Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Dream Engine Remembered

One evening during the spring of 1969, my boyfriend, Eric, picked me up at Smith College and we drove over to Amherst. He wanted me to see a student production, a musical that had been written and scored by his friend, Jim Steinman, who also had the starring role. I vaguely knew Steinman, as everyone called him. I'd seen him at fraternity parties, sitting in a corner plunking the keys on an old upright piano. With long black hair and a closed-lip smile, he acted awkward and shy around me and other women. His friends seemed to expect great things of him.

The musical, Eric told me, was called The Dream Engine. The sold-out performance had already started, but he thought we might manage to get standing room in the back of the theater and at least see the second act. I would find the show pretty shocking, he warned me, along the lines of Hair. Think full-frontal nudity. I felt a shiver of excitement. I would be part of a genuine happening.

No one paid any attention to us as we entered the theater. We stood just behind the back row of the orchestra. The music was hard rock, melodic and catchy. And the actors on stage were naked. I had no idea what the plot might be, I only knew that suddenly the entire cast was coming off the stage, down the aisles, dancing between the seats, even on seat-backs, giving everyone an eyeful, gyrating to this amazing, pounding music. I was dazzled, convinced that I was in the presence of a creative genius.

Theatrical impresario Joseph Papp thought so, too. He optioned The Dream Engine, intending to put it on at New York's Public Theater. The following fall, Steinman asked Eric to play keyboards in the stage band. By then, Eric and I had broken up, at least for the time being. Eric, who was then a junior at Amherst, took the spring semester off and moved to Stamford, Connecticut, where he shared a house with other band members. Rehearsals began. Steinman proved difficult for Papp to work with, though, and after numerous arguments over creative control, the project was shelved.

But the music for The Dream Engine didn't disappear forever. By the time it re-emerged, in 1977, Eric and I had gotten back together, married, and moved to California, then relocated to Chicago for graduate school. Eric, in his first year of an MBA program at the University of Chicago, thought he might want to work in the record industry, although he found himself increasingly drawn to the new field of strategy consulting. I was almost through my first year of law school at the U. of C. and didn't know what the hell I was doing there. I'd applied to law school in a fit of feminist defiance—if Eric was going to business school, then I'd damn well attend law school! For me, as it turned out, trying to master contracts and civil procedure was like trying to fit a round peg into a very square hole.

As final exams approached, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, vacillating between periods of feverish study and complete collapse, during which I'd lie on the living room couch in a state of total exhaustion. Right at this juncture, a college friend told us that Steinman had come out with an album, Bat Out of Hell, featuring Meatloaf, an enormous and enormously talented recording artist. We immediately went and bought it.

Virtually every cut on the album, we soon realized, was inspired by The Dream Engine music. I couldn't get enough of it. From then on, I spent my sessions on the couch listening endlessly to "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad," "Heaven Can Wait," and all the other overwrought songs. I loved them. Steinman, like me, had grown up on Long Island, and the steamy lyrics about beaches and cars reminded me of my own Saturday nights as a teenager when I'd been "All Revved Up With No Place to Go." The music evoked nostalgia for my college years as well, when I'd felt strong, beautiful, and on my way to doing great things. Though still collapsed on the couch, I now luxuriated in my depression.

Somehow, the music helped me plow through exams. I even worked at a downtown law firm that summer, the round peg of my being only slightly whittled down and re-shaped by the experience. Though I finished law school, I eventually abandoned law for more fulfilling, if not greater, things. But even now, thirty years later, when I listen to Bat Out of Hell, I'm back there on the couch, the musty smell of law books mixing with the soft air of a melancholy Chicago spring.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Barbara - I had no idea of the history of Bat Out of Hell. Thanks for the history lesson and reminder of one of my favorite CDs, ever. I'm pulling it off the shelf now. Cheryl

michael said...

Lots of interesting material here. Would like to hear more. Thanks for the blog.

Anonymous said...

Once again, very evocative and compelling--and such fun to read! Please keep them coming. Judy

Reggie said...

Music and theatre were ways to know your true desires. Loved hearing a story I never heard before.
Law gave you perseverence even though it was not the right choice.