A Farewell to Jim Steinman

Souvenirs of that fateful concern in 2005

On April 19th, I learned from Twitter that songwriter and producer Jim Steinman had died. I was sad, but my wise mistrust of anything learned from Twitter kept me in denial until the next day, when I saw his obituary in The New York Times. I kept navigating back to the page, reading the headline over and over. Every time it bruised my heart a bit more. I’m still sore about it and I will be for a while. Jim’s music meant a lot to me, and I’m gonna miss him.

I remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday…
– “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (and its Village-of-the-Damned-style video) and “Holding out for a Hero,” though at that age I didn’t give a thought to the songwriter. Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell was released when I was in high school (I seem to have a distinct memory of singing its songs in chem lab) and was a monster hit. I knew about Steinman then, but only insofar as I could be smug when someone said incorrectly that Meat Loaf wrote the songs on the album. I loved those songs, especially for the prominence of the piano parts. (I enjoyed ending my playing of Lloyd Webber’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with the final piano notes from “I Would Do Anything for Love.”) But I didn’t become a real fan of Steinman until grad school and my discovery of two things: Original Sin, and Tanz der Vampire.

You can dance forever, you’ve got a fire in your feet
But will it ever be enough?
You know that it’ll never be enough
– “Original Sin”

I can’t remember which of those albums I heard first, which is fitting because Jim’s career has often covered and cannibalized itself. But I’ll start with Original Sin, which was an album Jim produced in 1989 with an all-girl group including Ellen Foley, who sang the female vocal on “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and Elaine Caswell, who was the first to record “It’s all Coming Back to Me Now,” later made a megahit by Celine Dion. Meat Loaf covered two of the songs for Bat out of Hell II, but the versions on Original Sin blew me away. They are wild, raw and exuberant. Caswell’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” may have made the singer pass out while recording it, but it’s wonderful not least because it includes the second verse of the song. (Second verses are important in Steinman songs. They round out the story being told, yet are almost always cut for time.) There were dark times in grad school when I wondered: what I was doing, and was it what I wanted? This album, especially the title track, got me through it.

I discovered Tanz der Vampire, a musical originally in German inspired by the film Dance of the Vampires, while randomly surfing the internet. I heard a clip of “Einladung zum Ball” (Invitation to the Ball) and was instantly hooked. It’s the same melody as “Original Sin,” but the orchestration was soaring and the singer, the late Steve Barton, sang with seductive passion. I’ve since devoured the entire original cast album, as well as versions in Hungarian. It’s a perfect vampire musical. It’s funny in the right places, but also unafraid to be romantic and heroic.

I’ve heard critics say that Steinman’s music is schlock. That smacks of condescension and snobbery and I’m not going to engage with that. I’ve also heard critics say that Steinman fans know better than to take his stuff seriously. Here I call shenanigans, and let me tell you why. Yes, these songs are long, bombastic and over the top (the better to see what’s on the other side, Jim would say). But they are musical expressions of pure feeling, and that is no bad thing. It’s maybe something we need a little more of in our lives. Dance of the Vampires failed on Broadway for many reasons, but one of those was a failure to understand that campiness is anathema to Steinman stuff. You’ve got to take it seriously, or it doesn’t work.

And the melody’s gonna make me fly
Without pain, without fear
– “Heaven Can Wait”

This may surprise some of you to learn, but I am uncomfortable with feelings. Sometimes I avert my eyes from particularly earnest portions of even my favorite movies. An exception to this, I’ve found, is in music. I love musicals, and I love Steinman songs, because something about them strips that diffidence from me. I can enjoy them unabashedly even as I know that if someone giggles, the spell is broken. The influence of Steinman’s music on me and my writing is hard to overstate. My husband and I danced to “Heaven Can Wait” at our wedding. “Read ’Em and Weep,” became the unofficial soundtrack of my fanfic days. And I’ve now published The Night Library of Sternendach: A Vampire Opera in Verse, which owes much inspiration to Tanz der Vampire. Writing in Pushkin sonnets gave me the freedom to embrace the romanticism of my story, like how his music lets me love the feeling in Jim’s songs.

In 2005, my husband, parents and I went to a concert of Steinman music at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. Elaine Caswell was among the performers. But the best part was when my mom asked me, “What does Jim Steinman look like?”

“Well,” I answered, scanning the crowd in the theater. “He looks like if Dracula were sixty, with long, white hair and… like that guy over there. That’s Jim Steinman.” My dad and I approached him, and even though he was allergic to my Dance of the Vampires t-shirt (I assured him I owned the German album) he signed our tickets. I called him “sir,” which tickled him, but really I was too star-struck to tell him how much his work meant to me. The concert that followed was one of the best of my life.

I am crushed that this guy is no longer writing music, because his stuff spoke to me in a way no other songwriter’s does. I think I shall say goodbye with one of my favorites of his lyrics:

And I’m gonna need somebody to make me feel like you do
And I will receive somebody with open arms, open eyes
Open up the skies let the planet that I love shine through
For cryin’ out loud, you know I love you.
– “For Cryin’ Out Loud”

Here’s a link to a playlist on Spotify containing the songs mentioned in this essay.

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