Jim Steinman: To 'Hell' & Back
By Laura Fissinger
When Jim Steinman was a college kid playing in local bands, he'd already found the center of his creative identity, "Most people don't like extremes - extremes scare them," he states. "I start at 'extreme' and go from there."
As a rookie actor/scriptwriter/theater director and producer/songwriter, Steinman found that Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard made perfect sense to him. Whatever brilliance they showed musically, each man always gave great theater, so to speak. Steinman was determined to give great theater to rock audiences, too: "So I'd play piano hard enough to get a particular effect at the end of the night: I'd hold my hands up and they'd bleed down onto the keyboard." Jim - who is not a masochist - chuckles, rolling around in the sheer pleasure of that memory.
Life's been even more extreme than usual for Jim Steinman since the fall 1993 release of Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell. Released 15 years after Bat Out Of Hell, this follow-up slab of operatic rock has dumbfounded more than a few pop music pundits by selling well past 10 million units internationally as of mid-winter 1994. Produced, arranged and written by Steinman "down to the last grace note of every vocal phrase," the album's trend-defying success makes sense in light of the ongoing life in retail racks of the original Bat. Presently, the 1977 disc stands at the 25 million mark worldwide, and still sells roughly 45,000 copies every week. Bat II has earned three Grammy nominations.
Steinman's two-decade career has yielded almost nothing that tastemakers have approved of, which tickles the maestro; he saves all reviews, "but I cherish the brutal ones the most." Commercial highlights from his resume include the Bonnie Tyler Grammy-winning tune "Total Eclipse Of The Heart," from the best-selling LP Faster Than The Speed Of Night, while he wrote and produced "Making Love Out Of Nothing At All" (1984) for Air Supply. His only solo album to date, Ba d For Good (1981), was co-produced by creative hero Todd Rundgren and has passed the million-unit mark in worldwide sales. "I miss performing," Steinman casually shrugs. "But I prefer being the creator, and it's hard to find time to per form and create. Plus, I can always find people who do my stuff better than me - and it's the song that matters. Besides, I'm a better actor than singer, and I get to exorcise some of those stage urges performing with Meat Loaf on his current tour. "
Steinman has particularly fond flashbacks of writing and producing a successful pop single ("Left In The Dark") for Barbra Streisand; they got to be pals, but fought over creative differences with great passion from the start of the project to t he single's release. Along with concocting other solid sellers for a stylistic grab-bag of artists, Steinman has scored films and directed a few widely seen music videos.
"Diversity" isn't a word Steinman thinks about. "Everything I do comes from the same source," he notes. "I'm telling stories. Human beings have always needed their stories, all the way back to cavemen and campfires."
There is tremendous native intelligence and a wealth of knowledge he freely shares if the conversation turns out to be fast and fun, as evidenced by his advice to young songwriters: "First, stop trying to imitate what you hear on the radio. Next, exp eriment with my method: try to envision a scene, like one from a movie or play. See the characters, the situation, the setting, everything you can. Then, at the peak, visualize the singer of the song standing on a pitch-dark stage, right in a colum n of intense blue light, with 5,000 people in the audience. The song has got to hold those people completely at that point. The audience should be completely captured."
One Steinman memory of complete captivity goes back to "age six or seven. I was fortunate - my Mom always surrounded me with classical music. . . Anyway, this one Saturday morning I planned to get up early and go ride my bike. I turned on the radio just as this one station was starting a complete broadcast of 'The Ring Cycle' by Richard Wagner - which is about 24 hours long. I just laid on the bed listening. I didn't move a muscle for most of the whole thing. I thought if I did, maybe I'd break the spell or something." Afterwards, the station broadcast a parody of the marathon composition, and Steinman says that "the juxtaposition made perfect sense to me, all that heroism and majesty followed by humor. Also, as a kid, I'd play Wagner and Little Richard back-to-back - it never occurred to me that they were 'different kinds of music' that 'shouldn't' go together.
"I think rock and opera are probably closer to each other than to other musical forms. . . Rock and opera both make huge gestures, they're both about extremes in content and form. Each puts incredible physical demands on a performer. And each of the m has that great mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, heroism and humor. Seems to me that people's barriers to enjoying both have more to do with sociology than the actual music and performances."
And as sure as he is of his own abilities, Steinman is quick to point out his limits and shout hosannas for artists who can do what he can't. "Songs like 'Yackety-Yak', 'Get A Job', and one of my all-time favorites, 'Wooly Bully' - I'm not capable of writing the brilliant two-and-a-half minute rock & roll song. I'd give anything if I were. So I'm fascinated by those records."
The man who co-produced Bad To Worse, Todd Rundgren, often works with Jim on production and vocals. "I think Todd is the only genius I've met in pop music, Steinman opines. "Watching him do background vocals is one of the biggest thrills and educating experiences in music, period. He doesn't just sing. He's composing when he does them; the harmony and structure and theory involved are amazingly complex. And I love that he makes fun of what I do. He calls it bombastic and gra ndiose and overblown, all that stuff. But that only makes me like collaborating with him more. I don't particularly enjoy working with people who like my work a lot."
Steinman speaks of Meat Loaf with affection and respect. "When I met him, he was already an actor. As a singer he was putting out gospel and blues songs, which were all wrong for him. He can't sing ordinary songs." Due to Meat's look and his voc al qualities, Steinman "modeled his character for the first Bat album partly after Luciano Pavarotti, putting him in the tuxedo, putting him in that grand arena setting. I felt like he was the character Siegfried from Wagner: the fat hero who' s so absurd, and yet there's so much majesty in his denial of his outcast status. What teenager can't identify with being an outcast and with the whole issue of what his appearance says to other people? Meat Loaf weighed more than he does now when I met h im - about 350 pounds - and he became an embodiment of the grand and noble misfit, with all the humor and bravery and dignity and magnificent denial. I put that together with the fact that he was actually an operatic singer, and we had it."
On both Bat albums, Steinman and Meat Loaf created a complete character, with a fully furnished world around him and inside him as well; they tapped into a fresh expression of an archetype, one that supposedly had no connection to the pop culture z eitgeist in 1977 or in 1993, especially. Record sales and impassioned reactions at concerts both times out have proven that Steinman and Meat Loaf touched things beyond the commandments of cool.
Children and adolescents are the people Steinman trusts the most. "I think they're closer to the things in life that are really important," he says. "They're closer to the jugular, the feverish, the primal, the urgent, the intuitive aspects of being human. "
All the age groups in the Bat Out Of Hell II listenership are giving Steinman some needed reinforcement right now: "Seeing how the record and concerts are being received encourages me to believe that people do understand what I'm doing. "
In the next year or two, Steinman hopes to see the completed version of a film musical currently called Bat Out Of Hell 2100. Capsulizing his description of it robs the movie of its nuances. Let's just say that it includes three songs from the firs t Bat compilation, three from the second, and seven new compositions, and that it's a reworking of the Peter Pan myth, only this time "with hormones." Steinman's dream career is creating modern-music musicals for stage and screen, so B at Out Of Hell 2100 means a lot to him. "To my amazement," he reports with pleasure, "four major companies showed real interest in doing this movie during my most recent trip to L.A."
It's hard not to root for Jim Steinman's dream. Even those who don't like his music have to be inspired by a man who's retained a kid's faith in the extremes of an uncensored heart.
Laura Fissinger is a journalist and entertainment writer based in New York.