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The Man Behind Meat Loaf

Songwriter Jim Steinman found his muse in the performer—and, forty years ago, they released their iconic, operatic rock album, Bat Out of Hell.

Corey Atad is a freelance writer based in Toronto....

 

“But as they pulled him from the twisted wreck
With his dying breath they heard him say
Tell Laura I love her”
- Ray Peterson

In 1978, Jim Steinman was on tour promoting his first album with his collaborator, a man of immense size—in both vocal and physical presence—calling himself Meat Loaf. For Bat Out of Hell’s big opening track, Steinman sought to make a splash. His idea was to write a car crash song, inspired by the car crash songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s—a pure rock and roll song, but one that would blow the rest out of the water. He wanted to create a crash song so huge, so spectacular, so violent and operatic as to render the genre practically obsolete. Nobody would be able to top it.

The song, “Bat Out of Hell,” runs an impressive 9 minutes and 52 seconds, features epic guitar riffs, the sounds of a motorcycle revving (actually an audio trick producer Todd Rundgren created using his electric guitar), multiple musical changes and Phil Spector-esque wall of sound extremity. Eventually, the song reaches a kind of sonic volume that feels like it’s about to explode. “Then I’m down in the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun,” Meat Loaf howls at the song’s climax. “Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike.”

Jim Steinman’s goal was to make “the most extreme car crash song of all time,” and that’s exactly what “Bat Out of Hell” is.

Applying strict labels to Steinman’s body of work is folly. In his songs, musical theatre excess bumps up against punk brashness slamming into Springsteen-esque rock grandeur wrapped up in ‘60s doo-wop, and coated in a Heavy Metal-inspired aesthetic. His piano-laden hits—which everyone knows whether they know his name or not—range from Barbra Streisand’s bombastic “Left in the Dark” to Céline Dion’s even more bombastic “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” He wrote Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and Barry Manilow’s “Read ‘Em and Weep.” Steinman’s music is big. It’s sweeping. It’s also silly, prone to goofy wordplay and goofier oxymoron.

So playfully constructed is Steinman’s work that the Wikipedia entry for the Meat Loaf classic “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” from the “sequel” album Bat Out of Hell II features a lengthy subsection on the “Perceived ambiguity of ‘that’.” Yet listening to that twelve-minute beast of a song, you’d be forgiven for succumbing to its utter sweep. It’s a funny song, sure, occasionally verging on novelty. That’s part of the appeal, but it’s all done in such grand fashion, culminating in a thrilling male-female duet, and held together by a deviously catchy chorus. “[Steinman] is, perhaps, the lost genius of pop, stranded—lamentably unlauded—in a world of rock with opera’s attitude, where life has stopped at the point of adolescence that childhood dreams are shattered,” wrote John Aizlewood for Q Magazine upon the release of Bat Out of Hell II in 1993. “Every chorus is like losing your virginity, every verse is like killing your parents. It’s as if Phil Spector and Richard Wagner were making records together.”

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The first single Jim Steinman ever bought was the 1960 Ray Peterson classic, “Tell Laura I Love Her.” Written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh, the mournful rockabilly song about a tragic stock car race touched a nerve. Its country inflected balladry, doo-wop undercurrents, late–1950s car culture idolatry, and melodramatic air of teenage tragedy conjure at once an image of an era and a mournful timelessness.

The song followed on the success of “Teen Angel,” performed by Mark Dinning, which had reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1960 and inspired a slew of popular imitators. The mode was clear: romantic anarchy built on the embrace of death and the flouting of adult rules, but with extreme reverence for what James A. Michener referred to in 1965 as a gang’s “code.” In other words, about as pure a representation of the American teenage mind as one could hope to find at the start of the decade, and later epitomized in George Lucas’s nostalgic ode to the era, American Graffiti, whose wall-to-wall soundtrack of forty-one hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s made sure to include “Teen Angel.”

