Jim Steinman: the eccentric king of fairytale rebellion and grand drama

Jim Steinman
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Following the death of Jim Steinman, at the age of 73, on April 19, 2021, Meat Loaf led the many tributes to the Grammy-winning songwriter and eccentric genius behind his classic 1977 album Bat Out Of Hell

“We belonged heart and soul to each other,” an emotional Meat Loaf told Rolling Stone, of their sometimes difficult yet immensely successful relationship that spanned five decades. “We didn’t [simply] know each other. We were each other.” 

A “devastated” Bonnie Tyler paid tribute to her “friend and musical mentor”, declaring him a “true genius”. “He was also a funny, kind, supportive and deeply caring human being, and the world is a better place for his life and his work and a worse one for his passing,” she added. Celine Dion said it was “one of the greatest privileges” of her career to have worked with Steinman. 

Meat Loaf and Steinman had a tempestuous relationship – Meat once threw a baby grand piano at Jim – yet beneath it all was a sense of co-dependency. Their respective managers might have sued one another over ownership copyright for the name Bat Out Of Hell, yet Meat claims the artists never did. During a long conversation with Rolling Stone that was peppered with tears and laughter, a fraught-sounding Meat Loaf made the dramatic statement: “I don’t want to die, but I may die this year because of Jim. I’m always with him and he’s right here with me now. I’ve always been with Jim and Jim has always been with me."

Confirming the news of Steinman’s passing, a message on his Facebook page said: “There will be more to say in the coming hours and days as we prepare to honour this giant of a human being and his glorious legacy. For now, do something that makes you feel young, happy and free. He’d want that for you!”

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The self-styled ‘Little Richard Wagner Of Rock’, Steinman was behind massively bombastic hits for and collaborations with Bonnie Tyler, Celine Dion, Air Supply, Barry Manilow, Sisters Of Mercy, Ian Hunter, Boyzone and more. But he will forever be associated with Meat Loaf and Bat Out Of Hell, the original album now having sold more than 50 million copies. 

Steinman once described his songs as walking “the tightrope of being thrilling and silly”. They were certainly never boring. 

Of Jewish ancestry, James Richard Steinman was born in New York City in 1947. At Amherst College he wrote a musical version of a futuristic rock take on Peter Pan, The Dream Engine, which laid the foundation for much of his later work, including Bat Out Of Hell and Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit Total Eclipse Of The Heart

Steinman and Meat Loaf first met at a New York theatre in 1973 when the singer auditioned for his musical More Than You Deserve. When Steinman got a job in the National Lampoon road show, he managed to get his new partner a role as understudy to John Belushi. 

Together they plotted their own masterpiece, although baffled critics and general music business indifference did their best to thwart the process. Almost every record label that Meta Loaf and Steinman approached virtually laughed in their faces, telling them Bat Out Of Hell would never come to fruition. It took four years of determination and graft before it finally got a release. That it went on take up residence in the UK Top 100 album chart for 522 weeks and continues to sell more than 200,000 copies every year brought sweet redemption.

Neither Meat Loaf nor Steinman ever managed to repeat the triumph of the original Bat Out Of Hell (produced by Todd Rundgren), although the pair worked together again on its follow-up, 1981’s Dead Ringer, and a sequel, Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell. Released in 1993, the latter’s Grammy-winning first single, I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) topped the charts in 28 countries. 

In his Rolling Stone interview, Meat Loaf confided: “I couldn’t say this before, but Jim was going to do Bat Out of Hell III before he got sick.” He was talking about the completion of the trilogy, The Monster Is Loose, which eventually was made with producer Desmond Child and released in 2006. “He was sick for a lot longer than people knew. It was at least thirteen years ago that he had a stroke. He had open-heart surgery, triple bypass.” 

