When Jim Steinman died in April, the only thing most people knew about him was Meat Loaf. Specifically, his joined-at-the-hip relationship with the beefy singer that resulted in the Bat Out of Hell album. But Sylvie Simmons got to see another side of Steinman, the one without the Loaf. That side had Steinman in a Fugs/Blue Cheer cover band, working with the Sisters of Mercy (the goth band, not the nuns) and putting together a raunchy girl band he called Pandora’s Box. Sylvie shares those tales here with PKM…
When he was seven years old, Jim Steinman went to see a fortune-teller. It was in Times Square, New York, and the woman turned out to be a hooker disguised as a fortune-teller, but for the rest of his life – which ended in April – he never forgot her words. “She said I would spend my whole life in an ultimately self-destructive drive,” he recalled, “and a relentless ambition to astonish people.”
If you know only one thing about Jim Steinman, it’s likely to be that he’s the man behind Bat Out Of Hell – the bombastic, epic Meat Loaf album from 1977 that sold 50 million copies. Steinman was the man who wrote those Springsteenian-Wagnerian songs and got Meat Loaf to sing them. He would go on to write songs for, among others, Barry Manilow, Bonnie Tyler, Billy Squier and Barbra Streisand – the four “B’s” of the anti-cool – as well as Celine Dion. In short, the antithesis of anyone you’d expect to see in Please Kill Me. But, trust me on this, there was a side to this son of a Latin teacher that might amaze you. It amazed me anyway, when I interviewed him.
We met for the first time in 1989, in a fancy West London hotel – chandeliers, leather chairs, paneled walls. He had been working with the UK band Sisters Of Mercy – Steinman definitely had an inner goth. He and Andrew Eldritch [Sisters of Mercy singer/frontman] would sit around dressed like Lucifer, trading their favorite English hymns and Gregorian chants. Steinman was also trying to set up a tour for a girl band he’d just put together called Pandora’s Box. He’d written a concept album for them called Original Sin. As a kid, Steinman loved the Shangri-Las. In his early forties now, he wanted his girl group to be “older, tougher women, a little bit more weatherbeaten” – a reaction, he said, to all the Debbie Gibsons and Tiffanies that were in the pop charts at the time.
Jim Steinman does the insane (and funny) spoken word intro to the Pandora’s Box video:
He’d hired the British film director Ken Russell (The Devils; Tommy; Lisztomania) to make a video for their first single, ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’ and they got on like a house on fire. The video, scripted by Steinman, was inspired by Russell’s movie Aria, with a dash of the Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader of The Pack’ and some bonus fetishism. It had snakes and tombstones and leather and cock-rings with shrunken heads dangling off them, and an erotic ceremony – or, as Steinman called it, “group-grope” – that was supposed to represent the fantasies of a girl lying near death after a motorcycle crash. Russell “shot enough footage for a whole porno movie,” Steinman said. The record company, he added with a grin, was “horrified.”
I hadn’t thought about it at the time (this was still some years before I wrote my book Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes) but there was something kind of Gainsbourgian about Steinman. All those concept records. The deliberate provocation – writing a song for the wrestler Hulk Hogan one minute, the next writing a big classic love song like ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ for Bonnie Tyler to sing. Like Serge, Steinman often wrote for women. The person who sang the demos of the early songs Steinman wrote was a woman ( Bette Midler, before she became a star). But Steinman was a Serge without Jane. Instead of Birkin, he had Meat Loaf.
When Jim was a little boy – first in Hewlett Harbor, NY (whose other famous resident was Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee) and then in New York City – he would stand in front of the mirror in his bedroom impersonating opera singers. He didn’t appear to have had much of a rock star gene. Even here in this fancy hotel, with his long hair and his upscale black leather biker’s jacket, you couldn’t really say he looked like a rock star. He looked like someone trying to look like rock star. Steinman loved motorcycles, but he never owned one; didn’t even drive.
But Steinman was a Serge without Jane. Instead of Birkin, he had Meat Loaf.
The first rock band he ever loved was the Doors. He worshipped Jim Morrison, his mythic quality in particular. When he auditioned to join a band in college, he played the entire keyboard solo of ‘Light My Fire’.
