A Toast to Jim Steinman: The Songwriting Powder Keg Who Kept Giving Off Sparks

RIP to the self-proclaimed “Little Richard Wagner” who redefined rock melodrama

In a better time for the world, we’d all be hitting the karaoke bar tonight to mourn the late great Jim Steinman. This man was more than just the composer behind mega-bombastic hits by Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler, Celine Dion, Air Supply, and so many others. He was the patron saint of karaoke singers. His idea of the perfect song was a powder keg giving off sparks, one that anybody could belt out loud. Think of a karaoke anthem — “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” — and chances are Steinman wrote it. Even before the art form was invented, he composed as if he saw it all coming. That’s why karaoke fans everywhere are grieving for him tonight, even if we’re cryin’ icicles instead of tears.

Steinman liked to call himself “Little Richard Wagner,” and he always lived up to that heritage, in a rock style he called “mythically operatic.” There was something so beautifully democratic about his vision — these were songs that could turn anyone into a rock star. He lived to make you louder. He made Meat Loaves of us all. So every karaoke fiend owes him a debt of gratitude. His message was that we all have a Coupe De Ville hiding at the bottom of our Cracker Jack box of a voice.

When I wrote a book about karaoke a few years ago, I named it after his most karaoke-friendly hook: Turn Around Bright Eyes. At my book reading on the Upper West Side, a gentleman in the audience asked how I chose the title. I went into a long, unprompted rant about the genius of Jim Steinman, how he never got his proper respect, but how his songs epitomized the populist spirit of karaoke. The guy came up later to say hi — it turned out he was Steinman’s brother. He told me Jim bought the book online (he saw the title and appreciated the tribute), but I got to sign a copy for the man, truly a total eclipse for my heart as a fan. The first line of my book: “Once upon a time, I was falling apart. Now I’m always falling in love.” (That came from the Beta Band, who did the 1999 tribute “The Hard One.”)

His background was theater, but he found stardom when he hooked up with a bar singer named Meat Loaf. Their blockbuster Bat Out of Hell had the words on the front cover, “Songs by Jim Steinman” — an unheard-of flex at the time. He relished his role, as he put it: “the Dr. Frankenstein who created the Meat Loaf character.” This didn’t help his notoriously combative relationship with Mr. Loaf, who once threw a baby grand piano at him.  “We’re definitely influenced by Springsteen,” he told Rolling Stone in 1978. “But our songs aren’t as street-oriented as his. Our music is more like a combination of West Side Story and A Clockwork Orange.”

One of Steinman’s most famous tunes was the Meat Loaf hit, “I Would Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Do That.” Yet his greatness was that he was always down for That — no hook was too shameless,  no concept too ridiculous. You want a Bonnie Tyler duet with Todd Rundgren called “Loving You’s a Dirty Job But Somebody’s Gotta Do It”? You want a Cher/Meat Loaf duet called “Dead Ringer For Love”? You want Billy Squier to do a rock-disco crossover that became the notorious career-killer “Rock Me Tonight”? He could do that.

But no matter who was singing, you could always tell it was a Steinman song. He wrote long, melodramatic piano ballads, with a long title, a lyrical twist on a cliche, Phil Spector drum wallops, back-up choirs, and did we mention key changes? As he told Melody Maker in 1989, “I get very disappointed if people don’t like what I do, but I’m always convinced that it’s good. But it’s not as if I sit down and say, ‘OK, time for another megalomaniac epic here.’ “

Steinman was infamously a studio Svengali who rarely gave up any control to the singer. As he admitted, “There have been very few cases where I’ve been interested in what the artist thinks. I mean, I’m not interested in doing what Bonnie Tyler wants to do. I don’t think she has any idea what she’s doing. She probably just wants to do the housework with the record playing.” He briefly worked with Def Leppard, calling them “interesting, in a way a scientist finds a really strange sort of insect interesting.”

His only solo hit was “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through,” with lead vocals from Rory Dodd — you don’t know his name, but you’ve heard his voice all your life, since he’s the choirboy voice chirping “Turn around, bright eyes!” in “Total Eclipse.” Steinman released the 1979 solo opus Bad For Good, with the self-explanatory “Love and Death and an American Guitar.” It was supposed to be the second Meat Loaf album, except Meat blew out his voice — or maybe he just got cold feet when he heard “Dance in My Pants.” After years of lawsuits (there would be plenty more where those came from) Steinman and Meat regrouped for Bat Out of Hell 2: Back Into Hell and Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose.

