“An Erotic Motorcycle”: The Surprisingly Surreal Subtext Behind Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”

It involves Peter Pan, the Emily Brontë novel ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and Meat Loaf.
Celine Dion performing in 1997.
Celine Dion performing in 1997. / Kevin.Mazur/GettyImages

Celine Dion is about as mainstream as it gets—nobody associates the Canadian queen of adult-contemporary ballads with Gothic literature, experimental theater, or motorcycle-based eroticism. But maybe we should have, because in 1996, Dion released her mega-selling version of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” a spectacularly overwrought love song that’s rooted in all of the above.

“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” could only be the work of one man: Jim Steinman, the rock composer—songwriter isn’t nearly a strong enough word—best known for penning all of Meat Loaf’s biggest hits, as well as Bonnie Tyler’s immortal ’80s karaoke fave “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Steinman, who died in 2021 at the age of 73, was obsessed with vampires (the inspiration for “Total Eclipse”), Peter Pan, adolescent lust, Phil Spector, motorcycles, leather, serial killers, and the intersection of Broadway and rock ‘n’ roll. He left behind a massive catalog of humongous-sounding songs, none more Steinman-esque than “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” an epic power ballad with three notable versions, two wild music videos, and one legendary backstory.

Broadway to ‘Bat Out of Hell’

By rights, Jim Steinman should have been born in some Transylvanian castle shrouded in fog and ringed by circling bats. But he was actually from Long Island, New York, where he grew up in a well-to-do family with a father who owned a Brooklyn steel distribution warehouse.

Jim Steinmann, carla devito
Jim Steinman in 1978. / Ron Pownall Photography/GettyImages

In high school, Steinman was a National Merit Scholarship finalist—though in Steinman’s version of events, he didn’t spend a lot of time studying. While attending Amherst College, he made up for his lackluster academic performance by writing The Dream Engine, a rock musical about “a conspiracy by the government, business and the military to control the nation’s youth by medicating them and suppressing their emotions,” according to The Washington Post, during his senior year in 1971.

The Dream Engine caught the attention of theater bigwig Joseph Papp, who hired Steinman to produce the show as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival. The musical never actually reached the stage, despite talk of David Bowie playing the lead, and somewhere along the way, Steinman completely reworked the show, incorporating plot elements from Peter Pan. Steinman called the new musical Neverland, and he workshopped the production in 1977 at the Kennedy Center.

By this time, Steinman had met and formed a creative partnership with Michael Lee Aday, a.k.a. Meat Loaf, a beefy Texas native who had grown up playing football before discovering his talent for musical theater. Meat Loaf found his way to New York City in the early ’70s and played the lead role in More Than You Deserve, a 1973 musical Steinman composed the music and co-wrote the lyrics for. Steinman and Meat Loaf later toured together in The National Lampoon Road Show, for which Steinman served as musical director.

Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf
Meat Loaf And Steinman. / Michael Putland/GettyImages

Neverland fizzled out because Steinman and company had trouble getting the rights to the Peter Pan material in the show. In a 1978 interview with Gallery Magazine, Meat Loaf claimed that he “freaked out” one day and told Steinman he needed to decide whether Neverland was going to be a show or an album. With some heavy modifications, it wound up being the latter: Meat Loaf’s 1977 debut Bat Out of Hell, a surprise blockbuster that spent 82 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart and included the Top 40 singles “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night),” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”

“An Erotic Motorcycle”

The partnership between Steinman and Meat Loaf faltered in the early ’80s, as Meat Loaf struggled with the demands of stardom and suffered a “psychosomatic” loss of his famous operatic voice. The duo’s planned follow-up, Renegade Angel, became the Steinman solo project Bad for Good. That album wasn’t a colossal hit—it stalled at no. 63 on the Billboard 200—but Steinman racked up monster chart successes with Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.”

Meatloaf performing in 1978.
Meatloaf performing in 1978. / Ron Pownall Photography/GettyImages

Along the way, Steinman never abandoned Neverland, and it’s possible he wrote “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” with the long-gestating show in mind. (According to a 2007 Toronto Star article, Steinman also penned the song as a “tryout” for the lyricist job on Broadway titan Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Sunset Boulevard.) What’s certain was that Steinman was inspired by Emily Brontë’s 1847 Gothic novel Wuthering Heights, one of Steinman’s favorite books.

“This song is an erotic motorcycle,” Steinman said. “It’s like Heathcliff digging up Cathy’s corpse and dancing with it in the cold moonlight. You can’t get more extreme, operatic or passionate than that.” Heathcliff and Cathy are characters in Wuthering Heights, but there’s no such scene in the book. Which of course doesn’t matter—Steinman was after something gothier than goth, more intense and moody than even Emily Brontë could have imagined.

“I was trying to write a song about dead things coming to life,” Steinman said. “I was trying to write a song about being enslaved and obsessed by love, not just enchanted and happy with it. It was about the dark side of love and about the extraordinary ability to be resurrected by it once dead.”

