It was 1997, I was fourteen, and life had just become completely unmanageable. Aside from the universal pressures of entering high school, slowly consolidating that whole puberty experiment (Conclusion: not great; worth it), and whatever-else-have-you, there was in that year another demon of seemingly universal scope, and that unholy behemoth was Titanic.
Titanic was everywhere. The movie itself was in theaters for what seemed like forever, eventually grossing over two billion dollars at the box office. Two billion dollars. People lined up to see that three-hour-and-fourteen-minute movie multiple times. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, but man. The print campaign put Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet on every magazine cover in America. Hell, Kathy Bates and Billy Zane probably even snagged a couple. But more importantly to our present conversation, Céline Dion’s version of the soaring James Horner-penned love theme, “My Heart Will Go On,” was inescapable.
|"THESE ARE BUT TWO OF MY GRAMMYS, MORTAL."|
The song is an undeniably gorgeous ballad that Dion knocked way, way out of the park — I’m not going to deny that now — but as a young male teenager, I didn’t want to hear it. In fact, I made it a point not to hear it. Even in late high school, I can remember priding myself on the fact that I’d never heard it all the way through. I was ready to have that carved on my tombstone. It wasn’t an easy feat, because it meant talking people into changing the channel in their car, leaving the room when it came on, and, of course, not watching Titanic, which was, okay, probably the easiest part for a teenage boy. But ironically, none of this was as disturbing to me at the time as the fact that — despite my associative hatred for all things Céline — I couldn’t shake the magnetism of her previous hit, “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.” It was so powerful, just thunderously, pulse-poundingly powerful, and the songwriting behind it was pure theater. Needless to say, I had to keep my feelings about the song very close to the vest.
Fast-forward ten years, I’m listening to it, and it dawns on me: I know why I love this song. It’s a goddamn Meat Loaf song. Yeah yeah, whatever, Céline Dion sings it, but holy shit, what a Meat Loaf song. I had made this mistake before: as a kid, I remember not knowing that John Mellencamp and Meshell Ndegecello’s 1994 version of “Wild Night” was a cover. As an adult, I was speaking with a friend one day about my distaste for Mellencamp, and he said “I liked that one song, ‘Wild Night,’” and in a flash, it dawned on me that it was clearly a Van Morrison cover. I’d never thought about it before, but it was so obvious that I suggested the possibility to my friend, and he said “Huh, really? Wait– yeah, I hear it. You’ve gotta be right. Oh, god, yeah, that’s…yes. Yes. Okay, you’re right, Mellencamp’s best song is a cover enhanced by the presence of a superior musician in Ndegecello. Conceded.”
|Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman|
What most listeners might not know is that there are officially three versions of the song: one in 1989 by Pandora’s Box, an all-female group that Steinman put together for the express purpose of performing the song; Dion’s (most popular) version from 1996; and, finally, finally, a version by Meat Loaf, featuring Norwegian songstress Marion Raven, from 2006. Though the song was undeniably written for Meat Loaf (Just listen to it. C'mon.), Steinman had to legally prevent Meat Loaf from recording it. Steinman claimed for years that it was only to be sung by a female; Meat Loaf countered that it should be performed as a duet. In 2006, for the greater good of mankind, Steinman caved, and so we have three versions of the song, each different, each wonderful, complete with an appropriately dated music video to anchor us. You ready? Get ready.
Dear, sweet Pandora’s Box. How did you have the weirdest, most memorable video, and the most unfortunate version of the song? It’s not your fault: you weren’t Céline Dion. You weren’t even Meat Loaf. You didn’t have the financial backing either of them muster. As a result, the video for the Pandora’s Box version came out as a low-budget, high-concept Satanic-biker-BDSM nightmare, with flaming sculptures made of motorcycle wreckage and leather-bound dancers enacting softcore fetish material. Snake-handling. Ritualistic acupuncture. Studded leather orgies. A galloping white thoroughbred. A whole ton of flames. Eddie Martinez guitar solos.
Wait, who’s Eddie Martinez? I’m so glad you asked. For those of you not in the know, Eddie Martinez is a legendary guitar masturbator famed for his eighties session work. You know the phenomenal camp shredding on “Rock Box” and “King of Rock” by Run-D.M.C.? Holler at your boy. You bring Eddie Martinez onto a project, and it cements you directly in the worst, most decadent eighties metal sound you can imagine. So, you know, incredible. And terrible. And incredible. The Pandora’s Box version of the song has all the pomp and circumstance Steinman could write into it, but perhaps the Martinez inclusion says it all. We can see your talent, and you’ve chosen some good material for the garment, Pandora’s Box, but we’re concerned about your taste level. That said, the video is worth watching for the WTF factor, and, of course, the source material for the song rules.
Thankfully, Steinman eased up on the controls long enough to let one of the world’s top singers take a crack at his baby. This is the version we’ve all heard, so I’ll keep my comments on the performance itself to a minimum. I have one major thought about this version, and it revolves largely around the incongruity between the music video and the song itself. Namely, we’ve got one of the most powerful (known) female voices in the world singing an unfathomably romantic (and, I’d argue, Romantic, if you wanna get highfalutin’ and artistic about it) song, and the video is immeasurably cheesy and theatrical in the worst sense of the word. I’m talking “hunky man crashing his chopper in a thunderstorm, only to return as a hunky-man-ghost riding a ghost-motorcycle through the halls of Céline Dion's mansion” cheesy.
