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

Jim Steinman in Amsterdam, Netherlands, 16th November 1989.
Niels van Iperen/Getty Images
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.

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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.’ “


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