Beyond The Spotlight
By Manuel Mendoza
Dallas Morning News
Along the bottom of the Bat Out Of Hell album covers, it says in small letters, "Songs by Jim Steinman" - hardly noticeable next to the screeching script of "Meat Loaf" emblazoned across the top. The creeping success of 1977's Bat Out Of Hell, which has sold more than 25 million copies, and the astonishing 1993 comeback Bat Out Of Hell Il: Back Into Hell, at two million and counting, are usually credited to the oversize singer, who will perform in a sold-out concert Friday at Southern Methodist University's McFarlin Auditorium.
But the 43-year-old Mr. Steinman - an opera-loving, adult-hating, theater-trained semi-recluse who hardly ever does interviews - has been at least as important as Meat Loaf in creating the Bat Out Of Hell phenomenon: Besides writing the songs, he arranged the first album and produced the second one. He came up with the Beauty and the Beast concept for the I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That) video that launched Meat Loaf's revival.
How essential is Mr. Steinman to Meat Loaf's success? In the 16 years between the two Bat records, with Mr. Steinman mostly out of the picture, Meat Loaf's career went on the skids. He lost his voice and then made a series of decreasingly well-received albums. Meanwhile, Mr. Steinman wrote and produced a number of smashes for others, including Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse Of The Heart and Making Love Out Of Nothing At All by Air Supply, which were simultaneously No. 1 and No. 2 on the charts in 1983.
A reunion seemed inevitable.
Meat Loaf may be the mouthpiece, but Mr. Steinman is the visionary. Sleeping all day, working and playing all night, Mr. Steinman arguably is the "Bat Out Of Hell."
"I just hate the idea that outside, there's this huge bustling world and all these adults with their responsibilities," he says of the hours he keeps. "That scares me. I like the nighttime, when I can populate a nocturnal wilderness with whatever I want."
What Mr. Steinman has chosen to populate his imaginary, adultless world with is hormone-driven teen-agers who live for pure passion and speak in a florid language that would be cliché if it wasn't so excessive. His titles alone are over the top: Objects In The Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are (the upcoming third single from Bat II), Everything Louder Than Everything Else and All Revved Up With No Place To Go (a frustration anthem from the original Bat).
Mr. Steinman then envelopes this high drama in music that treats opera and '50s rock 'n' roll as the same thing. Add the influence of producer Phil Spector's wall-of-sound and you have the Bat world.
"I never feel like I'm writing about the lyrical light side of love," Mr. Steinman says during a three-hour phone interview that begins at midnight from Putnam Valley, N.Y., a rural suburb about an hour's drive north of New York City where he lives with four cats. "I'm more interested in the darker whirlpool that sucks you in and you're never seen again - the Bermuda Triangle of love."
The macho posturing of Mr. Steinman's protagonists, along with their worship of women, also has comic overtones, like opera. The title character in the song Bat Out Of Hell blows in and out of his lover's life, all the time professing his dedication to her. In I'd Do Anything For Love, the No. 1 hit that sent Bat II to the top of the charts, the singer manages to be both lustful and noble - the ultimate teen-age fantasy.
"With teenagers, everything is life or death, everything is jugular," Mr. Steinman says. "l love that kind of extremism. I could care less about Paul Simon ruminating on his middle-age thoughts… I always thought opera was an insane form, like rock 'n' roll - very athletic, very extreme and wonderful in its ability to be both thrilling and ridiculous at the same time. All the characters in Wagner operas and Verdi operas - the operas that I love - are teenagers, and that's what makes it so feverish and intense. I grew up going to see Wagner operas where Siegfried the hero was 400 pounds and he was supposedly this golden Adonis. So the idea of working with Meat Loaf was nothing."
The first Bat was not a success, well, right off the bat. The album only climbed to No. 14 and that took almost a year. It did yield three Top 40 singles: the brutal, circular love song Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad, the lusty backseat epic Paradise By The Dashboard Light and You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth.
Bat II happened because Mr. Steinman felt that Meat Loaf's singing had returned to its early form and because Meat Loaf and his managers wanted to reunite the successful pair. It could've turned into Spinal Tap. Instead, the public, which had been steadily buying the original Bat at a clip of almost a million a year, treated it as the natural sequel.
