Melody Maker Magazine
"When I was seven years old, I had a fortune-teller tell me that my entire life was gonna be driven by a relentless, obsessive and ultimately self-destructive desire to astonish people."
And astonish people he has. Jim Steinman, in his 12-year career, has been variously described as "breathtakingly excessive," a "Phil Spector for the Eighties" and the "Cecil B. deMille of rock'n'roll." He describes himself with a characteristic mixture of humor, arrogance and kitsch as "Little Richard Wagner" and has been responsible for some of the most crass but indelible melodies of our time.
He's written and produced hits for a veritable Rogue's Gallery of singers - Barry Manilow ("Read 'Em And Weep"), Barbra Streisand ("Left In The Dark"), Air Supply ("Making Love Out Of Nothing At All") and Bonnie Tyler whose "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" was the biggest selling single of 1983 and was further honored with a Grammy nomination. He also produced the Sisters Of Mercy comeback single, "This Corrosion," and its follow-up, "Dominion," and worked briefly with the abysmal Def Leppard.
He is, though, probably most noted and critically despised for writing and co-producing Meat Loaf's "Bat Out Of Hell," the biggest selling debut album of all time (17 million and still counting) that has yet, even after 12 years, to leave the British Top 200.
Considered a reactionary by most and a visionary by some, Steinman's enormous success is arguably due to his unquestionable ability to inflate a simple melody. Portentous piano gives way to Valkyrian choruses and massive powerchords as Steinman employs every possible trick to invent some vast phantasmagoric film-set where the central protagonist (often a Steinman protegee like Meat Loaf) acts out the writer's fantasies.
Steinman has been accused, not without some justification, of being a monstrous charlatan and, worse, a cold-blooded manipulator. In our opinion the former is untrue basically because the latter appears so true. We doubt whether a charlatan would pursue his visions, however crass, with such aggression and single-mindedness. Steinman, by virtue of the sheer scale of his success, makes Malcolm McLaren look like a three card trickster on the Old Kent Road. Rather like McLaren though, he will neither deny nor confirm this role outright.
His latest project, Pandora's Box, will do much to establish him in the minds of his critics as the ultimate music business Svengali. For the soon-to-be-released album, "Original Sin," written and produced by Steinman, he recruited four female vocalist - Elaine Caswell, a total unknown; Gina Taylor who he discovered in a sleazy club doing Tina Turner impressions; Deliria Wilde who Steinman boasts is of Cuban, French, Italian and German descent ("in that order"); and Ellen Foley from "Bat Out Of Hell."
With remarkable self-restraint, Steinman estimated the video for the single, "It's All Coming Back To Me Now," to Ken Russell, a film-director he's admired since childhood. "Original Sin," the album, has already been hailed by his disciples as "the future" and his detractors have witheringly compared it to Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats." Both are probably fair, it does bear a disagreeable resemblance to some of Lloyd Webber's more bombastic productions and will doubtless be around for the next 12 years, which is as close to being the future as you're ever likely to get in pop. Both disciples and dissenters, though, appear to believe one thing of him, that he is a megalomaniac.
"I don't know," says Steinman, "I'm not even sure if I know what megalomaniac means. I think the fact that I consider everyone else inferior and pathetic and unfit to hear the treasures I've created isn't relevant. Actually, when you think about it, it's pretty much the opposite because I go through so much hell to put these f***ing albums together, I must care about what people think, so, in a way, it's not megalomaniac at all."
If he is megalomaniac, then he hides it well. He shakes both of us warmly by the hand, sits himself in an armchair and offers us a smile that says, "Ask me anything." Where we expect him to exercise power, he exercises charm, and it's quite apparent that he seeks to be loved rather than feared. Probably not a megalomaniac at all, more a narcissist.
"Ask me anything."
Do you want to be loved?
"Yeah, I do. I care pretty equally about what any person thinks. Which is probably the same as saying I don't give a shit about any of them. In fact, it's not so much that I care, it's more that I'm interested in what other people think. I mean, I do it half for myself, to get it out, and half to see what happens when it goes into someone else. I get very disappointed if people don't like what I do but I'm always convinced that it's good. But it's not as if I sit down and say, 'Okay, time for another megalomaniac epic here.'"
Nevertheless it's undeniably epic.
"You know, I originally started in the theater and I really have a sense of thousands of people sitting out there, like those shots from old Hollywood movies. The image in my mind isn't a lot of people dancing around or having a party and just listening. There was a woman at Virgin who said, "Well, it's good but I like music to play in the background while I'm doing the ironing or the housework and you put this record on and you can't do any of that...It just sits there screaming, 'F***ing listen to me! Come over here and listen to me!'"
Maybe she's right. Your songs do have the habit of being somewhat overbearing.