Those early rock and roll hits were controversial for their time, feeding white-bread suburban teens a steady supply of death fantasies. But the era’s apparently lightweight, romantic sensibilities would shortly give way to a more seriously considered form of rock music, and ever more controversy in the form of Dylan, The Rolling Stones and others. Songs about death became far more self-important and often morose. Richard Corliss, writing for The New York Times in 1967, described the new selection of high-brow rock songs on the charts as being as far from the earlier “medieval Liebestoden”—those “tawdry train-wrecks,” he called them—“as Shakespeare is from Seneca.” The last great car crash song of the ‘60s was the Shangri-Las’ 1964 No. 1 hit “Leader of the Pack,” actually about a spectacular motorcycle crash, and though suffused with death, it is a toe-tapping pop classic—and another of Jim Seinman’s favourites.

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It’s no accident that Jim Steinman’s songs veer into the theatrical: his roots were in musical theatre. Steinman grew up in love with opera. In the late 1960s, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts where he worked on several musical projects. In 1969 he wrote and starred in The Dream Engine, an occult rock and roll musical that served as his independent study at Amherst, and featured themes—and even lyrics—which would recur throughout the rest of his career. In fact, more than perhaps any other modern music producer, Steinman’s willingness to pilfer his own work is impressive. The move fits with his Wagnerian influences, prizing leitmotif on top of the grand scope. Looked at another way, his entire career can be seen as one long workshop for a grand musical that was never produced. Songs he’d written for The Dream Engine would go on to be recorded as recently as 2016, in his fourth collaboration with Meat Loaf, Braver Than We Are. The seeds of some of his most famous songs can be found in it, too, including the “turn around” lyric and call-and-response structure that would become central to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

The Dream Engine was seen by Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who hired Steinman to stage it professionally. Years of workshopping went nowhere. Eventually Steinman wrote another musical, More Than You Deserve, a lurid Vietnam War story that ran for several weeks at the Public Theater in late 1973. It was on that production that Steinman met Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf.

Around the time Meat Loaf was starring in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he and Steinman collaborated on a series of songs which would eventually become the basis for Bat Out of Hell. The seeds of the album were planted earlier in the decade, while Steinman was at work attempting to reshape The Dream Engine into a Peter Pan-inspired musical called Neverland, a reflection of Steinman’s career-spanning obsession with eternal youth. Though that project never properly got off the ground, it featured work that would later end up on Bat Out of Hell, including the title track. All Steinman needed was a muse to help him bring it all together, and in Meat Loaf he found just that.

Meat Loaf and Steinman spent several years in the mid–1970s attempting to get Bat Out of Hell off the ground, taking it to every record label they could find without much luck. Recording began in 1975, without a label attached, but with Todd Rundgren producing. Steinman eventually found a willing buyer in record executive Steve Popovich, who set up the project as the first release from his independent Cleveland International Records. The album was finally released in October 1977 and became a sensation—some estimates put it at over 40 million sold worldwide, one of the biggest albums in history. Its style was a fuck you to the prevailing trends in rock music at the time, from Fleetwood Mac, to Boston, to Abba, taking inspiration from prog rock and punk, but with much more soul. “Our music has fever, fantasy, violence, passion, rebellion and fun, their music doesn’t have those things,” Steinman told British journalist Simon Kinnersley in 1978. “Punk misses the romance and fantasy, and it comes from a different social class and I can’t relate to it. But we’re trying to get away from the synthesis of homogenized rock and roll.” Max Weinberg, who played drums on the album, described its songs as “mini plays, mini operas” that, in his words, “made you feel like you were watching a show when you were listening to them.”

Steinman and Meat Loaf delivered on the “show” aspect in spades, touring the album as The Neverland Express with Steinman himself accompanying on the piano, gaining massive acclaim and a dedicated following. Peter Goddard, reviewing the concert for the Toronto Star in 1978, wrote, “Because of his size, Meat Loaf might have played the jovial goof on stage, a sort of rock ‘n’ roll Jackie Gleason, as do so many other heavy-set rock singers. Instead, he glowered, threw his body around and, in general, expended so much energy his lungs were pumping like forge bellows throughout his set.” The spectacle was the draw and Meat Loaf as a stage act was the perfect expression of Jim Steinman’s artistic id. Kitschy, manly, melodramatic, and literally huge.