"The big experiment was he came to my house - and I remember this well because it was the day my mother died - and he sang the entire Bat Out Of Hell album at the piano with me," Mr. Steinman recalls. "He sounded great, and that was the key to me. It was really always about the voice."
But the Bat records have been as popular for their dramatic production techniques as for Meat Loaf's operatic-metal singing and the overamped, romantic lyrics. Calling the harmonies "soaring" or the crashing, stylized instrumentation "bombastic" would be an understatement. Mr. Steinman says he learned everything he knows about producing from Todd Rundgren, who was at the helm of the first Bat, and from Phil Spector's work in the '60s with the Righteous Brothers and girl groups like the Ronettes.
"Todd was the first one who really clarified something that I already felt growing up listening to Phil Spector records, which is that records should never sound like documentaries," Mr. Steinman says. "I don't like records that sound like a bunch of guys in the studio playing. It's like watching a movie of a play. To me, the really exciting records, they created a world that they took place in, which is what The Beatles' records did. But I always thought Spector was the first. Todd called it 'psychoacoustic space.'
"One of the first records to do that was Locomotion by Grand Funk Railroad. It sounds like a high-school gymnasium ... And Rubber Soul had the most distinctive sound. It was like the cover- it's like this autumnal brown melancholy kind of wood sound. But the record that made me want to be in music was You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling. You can't possibly think of a human being playing those sounds."
When Mr. Steinman, a budding playwright, met the struggling singer/actor Meat Loaf during an audition for an off-Broadway musical in the early '70s, he found the perfect vehicle for his oversexed teen-age fantasies. Mr. Steinman had been discovered at Amherst College (where he studied theater) by Joseph Papp, the late founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who brought him to New York to write musicals.
Meat Loaf walked into the audition for Mr. Steinman's More Than You Deserve wearing overalls and sang the gospel standard You Got to Give Your Heart to Jesus. "His hands convulsed and his eyes went up in his head, so you only saw the whites of his eyes," Mr. Steinman says. "I thought, 'This is it. This is the guy.'"
The guy for what, he didn't immediately know. Mr. Steinman was trying to get his wild college musical The Dream Engine produced in New York and had never considered a career as a pop songwriter. Bat I started as a sideline and became an obsession, even after numerous record company rejections. Originally billed as Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman - "like Hall and Oates," Mr. Steinman says - it was reduced to simply Meat Loaf for marketing purposes (a source of tension between the collaborators ever since).
In Meat Loaf, Mr. Steinman saw the embodiment of every geek's rock 'n' roll dream.
"The fact that he was 350 pounds was part of it," he says. "He was something out of Marvel comic books … It's what every kid feels. You don't look like you wanna look. you can't express what you want to express. It was all there in his appearance, and in the fact that he didn't act fat. He acted powerful."
Mr. Steinman played piano on the road with Meat Loaf during the first year of the Bat I tour but has only performed on a couple of dates this time out. The studio is Mr. Steinman's domain, so now that Meat Loaf is touring, Mr. Steinman is again behind the scenes. Such a relationship - a performer who gets all his material from one songwriter who's not in his band - is unprecedented in rock.
Mr. Steinman won't speculate on the possibility of a Bat III. Instead, he is focusing on what he started out doing in the first place but was never commercially successful at: writing musical plays and film scripts.
He is working on a script for Bat Out Of Hell 2100, a bizarre mix of West Side Story, Peter Pan and The Terminator that could be a film or a musical play or both (featuring Meat Loaf as Captain Hook) and is also pitching a series of made-for-MTV movies called Pandora's Box about the lives of teenagers who appear on a dance show. There is still talk of a Paradise by the Dashboard Light film or a Honeymooners based on that song and starring - guess who? - Meat Loaf.
With Bat II coming together after all these years and succeeding, the collaboration seems fated to continue. Now that he's about to move to Connecticut near Meat Loaf, Mr. Steinman has this nightmare about a knock on the door in the middle of the night.
"And there's Meat Loaf," Mr. Steinman chuckles, "'I need some sugar.'"