"One of the first things I remember listening to on a record player was Wagner's 'Tristan And Isolde,' and I sat through the whole thing. I didn't know what I was hearing, but I just thought it was incredible-sounding. And then when it was all over, I put on a Little Richard album. I think I got the two confused in my mind and I've never been able to untangle them."
In New York, it's about 2am, but Jim Steinman sounds bright and lively over the transatlantic line. In London, it's way too early for me to think about, as I wipe the sleep from the corners of my eyes and try to ask vaguely intelligent questions.
It won't have escaped your notice, I trust, that all of the songs on the indecently successful 'Bat Out Of Hell' album, Meat Loaf's ticket to stardom, were the work of one man. Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf worked closely together for several years before clinching their deal with Epic, the offspring of which was the surprise hit of last year.
No one expected (though I had my fingers crossed) that Meat Loaf's concoction of Springsteen musicians, Todd Rundgren production, and dense imagery would stay on the charts all year, go platinum in the US, knock out 'Saturday Night Fever' from the #1 spot in Australia, sell about five million copies worldwide, and then, as a coup de grace, spawn a hit 45 in our singles chart via the full 9 minute-plus version of the title song, which sits at about 15 this week, a year after the initial release of the album. Gasp.
Even the unconverted would have to concede the remarkable achievement this represents for a couple of virtual unknowns. Did Steinman anticipate that his dreams would strike such a responsive chord in the hearts of the teenage world?
"Even before it was released I was telling the president of the record company… that I would swear it'd sell 5,000,000 copies. I was real proud of it, and real confident. But I was basically just saying that to make myself feel good."
As in many other cases, the difference between success and failure for Meat Loaf was measured out in harrowing one night stands across the globe, though the strain of touring became more tolerable as the album gradually nudged its way towards smash status. Despite the projected live dates over here later this year, Steinman plans to ease up on that aspect of the hustle, to facilitate the realization of his ambitions to score a film.
"I never forgot a picture I once saw a few years ago, of Bernard Herrmann conducting… in one of those huge airplane hangers out in California where they record. And he was there with this 110 piece orchestra, on a podium, and behind him was this enormous screen, and just blackness around everyone… it had like, someone raising an ax and someone else screaming …and he was conducting the orchestra and they were synching it to the screen. That was an incredibly thrilling picture to me, the idea of being able to score to these specific images."
Steinman would also like to produce other artists (he expressed excitement about the upcoming liaison between Del Shannon and Tom Petty, with Petty at the controls), notably powerful vocalists such as Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison, which is logical when you consider Meat Loaf's aspirations in the direction of operatic rock 'n' roll, and Steinman's background in Broadway theaterdom, where he worked on a couple of shows for the New York Shakespeare Festival, an environment which led to his meeting with Meat himself.
"I liked doing it too, except it was real frustrating, I could never do rock 'n' roll in the theater because there were always too many problems. I did one show where, like, the audience was screaming to turn the volume down.
"When we went to do the record I had the exact reverse problem… All the record people kept saying, 'Well, you can't do this on a record 'cause it's too theatrical…"
Night-owl Steinman knew exactly what he was after, however: "I really wanted it to sound like the late-70's equivalent of what Spector was doing. That whole feeling or just being lost inside this entire rock 'n' roll kingdom. The whole thing with the wall of sound makes you feel like you're totally engulfed in this wave. I just thought he was the best. Still do."
Epic have apparently informed an ebullient Steinman that Phil Spector called them, saying he had a song for Meat Loaf; chills are evoked in yours truly at the thought of two Wagnerians combining their energies through Loaf's vocal capabilities. A marriage made in heaven, if it takes place…
In the meantime, Meat and Jim have been hard at work on their second album together, which will either be called 'Renegade Angel' or 'Bad For Good,' and will be issued around May/June. While it'll be produced once more by Todd Rundgren, will feature Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg of Springsteen's 'E Street Band' on piano and drums again, and is to feature more of Richard Corben's dazzling cover art fantasies, Steinman isn't too sure yet of the actual concept.
