Meat Loaf Was His Own Recipe
Rock ’n’ roll has always had a strong theatrical side, back to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rising from a casket to sing “I Put a Spell On You.”
Jimi Hendrix doused his guitar with lighter fluid and tossed a match on it, probably violating all known fire codes. There was Alice Cooper and Elton John and Madonna. Watch the Beatles’s “All You Need Is Love” video sometime.
And then there was Meat Loaf. Few if any artists have coupled a swelling stage production with melodramatic lyrics like Marvin Lee Aday, a/k/a Meat Loaf, who died Thursday from Covid at the age of 74.
That combo won him millions of fans and helped make his 1977 album Bat Out of Hell one of the best sellers ever, with estimates running up to 44 million copies.
What recording and commercial success didn’t bring was favor with rock historians, writers and critics.
To those folks, he was an overheated novelty act. He will be voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about the same time as the Chipmunks.
Which never tempted him to tamp it down.
“It’s a rock ’n’ roll show,” he said in a 1996 interview. “It should be larger than life. People say my shows are overblown, over the top, and that’s all pretty much true. I sweat like Niagara Falls. I think that goes with doing it right.”
He did, he said, what was necessary.
“When you have the kind of stage training I have,” he said, “it’s drilled into you from the first day, ‘Play to the back of the house.’ So that’s what I do: I play to some invisible wall behind all the people, and I really don’t notice too much in front of that. I’m told that people have taken off all their clothes in the front row and I’ve never seen it. Someone will tell me about it later and I’ll say, ‘Hmmm, sounds interesting, but I didn’t see it.’ I’m not sure my wife always believes me.
“We played to 26,000 people in Denmark with no video screens, and in that case your stage movements have to be enormous to reach everyone. I’m sure the people watching from the front row think I’ve gone absolutely mad.”
That said, he added, at the same time he’s working to “bring the audience in. When I’m singing ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ and I’m in the back seat, I want all 6,000 people in the back seat with me.
“Of course, there are disagreements on how best to do this. I remember arguing for hours at a bar one night with John Belushi over the fact that during Animal House he turns and looks at the camera. That’s an absolutely valid technique that I didn’t think worked there. Obviously he didn’t agree.”
Meat Loaf had an impressive list of pals, and the likes of Cher, Brian May and Mitt Romney took to social media to lament his passing. Cooper called him “one of the greatest voices in rock ’n’ roll.”
His primary collaborator, though, passed away last April: Jim Steinman, who wrote the songs that to much of the world defined Meat Loaf: “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” “I’ll Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).”
Steinman and Meat Loaf were all-in fans of primal rock ’n’ roll. “The greatest rock ’n’ roll lyric of all time,” Meat Loaf said in 1996, “is Little Richard’s ‘wop-bop-a-loo-op-a-lop-bam-boom.’ He’s so excited he can’t even speak.”
He and Steinman also shared the sense that rock ’n’ roll, which the music establishment of the 1950s felt shattered all civilized norms, hadn’t gone far enough.
“I always felt rock and opera had a lot in common,” Steinman said in 1996. “The first time I saw Meat perform, I thought of Wagner. I thought that could make him a rock star. I got a lot of ridicule for that.”
Steinman and Meat Loaf collaborated most successfully on Bat Out of Hell and Bat Out of Hell II, and while they were generally friends all that time, they had some familiar artist/writer interludes.
Steinman took something of the same approach as his production idol, Phil Spector, in feeling that he was the real mastermind of the recordings and artists were instruments. Meat Loaf didn’t always see it that way.
Steinman would jokingly repeat the line that “without Steinman, Meat Loaf would be just another fat guy sweating gravy.”
“Some people have said I can’t really convey a song because I don’t write my own material,” Meat Loaf said. “Well, first of all, I have a lot of input into it. If Steinman or anyone gives me a song, I tell ’em to go back and work on it. But also, to tell me I can’t deliver a song I didn’t write is like telling Robert De Niro he couldn’t play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull because he didn’t write the script.”
If Bat Out of Hell made Meat Loaf a radio star, he had already gotten onto a lot of the same radar screens a year earlier with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
He played Eddie, the ex-delivery boy who sings “Hot Patootie” before coming to an unfortunate end and having his remains possibly repurposed as someone else’s dinner.
Many of the fans who sang along on the Bat Out of Hell tour joined a similar audience chorus at midnight Rocky Horror shows: “Oh, no, not meat loaf again!”
Bat Out of Hell was reportedly turned down by pretty much every major record company because no one knew where it fit into music biz marketing categories. Its success showed, once again, that fans are more interested in the music than the marketing slots.
In the end, though, remnants of that original question lingered over Meat Loaf himself. Lots of people loved him. He was embedded in the sound of a generation. Where exactly he fit in the larger music picture was less clear.
But there are at least three things we do know about Meat Loaf:
1. His biggest irritation, he said, “is people who spell Meat Loaf as one word.”
2. As a major baseball fan, he originally wanted to call the third Bat Out of Hell album The Final At-Bat.
3. For years, second references to Meat Loaf in New York Times stories read “Mr. Loaf.”
Oops, that third one turns out to be an urban myth. The Times only referred to him that way once, in a headline, as a joke.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.