Beyond The Spotlight
By Manuel Mendoza
Dallas Morning News
Along the bottom of the Bat Out Of Hell album covers, it says in
small letters, "Songs by Jim Steinman" - hardly noticeable next to
the screeching script of "Meat Loaf" emblazoned across the top.
The creeping success of 1977's Bat Out Of Hell, which has
sold more than 25 million copies, and the astonishing 1993 comeback
Bat Out Of Hell Il: Back Into Hell, at two million and counting,
are usually credited to the oversize singer, who will perform in a
sold-out concert Friday at Southern Methodist University's McFarlin
But the 43-year-old Mr. Steinman - an opera-loving,
adult-hating, theater-trained semi-recluse who hardly ever does
interviews - has been at least as important as Meat Loaf in
creating the Bat Out Of Hell phenomenon: Besides writing the songs,
he arranged the first album and produced the second one. He came up
with the Beauty and the Beast concept for the I'd Do Anything For
Love (But I Won't Do That) video that launched Meat Loaf's revival.
How essential is Mr. Steinman to Meat Loaf's success? In the 16
years between the two Bat records, with Mr. Steinman mostly out of
the picture, Meat Loaf's career went on the skids. He lost his
voice and then made a series of decreasingly well-received albums.
Meanwhile, Mr. Steinman wrote and produced a number of smashes for
others, including Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse Of The Heart and
Making Love Out Of Nothing At All by Air Supply, which were
simultaneously No. 1 and No. 2 on the charts in 1983.
A reunion seemed inevitable.
Meat Loaf may be the mouthpiece, but Mr. Steinman is the
visionary. Sleeping all day, working and playing all night, Mr.
Steinman arguably is the "Bat Out Of Hell."
"I just hate the idea that outside, there's this huge bustling
world and all these adults with their responsibilities," he says of
the hours he keeps. "That scares me. I like the nighttime, when I
can populate a nocturnal wilderness with whatever I want."
What Mr. Steinman has chosen to populate his imaginary,
adultless world with is hormone-driven teen-agers who live for pure
passion and speak in a florid language that would be cliché if it
wasn't so excessive. His titles alone are over the top: Objects In
The Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are (the upcoming
third single from Bat II), Everything Louder Than Everything Else
and All Revved Up With No Place To Go (a frustration anthem from
the original Bat).
Mr. Steinman then envelopes this high drama in music that treats
opera and '50s rock 'n' roll as the same thing. Add the influence
of producer Phil Spector's wall-of-sound and you have the Bat world.
"I never feel like I'm writing about the lyrical light side of
love," Mr. Steinman says during a three-hour phone interview that
begins at midnight from Putnam Valley, N.Y., a rural suburb about
an hour's drive north of New York City where he lives with four
cats. "I'm more interested in the darker whirlpool that sucks you
in and you're never seen again - the Bermuda Triangle of love."
The macho posturing of Mr. Steinman's protagonists, along with
their worship of women, also has comic overtones, like opera. The
title character in the song Bat Out Of Hell blows in and out of his
lover's life, all the time professing his dedication to her. In I'd
Do Anything For Love, the No. 1 hit that sent Bat II to the top of
the charts, the singer manages to be both lustful and noble - the
ultimate teen-age fantasy.
"With teen-agers, everything is life or death, everything is
jugular," Mr. Steinman says. "l love that kind of extremism. I
could care less about Paul Simon ruminating on his middle-age
thoughts...l always thought opera was an insane form, like rock 'n'
roll - very athletic, very extreme and wonderful in its ability to
be both thrilling and ridiculous at the same time. All the
characters in Wagner operas and Verdi operas - the operas that I
love - are teen-agers, and that's what makes it so feverish and
intense. I grew up going to see Wagner operas where Siegfried the
hero was 400 pounds and he was supposedly this golden Adonis. So
the idea of working with Meat Loaf was nothing."
The first Bat was not a success, well, right off the bat. The
album only climbed to No. 14 and that took almost a year. It did
yield three Top 40 singles: the brutal, circular love song Two Out
Of Three Ain't Bad, the lusty backseat epic Paradise By The
Dashboard Light and You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth.
Bat II happened because Mr. Steinman felt that Meat Loaf's
singing had returned to its early form and because Meat Loaf and
his managers wanted to reunite the successful pair. It could've
turned into Spinal Tap. Instead, the public, which had been
steadily buying the original Bat at a clip of almost a million a
year, treated it as the natural sequel.
