Once when a friend was making fun of how long many of the songs I like are, they said that I was trying to have a single song that encapsulates all of human experience. I was exaggerating, but I said, “You mean ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light?'”
The song is separated into three parts in the liner notes, so I’m going to more or less write about each part separately.
Part 1. Paradise
“I remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday” opens Steinman’s tale of car sex gone wrong. It’s his version of “once upon a time” and explicitly sets the song long ago–Meat Loaf’s character is a now-jaded adult remembering with his (presumably) now-wife how they got together even though they can no longer stand each other. Their lives are now filled with “cold and lonely . . . deep dark night[s],” even though they remember the “paradise by the dashboard light” by the lake all those years ago.
Meat Loaf describes in poetic detail how the teenagers park in a secluded spot by the lake and start making out. Some of Steinman’s most memorable lines are just his descriptions of this part: “We’re glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife” and “Ain’t no doubt about it/We were doubly blessed/’Cause we were barely seventeen/And we were barely dressed.” He describes excitement and joy and frankly there isn’t a negative word involved.
The music accentuates the mood, with a straightforward honky-tonk piano and bass line propelling things forward like it did for a thousand Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard songs that represented the sexual fantasies of a generation of teenagers. A female chorus (all voiced by Ellen Foley, who is also the lead female voice) repeats “Ooh-shop-shop-shoo” to give things even more old-fashioned notes. Todd Rundgren inserts guitars to add sting to the rhythm and fill things in a little, but it’s still far from modern. The chorus adds one of Roger Powell’s church organ-like synthesizer lines and cuts out the main rhythm to differentiate it from the story of “long ago and far away,” and the two sounds go back and forth.
Then things suddenly shift to a completely sound as Meat Loaf repeatedly proclaims “We’re gonna go all the way tonight/We’re gonna go all the way/Tonight’s the night.” Suddenly the piano is gone and the guitar and bass combo suddenly becomes ’70s funk. The vocals then disappear and are replaced by Ellen Foley and Jim Steinman making some simulated sexual noises. And just when you think things can’t get more ’70s, a radio baseball broadcast begins.
Phil Rizzuto, then the voice of the New York Yankees, performs a double-entendre play-by-play that I honestly find rather too long for what little humor it provides. It’s a funny idea but it just goes on rather longer than my entertainment from it lasts. The double-entendres are all obvious based on the cultural analogy between baseball and sexual activity, clearly showing his advances and finishing with a dramatic “play at the plate” with Rizzuto shouting “I think he’s gonna make it!”
2. Let Me Sleep on It
Another musical shift happens, with the rest of the music all cutting out to leave just some big guitar chords and drum beats behind Ellen Foley as she shouts, “Stop right there.” The music behind her becomes something of a modernized version of what began the song, with more guitar crunch and everything moving a bit faster but without any doo-wop vocals. She explains that if they’re going to do this he needs to promise to love her forever with some of the greatest lyrics in music history: “I gotta know right now/Do you love me?/Will you love me forever?/Do you need me?/Will you never leave me?/Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life?/Will you take me away and will you make me your wife?”
He responds, in horny teenager fashion, with “let me sleep on it,” backed by a softer, slower backing track mimicking his attempt at a softer tone.
She, of course, rejects the idea and insists and they battle back and forth, with their backing tracks clashing and overlapping just as their vocals do. Using music to represent a conflict is hardly a new idea, but rarely has it been as effective as these teenagers arguing about their differing expectations from a tryst by the lake. There are so many noises crashing into each other that it’s impossible not to get the feeling of what’s happening inside their own minds: the confusion about what to want, what to follow, and how to answer.
3. Praying for the End of Time
Unable to stand the possibility of not having sex, he finally explodes, “I couldn’t take it any longer/Lord I was crazed/And then the feeling came upon me/Like a tidal wave/I started swearing to my god and on my mother’s grave/That I would love you ’til the end of time.” (As an aside, there are moments of Steinman’s lyrics that I just think have such an amazing sound that I am impressed every time I hear or see them. This moment is one of them. It’s very clear-cut and I don’t even have any analysis to provide, but I’m quoting it because it feels like a crime not to.)
However, in a moment that confuses a fair number of listeners, the couple together proclaims, “So now I’m praying for the end of time/To hurry up and arrive/’Cause if I have to spend another minute with you/I don’t think that I can hardly survive/ . . . I’m praying for the end of time/It’s all that I can do/Praying for the end of time/So I can end my time with you.” Remember that “paradise” was “long ago and it was far away”–we have come back fully to the present tense and these two people cannot stand one another. The song fades out with the proclamation, “It was long ago/And it was far away/It was so much better than it is today.”
On VH1’s Classic Albums, Jim Steinman described the song, laughingly, as a story of “two people who ruined their lives because of a stiffy.” But I think there’s more to it than that. Obviously, like many Steinman songs, it is about a couple getting together with different expectations–he sees it as an opportunity for sex, she sees it as an opportunity for love, and as a result both are disappointed in the end.
But why do they have those expectations? He mentions, “All the kids at school/They were wishin’ they were me that night” with pride even though he’s looking back on it through the prism of what’s happened since. That’s a sign that their expectations are being shaped by peer pressure. And then there’s the baseball announcing. It’s playing on a common societal trope, but what does that trope suggest? That the “boy” is supposed to be the aggressor, with the goal of “getting home” at the end while what represents the throw from the outfield? Her request for love. The two are pitted as oppositional forces, even on the basis of the analogy so common within our culture that everyone can follow the baseball announcer double-entendre in this song with no context.
In the same year that Bat out of Hell was released, Woody Allen remarked in Annie Hall, “I think there’s too much burden placed on the orgasm to make up for empty areas in life,” which is touching on the same concern: society puts a lot of pressure on sex, no matter who it is or what kind of pressure. He’s pressured to want sex no matter the cost. She’s pressured to use sex as the way to get long-term love. How much of that pressure comes from within versus from society? I think the way things turn out for this couple suggests that the pressure came from outside and pushed these two into ruining their lives. The pressures are often gendered and uneven and create ridiculous power differentials, but “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” suggests, in a way that would definitely have been considered subversive in 1977, that sex can be its own paradise and shouldn’t have that societal weight.