He could crank out hits for anyone, building one of the weirdest resumes in the biz, from Australian yacht-rock smoothies Air Supply (“Making Love Out of Nothing at All”), to U.K. goth rockers Sisters of Mercy (“This Corrosion”). He obsessed over the details. For Bat Out of Hell, he even got Roy Bittan on piano and Max Weinberg on drums, for that E Street touch. When the piano plinks along with the six-note drum solo in “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” it’s the essence of Steinmanism.

His ultimate moment as a go-to guy was the 1984 teen movie Streets of Fire, starring Diane Lane as a rock & roll outlaw. He wrote songs for her fictional band Ellen Aim and the Attacker, but they sounded great on MTV — especially her anthem “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young.” Bruce Springsteen wouldn’t let them use his “Streets of Fire” in the movie, but only Steinman could take this as a personal challenge to reach his zenith of Bossness. The Attackers were one of the Eighties’ top fake movie bands, though despite Diane Lane’s best efforts, the “lead singer in a bedazzled red shroud with a deep V down the back” look failed to catch on.

Rolling Stone has always hated us,” he one said. For once in his life, he was guilty of understatement: all critics hated his hits, and prayed for them to go away. Steinman inspired some of the era’s bitchiest reviews, which he was fond of quoting. Paradoxically, the most perceptive tribute written during his lifetime was a total takedown — Mitchell Cohen’s review of the second Meat Loaf album, Dead Ringer, in Creem in 1981. Cohen did not like the album, but he accidentally summed up the composer’s unique vision. “Steinman, no doubt, sees his scenarios as part of a tradition that goes from ‘Summertime Blues’ to ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ to ‘Jungleland’ ” — that actually nails it. (Also love these gentle words about the album’s lyric sheet: “The Typesetters Union just awarded Steinman the 1981 Inner Sleeve Verbosity Plaque.”)

Steinman had surprisingly simpatico chemistry with the Sisters of Mercy, producing their Eighties goth classics “This Corrosion,” “Dominion,” and “More.” As singer Andrew Eldritch said, “ ‘This Corrosion’ is ridiculous. It’s supposed to be ridiculous. It’s a song about ridiculousness. So I called Steinman and explained that we needed something that sounded like a disco party run by the Borgias. And that’s what we got.”

But there’s a reason “Total Eclipse of the Heart” will always be his most famous song. It sounded too over-the-top for the radio in 1983, yet it’s been ubiquitous on the airwaves ever since. It has so many of his most memorable scream-along hooks:  “Turn around bright eyes,” “I really need you tonight,” “Every now and then I fall apart.” He wrote it for the Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, whose only previous U.S. hit was the 1978 Rod Stewart sound-alike “It’s a Heartache.” But Steinman turned her into a rock diva. He thought her voice sounded like John Fogerty, which is why he got her to cover Creedence’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” on her album, which had the none-more-Steinman title, Faster Than the Speed of Night.

But it’s a song that anybody can sing, and that’s why it’s still the ultimate karaoke banger. Every karaoke room has it — it’s #117498 in the book at Sing Sing on Avenue A. (Even after a year of mic deprivation, I still know the number by heart.) Like all his songs, it sounds like he always meant it to sound best belted by a room full of drunk strangers at 2 a.m.

Steinman went back to the theater, writing the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Whistle Down the Wind. He also did Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, as well as the 1997 production Dance of the Vampires, which revived “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” “I actually wrote that to be a vampire love song,” he told Playbill at the time. “Its original title was ‘Vampires in Love’ because I was working on a musical of ‘Nosferatu,’ the other great vampire story. If anyone listens to the lyrics, they’re really like vampire lines. It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in the dark.”

Jim Steinman brought that darkness to life in his songs. Too bad we can’t honor him properly tonight by belting his hits in the karaoke rooms. Instead, like Bonnie Tyler, we’ll have to settle for love in the dark. R.I.P. to a true master of excess.

In This Article: Bonnie Tyler, Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf