (“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” and too many others to mention) robustly expressed themes of passion, romance, humor, love, lust, rebellion, and eternal youth. They overflowed with melody and drama – sometimes even melodrama – channeled through Steinman’s audacious and unabashed penchant for bombast.
It’s unsurprising that Jim Steinman began his career in musical theatre, championed by the visionary Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater. Papp sensed there was something special in the young New Yorker’s words and music, shepherding him to collaborations with such equally hungry writers as Michael Weller and Thomas Babe. The 1973 musical More Than You Deserve introduced him to his most significant musical partner, a former Motown recording artist and actor with the unlikely moniker of Meat Loaf. Its title song became Meat Loaf’s first solo single (and he later re-recorded it for 1981’s Dead Ringer).
Meat Loaf would ultimately give voice to Steinman’s most enduring project. Bat Out of Hell also began its life as a theatre work based on the story of Peter Pan and The Lost Boys. When Steinman was unable to bring the ambitious musical out of the developmental stage, he hit upon the notion of recording it as a concept album of sorts. The road to Bat Out of Hell was a long and arduous one; the story has often been told of record executive after record executive passing on the Wagner-meets-Spector rock opera. But like Joe Papp before him, Todd Rundgren (who would himself go on to write a musical for Papp) heard something in Steinman’s songs and Meat Loaf’s larger-than-life, unlikely rock-star persona. Rundgren recognized the humor in such indelible lyrics as “There ain’t no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box,” and heard Bat Out of Hell as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen’s blue collar anthems. He signed on to produce the album, and went so far as to enlist E Street Band members Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg to play on it.
With Rundgren’s imprimatur, Bat Out of Hell found a label: Cleveland International Records. Label head Steve Popovich’s belief in the album helped the seven-song suite find an audience all over the world. By any metric, it’s now counted as one of the most successful albums of all time, going 14x Platinum in the United States alone, selling over 50 million copies worldwide, remaining a steady seller decades later, and yielding a phenomenally successful 1993 sequel. In 2017, Bat Out of Hell returned to its roots when the original musical Steinman had envisioned more than 40 years earlier came to life on stage first in England, and then in Toronto, New York, and elsewhere.
One of Steinman’s best-known songs outside of Bat Out of Hell is the Air Supply hit “Making Love Out of Nothing at All,” but a Steinman production made magic out of everything: swirling strings, massed choirs, power guitar chords, thunderous piano riffs, long and tongue-twisting lyrical phrases, and majestic modulations galore. Too much was never enough (“going all the way is just the start,” went one memorable lyric), yet it all seemed effortless and right. He largely avoided trends, beginning with disco and punk, and rarely strayed from the path of his symphonic rock style. Yet he was so respected that artists with strong individual identities all let him work his dramatic, heartbreaking, seductive, and over-the-top magic around their voices.
His influence was equally felt by his collaborators. When Andrew Lloyd Webber penned the 1996 musical Whistle Down the Wind with lyricist Steinman, the Phantom of the Opera and Cats composer created a soaring melody for “A Kiss Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” that was more Steinman than Steinman. Never mind that Jim had recycled some of the lyric from his own song of that name recorded by The Everly Brothers. Or that the same Everlys song lent its central riff to “Out of the Frying Pan” on Bat Out of Hell II. He never let a good tune – or a snatch of a tune, or a phrase in a lyric – go to waste. His 2002 Broadway musical Dance of the Vampires, itself based on the phenomenally successful 1997 European production Tanz der Vampire, even refashioned “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Objects in the Rearview Mirror (May Appear Closer Than They Are)” to vampiric ends.
“Who needs the young?” Steinman posed the question in a song recorded on his final collaboration with Meat Loaf, 2016’s striking and offbeat Braver Than We Are. “The revelation of their faces and their hair, when all we have are withered traces of the faces we once were, and suffocation in the dirty, fatal air…Who needs the young bodies floating in the sun?” The lyric was ironic, as Steinman spent a lifetime in song chasing an eternal youth of hot summer nights, lost boys, golden girls, fast cars, broken hearts, and yes, lots of sex. He believed in the power of rock and roll, and thanks to the throbbing, electrifying, exciting, and youthful songs of Jim Steinman, we do, too.
Think of how we’ll lay down together/We’d be listening to the radio/So loud and so strong/Every golden nugget coming like a gift of the gods/Someone must have blessed us when we gave us those songs. He sure did. Rest well, rock and roll dreamer.