‘Less is more’ is not in songwriter/producer Jim Steinman’s vocabulary. His work is a radical mixture of heavy rock, the bombast of composer Richard Wagner and Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ with an emphasis on soprano choirs and castanets. The songs rarely clock below five minutes and every second is drama. On top of all that there are surrealistic lyrics and metaphors that test the listener’s imagination. All this makes his epic productions unique but controversial. You either love this pomposity or you don’t. There is no middle ground. Musicophilia.nl might just be the only Dutch website that places Jim Steinman on a pedestal. A tribute to the ‘lord of excess’ by his most remarkable work.
James-Richard Steinman is born on November 1st 1947 in New York City. His creative mind soon comes to light when he wins the prestigious Newsday prize for his essay on the three most important novelties and writes a musical adaption of Bertholt Brecht’s theatre play ‘Mann is Mann’. In 1969 he completes the rock musical ‘The dream engine’ single-handedly. The theatre play reflects the turbulent 60’s. The story revolves around the young boy Baal who, with his gang The Tribes, rebels against the chastity and restrictions of society. Baal falls in love with a girl whose parents are fundamental moral guardians.
‘The dream engine’ contains themes that run through his work like threads: youth culture, passionate but impossible lovE, rebellion, and a dash of carnal lust. Steinman is also fond of the gothic novels ‘Wuthering heights’ by Emily Brontë and Bram Stocker’s ‘Dracula’ in which the supernatural, pain, desire, death and sin play a significant part. In 1977 the concept of ‘The dream engine’ mixed with gothic culminates on the pop classic ‘Bat out of hell’ by Meatloaf. The title track tells about a motorcyclist who has died in an accident and returns to his loved one as a living dead.
“And down in the tunnels where the deadly are rising
Oh, I swear I saw a young boy down in the gutter
He was starting to foam in the heat”
“Then I’m down in the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun,
Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike,
And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell
And the last thing I see is my heart, still beating,
Breaking out of my body and flying away
Like a bat out of hell”
Richard Corben’s kitschy cover illustration of an overly muscular, half-naked show-off on a motorcycle with a graveyard as a backdrop, associates perfectly with the theatrical production.
We also see the sexually oriented phantasy/gothic artwork on the albums ‘Bat out of hell II’, ‘Bat out of hell III’ and Jim Steinman’s solo album ‘Bad for good’ from 1980. A hit-and-miss album that was originally meant for Meatloaf, but because of persistent voice problems and other troubles was not sung by the bulky singer. The record is modestly successful and Steinman draws the conclusion that Bob Dylan should have drawn forty years ago: my beautiful songs deserve a better singer than me.
Many tracks on ‘Bad for good’ get a better escape later on. Barbara Streisand records a blood-curdling version of ‘Left in the dark’ for her 1984 album ‘Emotion’ (with Kris Kristofferson starring in the music video). That same year, ‘Surf’s up’ lands on Meat Loaf’s ‘Bad attitude’ and his 1993 ‘Bat Out Of Hell II’ gives ‘Out of the frying pan’, ‘Lost boys and golden girls’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll dreams come through’ a second life.
In ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll dreams come through’ John Steinman describes in a fantastic way how rock music helps a music nerd to get through tough times:
“There’s always something magic
There’s always something new
And when you really really need it the most
That’s when rock and roll dreams come through”
“Once upon a time was a backbeat
Once upon a time all the chords came to life
And the angels had guitars even before they had wings
If you hold onto a chorus you can get through the night”
In the late 80’s Steinman collects a bunch of top singers (e.g. Ellen Foley and Elaine Casswell) for his project Pandora’s box. The result is the concept album ‘Original sin’ which comes out in 1989. At the heart of this love story about temptation, sin, and penance this time is not gothic literature, but the Greek myth ‘Pandora’s Box’. A post-Christian symbolism about the fall into sin resulting from greed. In addition to the unparalleled bombast Steinman yet again flourishes as a lyricist who comes up with the most brilliant metaphors. ‘Original sin’ is a product of it’s time with a great deal of reverberation, digitally enhanced percussion, and all other kinds of electronic Botox. The record flops, but experts see it as one of Steinman’s best works and as a business card for his musical storytelling.
