Meat Loaf, Jim Steinman And The Phenomenology Of Excess
By Sandy Robertson
Sandy Robertson was among the first of the Rock 'n' Roll critics and writers to predict major success for Steinman's 'Bat Out Of Hell' phenomenon. In addition to his unique skill as a writer, Robertson also had a true respect for the work and vision of Jim Steinman. Beyond that he had an enthusiasm for passing along his 'find' - as a member of the editorial staff of Sounds, his extensive coverage has become a lost treasure from the past. It is with great respect for his talent and insight that these excerpts are reprinted.
Meat Loaf, Jim Steinman:
The Phenomenology Of Excess
If you're looking for a lengthy, scholarly, well! (well?) well-researched book about Meat Loaf, catalogue & matrix numbers, chart placing, and the exact date of his London gig, you've come to the wrong place. Maybe in ten years if Meat (or more likely, the music of Jim Steinman) is still happening, some diligent hack can get into that.
Meanwhile, this is just one fan's notes on an ongoing phenomenon, an opiate flash of grossly misunderstood sensual and intellectual pleasure amid a drab music scene that is predominantly a rictus of pain. Just when I thought nothing new could get to me, and let alone galvanize a fragmented marketplace in the Devil's bargain, along came Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman.
ROCK 'N' ROLL DREAMS CAME THROUGH.
Sandy Robertson, July 1981.
This book is dedicated to Lost Boys and Golden Girls everywhere.
phenomenology: the study of the structure of consciousness.
excess: that which goes beyond...an outrage...beyond what is allowed
Phenomenology Of Excess
"Heavy Metal Drugs so habit-forming
that a single shot results in lifelong addiction"
-William S. Burroughs
'Cities Of The Red Night'.
"Pain is something to carry, like a radio.
You feel your strength in the experience
of pain. It's all in how you carry it"
- Jim Morrison, The Doors.
"The gothic mode is essentially a form
of parody, a way of assailing clichés
by exaggerating them to the limit of grotesqueness"
- Leslie Fiedler
'Love & Death In The American Novel.'
"Too much is never enough"
- Jim Steinman, composer/artist.
You can point to antecedents in culture generally, but in rock 'n' roll terms there was no warning of the Meat Loaf phenomenon. The 1977 album 'Bat Out Of Hell' has sold over 8,000,000 copies worldwide and its tenure in the UK charts can be measured in years rather than months. Director/composer Jim Steinman's solo sequel/personal debut, 'Bad For Good', is thundering along nicely as I write, and by the time you read this the new Meat Loaf platter 'Dead Ringer' should be bringing a smile to executive faces in vinyl skyscrapers everywhere.
I remember vividly the first time I saw 'Bat Out Of Hell' advertised in an American rockzine that I was struck by three things: 1) The heroic, mythic artwork by 'Heavy Metal' adult comix painter Richard Corben. Gothic motorcycles, yet! 2) The Todd Rundgren production credit. Old Todd had abandoned pop for pomp too long, but this smelled fresh. 3) The prominent credit, 'Songs By Jim Steinman'. People just don't plaster the composer's name upfront unless he's special. I immediately Xeroxed the ad and gave it to SOUNDS (then) reviews Ed Geoff Barton, who pestered Epic UK for an advance copy. Crawling back to my leaky dungeon and cranking up the borrowed stereo, I was greeted with something unusual: ORIGINALITY without the abandoning of ACCESSIBILITY. Scott Walker singing Jacques Brel, Kim Fowley producing Helen Reddy...I was hooked, yet again, by the dazzle of sharp juxtaposition. Metal, Spector, Sinatra, Opera, Fantasy, all in one big reality sandwich.
The Altered States Of The Boy Who Remembers Everything...
Jim Steinman attended the same Amherst College fraternity as David Eisenhower. The secret service agents guarding the place meant it was totally safe, drug-wise, since the cops could never get it. This may account for Jim's brilliant, uniquely warped consciousness. The New York kid spent his high school days in California, where his steel magnate (heavy metal) dad had moved shop to. Piano training ensued.
"One of the first things I ever remember listening to on a record player was Wagner's 'Tristan & 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 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." - Jim Steinman.
Thespian wuz the boy: "I only got into rock 'n' roll because I was doing plays in college and I thought that I wouldn't want to see a play if it didn't have any music...My two trademarks with all the bands I was in were my little notebook with all the chords written out and my hands bleeding over the keys. I had a little electric organ that I'd bash the shit out of, then hold my bleeding hand up at the end of the set. It seemed to me to be a very musical thing to do."
Obsession And Leather
...Jim had bigger dreams, dreams for something invested with a grandeur and vulgarity commensurate with Meat Loaf's stature. Something...
