Friday, May 21, 2021

“It was long ago/ and it was far away/ And it was so much better than it is today....”: Deceased Artiste Jim Steinman

I have been a big fan of Jim Steinman’s special brand of rock ’n’ roll melodrama for decades. I wrote about this fascination previously on the blog on the occasion of seeing the Toronto production of his life-long passion project, the dystopian teen sci-fi soap opera/Peter Pan mashup Bat Out of Hell. You can read my piece on Steinman and the show here, but I realized that my second blog post about Jim’s amazingly sincere yet overwhelmingly hammy (and I mean that in a complimentary way) Wagnerian pop-rock, focusing on his big European hit musical Tanz Der Vampires, had to be completely rewritten and updated. This was because the better of the two versions of the show that were on YouTube and had English subs was taken down. 

The one that was left up is derived from the same original video in German that the “departed” vids was generated from — only in this instance, the poster of the remaining videos decided for some inexplicable reason to change the ratio of the video from “flat” to “widescreen,” thus stretching the damned thing visually. The remaining version is incredibly ugly to watch, but it is the only way to see and understand the full original production if you’re not fluent in German.

In discussing the musical, I focus on an earlier production since it was not only recorded more professionally (when I first wrote this, there was also what looked like a fan-shot full-length video of the show on YT — now gone), but the earlier production was closer to the original vision of the show as personally directed by Roman Polanski, who co-wrote and directed the source material, the horror farce The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967). The show began in 1997 in Austria as directed by Polanski, but the subtitled video of it hails from Germany in the early 2000s.

I have mixed feelings about FVR. Polanski’s farces pale beside his brilliant darkly humored pictures (like Bitter Moon). The reworking of the film for Tanz, however, is fascinating in that the stage show takes its characters and situations a bit more seriously — the result, no doubt, of the show running over an hour longer than the film.

The other reason the show is a must-see is that it finds Polanski directing a stage musical scored by the king of pop-rock melodrama, Jim Steinman. As mentioned, I’ve rhapsodized about Steinman before (and noted his difficulties with writing librettos), so I will simply note that, since we never got to see the proposed “video album” for Steinman’s girl-group project “Pandora’s Box” that would’ve been directed by “Unkle Ken” Russell, we can only content ourselves with a Broadway/West End-style musical with Steinman music and Polanski visuals.

As for L’affaire Polanski and the fact that his last two films — Based on a True Story (2017), co-written with Olivier Assayas, and the award-winning (and excellent) J’Accuse (2019) — haven’t come out in the U.S. and won’t for the foreseeable future, it has to be said yet again that one *must* separate the art from the artist or one will only experience art from squeaky-clean hands — and who wants any more Spielberg-Ron Howard-Tom Hanks-Tyler Perry-Marvel movies?

Polanski, Michael
Kunze, Steinman.
As for his participation in this show, the piece was clearly undertaken with visions of Phantom box office receipts dancing in the producers’ heads. Thus, the budget was clearly large enough to indulge Polanski’s gothic impulses. (As for his stage credentials, he did take time out from the cinema to costar and direct productions of Amadeus in ’81 and ’99 in Warsaw, Paris, and Milan.)

The sets are large and the cast is filled with “background vampire” singers and dancers. The key ingredient, though, is Steinman’s music, which, true to form with Jim, consists of songs that he composed for earlier projects, both musicals and pop-rock albums.

The most-heard tune in the piece is “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which is the central vampire’s signature theme and is repeated over and over in the show. Steinman has been quoted as saying that he used the very well-known hit song as a kind of place holder for some other song to be written later. Given that the tune is the central piece of music, I doubt he threw the song in there provisionally.

There is certainly something amazing about hearing Steinman’s Wagnerian pop-rock in German. For decades now he has crafted songs that require singers with “big” voices and a solid vocal range (well… maybe not Air Supply), and his aim was always to write Broadway musicals. Hearing his music in German is a hand-in-glove fit.

