Jim Steinman — the creative genius behind Meat Loaf’s hit album “Bat Out of Hell” — would have turned 75 today.
It has been a historic fall for his legacy.
Last month saw the 45th anniversary of that groundbreaking 1977 album, one of the best-selling of all time. After brewing for decades, “Bat Out of Hell: The Musical” hit the Las Vegas strip. An international tour is even planned starting this winter. And Steinman’s elaborately gothic house in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the lyricist and composer spent his last 20 years, is on the market for $5.5 million, with his possessions — and piano — included.
When Steinman died last year at age 73, after years of declining health, I was especially charmed by a photo showing him and Meat Loaf, both looking like schlubs. Steinman wore those ubiquitous Adidas sneakers, white with green stripes. I had those sneakers back in the day. We all did!
So I went on a hunt to find out about the mastermind behind Meat Loaf’s songs, and learned that Steinman spent years living in my Manhattan neighborhood before he left the city. I patched together as much of his early housing history as I could, and took a self-guided walking tour of his Upper West Side dwellings — which gave me a peek into his humble New York beginnings.
Before heading to the city, however, Steinman grew up mostly in a big house in Hewlett Harbor on Long Island. He then started at Amherst College in Massachusetts as a 17-year-old — that iconic rock and roll age — assigned to the top and fourth floor of Stearns Hall.
“At Amherst, there were a lot of gregarious overachievers and then there was this completely reclusive, introverted, eccentric guy,” said his friend Frederick Baron, who lived down the hall.
“Jim was a force of complete chaos,” Baron told me. “He was vibrating off the walls having to live in a small space with a roommate. He was up all night typing loudly.”
Steinman was soon able to ditch the roommate and wrangle a single room vacated by a Korean student with culture shock.
“Jim’s passion for opera rubbed off on me,” said the erstwhile roommate, Alan Blum, now a prominent anti-tobacco doctor. “We were both preoccupied with flunking the required physics and calculus courses.”
(Both men were later awarded honorary doctorates from their alma mater.)
Steinman emerged at night, with escapades that drew crowds. “People would stop by at Steinman hour to hear the Steinman show,” Baron said. “Jim was profoundly witty and penetrating. Nobody had ever seen anything like this.”
In his later college years, he lived down the hall from Raymond Teller of Penn & Teller, and also in the suite-style social dorms. He held forth at his friends’ frat house and at the college snack bar where the theater crowd gathered.
“Jim was the greatest raconteur ever,” his classmate Barry Keating said. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘smart’ because that is not big enough. He knew everything there was to know about music.”
Joseph Papp, the founder of the Public Theater, hired Steinman — so after his 1969 graduation, he headed for New York and shared an apartment in the far East 80s with Larry Dilg, another school friend.
The two soon moved to a back apartment in a walkup building on far West 102nd Street. Dilg and his then-girlfriend had the bedroom/piano room, while Steinman had a mattress on the floor of the other room. He ate mostly spaghetti.
“It was darker than Hades and looked out on an airshaft and there was never anything in the refrigerator except something going bad,” said Mimi Kennedy, Dilg’s wife.
The couple made a delightful video of their early days with Steinman and Meat Loaf. “Jim loved an audience,” Kennedy said. “He was so much fun.”
Sometime before 1977, Meat Loaf helped Steinman move to his own walkup on far West 89th Street.
Meat Loaf himself lived on the park block of West 74th Street, where backup singer Rory Dodd, who immortalized the phrase “turn around, bright eyes,” crashed on his sagging couch and quipped that his back was never the same.
I stood reverently outside each building, peering into the vestibules. All are small, nondescript rowhouses of the type that line the neighborhood’s side streets. Inside, they’re still nothing special.
In fact, a 1997 Washington Post interview with Steinman referred to “the dumps he rented when he first moved to Manhattan in the early ’70s.”
But you never know what magic might be happening within their walls.
Around 1980, Steinman upgraded to a two-bedroom co-op he bought from Gene Simmons of Kiss, on the penultimate floor of a postwar tower in the West 60s off Central Park. A building handyman remembered visits from Cher and from Kiss, unrecognizable without makeup.
Steinman sold that co-op in 2006, a few years after he had decamped to a Putnam County house he rented, where he and his cats lived while the now-for-sale Ridgefield house was being expanded.
By now, his taste was ornate. That Ridgefield house encompassed 6,000-odd square feet of dark wood, eerie sculptures and all-around gothic glory. Much of the quirky artwork is by artists from Bayreuth, Germany — home of Steinman’s operatic soulmate, Richard Wagner. A balcony overlooks the vast performance space, which holds his Yamaha G3 conservatory grand piano. The many closets remain stuffed with his clothes.
“The house was Jim’s baroque, Wagnerian, Cotswold vision,” his manager David Sonenberg said. “It is almost like a museum, mystical and beautiful. It is uniquely grown out of Jim’s imagination.”
Though he loved meeting fans, Steinman was shy and reclusive — a true homebody, said Jacqueline Dillon, his good friend and aide-de-camp for 30 years, who runs his website, jimsteinman.com.
“He liked the comfort of his own home,” she said. “He let his art do the talking. His songs are timeless. His music is everywhere.”
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.