The Mechanism Of Imagination
'Bat Out Of Hell' was better than anyone deserved; it was the exposition of rock 'n' roll as gothic panavision. Steinman's cinematic conceits and Meat's operatic voice got misconstrued. Existentialist motorcycle ballads maybe, but the presence of some members of Bruce Springsteen's E Street mafia drew stupid accusations of plagiarism of The Boss. They were wrong, though. It was pure fantasy, love, violence, blood, sex...From the Wagnerian dash of the title cut to the showbiz classicism of the Sinatra-esque 'For Crying Out Loud', the narrative trilogy of 'Paradise By The Dashboard Light' (with Ellen Foley)...in a world of fragmented tastes, Meat Loaf united the mob by being all things to all men.
Urine & Death
"He (Meat Loaf) tried singing some of the stuff at the piano and the sounds that were coming out were inhuman. I described it as sounding like 'The Exorcist, your mother sucks cock in hell!!', y'know? We worked for months. Actually, I thought he showed an awful lot of guts at the time because there was a lot of pressure from the record company to put anything out." - Jim Steinman
Thus, 'Bad For Good' was released as Steinman's solo debut. While structurally similar to 'Bat Out Of Hell' (to the point where less perceptive hacks yelled Pale Imitation! and Formulaic!?), what mostly everyone missed was the underlying concept: The two albums are part of the soundtrack to a movie that exists only in Steinman's head. 'Neverland' is an extension of his play, a futuristic version of 'Peter Pan'.
"It's hard for me to write unless I can visualize it in a film or on stage. So I'll just make up a whole movie and write the song for that"- JS,81.
The Prelude to 'Neverland' is 'The Storm', the NY Philharmonic exercise which ended up as a free EP with Steinman's LP. "It's the opening sequence, when Peter and The Lost Boys are setting out to kidnap Wendy. It's a big blizzard sequence, soldiers guarding her in this evil metropolis. I also wrote is because I was really into the idea of what Stravinsky would do if he put out singles."
"The city is destroyed but rebuilt as a mediaeval fortress with chrome on the outside to protect it from gases. The only people left are the military and the church who join forces. Hook marries the Mother Superior...The reason they both have hooks is this enormous duck-billed platypus that they were experimenting with was mutated and one night they fell asleep and it ate both their hands! Since that day it's wanted the rest of them, but instead of the clock in the crocodile ticking as a warning, it's a Geiger counter!"
Naturally, instead of the kindly dog Nana to protect Wendy from the scavenging lost boys outside, the creature is a slavering mastiff with a surprise: "it's the ultimate guard dog. It has a smaller version of itself inside." And in this tale, Tinkerbell is a warrior deaf-mute trained to kill. And Peter? "Peter's a great character. He's been 16 for 75 years and he's totally out of his mind. He's running out of new things to do. The lost boys are always on edge. It's got a real chilling ending too, just like the original. They were trying to create a race of soldiers who never age and it ended in the lost boys' genes being frozen. They don't know how the mutation happened, so they're always trying to catch them and dissect them, Hook and his men." As in Barrie, Peter eventually comes to rescue Wendy, 40 years on. And she's too old. That's rock 'n' roll...
"'Bad For Good' is Peter singing to Wendy trying to get her to go along with the lost boys and become one of them. And 'Lost Boys & Golden Girls'...and 'Surf's Up', after they initiate her they take her out to the beach and she slow dances in the water with every one of them while 'Surf's Up' is sung."
"Broadway looks so medieval"
"New York still looks medieval to me"
Whether dumping a bag of fantasy magazines on his bed or lovingly gazing out of his Manhattan apartment window and eulogizing the electrical storms that often rage above the city, Jim Steinman is a man who has managed to reconcile the mundane aspects of everyday life with the heroic temperature within his mind. Fantasy is the answer for the guy who admits, "It's hard to be a hero in 1981."
His every sentence is apt to soar in the clouds, just as his every song, via self and Meat Loaf, is prone to transcend the norm. "Over there is the Metropolitan Opera," he says from his NYC balcony. "When there's a show on all the yellow cabs converge on it. It looks like the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard Of Oz!" Likewise his Los Angeles story evokes illegal chemical hallucinatory qualities. "I awoke about 3 am on a floor littered with unconscious bodies in a hotel above Sunset Strip. It was at a time when the deal with Warner's was about to fall through. Earlier in the day, Meat had picked up these two identical twins - human surfboards with hair - and brought them back to the hotel. They cooked this huge duck in white wine sauce for dinner, and when I woke up the room was fairly dripping with it.
"I was looking out at the vista of violence that is LA - except out there they call it romantic violence - thinking about how I'd like to wipe away the stagnant dross of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles with a single stroke. Then I saw this chemical fire in the distance. It was eerie - a blue and red haze everywhere. I felt like I was trapped in a jukebox. About ten minutes later all the smoke was absorbed into the valley and the network of city lights melted into electrical strings and veins. I thought: 'LA is a total junkie, the rouge on a scar. And Fleetwood Mac is the rouge.'..."
At this point, his friend Sam starts to levitate while all else sinks, and Jim bemoans to the corruption of beautiful LA. A metaphor for rock 'n' roll.
When fever and passion become an air-conditioned thrill and fantasies become cluttered by tax returns, rock 'n' roll dreams come through.
Fun ... Fever ... Fantasy. Amen.