Tanz was his first big-budgeted musical to become a hit (it has run in various permutations in Germany over the past 20 years). That’s a chronological distinction, since an earlier collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Whistle Down the Wind, flopped in the U.S. in ’96 but ran for several years in the West End, starting in ’98, a year after Tanz opened in Austria. Steinman’s long-gestating dystopian sci-fi/Peter Pan musical, Bat Out of Hell (which I, yet again, reviewed here), toured around the UK (where it did very well) and North America and only played in NYC as a limited edition run (where that show was cut as well, but nothing new was inserted — the plot was streamlined and songs were removed).

One other individual should very definitely be highlighted here. Michael Kunze wrote the libretto adapting Polanski’s film to the stage. He also wrote the German lyrics, which confirm the show’s status as an “almost operetta,” since the dialogue is minimal and the songs drive the plot entirely. Kunze has written German lyrics for many British and American shows, has had a number of his own hit musicals in Germany, and wrote and produced the disco hit “Fly, Robin, Fly” by Silver Convention (!).

It should be noted that the very short-lived American version of the show starring Michael (“Phantom”!) Crawford had a troubled production and ultimately flopped big-time on Broadway. Steinman was initially hired as co-director, then fired, and he has never spoken well of the show, titled (rather obviously) Dance of the Vampires. By the time of the American failure, Polanski was long gone from the project.

Mr. Steinman and Mr. Loaf.
So here is all of Tanz from its German incarnation. The YT poster has broken it into six segments, each of which has its standout scenes and songs. Note: The English lyrics seen here are completely different from the other set of English lyrics that were posted in the “square” (correct-looking) version of the video. I have no grasp of German, so I can’t tell who did a better job of translation. (I did keep .mp4 copies of the other person’s better-looking videos.)

The first part has an amazing paean to garlic (tongue in cheek, of course) and the first appearance of “Total Eclipse” as the vampire’s signature song. It ends with a very Gilbert and Sullivan-esque song sung by the professor character (played in Fearless Vampire Killers by Jack MacGowran).


The second part has the first big duet between the youthful sidekick of the professor and the daughter of the innkeeper (played in the film by Polanski and Sharon Tate).


The third part leads up to the famed “Jewish vampire” scene, which explains why one character looks like he’s Fagin or a Semitic stereotype. The initial scenes are set in a shtetl, and Polanski and his original co-scipter Gerard Brach provided a nice comedic pay-off to go with that choice of location.


The fourth part, which begins Act Two, starts off with a full performance of “Total Eclipse” and the bravura vampiric nighttime fantasy “Seize the Night.” (A title so good I’d like to attribute it to Steinman, but it surely was Kunze’s contribution.)


The fifth part contains another big ensemble number — “Eternity,” performed by a host of vampires after they exit their coffins.


The sixth part is the finale (bows included), leading up to the big closing number, “Dance of the Vampires.” The song is really “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” an incredibly rousing Steinman song from the Walter Hill film Streets of Fire (1984). It’s a great way to end the show — kinda like Rocky Horror, but as if “Time Warp” was the finale.


So there you have it — the entirety of Steinman’s “lost” (in America at least) gothic vampire musical as scripted/with lyrics by Michael Kunze and directed by none other than Roman Polanski. It’s a shame that the YouTube poster did indeed alter the image so the video looks dreadful all the way through, but perhaps that was the only way to keep it from being taken down? (Since YT’s rules are arbitrary, whimsical, capricious, and absolutely without rhyme or reason. It’s a video-viewing site run by robots that pretends it’s the creation of people.)


Jim and garlic.
As a closer I want to add some items that were not in the preceding posts about Steinman. Three are from his only album, Bad for Good (1981), which is an odd affair — made up of songs that would’ve been on the sequel to Bat Out of Hell that never materialized because of Meatloaf losing his voice (although he used these songs and other Steinman tunes for both Bats 2 and 3). Steinman also doesn’t sing on some of the tracks — the one hit from the album, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through,” was sung by session singer Rory Dodd.

Here, Steinman delivers a Jim Morrison-esque spoken-word piece, “Love and Death and an American Guitar” (although Jim S. was kidding — or at least half-kidding). He had started doing this monologue at Meat Loaf live shows and later re-used it for the EPK of the Original Sin album he wrote and produced for his attempt at a prefab girl group, Pandora’s Box.


