Jim'll Fix It
By Spencer Bright
London Sunday Times
08 December 96
How did the composer of Meat Loaf's hits become Lloyd Webber's latest lyricist?
Jim Steinman is the bat out of hell incarnate, a man who inhabits the night.
He does not get up before late afternoon, and I was warned that nothing
would happen until then. So I loitered around at the Hit Factory in New
York, where he recorded the multizillionselling Bat Out of Hell I and II
classic albums for Meat Loaf. Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen
stared out at me from the framed platinum discs lining the walls. In fact, he
was only 10 minutes late.
Steinman's gentle speech and genteel manners are at odds with the
strident and fanciful language of his lyrics and the complex, orchestrated,
operatic rock he composes. Bats, hell, vampires, cars and motorbikes, bad
girls, obsessive love these all litter the Steinman canon. If there is a
message, it's that you have to grab life while you can, realise your dreams,
and get a girl to ride pillion with you without commitment. "And objects in
the rear-view mirror may appear closer than they are."
He looks more roadie than composer, except for his clean, neatly manicured
quarter-inch fingernails. His jeans are ill-fitting about the bum, and his long
fluffy grey hair brushes his leather biker jacket. He's wearing a black shirt
and a black Yamamoto tie that depicts a skull, with two women sitting in the
eye sockets. He believes the tie exactly reflects his character. "It's whimsical
and funny. I've always mixed really dark obsessive, often violent, stuff with
really funny stuff. I've never really seen them as being in conflict," he says.
It was this dark obsessive side that drew Andrew Lloyd Webber to
Steinman as a possible lyricist for his relatively dark and obsessive The
Phantom of the Opera, but Steinman turned him down to honour a
commitment to record a Bonnie Tyler album. It was, he admits, his worst
mistake. Not so much financially he's a multimillionaire anyway but
artistically. Lloyd Webber bore no grudge, luckily. He returned to
Steinman when he was looking for a lyricist for his latest musical,
Whistle Down the Wind, based on the 1961 film with Hayley Mills and Alan
Bates. This time he didn't turn Lloyd Webber down. It opens in Washington
DC on Thursday, and moves to Broadway in April.
Whistle is Lloyd Webber's first show to premiere outside Britain since Jesus
Christ Superstar 25 years ago. For Steinman, it is his return to the
musical theatre after 22 years when, as a graduate of the prestigious
Amherst College, he was spotted by Joseph Papp, founder of the New
York Shakespeare festival. After his first musical was banned because of its
nudity and bad language, Papp put him together with Michael Weller, who
wrote the screenplay for Hair, and it was during auditions for their musical
More Than You Deserve that he met Meat Loaf, and transferred to the
world of rock.
Culturally, though, he has always been omnivorous, taken to see Beckett
plays and Wagner operas from an early age by an artistic mother. He
doesn't like the word, but his first hearing of Wagner was an epiphany. He
was nine and a New York radio station was playing the full Ring cycle
nonstop. He was rooted to the chair for the 22 hours of the broadcast.
Loosely speaking, the theme of Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde, with its
extreme passions and obsessive love, informs all his best work. It is
apparent in the song It's All Coming Back to Me Now, recently a top-five
hit in the UK and America for Celine Dion. Lloyd Webber told Steinman
he thought this song "the greatest love song ever written", and on hearing
the Dion version reportedly said: "This will be the record of the millennium."
Clearly there is a mutual admiration society going on between the knight of
the theatre and the half-Jewish New Yorker. Together they enthuse about
everything from Richard Rodgers "the greatest melodist of the 20th
century" and opera, to rock'n'roll they went to see Gary Glitter together
and wine. When Lloyd Webber first invited Steinman over for dinner,
he asked him which three people in Britain he would most like to meet. Not
believing he was serious, Steinman rattled off Michael Broadbent, the
wine critic, George Martin and Joanna Lumley. Lumley was away but the
other two showed up.
Steinman's appetites include everything English. He listened to The
Goon Show when he was 9 or 10 and was thrilled by the language, even
though he understood only about 10% of it. He loved the images of Britain
he saw as a child in an illustrated Dickens, and he is a great fan of English
He had also seen the film of Whistle Down the Wind which surprised
Lloyd Webber and didn't think this haunting, very British story about an
escaped murderer holed up in a barn, whom Mills's character mistakes for
Jesus, was an obvious choice of subject for a show. "I thought, God, how
could that be a musical? Then Andrew's next line was, 'What do you think of
setting it in America?' When he said that, it just clicked. Andrew was
originally thinking more of a Midwestern setting, but to me it was
immediately evoking the world of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, that
southern gothic world. And that got me really excited." They settled on
Louisiana in the late 1950s.
For Steinman, Lloyd Webber embodies much of what he loves. He
sees him in the tradition of Vaughan Williams and Elgar, and though he never
talks about Lloyd Webber's English toffness, being introduced to Lloyd
Webber's world must be like living out those films and books he so admired.
"It's like entering a whole different universe," he says.
Temperamentally, they are different. Steinman is prone to dark moods,
though it is not apparent in his genial company. He embraces the dark,
literally, rising at 5pm-6pm and going to bed at about noon. He lives alone in
a small rented house in the countryside an hour outside New York. He loves
his own company and has spent up to nine days without seeing anyone else.
"My brain never stops it's so hard for me even to sleep."
Here is a man who was diagnosed as borderline schizo-phrenic when he
went for his medical to be enlisted for the Vietnam war. "I am," he says, "not
happy much. I get really depressed, unbelievably depressed. This is hard to
articulate. I don't find being incredibly depressed depressing, if that makes
Aspirins form a big part of his life. He takes them every four hours to ease
the constant pain from a dental disaster that allowed his adult teeth to grow
sideways into his gums over childhood teeth that did not fall out. It was all
compounded by incompetent dentists. He went into great and painful detail
about a dental operation.
"I am conscious of pain a lot. I've lived with it since that operation. I don't
know how that affects me. I don't want to sound morbid about it people
live with a lot worse but I think it has affected me in some ways quite
Steinman is undeniably weird and, as I found, generous. After our
three-hour chat, he took four of us to a smart French restaurant where the
bill topped $800. He ordered most things on the menu, some of them in
double portions, for us all to share. He says he is gluttonous, but not so
much for food, more for experience. Being with him is a bit like being in one
of his songs.
Steinman protects his songs as if they were his children. Meat Loaf had
for years wanted to record It's All Coming Back to Me Now. But
Steinman saw it as a woman's song and turned him down. It ended in
court. Steinman won, and Celine Dion went on to record it. Yet he has
found it liberating being librettist to Lloyd Webber's score, and thus vacating
the composer's responsibilities for the first time. Somehow, two control
maniacs can work side by side without friction. "It's a very collaborative
effort. We're involved in casting together and we work on the whole piece
together. I never feel subservient."
Their only artistic disagreement has come over using precise rhymes.
Steinman prefers not to use rhyme, but Lloyd Webber, the traditionalist,
has brought him round to his thinking. Steinman, in his turn, has brought
his influence to bear on Lloyd Webber, who, he reckons, has written his
most rock'n'roll score since Jesus Christ Superstar.
"He's the boss in the sense that he's the producer, but I couldn't ask for a
nicer collaborator, really. He's very demanding and intense but then I am,