“I remember everything! I remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday.” So begins Steinman’s first (but not last) solo speech on record, his tale of fantastical guitar smashing. There are background sounds from synth player Larry Fast, but those frankly do not matter much. This is a dramatic monologue, and this is probably the moment that led critics to say that the album was too strange for a mainstream audience.
On a personal level, I absolutely love this speech. In high school, I took guitar class at school, and each semester ended with each student doing a short performance of five songs. I took four semesters, so I did four of these performances. I did not repeat anything else, but every one included “Love and Death and an American Guitar” (with a guitar backing I had written, all of which were basically punctuating the shouting with the chords of the next song–I’m clearly a compositional genius), with minor language editing (my high school would not have been okay with “Goddamn it, Daddy!” or probably “horny angel”). It always got a reaction and everyone remembered it later, which is a testament to what a fun piece it really is, because I’m certain my performance (though that astonishing ability to use the power chords from “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” at every exclamation point was pretty special . . . ) had little to do with it.
Like with “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” which this speech quotes in the opening, the first line is easy to forget but changes the entire meaning of what follows. If you ignore that opening, it’s a teenager screaming about the glory of the sounds, energy, etc. that comes from that rock and roll tradition of smashing a guitar. However, this is actually an older person remembering when he was “barely 17 and I once killed a boy with a Fender guitar.” It’s really probably best understood as a person remembering what it felt like to be a teenager. He remembers it in crazed, over-the-top tones because that’s how teenagers experience life. But he also remembers his father’s admonition in reasonable terms, the way only an adult would. He may agree with his father by now; this may even be a speech he’s now giving to a teenaged child to say, “Yeah, I remember how that felt.”
Rock and roll glorifies violence, especially the violence committed by the young against one another, and the electric guitar is its ultimate symbol. A 17-year-old killing a “boy” (suggesting it was someone his age or younger) with a guitar by using “the perfect combination of the right power chords and the precise angle from which to strike” is sort of a fantastical fever dream of what rock and roll aggrandizes, so extreme as to make it clear just how silly the sort of “fighting with music” that rock and roll espouses really is. The guitar bleeds “Chuck Berry red” and screams “for about a week afterward” until one night when the protagonist takes the guitar and smashes it against a wall, the floor, “the body of a varsity cheerleader” (notably not just “a cheerleader” but “the body of a varsity cheerleader,” the ultimate teenaged sex dream), a car (the ultimate American teen symbol, which is why it figures so prominently in “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”), and a 1981 Harley Davidson (a motorcycle that couldn’t have existed if this is a remembrance, thus firmly planting it in the realm of fantasy, also another symbol of the teenaged ideal of freedom).
Then he heads to his parents’ bedroom and is about to smash the guitar on the bed when his father wakes up and screams, “Stop! Wait a minute! Stop it, boy! What do you think you’re doing? That’s no way to treat an expensive musical instrument!” He responds, “God damn it, Daddy! You know I love you, but you’ve got a hell of a lot to learn about rock and roll!” The eternal teenager-parent dynamic is shown here, with the teenager doing something stupid and destructive, the parent pointing out the cost, and the teenager nonsensically claiming superior knowledge.
In a bit of a shocking discovery after his rather impersonal vocals, Jim Steinman turns out to be an absolutely fantastic dramatic speaker. He sounded great at the start of “You Took the Words Right out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night),” too, but this is far more in-depth and doesn’t have someone else to play off of or a brilliant attached song to add to it. He’s unhinged to the point of derangement, but that’s perfectly appropriate to the subject matter.
I can’t really claim that “Love and Death and an American Guitar” is a deep rumination on the human condition, but it is taking the mythos of rock and roll and cranking it up to 11 to point out its absurdity–this is the stuff of traditional satire. Rock and roll likes violence and smashing guitars, so why not kill someone with a guitar? Rock and roll revels in its perception of its own power and strength, so why not use power chords as the actual method? Rock and roll is in a state of perpetual teenagerdom, so why not just play out a total teenager fantasy and of course, we have to end with screaming at parents. (Though, it should be noted, this parent is perfectly reasonable. The usual rock and roll parents saying things like “turn it down/off” or “grow up and start listening to Frank Sinatra” are caricatures–this father is just absolutely right that destroying the guitar makes zero sense.)
I love this speech for what it is, basically a spoof of rock and roll. It’s unhinged, over-the-top, glorious fun and the framing makes sure that we all know there’s a wink and a nod of understanding.
- I don’t understand the attraction to smashing guitars and I never have. It makes awful sounds. It ruins an amazing and beautiful thing. It sends splinters everywhere. I love guitar-smashing music, but actual guitar smashing is just hideous.
- “You know I love you” actually makes me laugh every time. He just seems so out of his mind at that point that stopping to say, “You know I love you” seems ludicrous.
- If you have somehow stumbled across this as someone who has heard Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell but not this album, yes, this is the same song that would appear as “Wasted Youth” on that album. The variations between these two versions are so minor that I wouldn’t worry about them. I even love both titles.
- On the Meat Loaf Live around the World album, Steinman appears to perform this speech and makes a couple of changes, though his delivery is remarkably the same for being 15 years later: he changes “horny angel” to “horny fucking angel” and he adds after the varsity cheerleader, “I was actually aiming for the Junior Varsity cheerleader, but she was too fast for me! Undoubtedly on steroids! These kids today . . . ” which furthers the idea that this is an adult’s fantasized reflection rather than coming from a teenager.