Pandora’s Box

Seven years before Celine Dion took a crack at the song, Steinman recorded the original version of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” with Pandora’s Box, a girl group he assembled featuring Ellen Foley, the female voice on Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Foley doesn’t take the lead on “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” though. The honor went to group member Elaine Caswell, a New York City session vocalist who got a crash course in Steinman’s infamous perfectionism. Steinman made Caswell sing the song over and over again, to the point where she fled to the bathroom in exhaustion.

A song this big demanded over-the-top visuals, and Steinman enlisted Ken Russell, the filmmaker behind the big-screen adaptation of The Who’s Tommy, to direct the music video. Shot in London, the clip centers on the erotic fantasies of a woman who’s just been in a motorcycle crash, and it’s wild stuff: There’s fire, interpretive dance, pagan ritual, and an orgy featuring dudes in leather chaps.

But something happened between Steinman and Pandora’s Box’s label, Virgin Records, and the group’s debut album, Original Sin, never came out in America. “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” peaked at No. 51 in the UK and disappeared from the charts after four weeks.

Celine On the Scene

Caswell was crestfallen in 1996 when she heard superstar Celine Dion singing “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” on the radio. Dion recorded the song for her fourth English-language album, Falling Into You, and while the Canadian diva was a year away from her Titanic world-beater “My Heart Will Go On,” she was already a staple of pop radio thanks to hits like “The Power of Love.” Steinman was so invested in Dion’s recording of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” that he ponied up his own cash after the sessions went four times over budget. (This was nothing new—he’d also spent $1 million of his own money on the failed Pandora’s Box album.)

Celine Dion
Celine Dion performing in 1996. / Tim Mosenfelder/GettyImages

“I would hear the downbeat of the song, and I’d be in a taxi and I’d just start crying,” Caswell told the CBC. She wasn’t the only one miffed about Dion’s cover. Meat Loaf told Billboard in 2006 that he’d wanted to record “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” for his Steinman-produced 1994 comeback album Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, which yielded the unlikely chart-topper “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” Meat claimed that Steinman promised him he could record the song for the next Bat album, and that he was blindsided when Steinman gave the song to Dion. As per The Washington Post, Steinman believed the song should be sung by a woman, and he was so adamant that he won an injunction to prevent Meat Loaf from recording the tune.

Regardless of the behind-the-scenes drama, Dion’s version of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was inescapable on pop radio in 1996. And it was all over VH1 thanks to a cinematic music video directed by Nigel Dick, who’d shot clips for Guns N’ Roses, Tears for Fears, and Oasis. Dick filmed in a palace in Prague, and while there’s no orgy scene, the video does feature a fiery motorcycle crash.

Around 1997, Steinman included “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” in his treatment for Bat Out Of Hell 2100, the latest iteration of his Neverland idea. It’s presented in the script as a duet between Peter and Wendy.

The “Definitive Version”?

Meat Loaf finally got the chance to record “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” for 2006’s Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose, the final installment of the trilogy. He recorded the album with famed Bon Jovi and Aerosmith producer Desmond Child after a court battle with Steinman, who wasn’t involved with the project, though seven of the songs are his compositions. Meat Loaf told Channel NewsAsia that Steinman’s health prevented him from working on the album. (Steinman’s manager told Billboard that health wasn’t a factor in Steinman’s nonparticipation.)

“I’m not getting any younger. So, I couldn’t wait,” Meat said. “I had to make a decision: Did I have five years to wait until Jim Steinman got healthy enough to do this record—especially since Bat Out of Hell albums are very physically demanding?”

Meat Loaf recorded “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” with Norwegian singer Marion Raven and felt theirs was the “definitive version,” since, in his estimation, the song was always meant to be a duet. Meat’s music video is the most restrained of the three, though it does feature freaky masks reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut. The single missed the charts in America but reached No. 6 in the UK.

It Keeps Coming Back to Us

Roughly 50 years after he began developing the idea, Steinman finally brought his Peter Pan saga to the stage in 2017, when Bat Out of Hell: The Musical debuted in Manchester, England. The show was filled with Steinman hits, including, naturally, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” Short stints followed in London, Toronto, and New York City, marking the final productions of Steinman’s lifetime.

Steinman died in April 2021 after suffering a stroke several years earlier. Meat Loaf—who wasn’t involved with the show—died in January 2022 at the age of 74. Later that same year, Bat Out of Hell: The Musical opened at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas. It closed on January 1, 2023, after just 12 weeks. Tours of the UK, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand were planned for 2023.

Even if the musical never becomes a box-office smash, Steinman’s songs will live on. “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” received the Glee treatment in 2012, and it’s been on numerous TV singing shows, including That’s My Jam, where Ariana Grande wowed the crowd (and Jimmy Fallon) by going full Celine. In 2019, Celine herself sang it with James Corden during one of the late-night host’s “Carpool Karaoke” segments.

“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” is a fun song to over-emote on and get hammy with, but it’s worth remembering there’s real darkness in Steinman’s lyrics. The song’s narrator hints at some terrible experiences with their ex-lover (“There were those empty threats and hollow lies”), but once the two reconnect and embrace, they’re right back where they started, for better or worse.

“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,” Steinman said. “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.”