The album’s title song, “Bad for Good,” is a classic Steinman tune, with full-blown rock-drama in effect. (And quite corny interpretive dancing in the music-vid.)


The last video from his album is not found on YouTube (no reason why, really) but can be found on Vimeo. He often referred in interviews to the “boner moments” in his songs, where he indicated that the male narrator was getting crazy over his object of desire. Here, Jim not only sings (lip-synch of course) with the ever-lovely Karla De Vito (who took over for Ellen Foley and toured with Meat Loaf, performing back-up vocals and duets from the first Bat LP) — he also dances. (Or something resembling dancing.) This is his silliest epic song (and intended to be so):

I can’t resist closing another tribute to Steinman with the Holy Grail of the music-videos for his songs. No, not “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” This video for a song Jim wrote and produced in 1989 for his girl-group Pandora’s Box (but which became a giant hit for Celine Dion several years later) is directed by none other than Funhouse interview subject Ken Russell.

Steinman and
the Pandora's Box
It is the union of a filmmaker who often went deliriously, deliciously over the top and a songwriter who stayed in that register all the time. (Jim’s oft-stated heroes were Richard Wagner and Little Richard, and clearly many tragic story-songs of the early Sixties.) The video finds “Unkle Ken” (as he liked to be called in his later years) repeating a plot he developed for his contribution to the anthology film Aria (1987), and in the process producing frenzied, stylized visuals that perfectly match Steinman’s words and music.

In a recently posted piece by Sylvie Simmons, Steinman is quoted as saying that Russell “'shot enough footage for a whole porno movie.... The record company,' he added with a grin, was 'horrified.' ” (Jim had a penchant for hyperbole that never failed him.)

The singer, for the record, is Elaine Caswell. And this is a mega-blast of Steinman (and Russell) grandiosity.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

"Praise the Lord With Your Feet!": Deceased Artiste Carman

For close to 25 years now I’ve been paying tribute to Christian kitsch on Easter episodes of the Funhouse TV show. One of the individuals whose work I returned to a lot in the ’90s and a bit of the 2000s was Carman, the Christian pop singer, who died on Feb. 16 at the age of 65. Carman’s music videos were little marvels that contained imagery, tropes, and cliches from music-vids of many different genres (each video seeming to “capture” the genre it was mimicking) and demand repeated viewings.

But who was this guy Carman anyway? Born Carmelo Licciardello, he was a Sicilian-American from Trenton, N.J., who reportedly found Christ at an Andre Crouch concert and then became a proselytizing singer espousing Christian values in his lyrics and performances. (From this point on I’ll use the abbreviation “Xtian,” as it makes things simpler.)

The New Jerseyness generally disappeared from Carman’s public persona — he acquired a Southern accent when preaching, never performed songs that referred to his upbringing (his mother was part of a girl group that often played Atlantic City), and became an all-American presence who was as patriotic as he was Xtian. He was noted as “bringing Vegas to Christian music” but he also, according to his official website, had his own ministry. On the site you can sign up to be a “monthly partner.” (“Our partners are the lifeline of our ministry. Your monthly contribution allows us to win more souls to Christ.”)

He was also clearly a guy who worked out a lot — he appeared muscular and startlingly groomed even shortly after he recovered from a battle with cancer in the mid-2010s. In his songs and videos he often stressed fighting the Devil and depicted it as a physical fight. (An “enforcer” for the Lord, if you will.) Of his four acting roles in feature films, two were self-penned vehicles in which he played a tough guy — the more prominent of the two being Champion (2001), about a boxer who must come back to the ring for one last match (and ends up fighting more fiercely outside the ring – with MMA moves rather than the Marquess of Queensbury).

