“Happy Ending”

Jim Steinman essentially began his career while a student at Amherst college, writing and starring in a musical called The Dream Engine that was described as a post-apocalyptic Peter Pan story with eternal teenager vampires. He basically spent the rest of his career re-writing The Dream Engine, never letting go of his obsessions with vampires, teenage emotions, and Peter Pan.

After several years working with Joseph Papp in the New York Shakespeare Festival, Steinman still felt he was hitting a wall with his love of rock and roll. Instead of trying to bring rock to the theater, he decided to bring the theater to rock. However, it would take until 1977 for Bat out of Hell to catapult him into stardom. In between, there is little that survives of his work.

One song that does survive, to some extent (though it has been out of print for a long time and is seemingly not available on any streaming service), as essentially Steinman’s debut outside of the theater is “Happy Ending” on Yvonne Elliman’s 1973 Food of Love album. It’s not surprising that the theater rocker ends up giving a song to someone who first became famous as a result of working with Andrew Lloyd Weber, and indeed Steinman and Weber would circle one another for years in various ways. The album sank without a trace (in spite of being loaded with famous guests) and the song was essentially forgotten.

However, YouTube has a way of remembering things, so it is possible to hear the song.

The arrangement of the song is immediately striking because it is so unlike any other Steinman song. The fact that he is not involved in the production is clear from every single note, whether it’s the quiet drums, the simple acoustic guitar, or the echoing vocals–none of it sounds like Jim Steinman songs would sound later even when he wasn’t in the producer’s chair. One of Steinman’s repeated tricks (repeated often enough that Avantasia used it in what writer Tobias Sammet called his attempt to write a Jim Steinman song) was to build to a dramatic crescendo, then immediately stop as though the song were ending, only to bring back something from earlier in the song again before it actually ends. “Happy Ending” even does that differently, building only with Elliman’s voice and ending on a quieter note than it began.

The lyrics aren’t nearly what Steinman was capable of at his best, but there are elements of his typical work: vampiric imagery (“hungry older . . . tired and lonely thirst . . . I’m coming out of the dark . . . tired and dusty thirst”), repetition of opening phrases (“take me away” and “don’tcha” appear at the beginning of multiple lines in a row, the former multiple times), sexual provocation wrapped up in metaphor, and over-the-top emotional turmoil. It’s not as focused as his best work would be, and parts of the lyrics are almost nonsensical, but it’s certainly not bad.

Probably the most immediately identifiable thing about Steinman’s writing in general is his song structure. He does not write with a typical ABCBCDBC format (that is, “intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus”), but he also does not eschew the repetition of that format. Indeed, his songs are often built out of increased repetition of multiple parts that eventually get layered together to make the final product, one that would sound like a muddled mess if you hadn’t already learned the pieces earlier. “Happy Ending” does have an unusual structure, but it is in fact without a chorus. It’s really three verses and a bridge, with the phrase “I can’t make it alone” functioning as the closest thing to a chorus by appearing at the end of the second and third verses. It’s not the kind of structure Steinman would later employ, but it does show that he was rejecting the standard pop song structure even at this point.

Elliman sings the song well, though her whispy, clear voice is really the antithesis of what Steinman’s career would be built on working with later. There isn’t a lot of instrumentation to get notice, but it’s all well done.

Is the song a presage of what’s to come? Not really. Is it good? Sure. The chief failing of the song is that it’s rather unmemorable. It’s as though the reason it lacks a chorus is that Steinman just hadn’t found a good enough hook to write the chorus yet, and that holds the song back from being as good as it could be.

Of course, he had plenty of them for his next project.

Jim Steinman

I haven’t been active here much lately, but I’m going to try something new.

On April 19, famed songwriter and producer Jim Steinman died at age 73. He was my favorite songwriter ever, which is sort of a weird favorite thing to have, but I’m a weird person. During the last month, I have listened mostly to his music, and I do listen to music a lot.