"Well, I'm not good at writing music that fits in, it's not what I do well, what I feel like doing. I'm not good at making dance records for people to boogie to. I'm only good at making the kind of records I can make and I'm only good at that half the time. Which I still consider better than what most other people do."
Taken as a whole, Steinman's projects give the vivid impression that those he's worked with are forced not just to submit their own ego to his but are divested of their ego. Steinman demands that his subjects hollow themselves out in much the same way as the Italian film director Federico Fellini (a man Steinman not only admires but compares himself to) insists that actors are and should only be the medium between his fantasies and the rest of the world. In this sense, Steinmans' not simply a songwriter or a producer but a director of theater. His actors are at best ciphers (Meat Loaf) and at worst husks (Bonnie Tyler).
The thing is, though, that these people don't consider themselves actors, they've chosen a career in pop. And pop stars, aspiring, defunct or successful, are notoriously egocentric. They really do believe that not only experience but their very soul should bear upon their "art." Steinman has to convince or cajole them into accepting that it's not their art but his. Or trick them (as he did with Meat Loaf) into believing that his art is their art.
This must make him a difficult person to work with.
"I'm not difficult. They don't have to work with me. But, yeah, there's only been a few cases where I've been interested in what they wanted to do. The Sisters Of Mercy was one."
Steinman's work with the Sisters is probably the only instance in his career where we've been aware that there were forces other than Steinman's monstrous ego at work. "This Corrosion" and "Dominion" were tangible, forcibly, the Sisters of Mercy. This is primarily because Eldritch shares Steinman's vision of Magnificent Stupidity and may have something to do with Eldritch's icy intelligence - Eldritch is also someone who believes spontaneity can be planned.
For ourselves, we've always considered the Sisters a piece of ongoing, unfinishable theater, an epic soap with its every climax necessitating further imminent excess. Here Eldritch is producer, director, choreographer, costume designer and leading man and, arguably, the only reason he approached Steinman at all was to have Steinman's name on the record sleeve, to complete his vision. For the first and probably the last time in his life, Steinman was part of somebody else's theater - very much the servant.
"Maybe, but what the Sisters wanted to do was very similar to what I wanted to do, they just come at it from a different perspective. With them, I was more of a servant but a servant like in one of those plays where the servant's really insidious and is actually taking over the house. You know, the minute the Sisters went out, I'd be ruining the silverware and tearing down the drapes."
Eldritch actually claims something similar but, since neither of them are ever likely to astonish us with their humility, we shall probably never know who was ruining whose silverware.
"Yeah, there have been very few cases where I've been interested in what the artist thinks. I mean, I'm not interested in doing what Bonnie Tyler wants to do, I don't think she has any idea what she's doing. She probably just wants to do the housework with the record playing. I think most people have no idea what they do best anyway. At least most singers and half the musicians I work with."
Do you like the people you work with?
"I've liked almost everyone I've worked with, even the people I felt were ridiculous like Def Leppard, because they're all, er, interesting. Def Leppard was interesting, in a way a scientist finds a really strange sort of insect interesting."
"Listen, I did four months of hell with those guys in Holland. I was called in on the last album ("Hysteria") because Mutt Lange (Def Leppard's producer) was having a nervous breakdown, which I think he has at regular intervals. It's kind of like mixing to him - he mixes, remixes and then he has a nervous breakdown. It was weird, I'd done the Billy Squier album because Mutt pulled out when he had a nervous breakdown after he finished The Cars and then he had another one so I was brought in to do Def Leppard. It was insane, I was wandering the globe cleaning up after Mutt's nervous breakdowns. Def Leppard were nice kids even though they're a bit faceless. To me they're like the George Bush of rock 'n' roll, there's nothing there, it's like Peter Sellers in 'Being There.' It's all behind them, they have planners and programmers and people who package them..."
You've got some nerve criticizing a group for being planned, programmed and packaged when you've spent your entire adult life doing that to other people and expecting them to be taken seriously.
Steinman laughs: "Well, the difference is that what I'm doing with, say, Pandora's Box is packaging an idea and using people that I think are really powerful to convey it. It's their power I'm using. For me they're actors where Def Leppard are just pieces of animation, they're a vacuum, a blur that nobody can define. That's why I say George Bush - everyone can read something different into it. It's not like Bon Jovi which is like the Ronald Reagan of rock and roll where there's something vaguely, mythically reassuring and sweet about it. Def Leppard truly scares me, not even they know what they're about. That was brought home to me in pre-production when I asked who wrote each song on the demos, who played what guitar solo, and no one had the slightest idea."
