Extract No. 3 from my new Meat Loaf biography, Like A Bat Out Of Hell, out this week
On paper, Amherst was about as far removed from the countercultural remedy Hair espoused as it was possible to be, but it wasn’t completely immune to the changing times, the sudden arrival of vibe and connectedness, of revolution, daddy. Nowhere in America was and twenty-year-old Jim Steinman was determined to push it, or at least try it on, see how it looked, flaunt it, exploit it. He started small but defiantly weird with a short-lived drama class offshoot group he named Clitoris That Thought It Was a Puppy. Funny, ha, yeah, don’t bogart that joint my friend…
Things got more real when, in March 1968, he wrote the music for an Amherst production of Bertolt Brecht’s modernist play A Man’s A Man, in which the playwright tells the story of a hapless civilian who is transformed into the perfect soldier, exploring human personality as something malleable, interchangeable, that can be picked up and put back together into new shapes like a puzzle, a bigger, more effective machine: a parable that the Pulitzer Prize-winning American critic Walter Kerr described as a ‘curious foreshadowing of the art of brainwashing.’ Jim, the puppet-master in the making, was enthralled by the idea.
He followed that, in May 1968, as director this time of an Amherst production of Michael McClure’s The Beard. The McClure production edged Amherst more explicitly towards the counter-culture. Thirty-five-year-old McClure was a refugee from the Beat Generation of writers, one of the five poets who read at the famous San Francisco Six Gallery reading in 1955 (where Allen Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’), as immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. Since then the poet who Barry Miles famously once described as ‘the Prince of the San Francisco’ had transmogrified into a hippy, counterculture-vulture, giving a reading at the epochal Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in January 1967, befriending Jim Morrison of The Doors, whose bad-dream poetry he indulged, and writing The Beard, a suitably wiggy play built around a what-if meeting ‘in the blue velvet of eternity’ between Billy The Kid and Jean Harlow, with a theme exploring McClure’s ‘Meat Politics’ theory that humans were nothing more than ‘bags of Meat’.
Kenneth Tynan described The Beard as, ‘a milestone in the history of heterosexual art.’ Jim loved its unhinged depiction of the male-female relationship with its almost cliché obscenities and Grand Guignol set pieces, the gloriously spiraling out of control hurricanes of verboten emotions and final, coming together to be torn apart kiss-off. What Variety called ‘a reduction of all male-female spats, courtships, fetishes, etc, to simple animal circling, snarling, sniffing, teasing…’ Exactly the sort of thing Jim liked to write about in his music, to suffuse his own fantasy courtships with, male or female.
Even The Beard was nothing, though, compared to Jim’s plan for his senior year, a musical that would, in his words, ‘make Hair look like Hello Dolly’. The fact that it would count towards his final graduation mark was neither here nor there. Jim’s aims were far loftier than that, and they went beyond simple outrage – any fool with a flower in his or her hair and a bare breast could pull that off. The musical would be called The Dream Engine and it would be the first visit to the interior hinterland that Jim had been cultivating, a place where his fantasies and obsessions could be fully expressed and visualised.
‘I was flunking all over the place,’ he explained. ‘I had to convince the college governors that I could do this project. So I went to see them, and they were very impressed by my idea. But the main guy reaches behind him for this folder and says: “Well, it’s all very interesting this stuff, but we do have to deal with reality. The facts show that you have 19 per cent in physics and 32 percent in calculus. How do you explain this?” I thought… well, I’m basically fucked here. So I said, “I guess I’m better at math’s than I am at sciences”. Then they all broke up laughing, and I’m convinced that’s why they gave it to me.’
The story wasn’t up to much, a simple enough yarn about a character called Baal who falls in with a tribe of kids living a violent and primitive life on the California coast. But the concept and the themes were outrageous and provocative, full of the bullish confidence of privileged, un-wasted youth. Jim told the Amherst College newspaper, The Record: ‘The flower child, sunshine hippie has been replaced with a far more dangerous kind of kid, conditioned by the brutality of assassinations, a war that goes on forever, police riots in Chicago, a political system that refuses to change. American children are being transformed into revolutionaries, willing to fight in the streets if necessary. I think it’s more dangerous to live in Greenwich Village today than to fight in Vietnam. The play tries to reflect that physical and moral danger. This is not, I think, the usual kind of musical.’
