Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Freakshow & the Professor

Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young - Fire Inc. (mp3)
Out of the Frying Pan (And Into the Fire) - Meat Loaf (mp3)

I’m about to make a statement that might immortally rankle some of BOTG’s most loyal readers and it’s co-creator beyond repair: No one ever maximized the power and rock piano awesomeness of Roy Bittan like Jim Steinman.

The E Street Band’s “Professor” and a happily-hired gun who has played for dozens of artists over the years is the kind of pianist that makes kids like me love the piano and hate piano teachers. No, excuse me. Bittan is the pianist who eats those pianists for breakfast, who kills them in his sleep.

It’s unfair to say Steinman would be nothing without Bittan. Grossly unfair, because Steinman’s operatic schmaltzy pop muse is one of the most unique and flabbergasting hydra-vixens in the history of successful pop music. No way his muse looks a damn thing like Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu.

Steinman is the engine, Bittan's the handlebars on the motorbike careening into Hell. Some people would mistakenly think Meat Loaf is an essential part of the machine, but Steinman proved on any number of occasions that he didn’t need Meat Loaf nearly as much as Meat Loaf needed Steinman. Steinman gave Bonnie Tyler immortality. He gave Celine Dion and Air Supply tolerable songs. His songs almost made Streets of Fire watchable. (OK, that last part isn’t true. Nobody could have made Streets of Fire watchable, which is saying something, because Diane Lane is adorable.)

Meat Loaf was replaceable; Bittan is there on every song.

Although I never met him, don’t know him, and have never read more than a paragraph about him, I’m positive Jim Steinman is one of the freakiest freaky freakshows to ever make a bajillion dollars off rock music. As the first page of his web site convincingly observes, Bat Out of Hell is the only one in the All-Time Top 20 List of Best-Selling Rock Albums to be entirely written and composed by one person.

I’ve read a little more on Tom Scholz, the musician and creative force behind Boston who basically created and produced their debut album in his basement. It’s quite possible Sholz and Steinman were both the offspring of some Area 51 genetic experiment gone awry, freaks on leashes.

In pictures, Steinman looks like that nerd who was too cheesy to fit in with the goths or beatniks, so he just kept wearing leather and listening simultaneously to hard rock and Broadway shows in his garage. He had two record players hooked up. On one he’d play AC/DC, and on the other, Jesus Christ Superstar. On one, Foghat, on the other, My Fair Lady.

Wanna know the man who first discovered how perfectly the Pink Floyd album matched up with The Wizard of Oz? Damn straight it had to be Steinman, because Jim Steinman is like the Chuck Norris of modern music.

I can make fun of him all I want. I can make fun of his music, too. He writes music that begs to be mocked, performed by singers who are in all ways unhip. He doesn’t pick singers for their cool quotient; he nabs them for their ability to sell a used Pinto to Mitt Romney. His singers, given the right material, are expert salespeople.

Recently I went back and started watching the first season of GLEE, and I can promise you from now to the day I die that GLEE would never exist without Jim Steinman. That show’s ability to intertwine schmaltz, drama and comedy so swiftly and seamlessly is loved and despised for the same reason Steinman’s music is.

When you listen to Steinman, and when you watch GLEE, it’s hard to know exactly which emotion you’re supposed to feel. Worse, just when you commit to laughing or crying, something happens to totally yank the tablecloth from under your meal.

And I get it, why some people would despise this music, despise Steinman. But I've gotta believe that even those who hate him have to admit that he brought something unique to the landscape, a non-conformist with a vicious hook and the inability to keep songs under seven minutes.

Everytime I hear “Thunder Road” I want to write a love letter to Roy Bittan. I hope everytime Bittan hears the opening sequence in “I’d Do Anything for Love” he wants to write Steinman a love letter, too.


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troutking said...

There is no doubt that the Born to Run album--in particular Thunder Road, Backstreets and Jungleland--inspired Jim Steinman. Unfortunately, much to the detriment of the music, he amped up the intensity and neglected the emotional honesty and insight and the power of restraint that Bruce's music also contains. The Professor is also very good on Dire Straits Making Movies album. Your point is well taken but I think when Roy explains his decision to "give up higher education to rock the nation" he'd still point to Born to Run as his crowning achievement. Technical proficiency differences aside, does he want Thunder Road or Two outta Three Ain't Bad played at his funeral?

Billy said...

Blessings to our difference of opinion, Trout. I only believe Roy is the lynchpin to Steinman's music and only a (vital) member of the composite whole with the E Street Band.

By no means am I claiming Steinman superior to Springsteen -- he falls behind alphabetically and artistically -- only that Steinman gives Roy the prime real estate in his compositions where in Springsteen's, Roy's just one of many cool neighbors.

Bob said...

It's hard even for a snob like me not to have a soft spot for the Meatloaf songs.

BeckEye said...

I've declared my love for Steinman many, many times. And that "Streets of Fire" soundtrack is fantastic.

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