Rat Pack Carman.
Before I get to the catchy songs/perfect approximations of genre music videos that are Carman’s major legacy, let’s touch on his political side, since that fed into the evangelical tack he took in his religion. The best introduction to this aspect is “Revival in the Land” (a 1990 song), a spoken word piece done in full costume and a Hellscape set. A demon (voiced by Carman) checks in with Lucifer (also voiced by Carman) about how things on Earth are going. He mentions a problem (the spread of Xtianity, of course!), but the Horned One first must query his minion, “Is there something wrong with my abortion clinics?”

The response, “We eliminate human life in the name of convenience” and comparison of abortion to the Holocaust probably was a fusion of Carman’s holy roller adult beliefs and his Sicilian-Catholic upbringing. The video, directed by Stephen Yake (more on him below), is an Xtian Reefer Madness for the George H.W. Bush era. If the propaganda won’t getcha, and the fully styrofoamed Devil figure doesn’t, surely the end explosion will. (Satan’s throne blows up real good.)


Carman’s patriotic side was a strong component of his work. At these moments he would forget about singing — only a sternly-worded lecture would do. In “America Again” (a 1993 song; Carman is credited with writing or cowriting all of the songs from his “boom” period in the ’90s), one of his finest-ever complaint lines gets an airing: “When it gets to the point where people would rather come out of the closet than clean it, it’s the sign that the judgment of God is going to fall!” (I have gloried in that line for years — turning from a metaphor for queer identification to sanitary reality in the deft, deranged turn of a phrase, we learn that the downfall of this country will most assuredly be not only homosexual behavior but also cluttered wardrobes.)


Carman’s concern about people’s gender preference is manifested in depth in an episode of his 1993 series Time 2 (Dir: Stephen Yake, 1993). A full playlist of the episodes on YT can be found here. Most episodes were named after a societal problem — psychics, new age spirituality, single-parent families, drug abuse, cults, “singleness” (!) — and the most politically grounded is homosexuality, in an episode called “Confused Affections.”

Here, although Carman notes that it is possible to “separate the person from the sin,” he also declares that this sin is considered grievous (as illustrated by various Bible passages). In fact, “If God had a stomach, he would vomit at these practices.” The question thus becomes “Is it an alternate lifestyle — or a perverse and deadly sin?”

The buff Carman.
Here we learn about the fact (according to studies unmentioned) that most gay people had “very troubled childhoods.” An interview subject notes how he was called “sissy” and was indeed gay. Now, his lovely wife keeps on the (very) straight and narrow. It is even noted by this ex-gay man (this unbidden by Carman) that, if a naked man were to appear in front of him, he wouldn’t care. Carman closes out his earnestly sincere plaint by noting that gayness can result in a “physical penalty” — from altered speech and mannerisms to diseases like AIDS.

The episode ends with a rather curious footnote — a vignette in which a redneck Good Old Boy is seen crowing to his wife about how he and the local preacher “drove off” these two “light in the loafers… pansies.” We, the audience, realize that his wife thinks what he said is too cruel and against church teachings on loving one’s neighbor. 

But no such thought is expressed — we just see a “isn’t he a silly?” expression cross her face and a Bible quote appears onscreen (“Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother”). Thus, if you know an individual who is not acting Xtian to their neighbor and hating them for some aspect of their personhood — hey, just shrug it off!


Aside from his concerts (which were large, sell-out, stadium affairs in various cities — his website declares that his largest audience was 80,000 people in Chattanooga, Tenn.), Carman’s main vehicle for his pop ministry was the music video. And the best of these are indeed a wonder — as noted above, they not only seem like a performer trying out a “crossover” identity, but they work as encapsulations of the genre in question. If Carman made a country line-dancing video, it was the ultimate line-dancing video (every image, framing, and editing trope you’ve seen in those music-videos). The same for gospel, rock, white-boy rap, movie-soundtrack homages, bubble-gum pop, and even metal.

The young Carman.
The director of all the best of these videos is Stephen Yake, who has a quite lengthy videography of work for Xtian artists. His work with Carman is indeed extraordinary — and, even though I embarked upon showing these videos on the Funhouse TV show in the ’90s as a wise-ass Atheist confronting remnants of his Catholic past, I have always been impressed by Yake’s thorough “inventory of effects” (to quote the Big McLuhan) and the fact that his videos for Carman’s songs might seem like parodies of the genre (in the sense that a video for a Weird Al or Spinal Tap song is), but it was clear that, in each case, Yake would try to “grab” a genre’s music-video images and drop Carman in the middle of them.