Cringe-making though the remark about Vietnam was, The Dream Engine certainly caught the moment exactly as Jim had wished it. Jim took the role of Baal, a character he described as ‘a cross between Che Guevera, Mick Jagger and Billy the Kid,’ and encouraged the director, his classmate Barry Keating, to push hard, ‘using many of the techniques of the avant-garde radical theatre’ to produce something purposefully provocative. ‘It has been a trying experience, from beginning to end,’ Jim explained earnestly in his college newspaper interview. ‘But it has been the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It may offend some people, but I think it will stand on its own as a work of art.’
That is, he hoped it would offend ‘some’ people. The Dream Engine played at Amherst’s Kirby Theatre for four nights from Friday, April 25, 1971 – but it took just one performance for Jim to know that he was onto something. Speaking in 2003, he gleefully described the musical as ‘a three-hour rock epic with tons of nudity, it was everything I dreamed of. It got closed down by the police. Written up in the newspapers. Caused a sensation.’
More important than any of that, though, was the intense reaction the play got from Joseph Papp when he turned up unexpectedly one night – and became so overinvolved he went backstage during the intermission and talked Jim into signing a piece of paper giving the impresario the rights to take the play to his Shakespeare In The Park festival. Fresh from producing Hair on Broadway, Papp, the Shakespeare evangelist, the experimental theatre guru, felt The Dream Engine offered even more potential for helping define the era: these weren’t professional actors dressed up as hippies, these were college students, the real children of the revolution.
‘It was like one of those legendary stories,’ Steinman recalled in 2003. ‘He was in the dressing room and I remember signing the paper, I didn’t know what I was signing,’ he laughed. ‘I just said what the hell, it’s better than going to graduate school studying film. That’s what I was going to do. I also remember we were all nude because the second act was almost all nudity.’ More laughter.
It was the start of a significant working relationship that would last for almost seven years and would underpin every move Jim would make in his career. ‘I identified with [Papp] immediately because he saw no difference between Shakespeare and Hair, basically. It was all theater and I grew up with opera and rock’n’roll and didn’t see any difference… Papp became sort of my surrogate dad. He loved being a mentor to people and he sort of took me in.’
Within an hour or so of his first original musical hitting a stage, Jim had been recognised as an extraordinary talent, his musical universe already fully acknowledged. Indeed, though The Dream Engine would never finally reach New York, Papp’s vision was born out for decades to come as Jim’s musical themes and motifs became obsessive recycled and revisited, expanded and refined. ‘I still think it’s the best thing I’ll ever do and it’s all been downhill from there,’ he would say, not even half-joking.
The story turned on what he later described as ‘a really violent pack of kids running amok n some unnamed Californian city, warring against church and state, cops and baron robbers, ‘basically like the Lost Boys. It was all sort of a science fiction version of Peter Pan – that’s always been my biggest vision. It’s sort of like this huge breast that I suckle on. Everything I take is somewhat related to my Peter Pan vision.’
Every important song he would write would be seeded in this very earliest iteration of his universe. For example a song called ‘Formation Of The Tribe’ contained the line and vocal melody ‘Turn around Bright Eyes’ – the line that would recur throughout so many of his future songs, most memorably for Bonnie Tyler on her earthshattering hit, ‘A Total Eclipse Of The Heart’. What Papp saw immediately was that Jim’s talent was big, but its focus narrow. The return again and again to certain lines and melodies, the constant re-working of those ideas, would characterise the rest of his creative life.
Joseph Papp knew talent when he saw it. He was no fly-by-night chancer. As well as his lifelong passion for Shakespeare, in particular delivering it free to New Yorkers at Shakespeare In The Park, where he had use of the open-air Delacorte Theatre, he’d also worked with almost every major stage actor, and among the new work he delivered to the Public Theatre (which would be named after him upon his death in 1991) were early plays by Tony Award winner David Rabe, and the Pulitzer Prize winners Jason Miller and Charles Gordone. His taste in contemporary theatre was also unsurpassed. After Hair, Papp would oversee first Broadway productions of A Chorus Line and a completely revitalised Pirates of Penzance.
Jim understood the value of the patronage of such a theatrical titan. Not that he always showed it. Jim Steinman was nothing if not singular, a headstrong young maestro who flounced out on several occasions, once goading Papp into throwing an ashtray at his head, but it was Papp that catapulted Steinman from college weirdo to the real-world musical titan in one giant step.