THE BAT OUT OF HELL
What Songwriter Combines Hannibal
Lecter and Peter Pan?
By Jonathan Karp
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 26 1997
He is a man driven to extremes.
He spent $1 million dollars of his own money on an album that has
never been released in the United States.
At restaurants, he routinely orders a half-dozen appetizers and a
comparable number of entrees and desserts. ("I'm amazed I'm not
400 pounds," he says. "I've always wished that restaurants cared
less about decor and put back the vomitoriums.")
He creates pop songs that are bigger than everything else on the
radio -- longer, louder, lusher, with exquisitely layered background
vocals, crashing cymbals and emphatic titles like "I'd Do Anything
for Love," "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" and "Total Eclipse of
the Heart." Reveling in hyper-drama, they are frequently anthems to
the joys of youthful abandon, arias of desire, laced with violence
Recently, Jim Steinman has attracted notice for his work as lyricist
on Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Whistle Down the Wind," but for
years he has been radio's reigning king of rock opera. He cooked
up Meat Loaf, writing and producing all of the songs on the beefy
singer's two "Bat Out of Hell" albums, which together have sold
more than 50 million copies worldwide. He returned to the top of
the pop charts last year with Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to
Me Now." Through the years, he has also written and produced
hits for Barbra Streisand ("Left in the Dark"), Barry Manilow ("Read 'Em and Weep"), Air Supply ("Making Love Out
of Nothing at All") and Bonnie Tyler ("Holding Out for a Hero").
In a recent interview, Steinman talked about life with Meat Loaf
and Lloyd Webber, pop music and theater, his lifelong obsession
with Peter Pan, his Hannibal Lecter fixation and the extremes to
which he will go for his art. "I would do almost anything for what I
create," Steinman says. "I don't know if I would kill someone, but I
would consider it. I can be like a savage mother wolf protecting a
cub when it comes to a song."
How Strange Is He?
Despite three decades of wildly original hits, Steinman, 48, doesn't
have the high profile of songwriters like Babyface or Billy Joel, in
part because he has only rarely performed his own songs but also
because he is something of a recluse and, by his own description, a
Says Meat Loaf: "Jimmy's a very strange human being. I love him,
but he's funny."
How strange is he?
First, there are the hours he keeps. The pasty-skinned creator of
"Bat Out of Hell" lives the nocturnal life of a vampire; he has trouble
dozing off before 8:00 a.m. "It's the eeriest thing to watch the
`Today' show before going to sleep," he says. Those shows just
reek of waking up and going to work and all of that responsibility.
He has never had a 9-to-5 job, although he has a distinct memory
of riding the subway one morning and being sickened by the sound
of commuters clearing the morning phlegm from their throats.
His most distinguishing characteristic is his stringy silver hair, which
hangs past his shoulders. At a New York City news conference for
"Whistle Down the Wind," he donned a leather jacket and black
T-shirt emblazoned with a skull -- not traditional Broadway attire.
(Lord Webber sat next to him, dressed nattily in a plaid sport
jacket.) Says Steinman, "I used to look like Jim Morrison. Now,
I'm more like Ann B. Davis from `The Brady Bunch.' "
He lives alone in Putnam Valley, N.Y., about an hour from
Manhattan, in a small rented house so cluttered with cartons,
books, digital cassettes and papers that he literally has trouble
getting to his piano. The mess pleases him, reminding him of the
dumps he rented when he first moved to Manhattan in the early
'70s. "The water up here must be toxic," he says. There are green
stains in the sink.
He is terrified of doctors and has only visited one once in the past
25 years, and then only because he was in such pain that he thought
he was dying and his friends insisted. He remembers Lloyd Webber
lamenting, "I've finally found a lyricist, and now he's going to die on
me." It turned out Steinman had been suffering from a severe case
of colitis for a year.
He has worn the same pair of contact lenses for 17 years.
Although he is warm and sociable, with a lightning quick wit,
Steinman's friends describe him as shy and elusive. He doesn't have
a driver's license or own a car, so when he isn't in the recording
studio, he is usually at home. He never answers his phone; the
ringer is disconnected. He has never been married. He considers
his songs his children, and he is fiercely protective of them, to the
extent that he successfully sought an injunction against Meat Loaf to
prevent him from recording "It's All Coming Back to Me Now"
because he thought it was more appropriate for a woman.
"He has the same small circle of friends he's had for 20 years," says
David Sonenberg, who has known Steinman since 1975 and
manages him, along with the Fugees, the Spin Doctors and Joan
Osborne. "He's got the intellect of an Orson Welles, and yet he's
kind of frozen in the emotional body of a 17-year-old."
