The Winslow Leach of Rock ‘N Roll: Rest In Peace, Jim Steinman

“Jim Steinman’s like Winslow Leach,” my wife said, years ago, after I had described how Meat Loaf’s hard living and health problems had derailed the follow-up to Bat Out of Hell. Steinman rallied as best as he could, reteamed with Bat Out of Hell producer Todd Rundgren, recruited vocalist Rory Dodd to handle the heavy lifting, and released those songs as what would become a commercially unsuccessful solo record called Bad For Good. Like Brian De Palma’s doomed protagonist from Phantom of the Paradise, Jim Steinman played piano and possessed a glowing musical genius, but just didn’t have the vocal ability required to get that music across on his own. Steinman’s music was huge, only properly channeled through larger-than-life performers like Bonnie Tyler, Russell Hitchcock of Air Supply, Holly Sherwood, Ellen Foley, Barry Manilow, Celine Dion, and most famously Meat Loaf. Meat Loaf always overshadowed Steinman in the public eye, but, tellingly, Jim Steinman could have a smash hit with another vocalist; Meat Loaf couldn’t move the needle without Jim Steinman.

When Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman originally paired up, that was precisely how they were supposed to be credited, as “Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman.” Like, “Hall and Oates.” Ultimately, at the urging of the record company and allegedly with little pushback from Meat Loaf, the focus would fall on the frontman. This scenario played out several times during Steinman’s career. Meat Loaf would record projects without Steinman’s participation, but use Steinman’s catalog of songs in (my personal opinion) a futile attempt to hold on to a sound that was never his. Meat Loaf’s “comeback” record, Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell, stands as his second-biggest, and only comparable commercial success. The difference? Steinman produced and contributed new material. Meat Loaf had the name recognition and that voice, but Steinman had the magic and the songs. Power chords, percussive pianos (usually provided by E Street’s Roy Bittan), choirs, and Phil Spector-style drums (Again, from E Street’s mighty Max Weinberg) created a sound so big it’s impossible to read any piece about the Hall of Fame songwriter that doesn’t contain the word “Wagnerian.” Artist Richard Corben (Heavy Metal, Hellboy) who sadly passed away late last year, created a piece of art that manages to look exactly like Jim Steinman’s music sounds.

“There’s evil in the air, and thunder in the sky and a killer on the bloodshot
streets…”

Well, except for the sex. Steinman’s music relied just as much on sex as it did that piano. Images of shining lipstick, frenzied trysts by “the dashboard light” and the pent-up teenage (well, maybe not just teenage) frustrations of being “all revved up with no place to go.” Stephen King quotes Steinman at length in his 1986 novella illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, Cycle of the Werewolf, evoking the thick atmosphere of blood and lust before the Valentine’s Day murder of the lonely Stella Randolph. “On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?” Steinman himself can be seen reciting that amazing bit of pretentious poetry in the music video.

“I bet you say that to all the boys.”

Steinman’s lyrics were just as bombastic as his chords.

“I can make the runner stumble.

I can make the final block.

I can make every tackle at the sound of the whistle

I can make all the stadiums rock.

I can make tonight forever,

or, I can make it disappear by the dawn.

I can make you every promise that has ever been made

and I can make all your demons begone.”

“Making Love Out of Nothing At All.”

And that’s a tame one. “Read ‘Em and Weep” is one of the funnier, chest-pounding break-up songs that you could imagine, full of hard-boiled witticisms that would feel at home in a Frank Miller story.

“Well I could tell you “Goodbye” or maybe “See you around”

With just a touch of a sarcastic “Thanks…”

We started out with a bang and at the top of the world

Now the guns are exhausted, the bullets are blanks”

“Read ‘Em and Weep”

And those song titles. A perfect mix of camp and sincerity: “Life is a Lemon (And I Want My Money Back),” “Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere),” “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Jim Steinman’s music was literally the soundtrack to the 1980s and ’90s. Two compositions for Walter Hill’s operatic Streets of Fire.

Footloose’s iconic “Holding Out For A Hero.”

Hired by MTV to oversee and contribute music for their production of Wuthering Heights. Collaborating with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical Whistle Down the Wind. “Original Sin,” first recorded by Steinman’s female supergroup Pandora’s Box, would be covered by Taylor Dayne and rechristened as the theme for Russell Mulcahy’s (Highlander, Resident Evil:Extinction) film adaptation of The Shadow.

Steinman was approached by Warner Brothers to write their ultimately unproduced Batman musical. One selection, “In the Land of the Pig, The Butcher is King” would be recorded by Meat Loaf for his Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose album. The record would use several pre-existing Jim Steinman songs but bring in a different kind of power ballad expert in Desmond Child (Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Aerosmith’s “Angel,” Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself For Loving You) to produce/ co-create the album. No offense to Desmond Child, whose music I’ve enjoyed over the years (particularly his work with The Dudes of Wrath, YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT) but the differences in style were simply too great of an obstacle to produce a Bat Out of Hell finale that felt like part of a coherent trilogy. They might’ve been better off calling it something else.

Steinman’s music continues to inspire filmmakers. Johannes Roberts features two signature Steinman songs, “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” during elaborate set-pieces in 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night in ways that I think Jim would approve of (particularly the use of fire and cars.) It is the BEST use of Jim Steinman ever in a motion picture (but falls just a hair short of being the best use of Air Supply. That honor still belongs to Adam Wingard’s Death Note adaptation.)

Steinman was never one to keep his peculiarities to one genre and would collaborate with The Sisters of Mercy as a producer and co-writer of a few tracks on Floodland and Vision Thing, and in what might be my favorite fact about Steinman, he’d compose and co-write a musical based on Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers called Tanz der Vampire. Even wanted to hear “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in German sung by White Wolf enthusiasts?

Jim Steinman suffered a stroke in 2004 and would relearn how to speak. Steinman and Meat Loaf would reunite one last time on 2016’s Braver Than We Are, the Phantasm: Ravager of Meat Loaf albums. Bittersweet. Final.

I had started writing this post purely as an expression of grief. I’ve barely checked anything except for dates and the name Stella Randolph (because it had been a while since I read Cycle or watched Silver Bullet.) As I typed and pulled what I would call some of Steinman’s greatest hits, the sadness was accompanied by a growing joy with each recollection. Faded vignettes from my childhood, my older brothers’ teen years, a roommate belting the Lorraine Crosby parts from “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That.) A story that I’d written where I’d heard a Steinman track in my head. Memories from each decade of my life, moving into sharper focus. You could say that they were “gone with the wind, but…”