Taranaki Daily News
Opera-loving writer of Bat Out of Hell had no time for ‘the more subtle stuff ’
‘If you don’t go over the top you can’t see what’s on the other side,’’ said Jim Steinman, who has died aged 73. ‘‘So I start at ‘extreme’ and go from there.’’ It was a rule he applied to considerable effect in writing some of the most memorably operatic and bombastic songs in popular music.
Unable to ‘‘see the point in writing songs about ordinary, real-life stuff’’, Steinman instead cast himself as rock music’s heir to Richard Wagner, creating an alternative universe in gothic songs populated by vampires, fast cars, motorbikes, obsessive lovers, beautiful but doomed heroes, and bats out of hell.
Tyler he wrote not just any old love song but the melodramatic
Total Eclipse of the Heart, a No 1 hit in 1983. For Celine Dion he came up with the tormented It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, ‘‘about being enslaved and obsessed by love, not just enchanted and happy with it’’.
His defining achievement came with the songs he wrote for Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell.
Four years in the making, the album was turned down by almost every big record company before being released on the obscure Cleveland International label in 1977.
At the time disco and punk were ruling the charts, and Steinman’s songs had nothing to do with either. ‘‘I wanted to make an album that sounded like a movie,’’ he said. ‘‘All I can say is that thank God we knew nothing about making albums, because otherwise it couldn’t have happened.’’
The histrionic title track about a motorcycle crash was almost 10 minutes long and was a gothic mini-opera, a sonic mountain of noise that made Phil Spector’s ‘‘wall of sound’’ seem puny in comparison.
At first Bat Out of Hell sold poorly. But it became a phenomenon, staying in the charts for years, first in the UK and then in America. With estimated worldwide sales in excess of
40 million, it ranks among the bestselling albums of all time and reportedly remains the most profitable, beating even Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which sold more but cost
10 times as much to make.
The arguments over the spoils ended up in court. Claiming he had been cheated out of his full royalties, Steinman sued Meat Loaf (real name Marvin Lee Aday) for US$85m, prompting the singer to file for bankruptcy.
This falling out did not prevent the pair reuniting for Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell,
which topped the charts in 1993. However, by the time of Meat Loaf’s 2006 album Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose, they were communicating only via their lawyers again.
In his private life Steinman cut a gentler figure, but he inhabited the night and was prone to dark moods. When he failed his medical after being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, he had been diagnosed as borderline schizophrenic and the condition
lingered. ‘‘I’m not happy much. I get unbelievably depressed. But I don’t find being depressed depressing,’’ he said.
He never married and for many years his daily schedule involved rising in the late afternoon and going to bed after breakfast the following day. Living alone in the Connecticut countryside, he claimed to enjoy nothing better than his own company and was content to go for weeks without seeing another soul. He found solace in his cellar of fine wines on which he kept copious tasting notes.
James Richard Steinman was born in Long Island, New York, into a liberal and intellectual Jewish family. He grew up interested in the theatre and opera rather than rock’n’roll. He claimed to have listened to the entirety of Wagner’s Ring cycle non-stop for 22 hours when he was 9.
He met Meatloaf when the singer auditioned for a part in a musical Steinman was planning. ‘‘He was the most mesmerising thing I’d ever seen,’’ Steinman recalled. ‘‘He was huge, and since I grew up with Wagner, all my heroes were larger than life. I can seem arrogant at times because I’m certain of things – and I was certain of him.’’
In later years he returned to his love of stage musicals. Andrew Lloyd Webber declared Steinman’s It’s All Coming Back to Me Now to be ‘‘the greatest love song ever written’’, and recruited him to write the lyrics for his 1996 musical Whistle Down the Wind.
Steinman went on to produce an album of the songs he co-wrote with Lloyd Webber, performed by Tom Jones, Boyzone, Elaine Paige, Donny Osmond, Meat Loaf and Boy George among others.
There were several further projects that never made it to the stage, including a Batman musical, with a song titled In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King, which Meat Loaf later recorded, and a heavy metal version of The Nutcracker.
Steinman did the obvious thing and turned Bat Out of Hell into the musical its songs had always wanted to be. Bat Out of Hell: The Musical was first performed at the Manchester Opera House in 2017 and later transferred to the West End and to New York.
‘‘I never really saw classical music and rock’n’roll as different,’’ Steinman explained. ‘‘I grew up liking big gothic textures and I’ve never had much regard for the more subtle stuff.’’ –