“The Doors was my first New York concert ever. They were playing with Simon and Garfunkel and got booed off the stage! I was the only one there, I think, for the Doors alone.” His “first big act of rebellion” was booing Simon and Garfunkel. he said. “I was almost beaten up by Simon and Garfunkel fans. It’s pretty depressing. They bash you over the head with poetry books.”
His “first big act of rebellion” was booing Simon and Garfunkel. He said.
The Doors was his gateway drug to Hendrix and Cream. Then came Blue Cheer and the Fugs. The first band of his own was a Fugs and Blue Cheer covers band with the glorious name The Clitoris That Thought It Was A Puppy. But Steinman soon moved on to composing music for theater – Brecht; McClure – and from there to writing his own musicals. The first was an over-the-top dystopian satirical love story called The Dream Engine. Then in 1973, while auditioning singers for his newest musical, More Than You Deserve, he met Meat Loaf.
Meat Loaf was a hefty guy. Born Marvin Lee Aday in Dallas, Texas in 1947, he was given his nickname at school by his football coach and used it for the band he fronted, Meat Loaf Soul. It was a good band by all accounts. They’d played with Janis Joplin, Hendrix, the Who – and the Fugs. They even recorded an album for Motown. But he could sense that the music business didn’t take him seriously. He didn’t look the part. So he move into musical theatre. He’d already appeared in Hair and the original Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The first band of his own was a Fugs and Blue Cheer covers band with the glorious name The Clitoris That Thought It Was A Puppy.
The song Meat Loaf sang for his audition with Steinman was “(I’d Love To Be) As Heavy As Jesus.” It got him the job. He returned the favour by getting Steinman a gig as piano player on the National Lampoon Road Show – Meat himself had the job of John Belushi’s understudy. Now that they were spending so much time together, Steinman started working with Meat on the songs he was writing for a new project, a rock opera musical based on Peter Pan. One of those songs was “Bat Out Of Hell.”
“An absolute genius.” That’s what Meat Loaf called Steinman in an interview with Rolling Stone shortly after Steinman died. For his part, Steinman told me the only true genius he’d ever met in pop was Todd Rundgren. Bat Out Of Hell, the album, was recorded in Rundgren’s studio in Woodstock, with Rundgren producing. Steinman recalled the album playback as “the loudest thing I’d ever heard. And the speaker was right in front of his baby’s crib – and the baby was only three weeks old! I was really worried for the baby. ‘Todd! The baby!’ And he yells, ‘It’s my fucking house!’ Like, the baby’s got to learn.”
Steinman also recalled the house in Woodstock where Meat Loaf and Meat’s then-girlfriend, singer Ellen Foley, stayed during the recording. The house was said to be haunted. “Someone had convinced Meat that there was a ghost in the room and he was very, very scared. So I had to go and literally sit at the foot of the bed at night and talk to him until I could get him to sleep. Ellen would be sleeping, completely oblivious, and I’d say, “It’s not a bad ghost, Meat. I’ve been talking to people and it’s a very musical ghost”, and he would drift off. And then when he finally fell asleep, by mistake he turned over onto Ellen and there would be a shriek and he’d be convinced it was the ghost again!”
When Meat described his relationship with Steinman, he said, “We didn’t know each other, we were each other”. There was certainly something fraternal, even conjoined-twinlike about these two men born in the same year just weeks apart. They even looked like they might be related, although Meat was both bigger, maybe shyer, and sweeter, definitely less caustic. When Steinman talked about Meat Loaf to me, it was with a familial mix of camaraderie, resentment and one-upmanship. “He was generous beyond scope but he was also selfish”, said Meat. “He’d have 18 dozen donuts and I’d go, ‘Can I have one of those donuts?’ He’d be like, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that’.” But Meat Loaf had something Steinman really wanted: the spotlight. He wanted to be a rock star.
Steinman recalled the album playback as “the loudest thing I’d ever heard. And the speaker was right in front of his baby’s crib – and the baby was only three weeks old! I was really worried for the baby. ‘Todd! The baby!’ And he yells, ‘It’s my fucking house!’ Like, the baby’s got to learn.”
