Celine Dion and Meat Loaf once grabbed for the same Jim Steinman song, as if it was the last devilled egg on the backstage deli platter. Mr. Steinman must have been pleased, as there was never too much melodrama for him.
Mr. Steinman, a songwriter and producer with a fondness for Wagnerian pop epics and overemotive singers, died Monday at the age of 73. The song of his in dispute was It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, a bodice-ripping ballad that was the aural equivalent of a tawdry romance novel. Considered for placement on the Meat Loaf album Bat Out of Hell II, it was ultimately set aside in favour of I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).
The story goes that Meat Loaf wanted to then save the song for Bat Out of Hell III, but Mr. Steinman, ever-protective of the material he created, saw it as a woman’s song. The matter escalated to litigation, with Mr. Steinman prevailing. It’s All Coming Back to Me Now was first recorded by the girl group Pandora’s Box in 1989. Meat Loaf eventually recorded the song, but not before Ms. Dion’s best-known version was released in 1996.
Reviews of Ms. Dion’s interpretation were mostly favourable and occasionally ecstatic, except from the Canadian tabloids. The Toronto Sun said it sounded like a “Meat Loaf reject,” which was only half the truth. The Ottawa Sun heard it as “turgid.”
A reviewer for the Vancouver Sun was particularly upset, describing the song as “intensely self-indulgent and pompously self-important.” As if that was a bad thing.
The music of Mr. Steinman was overblown on purpose. There was a market for bombast that he filled marvellously, whether with the Bonnie Tyler hit Total Eclipse of the Heart or on his famous collaborations with Meat Loaf or with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, an epic inspired by the novel Wuthering Heights. If Bruce Springsteen was born to run, Mr. Steinman was born to climb mountains.
Where serious rock operettists Pete Townshend and Roger Waters frowned, Mr. Steinman’s creations were often fun and fanciful. Paradise by the Dashboard Light, for example, is a teenaged FM classic, yet near novelty.
Mr. Steinman was the maestro; the singers he supplied with songs were the life-breathers to his extravagant designs. Sometimes there wasn’t even enough air supply to go around.
Writing for Canada’s Sound Magazine in 1978, former Globe and Mail rock critic Ritchie Yorke sat down with Meat Loaf and his sweet-natured Svengali Mr. Steinman at Toronto’s Harbour Castle hotel. Meat Loaf was on the phone speaking with a journalist other than Mr. Yorke, exasperated as he explained why he toured with oxygen in tow.
“When you put out that much energy, it’s not such a spectacular thing to take oxygen,” he told the unknown interviewer, before slamming the phone down and turning to Mr. Steinman. “Tell me Jimmy, what’s so bizarre about a tank of oxygen?”
The more interesting revelations in the interview are attached to Mr. Steinman. His inspirations, he said, were German romantic music and Little Richard rock ‘n’ roll. “I’d listen to an entire Wagner opera and be totally paralyzed by it,” he explained. “I literally wouldn’t move an inch because I was afraid I might upset something.”
The more he listened to Wagner and the early rock extroverts, he saw a through line.
“The thing is that they both amplified human beings,” he explained. “One of the great uses of art, which I’d only heard talked about as some valuable cultural asset that meant nothing to me, is that it was like taking a pill and you were no longer just a human being.
“I just never thought of rock ‘n’ roll and classical music all that differently – to me they were essentially the same thing.”
For Mr. Steinman, life-sized was too small. Bigger was better, always. “There were nights of endless pleasure,” Ms. Dion sang on It’s All Coming Back to Me Now. “It was more than all your laws allow.”
If you wanted intimacy and quiet contemplation, go to a meadow or a James Taylor show. Mr. Steinman’s music was pure emotion roared from the rooftop with no shame.
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