I enjoy enough Jim Steinman songs that I’m probably on the borderline between harmless guilty pleasure and the need for an intervention.
Steinman, who died Monday at the age of 73, wrote songs with really long titles like “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” and “Loving You is a Dirty Job But Someone’s Gotta Do It.” He wrote lots of them and they were pretty much all frenzied, with bombastic production that showcased swelling choruses and over-the-top vocals.
If Phil Spector created the Wall of Sound, Steinman jacked it up into the Great Wall of China.
That’s a big part of the reason most rock ’n’ roll critics regard Steinman songs as six minutes of their lives that they will never get back.
Critical dismissal didn’t stop Steinman’s songs from selling more than 200 million copies when they were recorded by the likes of Meat Loaf, Celine Dion and Bonnie Tyler. It just left him a little short in the area of rock ’n’ roll respect.
I understand why most critics responded as they did to, say, Meat Loaf’s 1977 Bat Out of Hell album, for which Steinman wrote all the songs. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” to cite one random track, feels like an overinflated one-liner even allowing for the inspired insertion of Phil Rizzuto.
And yet a half dozen other Steinman songs don’t make me turn off the car radio. They make me turn it up, for reasons more visceral than intellectual.
For purposes of a full confession, my Steinman group includes “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” and “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth.”
I also like “Nowhere Fast,” from the bomb movie Streets of Fire, and even, yes, “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” by, gulp, Air Supply. I won’t even try defending that.
I feel a little better about all this because Steinman was a fascinating guy to talk to — or more accurately, listen to. His conversations tended to be as long as his song titles, which is not a complaint. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with music, and his ruminations were engaging.
He saw his music as a marriage of the two primary styles on which he grew up, rock ’n’ roll and opera.
“I was listening to them at the same time,” he said in a 1996 interview. “I would go from Tosca to Little Richard, and they always felt related. Both rock and opera are self-dramatizing. They can be majestic and silly at the same time. I love the fact my own stuff is both silly and ecstatic.”
He called that a Los Angeles Times critic had described him as “a little Richard Wagner.”
“He meant it as an insult,” said Steinman. “I took it as a compliment.”
In 1996, two decades removed from his big score with Bat Out of Hell, Steinman was working on getting what he called real rock music onto the theatrical stage.
The problem, he said, was not the lack of qualified songwriters. “You’ve got plenty of those,” he said. “Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb. The Beatles could have done it easily.”
He acknowledged the Who’s Tommy as an outlier that did make it to the stage. But in general, he said, the theater world’s “intransigence” created an impenetrable blockade.
“Theater stopped growing in the 1950s,” he said. “Before that, great theater music always reflected the streets. Hello Dolly didn’t reflect anything. It was disconnected. It had nothing to do with the music of its time.
“That’s why they say the audience for theater today is old people and their parents.”
What needs to happen, Steinman said, is that the theater world should stop seeing itself as an art form to be studied and just throw the stage open.
“I despise the idea of studying theater,” he said. “It’s like trying to appreciate a song by reading the sheet music.”
Steinman’s frustration with what he saw as the closed mind of the theater world stretched back to 1969, his senior year at Amherst College. For his senior project he wrote “a three-hour epic musical” called The Dream Engine, which revolved around youths aiming to rule the world in their own way.
It achieved some cult notoriety primarily for its absence.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” said Steinman. “Joseph Papp [of the New York Shakespeare Festival] saw it and immediately bought the rights. But it was rejected for production.
“It was considered too violent and explicit. It was very political. It was so much a production of its time. Hair was fluff. This foreshadows Kent State and Charles Manson. The kids one night almost burn down the library. People go after each other until there’s nothing left.
“The last 50 minutes, everyone’s nude. Also, it’s really funny and there’s amazing choreography.”
While Dream Engine mostly remained a dream, the Papp connection did get Steinman to the New York theater world, where he worked before Bat Out of Hell made him a hot songwriting property.
Unlike many writers, he often did either the music or the lyrics for his songs. “I hate to do both,” he said. “It makes me crazy. You end up thinking about it all day.”
Given his choice, he preferred lyrics.
“Lyrics are 60% of a song,” he said. “If you have bad music but good lyrics, you can still succeed. If you have great music and bad lyrics, you don’t have a chance.”
Part of the challenge, he said, is music can be the easier part. “If I sit down at a piano, I’ll eventually come up with music that’s pretty good. If I sit down with a pen trying to write lyrics, that may not happen.”
His guidelines for lyrics included starting with a “theatrical” image, like the “Turn around, bright eyes” line in “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
“The best record ever,” he said, was the Righteous Brothers’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” in part because it started with “maybe the best opening lines ever” — “You never close your eyes any more / When I kiss your lips.”
“What an image,” he said. “And notice it also says he’s keeping his own eyes open.”
It would surprise no one that Steinman loved the work of Phil Spector, who produced “Lovin’ Feeling.”
“He changed the way I saw music,” said Steinman. “I think he did the same thing for Bruce Springsteen.”
At the same time, Steinman rejected the idea he was simply grafting Spector’s production onto his own songs. “Spector was more R&B-based,” said Steinman. “A record like Bat Out of Hell is more ballads.”
Like many others, Steinman also found Spector personally difficult.
When Spector came out of semi-retirement in 1995 to produce Celine Dion tracks for the album that would eventually become Falling Into You, he and Dion’s team fell out over the proverbial creative differences, and Steinman was one of the primary writers and producers who stepped in to finish the record, which became one of the best-selling albums ever.
Spector dismissed Steinman as one among multiple “amateurs, students and bad clones of yours truly.”
“Phil was brutal,” said Steinman. “It was beneath him and I was disappointed.”
In fact, Steinman said, he had warned Dion’s people ahead of time that if they hired Spector, “They would get nothing out of him. He’s crazy. You get great sessions and no finished record.”
Which is exactly what happened.
And, Steinman said, it did nothing to tarnish his love for “Be My Baby” or “River Deep Mountain High.”
In any event, he conceded, transferring the excitement and relevance of rock music to a stage “is incredibly tricky. But it’s not impossible.”
His main 1996 project, writing lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ill-fated musical Whistle Down the Wind, didn’t end up taking off. He got a bigger audience for the musical Tanz Der Vampyr, on which he collaborated with Roman Polanski. Until health problems forced him to downshift in his final years, he kept throwing rock and opera into the blender.
“I write for a certain kind of world,” he said in 1996,
“that I’m trying to populate.”
I’m not sure that world is where I want to spend the rest of time. But I can’t resist dropping in now and then for a visit.