He is also a man of large appetites. Lloyd Webber has watched in
horror as Steinman has ordered half of the menu at fine restaurants.
In his weekly food column for a London newspaper, Lloyd
Webber wrote of Steinman: "He doesn't have an eating disorder.
He has an ordering disorder."
Steinman is mystified that more people don't share his eating habits.
"I love eating. I always like to try a lot of stuff. I'm always surprised
that if people have the money, they don't do that."
Steinman does have money, although he says he pays no attention
to it and spends much of it on his creative projects, an assertion
supported by his manager and associates. "He's not exactly thrifty,"
says Sonenberg, who has been unable to persuade Steinman to
meet with lawyers and accountants to manage investments and
lighten his tax burden.
When work is at stake, he spends without hesitation. He went
about four times over budget producing "It's All Coming Back to
Me Now" for Dion, and he personally paid for the difference,
unusual behavior for a producer. He had a budget of $150,000 for
"Original Sin," a 1989 concept album he wrote and produced in
England for Pandora's Box, a girl group he formed. He spent more
than $1 million of his own money on the project, which tanked in
the U.K. and was never released in the United States. "Someone
would pay a million-dollar ransom for their kids," he explains. "I
care as deeply about this music as other people care about their
"That's not a sentimental metaphor," he emphasizes. "I care
desperately about these songs. I was probably astonished to find
out I'd spent a million dollars. It wasn't noble or strange. I just
cared about what I was doing."
In the recording studio, Steinman is a perfectionist, working through
the night for months, creating dozens of variations on each song
before arriving at the final one. "He likes to hear every possible way
to play a solo," says his co-producer and engineer Steven Rinkoff.
"He's asked me to make a guitar solo sound like a
Harley-Davidson morphing into a gargoyle-like beast who's mad at
Finally, there is the serial killer fixation. Steinman believes one of the
most profound statements he's ever read is Hannibal Lecter's
declaration of self-creation in "The Silence of the Lambs": "I
"It's really majestic to me, and inspiring," he explains. "It basically
says, very defiantly, that it doesn't matter what anyone did to me. I
happened. Every molecule in my body came together to form this
Later in the interview, Steinman shared another favorite one-liner,
his own, written for an unproduced project: "As a teenager, I was
just another case of arrested development. My guidance counselor
told me I would have been a serial killer if I didn't have such a short
So does Steinman identify with serial killers? His answer further
illustrates his love of extremity: "I don't think I identify with them,
but they're fascinating to me. I probably have this perverse respect
for their attention span. This is not just some random car-jacking.
They work at it for over 20 years. Anything that's particularly
obsessive, I'm fascinated by. People who are slaves to obsession
are fascinating to me, and that's a great one, serial killers. . . . I still
say there's something thrilling about it, not in a legal or societal
sense, but just in an aesthetic sense. It's amazing that these people
are among us. It makes us astonished at the range of human
Coda: In the 1980s, Steinman spent hours at night listening to those
1-900 lines advertised in the Village Voice that allow you to hear
people confessing their innermost secrets. "It was like wonderful
human Muzak," Steinman remembers, noting that the confessions
often lulled him to sleep. "I'd wake up with the phone in my ear
listening to someone talk about eviscerating an animal or cheating
on their husband. It was a soothing thing to do."
Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
Steinman grew up in a prosperous Long Island family -- his father
owned a steel distribution warehouse in Brooklyn and his mother
was a retired teacher of Greek and Latin -- but Steinman describes
himself as vaporous until his sophomore year at Amherst College.
He says his high school grades were so undistinguished that his
Hewlett High School guidance counselor refused to sign his
application to Amherst. Steinman believes he was accepted to the
prestigious college only because he lied so creatively about how he
had spent his summer vacation: hiking through the "Blue Mountains
of Kentucky," writing an opera based on James Joyce's "Portrait of
the Artist as a Young Man," which, he adds, he had not even read,
much less adapted.
"That taught me an important lesson, that I could create myself,"
Steinman said. "In a way, lying is a kind of creativity." He added:
"I've done a lot of great stuff that started out as pure faking or lying.
A lot of the lies I made I had to live up to. I had to stay at Amherst,
and I did become the kind of person who would hike through the
Blue Mountains and write that opera."
Steinman has also demonstrated a talent for taking creative liberties
with reporters on occasion. He told a writer for Sounds Magazine
that his singing voice was damaged after a 6-foot-2-inch lady biker
with a tattoo busted his nose. (In truth, he suffered complications
arising from an operation on a deviated septum.)
