The Lord
Of Excess

Nocturnal
Pleasures


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 and humor.

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 weird guy.

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 children.

"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 his parents."

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 happened."

"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 unique individual."

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 attention span."

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 beings."

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 much."

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 Festival.

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 explicit language.

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 life."

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 optimistic.

"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 urine sample?"

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 million records."

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 same."

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 always been."

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 Tyler album.

The project he quit was "The Phantom of the Opera." "I think he regretted that," says manager Sonenberg, with admirable understatement.

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 previously.

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.