Todd Rundgren has described Meat Loaf as the Christian to Steinman’s Cyrano de Bergerac: a vessel. “I can’t imagine Steinman being in a car by the lake with the most beautiful girl in school,” Rundgren explains. “I can imagine him imagining it, but that’s about it.” At first sight, few would figure Meat Loaf for a macho sex god, but then you’d hear his voice and you see him perform and he became sex incarnate. He was a mad, leather-clad oddity, like something out of a Steinman fantasy. Go figure.

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Though it contained seeds of songs that ended up on Bat Out Of Hell, of all the songs that grew out of The Dream Engine, none have been more essential or iconic than Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Released in 1983 and a karaoke classic the world over, Tyler’s scratchy voice reaches breathless heights on the track. But it’s not just the power of her singing that makes it work. Like Meat Loaf, Tyler acted as a pure vessel for Steinman’s lyrical and compositional excesses. “It was an aria to me, a Wagnerian-like onslaught of sound and emotion,” Steinman told People. “I wrote it to be a showpiece for her voice.”

“Total Eclipse” came on the heels of a rough patch—one of many—in Steinman’s relationship with Meat Loaf. The two had duelled over myriad issues, including disputes over work done on their second album, Dead Ringer, Steinman’s solo effort Bad for Good, the naming rights to Bat Out of Hell and more, with off-and-on legal battles lasting well into the 2000s. At one point Meat Loaf claimed that “Total Eclipse” had been written for him. Tyler disputes this, saying that Steinman only finished the song after their first meeting.

“Total Eclipse” is not a Meat Loaf song, and it couldn’t have been. The song was clearly written for a woman—albeit Steinman’s idea of a woman. “Once upon a time I was falling in love / But now I’m only falling apart,” the song goes, reflecting a romantic vulnerability Steinman would never allow, nor possibly even conceive of, in his male muse. Even the line “giving off sparks,” originally found on the title track of Bad for Good, has been altered in its context to embody a kind of operatic feminine ideal. “We’re living in a powder keg,” the line begins, changed from the far stranger and more distant, “But the Northern Lights are burning.” The new intimacy afforded Tyler in the song is striking. It’s a true heartbreak ballad as sung by one of the angels Steinman so regularly references, as over-the-top indulgent as anything he’s ever produced, but also small in a way, clear in its emotional scope, grounded in humanity and free of his usual nostalgic caricature. It’s still a teenager’s view of love and heartbreak, only one more interested in direct expression of emotional experience than narrative posturing.

The posture is reserved instead for the music video. Directed by Russel Mulcahy, the man behind the iconic video for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but really “directed” by Steinman himself, the “Total Eclipse” video features Tyler in an angelic white dress, walking around a dark, blue-lit, gothic mansion, the apparitions of her romantic fantasies of boarding school boys flashing before her in succession. There are doves, and boys with glowing eyes, and open doorways, and fencers, and ninjas, and flowing drapery, and a leather-clad gang of bikers dancing. It’s a style Steinman would come back to in the video for 1993’s “I’d Do Anything for Love,” directed by Michael Bay and featuring Meat Loaf as a bike-riding beast chased by helicopters into a mansion where his love awaits, seductively writhing on a bed for much of the lengthy running time.

The same style is repeated in the videos for both versions of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.” The classic Céline Dion song is in fact a cover of a previous arrangement Steinman had put together for a side project called Pandora’s Box. The 1989 original sounds nearly identical to the later, more famous cover by the French-Canadian superstar, and the videos share plenty of DNA. The first video was directed by British filmmaker Ken Russell, and features a bizarre scenario in which a woman is being revived after a fiery motorcycle crash, having visions of a studded leather orgy set in a cemetery. The Dion video is, of course, far less sexual, though no less Steinman. Once again there’s the blue lighting, a mansion, romantic visions, and a ghostly man on a motorcycle haunting his lover after a terrible wreck. The proverbial leader of the pack. Though directed by Nigel Dick, even he admits that almost all of the video’s details came straight from Steinman’s mind, telling the CBC, “I think, looking back now—I mean, he should have directed the video. That’s the truth of it.” Steinman’s aesthetic concerns have always stretched well beyond the songs themselves. Putting together Bat Out of Hell, he insisted on its now-iconic cover design, illustrated by Heavy Metal comic artist Richard Corben. “I don’t even disassociate it from the songs, the performer, the writing. It was an obsession of mine,” Jim Steinman has said of the cover, adding that the artwork “looks like the music sounds and like the show felt.” His approach to music videos is no different, inseparable from the music itself.