"The big experiment was he came to my house - and I remember
this well because it was the day my mother died - and he sang the
entire Bat Out Of Hell album at the piano with me," Mr. Steinman
recalls. "He sounded great, and that was the key to me. It was
really always about the voice."
But the Bat records have been as popular for their dramatic
production techniques as for Meat Loaf's operatic-metal singing and
the overamped, romantic Iyrics. Calling the harmonies "soaring" or
the crashing, stylized instrumentation "bombastic" would be an
understatement. Mr. Steinman says he learned everything he knows
about producing from Todd Rundgren, who was at the helm of the
first Bat, and from Phil Spector's work in the '60s with the
Righteous Brothers and girl groups like the Ronettes.
"Todd was the first one who really clarified something that I
already felt growing up listening to Phil Spector records, which is
that records should never sound like documentaries," Mr. Steinman
says. "I don't like records that sound like a bunch of guys in the
studio playing. It's like watching a movie of a play. To me, the
really exciting records, they created a world that they took place
in, which is what The Beatles' records did. But I always thought
Spector was the first. Todd called it 'psychoacoustic space.'
"One of the first records to do that was Locomotion by Grand
Funk Railroad. It sounds like a high-school gymnasium ... And
Rubber Soul had the most distinctive sound. It was like the cover-
it's like this autumnal brown melancholy kind of wood sound. But
the record that made me want to be in music was You've Lost That
Lovin' Feeling. You can't possibly think of a human being playing
When Mr. Steinman, a budding playwright, met the struggling
singer/actor Meat Loaf during an audition for an off-Broadway
musical in the early '70s, he found the perfect vehicle for his
oversexed teen-age fantasies. Mr. Steinman had been discovered at
Amherst College (where he studied theater) by Joseph Papp, the late
founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who brought him to
New York to write musicals.
Meat Loaf walked into the audition for Mr. Steinman's More Than
You Deserve wearing overalls and sang the gospel standard You Got
to Give Your Heart to Jesus. "His hands convulsed and his eyes went
up in his head, so you only saw the whites of his eyes," Mr.
Steinman says. "I thought, 'This is it. This is the guy.'"
The guy for what, he didn't immediately know. Mr. Steinman was
trying to get his wild college musical The Dream Engine produced in
New York and had never considered a career as a pop songwriter. Bat
I started as a sideline and became an obsession, even after
numerous record company rejections. Originally billed as Meat Loaf
and Jim Steinman - "like Hall and Oates," Mr. Steinman says - it
was reduced to simply Meat Loaf for marketing purposes (a source of
tension between the collaborators ever since).
In Meat Loaf, Mr. Steinman saw the embodiment of every geek's
rock 'n' roll dream.
"The fact that he was 350 pounds was part of it," he says. "He
was something out of Marvel comic books ... It's what every kid
feels. You don't look like you wanna look. you can't express what
you want to express. It was all there in his appearance, and in the
fact that he didn't act fat. He acted powerful."
Mr. Steinman played piano on the road with Meat Loaf during
the first year of the Bat I tour but has only performed on a couple
of dates this time out. The studio is Mr. Steinman's domain, so now
that Meat Loaf is touring, Mr. Steinman is again behind the scenes.
Such a relationship - a performer who gets all his material from
one songwriter who's not in his band - is unprecedented in rock.
Mr. Steinman won't speculate on the possibility of a Bat III.
Instead, he is focusing on what he started out doing in the first
place but was never commercially successful at: writing musical
plays and film scripts.
He is working on a script for Bat Out Of Hell 2100, a bizarre
mix of West Side Story, Peter Pan and The Terminator that could be
a film or a musical play or both (featuring Meat Loaf as Captain
Hook) and is also pitching a series of made-for-MTV movies called
Pandora's Box about the lives of teen-agers who appear on a dance
show. There is still talk of a Paradise by the Dashboard Light film
or a Honeymooners based on that song and starring - guess who? -
With Bat II coming together after all these years and
succeeding, the collaboration seems fated to continue. Now that
he's about to move to Connecticut near Meat Loaf, Mr. Steinman has
this nightmare about a knock on the door in the middle of the night.
"And there's Meat Loaf," Mr. Steinman chuckles, " 'I need some sugar.'"