Steinman has often been accused of debasing emotions by so brazenly manipulating them in the listener. The classic Steinman song opens with deep melancholy strains of a piano where the singer, voice invariably quivering on the edge of tears, leads us through lachrymose verse to triumphant chorus, familiarizing us immediately with a melody that will then be repeated between three and nine times with varying degrees of loudness. Every song, in fact, appears as resoundingly empty and bullying as a Coca-Cola anthem. Even the titles ("Total Eclipse Of The Heart," "Bat Out Of Hell," "Secret Dreams And Forbidden Fire") suggest that Steinman believes love's only possible in Cinemascope and then only if you're Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. His songs are so explicitly grandiloquent and pompous in their intent, they offend good taste. Only Dire Straits, and then only once with the tactically restrained but nevertheless awesomely crude "Romeo and Juliet," have matched Steinman for emotional thuggery. Steinman's not merely sentimental, he's sentimentally licentious. Pitiless and implacable. You will weep.
For God's sake, why?
"I think I'm obsessed with obsession and I think the dark side of love is the power to be obsessive. Love is one of the forces that can easily obsess and enslave and turn people into jelly. At any point in their lives, it can retrigger something that will enslave them."
If Steinman's songs are poignant at all, then they are so in the most devious but undeniably ingenious way. They are custom-built to retrigger and simultaneously mythologies our passions. With Meat Loaf, Tyler, and now Pandora's Box, a half-forgotten trickle of feeling turns into a torrent of tearful recollection. It's really no wonder Steinman's songs, in terms of sales, rank alongside the most successful ever.
Steinman genuinely understands us better than Morrissey. What's more, he understands how little there is to understand. And that is the conclusion of a very intelligent man.
Steinman, not surprisingly, disagrees, claiming he genuinely deals with what he calls, "the dark side of love." This isn't in fact an entirely preposterous claim. For example, the first single by Pandora's Box, "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" can, if given an oblique post-interview reading, be seen to chronicle Heathcliff's sad last dance with the dead body of Cathy. This rather depends, however, upon knowing that Steinman wrote the song while, "under the influence of 'Wuthering Heights''" and, beyond that, assumes a knowledge of "Wuthering Heights" itself. Otherwise lines like "There were nights of sacred pleasure/It was more than any laws allow" could well be about, say, a clandestine encounter with a Muslim milkman or any number of things.
"It's about obsession," says Steinman, "and that can be scary because you're not in control and you don't know where it's gonna stop. It says that, at any point in somebody's life, when they loved somebody strongly enough and that person returns, a certain touch, a certain physical gesture can turn them from being defiant and disgusted with this person to being subservient again. And it's not just a pleasurable feeling that comes back, it's the complete terror and loss of control that comes back. And I think that's ultimately a great weapon."
The peculiar thing about Steinman is that, despite his narcissism, he has consistently refused to cast himself as the romantic hero in his own rock opera.
"I guess I'm not as convinced by myself in that role. I enjoy the writing and stuff, but part of it's practical, there's a lot to be done behind the scenes and there's a lot to be done out front and the two kind of clash. Also, I'm too self conscious and I don't think I'm as convincing as the one's I've worked with. I thought Meat Loaf was the greatest voice I could have and physically he was exactly what I was looking for. If Jim Morrison hadn't died I would have been thrilled to work with him. It's tortuous to me, you know, that I'm not Jim Morrison. When I was in my first band in college I was thinking, 'This is f***ing unfair - I should be Jim Morrison. I got the right temperament, I can come up with the lines, I just don't know what happened to the hair or the face."
Maybe Steinman's determined to see his ideal reflection performing his songs. Was Meat Loaf the ideal?
"Well, if Jim Morrison was an avenging angel, Meat Loaf was too, only bigger, much bigger to the point of gargoyle, but just as gothic. When Meat Loaf has his voice he's still my favorite singer."
We heard he threw a piano at you once.
"That's true. That was the least of the things he threw at me, though perhaps the most musical. We were in these very small studios in New York and I was teaching him songs line by line. I had to because he's very much intuitive, he has no sense of basic inherent rhythm or key. Anyway, I couldn't get him to sing this one line in the way I wanted it sung and I finally ran out of things to say so I told him to sing it like this other person had sung it before him. He just freaked, (adopts Texan drawl) 'Sing it like him! I'm not f***ing him!' Then he picked up the top of a baby grand and just threw it across the room and missed me by about four inches. I always thought that was a pivotal point in our relationship because I didn't flinch, I just said, 'You fat f***, if you ever do anything like that again I'll never write another note for you.' It was amazing, on tour he would pummel, pound and mutilate just about everybody but he never touched me."
Do you think he feared you?
"Maybe. It was a strange relationship. I mean, when we were on tour he tried to kill himself four or five times, it was a kind of regular occurrence. It was like a phase he'd go through" (adopts depressed Texan drawl) 'Boy, am ah bummed out. Ah think ah'll kill mahself.' To his credit he'd always find imaginative ways to do it, never at all visually unimaginative.
"The best one was in Pittsburgh, I remember. It was only the third week of the tour but he was going through so many identity crises because he really was freaked out by the idea that I might be Dr. Frankenstein and he was Frankenstein's monster. I mean, I'd staged the show very carefully and I thought it very true to him and the music but he wasn't allowed to speak, essentially, because, when Meat speaks he's just a good ole boy from Texas and the character he was on-stage to me was a heroic, mythic figure and it would kill it for him to go 'Hi y'all.'
"So I didn't have him speak and he wore a black tuxedo and he stalked the stage like an animal and it was thrilling but I think it got to him after a while that he couldn't talk, so in Pittsburgh, he started. All of a sudden I hear, 'You muthaf***ers havin' a good party?' And I thought, 'Holy shit, what happened to that mythic character?' And the audience saw it too, suddenly he was just this fat kid who works at the gas station.
"Meat just didn't understand, he really thinks he's Sammy Hagar or David Lee Roth, so the manager went to have a talk with him after the show and said 'Meat, you have to shut up' and he just went berserk screaming, 'Ah'm not a Frankenstein monster! Steinman's not Dr. Frankenstein! Ah'm not gonna do it! Ah'm Meat Loaf! Ah'm Meat Loaf!' He's trying to convince himself. 'Ah'm Meat Loaf! Ah'm Meat Loaf!' He broke everything in the room and stormed out, the manager phoned up and said, 'Steinman, he's gonna try and kill himself.'
"So we gathered together a party with torches, like in an old movie when they go to storm a castle, and we went to find Meat Loaf. So we're in this huge parking lot and there's all these horrifying orange fumes rising up and we're all going, 'Meat! Meat!' like some Druid ritual or something but we can't find him. So I went looking in this connecting lot and it's really eerie because the fumes are much worse here and there's this enormous truck there with a huge devil's head on the front and these huge pointed spikes on the fenders. It was a frightening truck, five times my height, just standing there purring with it's orange lights going through the orange smoke and I saw right away in the distance, this figure with steam rising from him, pawing the ground like a bull. I looked at him and I looked at those huge spiked fenders and I knew what was coming and I said 'Hey Meat, don't.'
"And then he charged straight at the truck, his head went right into the sharp spikes. Bam! Blood everywhere - we had the red mixed with orange, a huge gap in his head, 17 stitches. The truck though was a disaster, blood all over it, with this great bend in the spike. Classic!"
Steinman tells this amazing story with obvious relish slipping easily into the Meat Loaf role (slack troglodyte jaw, eyes rolling, protracted Texan syllables), even leaving his armchair to mimic Meat's bullish, desperate but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at self-destruction, and even every so often snorting with laughter when the memory becomes too much for him. He really is a very good storyteller, transmitting all the enthusiasm he must have felt at the time. We really were in that parking lot.
It occurs to us some time later that Steinman may be able to enjoy his role as Svengali because he's unable or unwilling to appreciate the feelings of his performers. During the recordings of "It's All Coming Back To Me Now," Steinman explained to us that singer Elaine Caswell fainted five times in a brave attempt to hit the notes he'd set for her, the effort seemed to please him. When we suggested this could prove to be a problem for the poor woman were he to take her on tour, Steinman merely shrugged and offered to lower the vocal an octave or two.
If this attitude strikes you as less than commendable, think again. It happens every day to actors in the theater or cinema. The fact that things are not normally so in pop music doesn't make Steinman's methods unreasonable. These people have chosen them for their meal ticket and its difficult to feel sorry for them. Meat Loaf, who probably would have been that garage mechanic, is a millionaire.
"Poor Meat," says Steinman. "He's so complicated. When he was at High School he got hit in the head with a shot-put, full blast and now he's got a terror about doctors examining his brain and taking pieces of it. 'Don't let 'em look at mah brain!' 'Don't worry about it Meat, they may take a part you don't even use.' Meat's perfect, heroic and silly at the same time. He's the perfect embodiment of rock and roll, much more so than all those skinny guitarists because he embodies the man in the crowd."
Do you think you will ever work with him again?
"Sure, next year. He calls me up, you know. He has a real weird sense of what things were like. He says (enthusiastic Texan drawl) 'It'll be just like old times, we'll drink a few beers, get a burger, have some fun.' I say, 'Meat, we never did those things.'"
Steinman laughs, and we're sure this affable narcissist is using us as a sounding board. Sheehan suggests pictures, Steinman agrees, all the while regaling us with anecdotes, most of them unprintable. Just as he's about to trounce Def Leppard again Sheehan barks an order and Steinman, amazingly complies.
How was it working with Ken Russell?
"Great," says Steinman. "a little nerve-wracking, I trust him. He's a hero of mine."
One of the thousands Steinman has but one of the few he hasn't invented. He's still a way from believing he's God.