"I'm not able to tell usually, until it's all over. It has some of the same themes as the first one, but the tone's real different. It's like the cover of the last one being that fiery red color, primarily, it seems to me, just while I'm working on these songs, the color I associate with them is a sort of black, gold and silver… It's much more metallic, and, I think stark than the first album.
"We're gonna record a piece with the New York Philharmonic. I wrote a 3 1/2 minute introduction to one of the songs and scored it totally for orchestra, no electronic instruments at all. It's real barbaric, like Stravinsky. In classical terms, Stravinsky always felt like rock 'n' roll to me."
Six of the seven songs on the premier LP had titles derived from actual everyday clichés: 'Bat Out Of Hell,' 'For Crying Out Loud,' '2 Out Of 3 Ain't Bad,' 'Heaven Can Wait,' 'All Revved Up With No Place To Go' and 'You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth.' Does the new album continue this idiomatic system? "I got a couple of those...'Out Of The Frying Pan And Into The Fire.' I always start with titles. I love listening to a cliché, you take it and break it down like a chemical substance."
While Meat has a part in an upcoming movie, 'Americathon,' wrestling a car in a futuristic, perverse, Olympic games, the accepted financial viability of Steinman's ideas has made possible an all-Meat Loaf cinematic project, due to go into production at the end of this year, and hopefully on release in about two years' time. Scheduled to include about half the songs from each album.
'Neverland' will be a semi-musical movie version of 'Peter Pan,' set in the future and evolving from ideas in the albums.
"I think of it," enthuses Jim, "as sort of a mixture of 'West Side Story,' 'A Clockwork Orange' and 'Star Wars,' in that it's science fiction, but it's pretty violent. I was really obsessed with that story, I just thought it was the ultimate rock 'n' roll myth, because it was about all these lost boys who never grow up."
God knows what author J.M. Barrie would have said. Come to think of it, maybe he'd like Steinman's view, since one literary critic has called the original 'Peter Pan' "as irresistible and as horrific as a nasty day-dream." Incidentally, producer Rundgren once recorded 'Never, Never Land' from the stage musical version of 'Peter Pan' (one for research fans).
Jim, who composed his first rock 'n' roll song after hearing the debut Doors album, and pushed on with plans for 'Bat Out Of Hell' after witnessing a Springsteen show and experiencing kinship with Bruce's themes and motivations, was born in Claremont, California.
He recalls going up on the roof of his first NYC apartment and zeroing in on a room a few blocks away, lit by a single naked bulb, where a group of kids crowded round singing accapella, which in turn was a fulfillment of his childhood visions (inspired by a TV show called 'Night Train') of "tenements, and all these sweating teenagers inside, listening to rock 'n' roll records.
"They were always in their underwear, and the girl would always just come through the window, sort of like glide like a breeze… and lie down next to him… trying to get their heartbeats to match."
Steinman is, in fact, so imbued and immersed in rock culture he can't believe anyone ever sat down and wrote a song "so perfect and so mythic" as, say, 'Hound Dog.' His almost supernatural obsession leads him to throw disarmingly beautiful one-liners into the conversation, such as "If you could hot-wire a Corvette and set it on fire, it would probably sing like Del Shannon."
Yet his music has an across the board appeal that satiates heavy metal addicts as well as fans of mainstream pop. There must, at that level of fame, be a temptation to get into a trashy, profitable and enjoyable aspect of artist-related products and marketing, like Kiss.
"We've turned down an awful lot of that kind of thing. The grossest one was, someone came up with this huge line of Meat Loaf bedclothes… quilts, bedspreads and pillowcases. That was so disgusting that it convinced us to turn them all down. The idea of someone resting their innocent head upon their Meat Loaf pillow… that's, that's ungodly!"