Just like the lunchroom staple for which he's named, Meat Loaf is a mixture of many elements. The one he seems to prefer is rebellion: By way of explaining the course of his career to date, the once-rotund retro rocker says, "I've always swum upstream."
Born in Texas, the former Marvin Lee Aday owes his past and current success to both his facility with a backbeat and his background on Broadway. The young actor/singer made his first major theatrical appearance in the 1969 production of Hair and eventually won roles in more than twenty Broadway and off-Broadway productions. His credits range from extravagant musicals to plays put on by Joe Papp's Public Theater.
In spite of his experience, Meat Loaf doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a thespian. "I've never been an actor who decided he wanted to do rock and roll," he claims, "and I wasn't a rock-and-roll guy who wanted to be an actor, a la Bruce Willis and a few others." During the period when he was performing Shakespeare in Central Park in the daylight hours before donning black leather and sunglasses for midnight gigs at Max's Kansas City, he continues, "Both sides thought I was completely nuts." His fellow musicians ribbed him about the Edwardian ruffles, tights and (his phrase) "bad golf pants" he was required to wear when essaying the Bard, while security officers at highbrow venues often refused to let him in the door.
This double life finally paid off in 1974, when Mr. Loaf was chosen to personify the ill-fated Eddie in the original production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; he played the character again the following year in the film of the same name. Then, in 1977, Meat Loaf burst like an airbrushed Harley into the international musical consciousness with Bat Out of Hell, a collaborative effort with his Great White Way crony, songwriter Jim Steinman. Although it was released during the punk explosion (and savaged by critics), the album spawned three Top 40 singles--"Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth" and "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," which featured vocals by onetime Mick Jones paramour Ellen Foley and a play-by-play by New York Yankees great Phil Rizzuto. To date, more than 25 million copies of the recording have been purchased worldwide--and according to The Guinness Book of World Records, Bat is the longest charting album of all time. In Britain, it is still on the roster of top-selling albums.
Meat Loaf is clearly proud of this achievement, and he gets a little hot when talking about a current Time-Life history-of-rock collection that includes a liner-note reference to his "unlikely" rise to superstardom. The only reason for this label, the singer surmises, is his size: When Bat was going through the roof, he tipped the scales at 300 pounds. This statement, then, sounds less to him like insightful journalism than it does an example of prejudice against people with a condition over which some have no control.
Although Meat Loaf is now a relatively svelte 235 pounds, many observers would call his current comeback even less likely than his initial success. Meat Loaf would not concur: "I never went away," he says, rattling off boasts about concert appearances (approximately 2,000 since 1984) and the sales of Bat-related merchandise as proof. He neglects to mention, however, that he followed Bat with a string of increasingly forgettable releases that began with Dead Ringer and included such predictable titles as Bad Attitude and Blind Before I Stop. Likewise, he fails to note that Steinman had nothing to do with most of these flops.
So why was there such a prolonged delay between Bat and Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, his latest big-selling disc? In answering that question, Meat Loaf sounds more than a little cagey. "In 1989," the showman reveals, "I chose to stop. I jumped off the Ferris wheel." In addition, he says that he was involved in a beef with "someone who was producing the record." He won't confirm that this someone was Steinman; he says only that in spite of speculation to the contrary, the dispute boiled down to artistic differences, plain and simple. "I like the creative aspect of my work," he insists. "I don't do anything for the money and never have."
This statement is backed up by Bat II, which clearly makes few concessions to changing times or tastes. Produced and written by Steinman, who Meat Loaf refers to as "Jimmy," the album bears a damsel-in-distress fantasy cover shot that would look equally at home on gas-station black velvet or the inside of an adolescent male's gym locker. Moreover, most of the songs clock in at five minutes or longer--a rarity by today's sound-bite-inspired standards--and sport the lushest, most self-indulgent arrangements heard on any album since the first Bat. Rounding out the package are guest appearances by would-be rock luminaries such as Northern Exposure's Cynthia Geary and the Nelson twins, Matthew and Gunnar.
Reviewers have been no kinder to Bat II than they were to its predecessor, but album buyers have: The latest helping of Meat Loaf leapt up the charts with the alacrity of a backseat Romeo. According to MCA, Meat Loaf's current label, the album shipped platinum (one million copies) in its first two weeks of stateside release, and since then has been certified quadruple platinum. In the meantime, the disc's first single, "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)," roared to number one and stayed there for five weeks, eventually earning a Grammy for best solo-rock-vocal performance in 1993.
True to Meat Loaf's theatrical background, nothing in the grandiose single is as it seems--or so he says. With characteristic vociferousness, he asserts that the song actually is about "all the wonderful things you would do for love." The beauty of a Steinman composition, he explains, is that while most listeners tend to swallow the lyric hook's bait whole, the tune's true meaning can be found in such images of swashbuckling sacrifice as "I'd run right into hell and back" and "I'll take a vow and seal a pact."
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The over-the-top reaction the song garnered has done little to ease Meat Loaf's disdain for the financial elements of show business. He says that demands made by people involved with the management and media end of his career left him feeling as though he was being "nibbled to death by ducks." He subsequently sat his handlers down and threatened to "take my bat and ball and go home," as he'd done during the Eighties. Since then, his relationship with the money men has become as smooth as Heinz Homestyle gravy.
Now that he's left the behind-the-scenes hassles to others, Meat Loaf plans to continue to give fans their fill. "My best thing that I do is when I walk on a stage," he says. "I really understand the stage, and I understand how to entertain an audience."
Meat Loaf, with Cheap Trick. 6:30 p.m. Saturday, August 6, Fiddler's Green, $20-$23, 290-