A fair share of tracks on this album have also been recycled. In 1994 the title song ‘Original sin’ is used as a theme (with slightly adapted lyrics sung by Taylor Dayne) for the penitent hero in the film ‘The shadow’. The lyrics speak for themselves:
“I’ve been looking for the ultimate crime
Infinite victims, infinitesimal time
And I’m so very guilty for no reason or rhyme
So now I’m just looking
And killing some time
Endlessly searching for the ultimate crime“
In 1995 Meatloaf does the song all over again on his album ‘Welcome to the neighbourhood’. For ‘Bat out of hell II’ he borrows ‘Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere’ and the fabulous ‘It just won’t quit’. This track, sung by Elaine Caswell describes the agitation of the insatiable individual and is the core concept behind ‘Original sin’.
“And I never really sleep anymore
And I always get those dangerous dreams
And I never get a minute of peace
And I gotta wonder what it means”
“Is this a blessing or is it a curse?
Does it get any better? Can it get any worse?
Will it go on forever, is it over tonight?
Does it come with the darkness? Does it bring out the light?
Is it richer than diamonds or just a little cheaper than spit? I don’t know what it is but it just won’t quit”
The greatest success came in 1996 with Celine Dion’s Steinman-produced version of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”. A song for which, incidentally, not “Pandora’s box” but “Wuthering Heights” was the model. In the second half of the 90’s Steinman and the German lyricist Michael Kunze throw themselves on the musical revision of Roman Polanski’s film classic ‘The fearless vampire killers’. The Polish director is so enthusiastic that he signs for the direction of the rock musical that will have its premiere in Vienna in October 1997 as ‘Tanz Der Vampire’. The musical is a global success, but unfortunately, is only available as a German audio recording on CD/LP. To score previously published songs were adjusted, such as ‘Total eclipse of the heart’ (written by Bonnie Tyler), ‘Original sin’, and ‘Tonight is what it means to be young’ (from the soundtrack ‘Streets of fire’).
Another musical project is ‘Whistle down the wind’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber which comes out on CD in 1998. Webber composed the music, Steinman wrote the lyrics. No vampires, love or the grave this time, but reflections on faith and self-confidence as heard in Boyzone’s hit “No matter what”.
“No matter what they tell you
No matter what they do
No matter what they teach you
What you believe is true“
“And I will keep you safe and strong
And sheltered from the storm
No matter where it’s barren
A dream is being born“
Steinman proved his ability to write about varying themes with ‘Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are’ from the record ‘Bat out of hell-II”. This ten-minute opus (with fantastic piano playing by Little Feet keyboardist Bill Payne) tells of a man who returns to his hometown to deal with the childhood trauma that haunt him on his life path.
“The skies were pure and the fields were green
And the sun was brighter than it’s ever been
When I grew up with my best friend Kenny
We were close as any brothers than you ever knew”
“But I can still recall the sting of all the tears when he was gone
They said he crashed and burned
I know I’ll never learn why any boy should die so young”
“There are times I think I see him peeling out of the dark
I think he’s right behind me now and he’s gaining ground But it was long ago and it was far away, oh God it seems so very far
And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car
And objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are”
After years of preparation Steinman’s long-cherished wish came true in 2017: The premier of the musical version of ‘Bat Out Of Hell’. The musical is not a mere revision of the album, but contains elements of the rock musical ‘Neverland’. A science fiction interpretation of ‘Peter Pan’ written by Steinman in the early 1970’s and performed in Washington in 1977. Because ‘Neverland’ is a rewritten version of ‘The dream engine’ which in turn was the model for ‘Bat out of hell’, the circle is complete. Jim Steinman has completed his quest. Right at the moment when it becomes quiet around him due to health problems.
Jim Steinman took rock music to a dimension where boundaries were crossed, modesty did not exist, and excess could never be enough. His adage is in the song “Bad for good”:
“If it’s something I want, then it’s something I need
I wasn’t built for comfort I was built for speed”
Michel Scheijen/English translation by Natascha Huynen