Sunday Pages: Three by Jim Steinman

“Paradise by the Dashboard Light," “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Dear Reader,

I first heard “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” on a school bus in 1989. It was the second track on a mixed tape borrowed from my friend Leigh Ann, who was a year ahead of me in school and light years ahead of me in musical taste, and it blew me away.

Most rock songs use some variation of the same underlying song structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus. Sometimes instead of a bridge there’s a rousing guitar solo; in the 21st century, the guitar solo has been replaced by a rap sequence. Almost always, the song is finished in three and a half minutes, maybe four, to make it radio-friendly.

“Paradise by the Dashboard Light” scoffs at all of this. Over eight and a half extravagant minutes, the song modulates from section to section, none exactly the same. The chorus isn’t really a chorus. And instead of a guitar solo or a rap, there is an extended funky break-out sequence featuring longtime Yankees radio announcer Phil Rizzuto. It is a mini-opera, basically, about the glorious night long ago when the narrator lost his virginity, and the all-consuming regret he’s had ever since—Faust in a Ford.

After an anguishing back and forth with his paramour, who insists that he marry her and “love her ‘til the end of time” before further hanky-panky ensues, he accepts the terms, leading to the ironical end of the song (do I need to give a SPOILER ALERT warning about something enormously popular that dropped in 1977?):

I couldn’t take it any longer,
Lord I was crazed,
And when 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 to the end of time.
I swore that I would love you to the end of time.

So now I’m praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive,
Cuz if I gotta spend another minute with you,
I don’t think that I can really survive.
I’ll never break my promise or forget my vow,
But God only knows what I can do right now!
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.

That would be good enough, a snappy ending to the story, but during the long outro, he repeats another line that makes us look wistfully at the entire event. You used to see this quoted in high school yearbooks:

It was long ago, and it was far away,
And it was so much better than it is today.

This adds a whole new layer of complexity to the story, a nostalgic sort of sadness to what had been something almost silly.

“Paradise by the Dashboard Light” is the seventh and penultimate track on 1977’s Bat Out of Hell, one of the best-selling albums of all time—over 50 million copies sold, despite being rejected by every record label under the sun. And while that album is attributed to Meat Loaf, the singer and front man, all of the music was written and arranged by Jim Steinman, who passed away in April.

Steinman’s songs are long, indulgent, bombastic, heart-on-your-sleeve, nakedly emotional, sentimental without being cheesy. “Most people don’t like extremes,” he said. “Extremes scare them. I start at ‘extreme’ and go from there.” Influenced by musical theater and opera, his songs demand virtuoso vocal performance. And they have singularly great titles. Incorporating the sacred and the profane, the low and the high, while evoking just the right amount of mystery, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” may not be the best song title ever, but there aren’t any that are better.

While he gave the world a catalogue of great music, there are, in my mind, a power trio of Steinman songs that are the crown jewels—three of my favorite songs of all time. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” is one. Another is “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” which gets short shrift because it is recorded by Air Supply, a superb soft rock band that is nevertheless easy to make fun of. (Like, when Russell Hitchcock sings, “I can make all the stadiums rock,” we suppress a chuckle, because, I mean, he can’t; he’s the lead singer of Air Supply!). The bridge contains some of the most searing love-song lyrics ever put to paper:

Every time I see you, all the rays
Of the sun are streaming through the waves
In your hair. And every star in the sky
Is taking aim at your eyes
Like a spotlight.
The beating of my heart is a drum,
And it’s lost,
And it’s looking for a rhythm like you.
You can take the darkness at the pit of the night,
And turn into a beacon burning endlessly bright—
I’ve got to follow it—
Cuz everything I know,
Well, it’s nothing ‘til I give it to you.

The third Steinman masterpiece is “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” recorded in 1983 by Bonnie Tyler. If it’s true that he came up with amazing titles and then wrote lyrics to support them, well, he knocked this one out of the park:

Together we can take it to the end of the line.
Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time.
I don’t know what to do, and I’m always in the dark.
We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks. . .

Once upon a time I was falling in love,
But now I’m only falling apart.
There’s nothing I can do—
A total eclipse of the heart.
Once upon a time there was light in my life,
But now there’s only love in the dark.
Nothing I can say—
A total eclipse of the heart.

And so it is when a genius like Jim Steinman leaves us: the light goes out a little.

This is late for a eulogy, I realize. The truth is, I intended to write a Steinman tribute in April, I knew what I was going to write about in April, I didn’t write about it in April—but, you know, two out of three ain’t bad. RIP.


Programming note: There will be no new columns or podcast episodes the week of Thanksgiving (i.e., this week) or Christmas. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Photo credit: Bonnie Tyler, on promo package for “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”