Steinman threw himself into a variety of projects – the more unlikely the better. Few would have foreseen him stepping in to reactivate the career of Bonnie Tyler, the gravel-voiced Welsh singer best known at the time for her hit Lost In France, but that’s what happened in the early 80s with the hits Total Eclipse Of The Heart and Holding Out For A Hero

On paper his collaboration with gothic rockers the Sisters Of Mercy seemed more surreal still, but his involvement in their production helped to make This Corrosion, Dominion and Lucretia My Reflection into hits. 

This Corrosion is ridiculous,” acknowledged Sisters frontman Andrew Eldritch. “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.”

However, it didn’t always work. In the absence of their regular producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, Def Leppard famously brought in Steinman to help them with the Hysteria album. Both sides soon realised that the team-up was doomed to failure

“All that Jim Steinman knew about the studio was that he didn’t like the colour of the carpet,” griped Leppard singer Joe Elliott. In turn, Steinman said he found Leppard “interesting, in a way a scientist finds a really strange sort of insect interesting”. 

Like his hero Phil Spector, whose ‘wall of sound’ productions had been a huge influence, in the studio the perfectionist Steinman was in complete control. “There have been very few cases where I’ve been interested in what the artist thinks,” he once admitted. “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.” 

Spector had once called Steinman “a bad clone” of himself. Steinman didn’t care a jot, replying: “To be insulted by Phil Spector is a big honour. If he spits on me, I consider myself purified.” 

Steinman threw everything into the records he made. “I would do almost anything for what I create,” he once said with a completely straight face. “I don’t know if I would kill someone, but I would consider it.”

Although his success came mostly with others performing his works, in 1981 he released his own album, Bad For Good. In its original guise as Renegade Angel, the record had been intended as a successor to Bat Out Of Hell, until various issues with Meat Loaf intervened (“He had lost his voice, he had lost his house, and he was pretty much losing his mind,” said Steinman). A somewhat frightening, batshit spoken-word song Love And Death And An American Guitar served as reminder that Steinman played by nobody’s rules except his own.

In 1989 Steinman produced and masterminded the album Original Sin, released under the name Pandora’s Box. It became a cult favourite and nothing more, although Celine Dion later triumphed with a remake of its song It’s All Coming Back To Me Now

Very little is known about Steinman’s private life. It was reported that he married and divorced, although he once claimed: “I’ve never had my heart broken. I’ve never been dumped… but probably because I don’t allow myself to be dumped.” 

Some insiders claimed that he kept “vampire-like” hours, and the numerous apocryphal tales about him are fuelled by his larger-than-life attitude towards just about everything. Just as in life, whether visiting restaurants or ordering takeaways at the studio, Steinman always craved a little of all that was on offer. 

“One of the funniest evenings I ever had with Jim was at a Mexican restaurant in New York,” recalls musical theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, who in 1996 worked with Steinman on the musical Whistle Down The Wind. “Because he was so generous he took all six of us there and said to the waiter: ‘We’ll have one of everything.’ When the waiter replied: ‘Are you sure you want one of everything?’ he said: ‘No you’re right, we need six of everything!’”

More recently, Steinman wrote the music and lyrics for Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical. Back in 2000, Meat Loaf had said such a production was impossible. “It’ll never end up as a stage show,” he protested. “It can’t. I mean, it just won’t.” 

“I never intended to do music [for a living],” Steinman once told Classic Rock. “I didn’t think I was a good enough musician. I was gonna do film and theatre, but I figured: ‘This is fun, let’s do this.’ I didn’t want [Bat Out Of Hell] to be just a bunch of songs. I wanted it to feel like you were entering a cinematic or complete theatrical environment. No one could deal with it. They couldn’t figure out what it would sound like finished.” 

Looking back on the huge efforts involved in getting Bat Out Of Hell off the launch pad, Steinman added: “All I can say is that I thank God that Meat and I knew nothing about making albums, because otherwise it couldn’t have happened.” 

However, there were no regrets of any sort. “I’ve been called over-the-top,” he told the Washington Post. “How silly. If you don’t go over the top, you can’t see what’s on the other side.”

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.