I remember discovering Steinman when I was a teenager. I had begun to be interested in music and had a modest CD collection (Note for younger readers: Long ago, we had to buy physical things that had music on them. CDs were the dominant version of that from some point in the late ’80s until digital music took over somewhere in the 2005-10 range.), about half of which consisted of every Def Leppard album released to that point (and, no, I’m not as old as this is making me sound–this was around the release of Euphoria). I had listened to a lot of my parents’ old records (Note for younger readers: What CDs are to you, these were to people my age.) and CDs because they were what were available, but I had discovered pretty quickly that my father’s taste and mine were very much opposites, so I was wary of listening to anything of his that I knew my mother didn’t also like.

But my father had a CD copy of Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell. I was intrigued by the weirdness of the title (Who the hell has a sequel album?), the bizarre fantasy artwork on the cover, and a dim memory of liking “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” when my father would listen to it in the car years before. I don’t know what led me to finally try listening, but I did, and I feel like I’ve spent more than two decades since as a music listener just trying to recreate the feeling I had listening to that album.

The screaming guitars are balanced out with bright pianos. Meat Loaf isn’t a technically skilled singer, but he has a booming, powerful voice and absolutely sells the emotion of every word. As an ’80s rock fan, I knew about “power ballads,” but these were different–these weren’t cheesy, radio-ready versions of otherwise heavy rock music. These were epic stories and feelings on display and this was somehow the only way to display them. There was never a feeling that the songs were written on a piano and then had someone look over them for places to add power chords to turn it into a rock song–they were actually written and planned to be what they were from the beginning.

And then the lyrics. The lyrics were something to behold. Every song had brilliant moments like “After a while you’ll forget everything/It was a brief interlude and a midsummer night’s fling” and was filled with rock’s typical guitars-cars-and-motorcycles imagery mixed with religious imagery with absolutely no feeling that one set of imagery was better than the other. The songs were about the same teenaged subjects that so much music is about, but there was something more about them, something I would later recognize as an almost satirical level to which all of those feelings were pumped up.

I read through the liner notes of the album and was entranced by the idea that this rock star was an unattractive, overweight guy from the middle of nowhere in Texas. (For some reason that resonated with an unattractive, overweight guy from the middle of nowhere in Colorado.) I saw “songs by Jim Steinman” on the cover and assumed that was Meat Loaf’s real name. I’d seen Sting credited by his birth name of Gordon Sumner on writing credits before, so I assumed it was the same thing happening here.

I don’t remember how long I suffered under that particular illusion before finding out that Meat Loaf and Steinman were in fact different people, but once I did, I started seeking out more of Steinman’s music. (Even as a teenager, I would pick a writer over a singer.) I found out I knew some–“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart”–and that he had briefly worked as Def Leppard’s producer (though fired long before the album was ever completed). I pretty quickly found out that he was what I loved about Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell more than Meat Loaf. Meat Loaf’s non-Steinman work paled in comparison, while plenty of Steinman’s other work was just as good as what he wrote for Meat Loaf.

Eventually, I owned everything I could find that Jim Steinman had worked on, from popular works like the two Bat out of Hell albums (There are exactly two of them.) and Bonnie Tyler’s Faster than the Speed of Night to his little-remembered solo album and everywhere between. There is precious little of Steinman’s work that I’m not a fan of to this day, and a startlingly large percentage of the other music I listen to has a lot in common with it. Tobias Sammet, one of my favorite recent artists (lead singer and songwriter for Edguy and Avantasia), discussed what a major influence Steinman was on him in a Facebook post following Steinman’s death that I only ran across after suddenly realizing how similar his work is to Steinman’s.

Partly just so I have someplace to put my thoughts about his work and stop annoying my friends about said thoughts, I’m going to embark on a project here and write about every recording of Jim Steinman’s songs I can find. It’s not going to be perfect, there will definitely be things that I miss (And some of them, like songs Steinman produced but did not write, I am really not interested in.) or that get relative over-coverage (The Bat out of Hell albums are going to be the centerpieces and I’m not going to pretend that they won’t be.), but I’m going to try to cover his entire career. I will start with Yvonne Elliman’s recording of “Happy Ending” in 1973, which seems to be at least the first major label recording of one of his songs, and then will be Bat out of Hell.

I don’t know how long this will take me, especially considering my current work situation, or how much it will interest anyone, but I think at least I will enjoy it.

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