Given his penchant for embellishment, it's not surprising that
Steinman's high school memories emphasize slackerdom over
studiousness. In reality -- a realm Steinman, as a rule, would rather
eschew -- he was one of four National Merit Scholarship
semifinalists the year he graduated, a distinction mentioned not by
Steinman but by Hewlett High School classmate Tony Kornheiser,
now a Washington Post columnist. "He must have been one of
those kids who sat up at night and listened to the Beatles,"
Kornheiser said. "As smart as he was, he didn't have to study that
Steinman delights in telling the story of his academic experience at
Amherst, which he portrays as a comic nightmare. During his
freshman year, he amassed grades of 16 in physics and 33 in
calculus (out of 100). Called before an academic committee,
Steinman was asked to explain his performance. After pausing for a
moment, he responded, "I've always done better at math than
science." Steinman maintains he was almost kicked out of school
four times and that he twice needed to use his healthy
grandmother's death as an excuse for his poor grades.
He was saved by the theater. During his senior year in 1971, he
received course credit for writing and starring in a futuristic rock
musical "The Dream Engine," about a conspiracy by the
government, business and the military to control the nation's youth
by medicating them and suppressing their emotions. "It's the best
thing I've ever done," says Steinman. He performed part of the
show in the nude and attracted the attention of theater impresario
Joseph Papp, who journeyed to Amherst to see the production.
Papp immediately made a deal with Steinman, backstage during
intermission, to stage the play at the New York Shakespeare
That began Steinman's five-year apprenticeship with Papp, a
stormy relationship during which Steinman quit the Shakespeare
Festival several times and Papp once threw an ashtray at his
protege. "The Dream Engine" never got produced by Papp, whose
plans to stage the musical in Central Park were squelched by city
bureaucrats who objected to the show's eroticism, violence and
Instead, Papp matched Steinman with playwright Michael Weller
on a short-lived 1974 musical called "More Than You Deserve," a
show most notable for its lead actor, "a great Gothic beast," as
Steinman has described Meat Loaf. During auditions, Steinman was
enthralled by the singer's performance of "You've Got to Give Your
Heart to Jesus." He insisted that Meat Loaf be cast for the show
and rewrote the part for him.
Meat Loaf wound up stopping the show every night. "It became
this thing," the singer remembers. "We moved to a bigger theater
and people would actually stand up in the middle of the play and
say, `More!' I've never seen that in a show before or since."
Says Steinman, "He was an absolutely mesmerizing, wonderful
presence. His pupils would roll up into his head, and you'd see the
whites of his eyes, and his hands would clutch. It was really
powerful. He was extraordinary. As a performer, when he's at his
best, he ranks among the three or four greatest I've ever seen in my
Meat Loaf, born Michael Aday, got his nickname from his high
school football team. He'd been singing in bands for about five
years, mostly R&B tunes, and had also appeared in a Los Angeles
production of "Hair." But when Meat Loaf and Steinman began
performing at New York clubs, and, in Meat Loaf's words, "really
tore it up," the two became a team.
In 1975, Steinman decided to leave theater to pursue a rock career
with Meat Loaf. Steinman recalls sitting in a bar with Papp to
discuss his decision. The two had frequently argued about the future
of theater, Steinman being the more bleak, describing the typical
audience as "old people . . . and their parents." Papp was more
"Come on, Jim," Steinman remembers Papp saying, "It's that old
adage -- you can look at the glass as half-empty or half-full."
"Yeah," Steinman replied, "but what if the glass turns out to be a
Life With Meat Loaf
When he was working in theater, Broadway types told Steinman he
was too much of a rocker for the stage. But when Steinman and
Meat Loaf made the rounds of record companies, they were told
they were too theatrical for rock. Auditioning as a duo, with
Steinman accompanying Meat Loaf on the piano, they were
rejected by dozens of companies. "We were even turned down by
people thinking of starting record labels," Steinman says.
A meeting with Arista Records President Clive Davis was
particularly distressing to Steinman, who saved the note Davis gave
him after the audition, a scribbled outline of the correct structure of
a song. Others had problems with Meat Loaf. One record
company president told Sonenberg: "The man is too fat. I ain't
making no record deal with a fat man."
Ultimately, they signed with a start-up company affiliated with CBS
Records. Although they originally intended to bill themselves as
"Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman," the songwriter was coaxed into
letting Meat Loaf be billed as a solo act, a decision that rankles him
to this day. "My name would have been as known as his, which
would have given me the freedom and the leverage to do a lot of
creative projects I wanted to do, and that was a significant thing,"
he said. "People didn't know who I was even after we sold 20
It was an unusual collaboration, a Texas wildman channeling a New
York eccentric. "I've always been described as the monster to his
Dr. Frankenstein," Meat Loaf says. "If that's what they want to
think, I'm for it."