“It’s All Coming Back” was one of Dion’s biggest hits, and according to Slate music critic Carl Wilson, author of the seminal Céline book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, it’s her best song as well. It brings out the best in her, not just her voice, but her personality. “There are few things that producers ever did with her that used all of the bombast that she’s capable of,” Wilson told me, “but also the fact that she’s kind of funny, that she’s sort of an amusing figure in a lot of ways.” The song, released in 1996, was also Steinman’s last giant success. Meat Loaf has regularly mined Steinman’s back catalogue in attempts to re-establish relevance—going so far as to record his own gaudy cover of “It’s All Coming Back”—and Steinman himself has worked on various projects, including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind, and Roman Polanski’s German stage musical adaptation of his own Tanz der Vampire, but none have landed with as much force as his most-known work. Not even his recent album with Meat Loaf, nor the positively reviewed Bat Out of Hell musical.

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There’s something lacking in the shape of modern music that denies entry to those who’d follow in Steinman’s footsteps. Wilson points to the outrageous tone, the thin line of Gothic show tune extravagance verging on camp, that Steinman’s work, particularly with Meat Loaf, would often ride. “It gets at the kind of ridiculousness, adolescent emotion, and drama in that way,” Wilson says, “by using that self-consciously, at once sincerely desperate tone, and also this poking fun at its own ridiculousness.” It’s a style, he says, that finds its antecedent in the ‘60s Phil Spector pop-rock era Steinman clearly reveres. Pop music recording itself may have also changed a little too much in the intervening years, becoming colder and more electronic in the age of digital mastering. “What sounds good in a digital production style is not necessarily that kind of vocal,” Wilson says. Those powerful grace notes in Bonnie Tyler’s performance, where her crackly voice almost seems to break, are few and far between these days. Adele’s voice is huge, but the songs are polished to a sharp sheen. Rihanna has allowed herself more unvarnished vocal performances in recent years, particularly on “FourFiveSeconds,” but when the songs get bigger they get too clean to ever match the wall-of-sound mania of a Steinman production. And when modern artists do attempt that kind of musical desperation, it’s often through digital tricks like Auto-Tune used to create artificial vocal wavering, Wilson says.

Perhaps Jim Steinman is a man out of time, straddling several decades at once, never quite fitting into any one. It’s in a way a testament to his unique flair that he never inspired many real imitators. There are other big pop ballads. There always have been. Yet, none with quite the combination of earnest pop romanticism and Wagnerian attitude. In 2013, A.V. Club critic Zack Handlen described Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” as “bombastic and sappy and fun to listen to, like something Jim Steinman might’ve written if he was running low on words.” That great song may be the closest we’ve come to Steinman in the last 20 years, though it misses the outlandish imagery and operatic impact.

It may be that what sets Steinman apart is his dedication to a feeling; not an emotion, but a visceral response. “My songs are anthems to those moments when you feel like you’re on the head of a match that’s burning,” Steinman said in a 1978 Rolling Stone interview. “They’re anthems to the essence of rock and roll, to a world that despises inaction and loves passion and rebellion. They’re anthems to the kind of feeling you get listening to ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes. That’s what I love about anthems—the fury, the melody and the passion.”

In a way, it’s appropriate that Steinman’s work should exist outside the space of the pop conversation, flying like a bat out of hell out and over a timid landscape of easy hooks and ironic emotional detachment. Though Steinman’s songs peddle in ironic humour, they are anything but ironic. They’re as pure as they are grandiose. Majestic as they are silly. Steinman’s music soars above the everyday and into the magical, yearning endlessly for youth, to recapture it, to “tell Laura I love her,” and then to blow it all to smithereens in maximalist wonder, riding away from the wreckage on a black motorcycle into the blazing sun, all to the sound of a grand piano and an American guitar.

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