It is no surprise to me that Jim Steinman proves a divisive figure among my friends on social media. I think it all has to do with how old you were when you discovered Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell.
I was about 12. I got the album at a long-since-closed record store in Maple Ridge. At that time, for me it was actually a pretty heavy album - not as heavy as the cover suggested, but still; I mean, besides my parent's Charley Pride cassette and other country classics, I was, by my own choosing, mostly listening to Simon & Garfunkel (their Greatest Hits was my first record-of-my-very-own) and Billy Joel. In fact, I saw Billy Joel on the Glass Houses tour with my Mom, and knew every song he played; that tour was in 1980, so it's possible I was even younger than 12 at this time, by which I had all his solo albums except Cold Spring Harbor. Out in the suburbs in 1980, I had not even heard of heavy metal or punk, or figured out where the "real" record stores were; a year later I would be neck-deep in the Who, the Kinks, and the Blue Oyster Cult, and at age 14, two years later - in 1982 - I would be listening to DOA, Nomeansno, the Cramps, the Subhumans and the Dead Kennedys, and making trips into Vancouver to go to Hot Wax (I was there a couple of times) or Collector's RPM or D&G Collector's Records, or whatever it was called, across from the Kootenay Loop. I was a fast study, I guess, but when you're in that 10-to-12-year-old age range, you don't know anything about anything - it's all new, and your idea of "good" has less to do with what's actually good and more to do with what you have-or-have-not heard previously.
I hadn't heard much. I thought Bat Out of Hell, purchased at that vulnerable age, was pretty great, actually. I didn't know show tunes from shinola, had no concept of "campiness" or "kitsch," and I didn't understand all the sexual references in the lyrics (they creeped me out a little, actually - what, his swollen Levis are bursting apart? WHY? Is this some sort of fat joke, or - how big is his thing, anyhow? I would try to visualize it, and shudder; now, I just chuckle). But that album - especially the epic opening track - was as hard a rock as I'd heard at that point, and though I didn't care about the music half as much as I did the Richard Corben cover art - I followed Corben from Warren Magazines like Creepy and Eerie - I not only WANTED to like it, based on that cover, but I DID like it. (The Corben cover art was a stroke of genius - as I recall, it was what first got my attention. Corben also died fairly recently, note). I mean, if you want to understand the inner life of a 12 year old, just study the album cover above and these two book covers below, all by Corben.
I'm guessing that my lasting fondness for the album has everything to do with this history. If I'd been an older kid when I first heard it, I might have snubbed it. I mean, there was a time in my teens when, hoping to sculpt an identity or declare tribal affiliation or something, I purged pretty much every album in my collection that wasn't punk (or Neil Young, the BOC, or Motorhead - I kept some of that!). Meat Loaf did not survive that purge; and if I'd first discovered him at that time, when I was about 15, I probably would have howled my derision. When Gerry Hannah quips on Facebook that "the only thing I like about Meat Loaf were his sexy man-boobs in Fight Club and they weren't even real," I mean, that could have been me, if I'd "discovered" Meat Loaf a little bit later in my life.
But once Bat Out of Hell is in your system, it has, um, effects. You see, Jim Steinman, the songwriter behind every song on that album, has a pretty powerful "signature" as a musician, which you can hear in all of his songs: high camp, kitschy, adolescently-angsty rock'n'roll showtunes, the lot of them, from Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "Holding Out for a Hero," from Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing at All" to Fire Inc.'s "Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young" on the Streets of Fire soundtrack, there's a definite way with language and phrasing, a definite identity. I mean, they all sorta become one song, to me. And I bought and heard a Meat Loaf album that Steinman had nothing to do with - the one with actual meatloaf on the cover - and thought it was godawful, so I knew that it was the songwriter, not the singer, that was the person I liked (which also caused me to pause and reflect a bit). Then the next Meat Loaf album came out, with cover art by Bernie Wrightson, who was sort of a distant number two-or-three-after-Corben in terms of my favourite comic book artists, and then Bad For Good, with a Corben cover again!
And the thing here is that by 1981, I must have developed some sense of "taste," because I could tell that Bad for Good was, in fact, pretty bad. It occurred to me, I think, at that time, that the title may even have been referring to this, acknowledging this "badness," though I don't think it came to me until a few years later that Steinman may well have been gay, and deliberately indulging a taste for campiness, pushing it to its utmost, in fact. That's my favourite reading of Steinman - that he was gay, and that all of this should be read as high camp; which may not be the case, but if the cover art doesn't make you think maybe I'm onto something, take a look at the rock video - which I only discovered yesterday, when reading that Jim Steinman died. It's almost as funny as that parody video of "Total Eclipse of the Heart." RuPaul's Drag Race contestants could do wicked lip-synchs of any of Steinman's songs. It's a perfect fit. (If the filmic ambitions that Steinman mentions in the interview linked at the bottom are any clue, it seems like there might be a bit of a Peter Pan going on here, with Wendy being menaced by the Lost Boys or something).
I know nothing of the real Jim Steinman - there are no public statements that I can find about him being gay, just a conspicuous lack of mention of any relationships at all - but the Jim Steinman I imagine in my inner life loved that parody video almost as much as the real thing. Whatever his orientation, I hope he had a hell of a sense of humour about himself. Don't tell me if that it ain't so, okay? If he was taking all this seriously... if he was describing himself in his bio (using a quote, but still) as "the Richard Wagner of rock" with a straight face - then I don't want to know about it.
To my friends who are horrified by the mention of Steinman or Meat Loaf, then: I don't blame you. No, this is not cool music for an ostensible punk, even a 53-year-old-one, to admit to liking. It is not good rock, and it is not good taste, and it is probably flat-out not good, in any "objective" sense of the word (though it may be good musical theatre). Even if I'm not entirely alone in my fondness for this music (Billy Hopeless also posted some Meat Loaf in honour of Steinman's passing, and I like him more for it), I don't expect anyone to agree with me about any of this - may I never attempt to convince someone that the songs of Jim Steinman are actually worth their time, if they feel otherwise. Maybe you gotta be 12 years old and living in Maple Ridge when you read that line about how "nothing ever grows in this rotten old hole, and everything is stunted and lost" for the hook to sink - I dunno. But I'm thinking I'm going to make a "Jim Steinman's greatest hits" playlist for myself for me and Erika to listen to (she gets it, too).
It can't all be punk rock, folks.
Rest in peace, Jim Steinman.
PS: A friend (thanks, Elliot) points out Steinman's website
- it's quite something. Amazing that a website this current - still talking about tour 2021 dates for Bat Out of Hell: The Musical
- can look this vintage. There is a wealth of material on it for a Steinman fan, much of it odd and excessive - like this 1981 interview
, for example, describing Steinman as "the Loaf behind the Meat." What? (No author is credited, and it sure feels like a self-interview, but...).