"Jimmy writes the songs," he adds, "but I consider them to be our
albums. Personality-wise we're very different, but artistically we're
The centerpiece of "Bat Out of Hell" is "Paradise by the Dashboard
Light," an eight-minute mini-musical about two lusty 17-year-olds
on the brink of going all the way, complete with dialogue, lascivious
sounds, and play-by-play by Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto,
who recorded his part without realizing that his account of a
ballplayer rounding the bases was really about a horny young man
trying to score. (Rizzuto later called Steinman "a huckleberry.")
Another highlight is "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," which, like
many of Steinman's songs, began with the writer's desire to take a
cliche and extract new meaning from it. The song was inspired by a
friend's suggestion to Steinman that he needed a traditional ballad
on the album. As an example, she mentioned some lines from an
Elvis Presley hit: "I want you, I need you, I love you." Instead,
Steinman wrote this:
I want you,
I need you,
But there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you,
Now don't be sad,
'Cause two out of three ain't bad.
When "Bat Out of Hell" was released in 1977, it was initially
ignored by radio stations. Many critics disparaged Steinman for
pouring it on too thick, but to Steinman such extremes are part of
what he wants to capture in his music -- the exuberance of youth,
when every moment matters intensely. Of teenagers, Steinman has
said: "They're closer to the things in life that are really important.
They're closer to the jugular, the feverish, the primal, the urgent, the
intuitive aspects of being human." Unfortunately, some critics find
Steinman "breathtakingly excessive," as one Los Angeles Times
writer put it.
"I've been called over the top," Steinman says. "How silly. If you
don't go over the top, you can't see what's on the other side."
"Bat Out of Hell" claims sales of 25 million albums to date, which
would make it the largest-selling debut album in history. "Sony says
it's more profitable than `Thriller,' " Steinman notes. "And we did it
without plastic surgery."
Steinman has his fans, too, and they come from unexpected places.
In an interview with Q, a British music magazine, Courtney Love
confessed to an obsession with the songwriter. "Jim Steinman is
God! He's beyond Wagner, he's Einstein!" Another British
magazine, Kerrang!, described Steinman as "the `Little Richard
Wagner' of rock n' roll. Probably the ultimate definition of the
genius-as-madman producer since Phil Spector." Lou Reed called
"Bat Out of Hell II" "the future of where rock should be heading."
When Meat Loaf began having vocal problems and a follow-up
album failed to meet expectations, the two went their separate
ways. They didn't see each other for five years, although, Steinman
says, "That's not unusual for me. There was no reason to talk to
him. We weren't close friends. It was a really confusing situation."
Meat Loaf says there was never any acrimony between them. In
1987, Meat Loaf visited Steinman at home to discuss a possible
reunion. Steinman went to the piano and asked Meat Loaf to sing
the entire "Bat Out of Hell" album, as a way of finding out whether
the singer's voice had returned. "We didn't miss a beat," Meat Loaf
says. "It was like no time period had elapsed. That's the way it's
It's been 18 months since the two have seen each other, although
they've spoken on the phone and have plans to collaborate on a
greatest-hits album. "I think the relationship is just the way it should
be -- an album every 16 years," Steinman says jokingly. "Meat
would be happier if we were working together every two years, but
I just couldn't turn it out."
"Jim and Meat Loaf had this weird marriage," says David Simone,
president of Polygram Music. "They love each other and hate each
other. I'm sure a psychiatrist could have a lot of fun with it."
"There's no hate to it," Steinman responds. "It's much more love
with tons of extenuating circumstances. When he performs my
songs, I couldn't even dream of them being sung better. We're
inexplicably bound by the stuff I wrote for him. It's strange."
From Lloyd Webber to Peter Pan
"I hate making records," Steinman says. "Theater has always been
my first love. I thrive on that live response."
Working with Andrew Lloyd Webber has been on Steinman's mind
for more than 10 years, ever since he spent a week in London
collaborating with the composer on a project Steinman eventually
had to abandon because he owed CBS Records a new Bonnie
The project he quit was "The Phantom of the Opera." "I think he
regretted that," says manager Sonenberg, with admirable
Since then, Steinman and Lloyd Webber have stayed in touch. "He
always envied my chart hits," Steinman told the Associated Press.
"And I've always envied his $800 million."
