We lost a titan of writing today, friends, one of the greatest wordsmiths the world has ever known.
We lost Jim Steinman, whose songs have been the backbone of my life for more than 30 years. As a teen I played Bat Out of Hell over and over until the cassette broke. As a 20-something goth I flailed on dance floors to the bangers he produced with the Sisters of Mercy (‘This Corrosion’ and ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’, holy shit). As a 30/40-something… look, anyone who’s ever been in a karaoke bar with me knows that I will drop ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ at each and any and every opportunity, because that song fucking rules.
Some people think Steinman’s work is kitsch, or cheesy, or silly, or just over-the-top hair rock. Those people are cynical fools. His songs were a portal into an alternate world of operatic bombast, 80s excess, muscular melodrama, heroic fantasy, motorcycle culture, 1950s’ juvenile delinquent movies, American cliches, comic books, bodice-tearing romance, hair spray, leather jackets, puffy shirts, soap opera, Gothic novels, horror, camp, groin-watering sexual desire and a pure, absolute and never-ending love of rock n’ roll.
They were great works of narrative and emotive fiction, sonic movies full of romance, action, drama, wind machines and tight black jeans compressed into 4 (or 7) (or 12) minutes, and they were genius.
(Fortunately, most of his collaborators understood this. We’ve all seen the ‘Total Eclipse’ video, but if you’ve never seen the clip for ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (‘But I Won’t Do That)’, watch it now and get right with your God.)
Sure, there were stronger lyricists, cleverer lyricists, more polished lyricists, more personally meaningful lyricists; I mean, I have a tattoo of a Mountain Goats lyric, but I don’t have a ‘Bat Out of Hell’ tattoo. (Hmm. I should probably get one.) But Steinman’s lyrics had true power in their sincerity and imagery, in his ability to infuse cultural and pop cultural touchstones with bold, bright and immediate emotional weight. And damn, the man could write a killer line when he wanted.
You’ll never find your gold on a sandy beach
You’ll never drill for oil on a city street
I know you’re looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks
But there ain’t no Coup de Ville hiding at the bottom
Of a Cracker Jack box
‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’
Tom Waits and John Darnielle are great, but they can keep their nuanced, contained examinations of the human condition – Jim Steinman demanded and delivered more, more, MORE.
Everything in a Steinman song is the most dramatic thing – the greatest, the worst, the most uplifting, the most devastating. No-one has ever loved with the heart-stopping intensity of a Steinman protagonist, no-one has ever needed to have sex with their partner so badly as a Steinman protagonist, and no-one else could be as miserable as a Steinman protagonist when his heart is broken. Everything in a Steinman song is louder than everything else.
And now he is gone. And we are the lesser for it.
But his songs remain, his lyrics remain; his legacy remains, towering over music, pop culture and literature like a monolith of Marshal speakers pounding out 40-minute guitar riffs during the biggest thunderstorm in history. I won’t ever forget Jim Steinman’s passion, his sincerity, his drama, his power, his words.
I would do anything for love.
But I won’t do that.