Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Popera - A Tribute to Jim Steinman

And the hits just keep on a comin'. For a guy reluctant to delve into music coverage, I've been on a roll as of late.

The Barry Manilow talkback led to that little round-headed boy & I's mutual recognition of the power of the perfect pop song, and one songwriter who's crafted some powerful doozies in that arena is Jim Steinman.

Steinman writes not just simple pop music - he crafts popera. His best known works have been variations on the same...but it's a fantastic kind of same - he begins quietly and ends huge. His works typically end so big, it sounds as if they were created exclusively for Broadway musicals. They're over the top, frequently the definition of cheese, and stuff I've listened to repeatedly from teenager onward.

You no doubt know him best as the guy who wrote all the music for Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" - and to be fair to Steinman, there likely wouldn't have been a Meat Loaf without him. It takes vision to look at & hear the voice of a guy like Marvin Lee Aday and say to yourself, "I'm gonna make this guy a star". But I digress; I've not come here to bag on Meat - the guy rocks, but without Jim he likely never would have.

As I was unable to find a decent video for my favorite Meat Loaf tune, "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth", you'll have to make due with this video for "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad". The girl I "loved" in junior high adored "Bat Out of Hell" and played it over and over...but she treated me pretty shoddily, so I now think of her when I listen to this song about a girl who's willing to fuck this guy but ultimately have no respect for him. In the end it screws him up so badly that he starts treating other women the way he was treated. With Steinman, it's often about the pain.

Lest it be thought that Jim's greatest hit was the Loaf, that's not even remotely the case.

Steinman wrote the greatest popera tune ever recorded - Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart". I mean really, this is just quite simply "where it's at". I didn't try to find the original vid, as I first came across this outstanding fan made video, set to imagery from Coppola's Dracula, that more or less sums up the whole affair. The vids cheesitude cannot be denied...but that's part of the beauty of Jim Steinman's music. The man is totally unafraid to go down the road that most songwriters fear to tread - the road that may risk utter embarrassment. I love that about him, and it would appear that, over the years, many others have as well. (He later did "Holding Out for a Hero" with Tyler for the Footloose soundtrack.)

When "Total Eclipse" was burning up the charts in '83, Steinman also wrote "Making Love Out of Nothing at All" for Air Supply, and it was one of their last hits. Here's the music video which, quite frankly, is an atrocity of mammoth proportions. I shouldn't even link to it as I'm sure the Morgue will lose readership in doing so - but what the hell? Anyone visiting a site named after a place to keep dead bodies must surely have a masochistic side. The song is incredible (despite the horrific vid) and it did my heart good to see it used in a major action scene in the Brangelina vehicle Mr. and Mrs. Smith, wherein Brad confessed to Angelina, "I like Air Supply!", and then sang along to the Aussie duo. Like Mr. Smith, I too like Air Supply, and not just the Steinman tune either.

Due to Steinman's success with Bonnie & the Supply, bigger artists began taking notice, and in '84 Manilow himself & no less than Barbra Streisand covered Jim Steinman tunes. Barry took on "Read 'Em and Weep" (previously done by Meat Loaf on his lesser known Steinman collaboration, 1981's "Dead Ringer"), while Barbra tackled "Left in the Dark" from Steinman's only solo effort, "Bad for Good" (artwork above), also from '81. Both covers are great, but both videos wallow in schmaltz (go on - click the above know you wanna). There's a trend developing here, and it's due entirely to 1980s music video production.

You can't be such a major visible success without the eventual beckoning of Hollywood, and in 1984 Jim also wrote two numbers for Walter Hill's "rock & roll fable" Streets of Fire. In the movie the tunes appear to be sung by a young Diane Lane, but in reality were performed a lady named Holly Sherwood. "Nowhere Fast" and "Tonight is What It Means to Be Young" are credited to the fake band Fire, Inc. and, Bonnie's "Total Eclipse" aside, may well be the peak of Steinman's talents. (I love how Wikipedia frequently describes his music as "Wagnerian".)

In '93 Jim once again collaborated with Mr. Loaf on "Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell", which, despite being a massive success and selling about a bazillion copies, pretty much sucked. Though I'll give 'em both credit for knowing exactly which buttons to push in order to bamboozle a gullible public. The album's biggest hit was "I'd Do Anything for Love (but I Won't Do That)", and its overplayed video was directed by a young Michael Bay, a fact which in itself confirms its utter suckitude.

If, six months ago when I started the Morgue, someone told me I'd eventually write about Celine Dion, I'd have elected to quit while I was behind. Yet it certainly must be mentioned that "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" is indeed a Jim Steinman creation. Aside from stating the fact, there's not much more to say except perhaps that I'll hang with Barbra, but Celine challenges my tolerance threshold.

Steinman's most recent success was a musical called Dance of the Vampires based on Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers. It was huge in Europe (and was even directed by Polanski), but tanked on Broadway (some of which may have been due to star Michael Crawford's interference, not to mention the lack of Polanski). It even earned the alleged distinction of being the biggest financial flop in the history of Broadway, losing 17 mill and closing after 117 performances.

So I'm left without an end to this piece - even that last paragraph was culled mostly from Wiki tidbits, which makes most of it totally suspect. Steinman's future? A musical version of Batman with Tim Burton? (Sounds weirdly promising.) Meat Loaf's attempting"Bat Out of Hell III" without Steinman. (Why?) It appears Jim's got something in the works called The Dream Engine, which based on the website intrigues the hell out of me.

All I know for sure is that Jim Steinman's music has been something which I've near blindingly adored for over 20 years. Even his solo album, despite his sometimes awkward vocals, somehow manages to work (actually, his voice isn't all that dissimilar to Meat Loaf's). If all he ever churns out from this day forward is crap even I don't like, the man's got my eternal respect for being someone who took the unsellable and sold it, the unmarketable and marketed it, the unsingable and sung it, and the unproducable and produced it. And in the process he created some work that - whether they know it or not - is valuable to most everyone.

That my friends, is talent.

ADDENDUM: Jim Steinman is on Blogspot. There are days when doing all this makes it so worthwhile.