In the summer of 1994, Webber asked Steinman to meet him for
dinner at Orso, a Broadway hangout, to discuss a possible project.
At the end of the meal, Lloyd Webber popped the question: Would
Steinman consider writing the lyrics for a film musical, "Whistle
Down the Wind," based on an obscure and, in Steinman's words,
"totally bleak" British drama starring Hayley Mills? The movie was
about a group of Yorkshire children who mistake an escaped
convict hiding in a barn for Jesus Christ. It was Steinman's idea to
move the setting from England to the American Deep South. "I
immediately thought of Tennessee Williams, `To Kill a
Mockingbird,' `Member of the Wedding,' " he said.
When a staged concert of the score was well-received and
legendary director Hal Prince offered his services, Lloyd Webber
decided to produce "Whistle Down the Wind" for theater rather
When a staged concert of the score was well-received and
legendary director Hal Prince offered his services, Lloyd Webber
decided to produce "Whistle Down the Wind" for theater rather
than film. The world premiere is running at the National Theatre,
where it has received mixed reviews, including a pan in The
Washington Post and several raves from London newspapers.
"Andrew was bummed out initially by the reviews, but I think the
London papers really helped him a lot," says Steinman, who has
already begun writing new songs and is undaunted by the challenge
ahead. "We're only 75 percent of the way there. It's not fully
developed. It's all about clarity and focus now. . . . If it's done right,
it should seem like a slightly hallucinatory `Oklahoma.' "
Perhaps what's most surprising about "Whistle Down the Wind" is
its fealty to the tradition of classic Broadway musicals like
`Oklahoma.' Unlike such Lloyd Webber productions as "Cats,"
"Phantom" and "Starlight Express," this show is rooted in character
and story rather than scenery and spectacle, with a score ranging
from gospel to rock. Steinman's lyrics are passionate and
impressively crafted, although he admits that he and Lloyd Webber
had a running argument about the nature of rhymes.
"He's totally obsessed with precise rhymes," Steinman says. "He
would argue about the tiniest differences. I would say, `Do you
really think the audience takes intense pleasure in a precise rhyme?'
I got away with a ton of stuff."
Most of the score was written first by Lloyd Webber, who
provided Steinman with music for about 80 percent of the songs.
One exception is one of the show's centerpieces, a paean to seizing
the moment, "A Kiss Is a Terrible Thing to Waste."
The musical's New York opening has been postponed from April
24 to June 15, to accommodate changes in the production and
allow Prince to honor a previous commitment to direct a Broadway
revival of "Candide." After the bad Washington Post review, Prince
told the cast not to worry, noting that when he produced the
premiere of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"
at the National Theatre, one Washington review carried the
headline: "Go Home."
Meanwhile, Steinman is also composing music for "Dance of the
Vampires," a rock opera to be directed by Roman Polanski in
Vienna this fall. And he is continuing to work on his career-long
opus, "Neverland," a sci-fi version of "Peter Pan" that has evolved
from his 1971 Amherst musical. In a 1979 interview with Sounds,
Steinman described "Neverland" as sort of a mixture of "West Side
Story," "A Clockwork Orange" and "Star Wars." At various times,
he has considered producing it as a film and a musical, and once
even raised the possibility of casting Meat Loaf as Tinkerbell. Many
of his songs have been written with "Neverland" in mind, including
"It's All Coming Back to Me Now," which a 38-year-old Wendy
sings when Peter returns after having abandoned her 20 years
Steinman's obsession with the themes found in "Peter Pan"
resonates through almost all of his work, even "Whistle Down the
Wind," when a rebellious teenager sings, "We'll never be as young
as we are right now." The same line also appears in another
Steinman song, "Lost Boys and Golden Girls."
"That's one of my favorite lines," Steinman explains. "I think it's a
really startling statement. I'm totally fascinated with age and what
times does to people, the fact that you have ghosts around you
constantly, that you can't ever escape. `Peter Pan,' " he says, "is the
ultimate rock-and-roll myth -- lost boys who don't grow up."
Maintaining the intensity of youth is something of an ethos to
Steinman. It pops up in so many of his songs that it begs the
question of whether Steinman is a candidate for a midlife crisis.
Steinman shrugs it off. "I've accumulated a lot more data and
probably a lot more disappointments and disillusionments, but I still
feel the same as I did when I was 20 or 21. That either means I
was prematurely a geezer or I've held on to something."
Jonathan Karp is a senior editor at Random House. Recent
projects have included "The Last Don" by Mario Puzo and "Behind
the Oval Office" by Dick Morris.