The tone is completely different than the other two versions in a significant way, due to Dion’s power and range. Dion shows very little vocal vulnerability until the very end of the song, and then only momentarily. As opposed to the dark and surreal quality of the Pandora’s Box version, Dion’s song is largely triumphant, because, of course, the story of every Céline Dion song is that she’s a staggeringly talented woman with a supernatural voice who gets what she wants. Even though her hunky-man-ghost is destined to remain an apparition that she can only occasionally make out with, she seems to come to grips with the fact that her memories — and the entertainment of occasional candle-lit flashbacks in her beautiful mansion at dusk — ultimately made the affair worth it, despite its tragic end.
Meat Loaf and Marion Raven
That is not the case for the Meat Loaf version. Prepare yourself, because I’m about to take something people probably think of as very shlocky very seriously. I’ll start with the song itself. Meat Loaf, I believe, correctly argued that “It’s All Coming Back” should be a duet, and he did so all over this song. Marion Raven’s sharp and clear voice is a wonderful companion to Meat Loaf’s soul and strength. I think a lot of people are of the incorrect opinion in regard to Meat Loaf. The operatic vibrato he applies to his voice on the long notes in this song, and the delicacy and vulnerability in his voice when he rises in the first chorus are deeply emotive and affecting (“It’s so hard to be-lieve” at 1:25 is a chest-caver). He’s not a simple crooner or bellower, though we’ve all obviously heard him burn down a rock and roll number like he was born to it, because he was, in fact, born to it. But what was once a quasi-facetious play-up of over-the-top crooning in the late seventies for Meat Loaf revealed a capability that he’s molded into a passionate, unique vocal persona, and it comes out beautifully in his duet with Raven.
As for the video, it’s by far the strongest of the three. Now, this is not a huge accomplishment, because the other two are, as argued, trash. This video is not. This video quite recognizably means something and carries an actual, realized message. It opens with a visibly distraught Meat Loaf confronting both material and ghostly apparitions of the object of his love in a beautiful mansion. We are made to understand that this woman has died, and that he is followed by the memories of their passion. The implication made by the video is rather poignant: his love, played by the young, pretty Raven, is shown late in the video to have died in a car crash, speeding recklessly, all tears and running eyeliner, presumably distraught over some argument the two had. It would be harrowing enough if this was meant to be a straightforward depiction of a recent event: the aging gentleman loses his much-younger companion in a tragic accident. However, if you accept the distance between their ages (Meat Loaf is old enough to be Raven’s father) as evidence of the time that has passed since her death, rather than indicating a May-December romance (her apparition remains the age they were when she lost her life, while his living body ages), then you’ve got a man pushing sixty who lives alone, haunted for decades by the memory of his loss.
Now, about this mansion where Meat Loaf resides: whereas the mansion seemed an arbitrary setting in the Dion video — just a space large enough for the singer to run around with her dress cascading behind her and a motorcycle to rip through — in the Meat Loaf version, it takes on a symbolic significance. A house of any size would become an empty, cavernous mansion in the absence of that love that once inhabited it. The moment at the end where Meat Loaf vulnerably sings into a mirror bearing Raven’s reflection: “If you forgive me all this/If I forgive you all that/We forgive and forget/And it’s all coming back to me” becomes a soul-shattering moment where Meat Loaf's heartbroken character makes it very clear that he blames himself for her death. Tragically, she's gone, and there's no chance to receive that forgiveness, or for her to come back to him, which are two desires so great that he literally envisions her moving around within the confines of his lonely, reclusive world. The song becomes more than an ode to romantic memory; it transforms into a cautionary tale about how life is too short and fleeting to allow yourself to hurt someone you love.
This is how this song should be remembered and appreciated, and perhaps the most interesting thing is, there’s no evidence that Jim Steinman himself has wrapped his head around that. Perhaps he doesn’t need to: Céline Dion scored an enormous hit with his song — her album containing the hit sold thirty million copies worldwide — and he got what he wanted — a powerful, female-fronted version of his attempt to write “the most passionate, romantic song” of which he was capable. On his personal website in 2006, around the time of the Meat Loaf version, Steinman made his intentions known: “It's about obsession, and that can be scary because you're not in control, and you don't know where it's going to stop. It says that, at any point in somebody's life, when they loved somebody strongly enough and that person returns, a certain touch, a certain physical gesture can turn them from being defiant and disgusted with this person to being subservient again. And it's not just a pleasurable feeling that comes back, it's the complete terror and loss of control that comes back. And I think that's ultimately a great weapon.”
Fair enough: the artist is allowed to cast their own intentions as the true meaning behind their art. But truly great songs often have an afterlife outside of what their creator intended and additional meanings that may derive from others’ involvement in their artistic process. "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" is one of those great songs.