In 1981, four years after Bat Out Of Hell, Steinman released his first (and last) solo album, Bad For Good. Todd Rundgren and Ellen Foley were among the long list of guest musicians. Conspicuous by his absence was Meat Loaf. In fact, it was Meat Loaf’s absence from the music business that led to Steinman making a solo album. It had originally been written for Meat Loaf to sing as a follow-up to Bat Out Of Hell, but Meat Loaf could no longer sing.
“He lost his voice – for ten years!” said Steinman. “My worst disaster. There’s only one way to describe how he sounded. Like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.‘Blegggggh’. I was in the studio with him for eight months sounding like that. ‘Blegggggh’. The record company wouldn’t say anything – they’d sold ten million of Bat Out Of Hell and at that point they figured even if it’s horrible they’ll sell five million. But he couldn’t sing.”
Steinman took Meat to the doctor. “I saw twenty or thirty doctors with him, and not only doctors. We went to an alchemist. That’s how desperate we were. And a sorcerer and at least one voodoo guy. The alchemist was my favorite: Human Therapist and Alchemist. I’m like the parent, filling in forms, and the alchemist comes out, this big, fat, nerdy guy” who led Meat Loaf way down a long corridor hung with occult signs and into a back room. “I hear all this shouting and singing and chanting and every now then I’d hear Meat going Blegggggh’ and this goes on for 30 minutes. Then the guy comes out with Meat behind him, just like a little kid who’s been to the doctor and expecting me to give him a lollipop, and Meat goes and sits in the corner and the doctor calls me aside. The doctor – the Alchemist- goes, ‘There’s no problem at all, he’ll be singing magnificently within a week.'” He wasn’t.
“The guy he ended up going to,” said Steinman, “was a guy Jackson Browne recommended in California. This guy had this wild system where he finds out what you’re allergic to and then he makes a potion of it in a test-tube and you sniff it and you’re supposed to get this horrible allergic response. And then he takes your urine and injects it back into your body – it’s supposed to create some sort of antibody. And then he puts you on rubber mats, naked, and takes Black and Decker power tools and he bashes the hell out of you while you scream. My manager actually witnessed one of these sessions: a big empty room and here’s Meat Loaf, nude, sandwiched like bread between the mats, and the guy is pouding him and Meat is going ‘Argh! Argh!!
“After all that, Meat comes back to New York and he says, ‘Jim, you’ve got to hear me sing. It’s incredible. I know it sounds stupid with the piss and everything but it worked. I sound just like I used to.’ So I come down and hear him sing, and I hear Blegggggh!’ ‘Well, Meat, it sounds just the same to me.’ The mistake was they should have injected him with Jackson Browne’s piss.
“I always told him I’d work with him again if he could sing”, Steinman said, serious now. “He’s such an amazing singer”. And they did, though it took a while. There was the temporary voice loss, the lawsuits and the solo albums. In 1993, they reunited for the long-awaited Bat Out Of Hell sequel, Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell. But Meat Loaf recorded Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose without Steinman; Desmond Child produced.
For years, there would be talk of another reunion; then, in 2004, Steinman suffered a stroke. One of its side effects was that he lost his voice. He couldn’t even speak. As with Meat Loaf, it turned out to be temporary, but there were other health issues, such as open-heart surgery, a triple bypass. Their last collaboration was on Meat Loaf’s 2016 album Braver Than We Are, but they remained in touch – on Face Time when the pandemic put paid to personal visits.
In 2017, Jim Steinman’s Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical – something Steinman had been working on for years – had its premiere in the UK. The original Bat Out Of Hell album had taken off in the UK before it became a monster in the States. The musical stayed in Britain for two successful years, winning the London Evening Standard Best Musical award and breaking box office records. It opened in the US Off-Broadway in 2019 and was due to tour, but the pandemic put paid to that, too.
The musical’s lengthy title has Steinman’s name right up-front in the spotlight, just as he’d wanted.
“Yeah, I feel that I created it,” Steinman told me. “But I created it around him. Meat Loaf. I was the central force, but it was shaped around his power.”
Steinman died of kidney failure on April 19th, aged 73.