A reviewer given to academic interpretations would, of course, call this kind of thing “deconstruction” of a familiar pop culture phenomenon; I will simply say that Yake and Carman knew how to target the demographic for each song. 

And the hooks! You can approach these videos as I do — again, wise-ass, intent on mocking the message of the songs and their visual presentation – but there is no way you won’t end up with these songs engrained in your memory for hours (and perhaps days) after hearing them. Thus, of course, the Xtian songwriter wins the battle, if not the war. Carman did indeed get the last laugh on me in the “hook so catchy you can’t lose the damned thing for a long while” department.

Celebrity Carman.
Case in point: his 1991 lamentation on the loss of prayer in schools, done as a metal song. This tune, credited only to Carman as a songwriter but performed with Xtian metalheads Petra, is basically just a hook with a song built around it. The video features Carman in an eye-grabbing blue suit that jars wildly with the nearly monochrome visuals of the “high school without Christ,” borrowed from any number of those damned metal and even grunge power ballads with little stories in ’em. (Yake puts in a number of evocative touches that would signal “hard rock” even in small snippets on “Beavis and Butt-head.”) 

Warning: You may indeed laugh at the earnestness of this message (again, the morals Carman taught us had a lovely Reefer Madness urgency to them), but you won’t easily discard the ersatz metal heard here.

NOTE: This embed works, but for some reason has no thumbnail.


And skipping straight to the most hook-heavy song Carman ever produced, there’s “Sunday School Rock” (Dir: Yake from this point on, 1993 song). The video is an “American Bandstand”-type 1950s affair, with all kinds of visual steals from Fifties and early Sixties TV clips and movies.

But the song! In an audio commentary with Yake found on YT, Carman notes he wrote it as a memory-aid for kids to remember the books of the Bible that had inspiring messages, but each verse is a little speech set to a catchy beat, with Carman at points reverting to his Sicilian NJ heritage (with tough guy hand gestures, even). The chorus is the dumbest, simplest thing imaginable — and thus it BURNS into the brain. In the commentary video, Carman notes it became a signature song he sang at every concert.


Jumping genres entirely, there’s “Satan Bite the Dust” (1991 song). It’s Carman doing “cowboy music” and acting out a “Sheriff cleans up the town” scenario in a bar setting. Again, Carman and his collaborators decided the hook was all that mattered, so the chorus is “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” with added-in snippets of very familiar Western themes — from The Magnificent Seven and “The Wild Wild West” to, of course, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

The fact that the Muppet-like villain who purveys “false religions” is wearing a turban and playing a foreign-looking stringed instrument is a nasty bit of inter-faith racism. But the catchiness of the tune and the “borrowed” elements make it rewatchable.


Now, onto the inevitable: Carman’s rap white-boy rap music. Here again, Yake reproduces all the visual “cues” for softer rap (think the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff) for a video featuring Carman (in shorts, even!). The lesser of the two Carman vids is “Who’s in the House?” (Answer: “JC!”) where he lets us know that “we’re kickin’ it for Christ!”

That video pales in comparison with “Addicted to Jesus” (1991 song), which Carman performs with the Xtian rap group DC Talk. If you want to take a time trip back to the early ’90s with a music video you’ve never seen before, this would be your ticket to ride. This time Carman wears a purple suit and the visual effects that signal “friendly rap song” flash by in very fast succession. He also dances with the DCT boys, showing off his steps and urging the slack-jawed viewer to “Praise the Lord with your feet!”


Now, the all-out strangest and most colorful video in this whole collection, Slam!” (song: 1998). This time out Yake delivered a powerhouse of strangeness — a video that takes Prince’s “Batdance” song and video and overlays “Rhythm Nation” dancing and imagery out of A Clockwork Orange. I will bet good money (well, at least five bucks) that this is the only Xtian music-vid that references that particular early Seventies classic.

It’s definitely the ultimate collaboration of the Yake-Carman team, since it’s a catchy tune showcased by a delightfully deranged video. This posting of the video has an audience clapping along (with girls cheering for sexy Carman), as it premiered as part of the anti-Halloween Xtian special Halloween 3:16, which Carman posted on YT in its entirety. (A show that really should have a Goth kid following, as it is the kind of thing that made them run away from church imagery and over to the darker side.)

Sample lyric, as the once again pugnacious-for-Christ Carman threatens to beat up the Old Scratch: “In my mind there is no fear/In my mind there is no doubt/Yes, I am that Christian that Hell warned you about!”


And while we’re on the subject of the Devil, one of Carman’s best-known videos is a spoken-word piece in which he, a Jesus-loving man of propriety, meets an evil witch-man (perhaps even… a warlock?) who wants to brag about his Fallen Angel rather than the Big G that Carman is pledged to.

In the piece, the witch — purportedly (per another preacher’s interview, found on YT) based on Isaac Bonewits, the only American to get a BA in Magic, from UC Berkeley (here called “Horowitz” to make him Jewish; Bonewits was an ex-Catholic) — invites Carman over to his stronghold. There Carman sees all manner of Evil Things: horoscope signs on the walls! A crystal ball!! A Ouija board!!! And (in case you needed proof this is the Eighties/Nineties) a “Dungeons & Dragons” book!!!!

The Devil-worshipping, pentagram-wearing, goateed nemesis of our man Carman taunts our hero with a scrapbook containing his accomplishments (including an article about a man dying of AIDS). Carman, naturally, tells off this sick 666-er and dramatically leaves his house. Illustrating once more the desperate Xtian need for the Devil — for if there is nothing to continually and persistently condemn as Evil, how can one continually and persistently show that one is Good? (Bragging rights count, you know.)


Although “Slam!” is probably the single most dazzlingly weird Carman video, I will end on the one that short-circuited my brain. Carman’s video “Mission 3:16” (a 1998 song) is a little mini-movie in which he is a James Bond-like spy called “Agent 3:16” who meets with his “M”-like boss and “Q”-like supplier of top-secret gadgets and weapons, then goes on a mission to topple a villain who is spreading a hopeless message (literally, with video billboards that say “There Is No Hope” and “Life Is Meaningless”) to the people of “the entire country” (which looks like an Eastern republic but is supposed to be America).

His mission is to defeat the villain by tapping into his “network” and supplying a different message. In this music video, the song is a nothing — a bunch of lines about being brave, punctuated by John Barry-like horn trills and Bond guitar chords The video, however, is an all-out action flick in miniature, with car chases, machine gun blasts, fistfights (more of Carman’s beating up evil), outrageous stunts, and elementary fx. The song is so unimportant to the final product that the audio from the chase-fight-defeat narrative nearly drowns it out.

But then – the guest star appears. Agent 3:16 (who never once kisses a woman — this is a very chaste super-spy) finishes off the bad guy and he hears the “message” that he was supposed to spread, as intoned by “Mission Control” (a Presidential seal, followed by a Presidential type in an Oval Office-looking room).

The message is John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world...”), and the messenger is an actual guest star — Tony Orlando! Yes, it’s the man who tied that yellow ribbon, who knocked three times, who ventured into the strawberry patch with Sally. Those who know me know that I have a great affection for Tony’s upholding of the old show-biz “give 110%” attitude toward showmanship and his fanboy appreciation of other artists — his NYC host segments for the Jerry Lewis telethon consisted of him bringing on his favorite artists from his era and later. (I in fact heard about Carman’s death from Tony’s WABC “oldies” show where he announced it and played a Carman song in the mix of Sixties and Seventies hits that have been long missing from NYC radio.)

To have this veteran of the Seventies TV variety show and the Vegas/Atlantic City lounge-nexis show up in a Carman video was without a doubt the ultimate sign that Carman was still, despite his ministry and preaching, an old show-biz type who basically knew, and proved, that packaging — well, it’s everything.