Meat Loaf


You can see him hovering at the back of the stage, waiting to make his entrance.

Like a child with stage-fright, he peers anxiously round the doorway to see whether it’s his turn, then, with no-one giving him any indication either way, tentatively edges forward with the uncomfortably timid movements of someone who has already half-realised he is probably in the wrong place.

On stage he finds things are going so well for Michael Bolton he is starting yet another rehearsal, so Meat Loaf just slinks away with exaggerated quiet, taking big, soft steps, like a cartoon.

It is the night before Meat Loaf gets to sing with Pavarotti. Part of a benefit gig for the children of Bosnia, held in Pavarotti’s home town, Modena, their song will be performed before a VIP audience (among them the Princess of Wales), shown live on Italian television, and transmitted round the world.

A handful of on-lookers stand in the field watching as the shambolic last-minute rehearsals featuring members of U2 and Duran Duran run on into the night.

More and more, the event begins to resemble nothing more than an inflated School Play with all the teachers’ pets (Bolton, Bono, Le Bon) showing off and sucking up to the Headmaster (Pavarotti) who welcomes them on stage with a pat on the back and a hug.

But if Michael Bolton’s role in the play is as Head Boy (Pavarotti’s favourite) and Bono’s is (obviously) the Most Popular Boy In The 6th Form, then Meat Loaf’s role is also beginning to seem uncomfortably familiar: namely, that of the fat, bullied boy trying to get a look in; the one who, despite being the most good-natured kid in the play – the one who it matters to most – ends up getting dumped on.

Without his long-term collaborator, Jim Steinman (who wrote and produced ‘Bat Out of Hell’ I and II) to back him up, Meat has stood by and watched as virtually every other artist on the bill has rehearsed until they are perfect.

Finally, it is his turn.

In terms of song selection, Meat Loaf has, predictably, drawn the short straw. Whilst Pavarotti and le Bon are (bizarrely) performing Duran’s ‘Ordinary World’ with Pavarotti merely warbling away in the background, Meat Loaf and Pavarotti are performing a duet of the traditional Neapolitan song, ‘Come Back to Sorrento’.

They run through it once and it is, to all intents and purposes, a disaster: Meat Loaf’s voice is strained and uncertain, as if he’s unsure when to come in. Pavarotti thunders on regardless.

As it ends, his bloodhound expression growing ever more doleful, a visibly displeased Pavarotti appears to imperiously dismiss Meat Loaf from the stage.

Meat Loaf’s voice has always been a rather acquired taste of course (his phrasing and pitch are unconventional to the point of being unique), but the rehearsal is a truly painful spectacle.

As if aware of the difficulties to come, earlier in the day, Meat Loaf had boisterously joked that, that when it came to ‘indie’ music, he, Meat Loaf, was about as ‘alternative’ as you could get.

“I’m incredibly alternative,” he roared. “I’m totally alternative.”

Musically, this is hard to argue with. Operatic, histrionic, a rousing tide of preposterous fantasy and theatrics, Meat Loaf’s songs – ‘You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth’, ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’ and his new hit, ‘I’d Lie For You (And That’s The Truth)’ – are (for their titles alone) unmistakably distinctive.

As an individual too, it is safe to say, that even in the larger-than-life, unyielding world of heavy rock and panto pop that he has inhabited for nearly 20 years, there is no-one quite like Meat Loaf.

The BBC series, ‘The Biz’, put it more bluntly, underlining the anomaly of someone overweight and over 40, not notably good-looking, a misfit who has gone years at a time without a record deal, let alone a hit, becoming, and remaining, such a massive star.

Wandering, dejected, off stage, Meat Loaf’s epithet looks unnervingly accurate. He looks about as ‘alternative’ as you could get. He looks like the ultimate odd one out, someone who became resigned to accepting this as his fate long ago. He looks…. alone.

MEAT LOAF, YOU SUSPECT, may have grown used to people mis-treating him, but it would be a mistake to write him off.

He has spent his life defying the odds, relying on his resilience and strength of character. In purely commercial terms, Meat Loaf has come back from the dead at least twice.

The original ‘Bat Out of Hell’ may have gone on to be the 4th best-selling album of all time (selling over 25 million copies worldwide), but in the months proceeding its release, no-one wanted to take such a grandiose, expensive and improbable project on.

When it was released in the States, in October ‘77, initial sales were poor. Reaction to a tour supporting Cheap Trick was mixed.

And after its eventually massive success, Meat Loaf had nowhere to go but down. He spent many of the ensuing years fending off commercial decline, drink, depression, legal disputes and (incredibly) debt.

Then16 years later, with Steinman (who has long been regarded as Meat Loaf’s mentor/Svengali) restored as writer/arranger/ producer, ‘Bat Out Of Hell II’ suffered similar resistance.

Meat Loaf was widely regarded as too light for Heavy Metal, too heavy and epic for pop; a novelty act whose popularity had passed.

But against all the odds, ‘Bat II’ repeated the success of the original, selling 4 million copies in 6 weeks, and going to number one in 25 territories simultaneously.

The 12-minute long ‘I’d Do Anything For Love’ (But I Won’t Do That) became the biggest-selling record in the UK all year and the only single to be number one in the UK and USA charts in the same week for 5 years.

For his new album, ‘Welcome To The Neighbourhood’, Meat Loaf decided he couldn’t wait for Steinman, turning to Kiss producer Ron Nevison.

Containing only two (old) songs by Steinman, several massive rock-out road anthems, even a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Martha’, it is potentially his first successful record not to rely on Steinman.

This time, (finally), he’s doing it on his own.

ON THE DAY MEAT LOAF is due to sing with Pavarotti, he sits slumped on a hotel sofa, and describes his present state of mind as “stressed, stressed, stressed.”

“It was real nerve-wracking singing with Pavarotti !” he gushes like a child talking about meeting his hero. “I was real jumpy. I get silly when I’m nervous. I get like a little kid.”

By the time he got back to the hotel after the rehearsal, he was stricken with worry. Because of the worry, he’d had no sleep, “and if you don’t sleep, you can’t sing. So then I was real freaked out.”

All the anxiety has brought on his asthma. He can’t eat or relax. He feels frustrated and, above all, aggrieved.

“I came here to help, you know. I thought it was for the children of Bosnia,” he stutters, in the pained whine of a child who can’t understand how the party he has been looking forward to has suddenly all gone wrong.

“It’s just… weird.”

For reasons he cannot comprehend, Pavarotti had insisted that Meat Loaf sing in what is not his natural key, which meant he couldn’t sing with any power.

Then there was the problem of the orchestra.
“I’ve never sung with an orchestra in my life ! ” he exclaims. “It scared the hell outta me. As soon as I started singing, I couldn’t hear them ! I turned to the guy and said, ‘can you turn them up ?’ It’s OK for him (Pavarotti), he just knows where the notes are. He follows the conductor.”

Meat can’t help but feel victimised. After all, Pavarotti’s rapport with the other artists had been so different.

Sitting on stage in a red sweater, with a thick white towel wrapped round his throat, Pavarotti had looked like a jovial Santa Claus watching a group of kids rapping lines like “three-four-five/the bee’s in the hive”.

And he had entered into the spirit of his duet with Italian rap-star Jovanotti, so enthusiastically that at one point there seemed a a very real danger that Pavarotti was going to start break-dancing

And Bono had embraced Pavarotti like a long-lost relative despite having just blown cigar smoke in the opera singer’s face (allegedly because he’d been told not to smoke a cigarette) whereas Meat Loaf’s good-natured, light-hearted greeting had gone down like a lead balloon.

In fact before he had gone home, someone had told Meat Loaf he had, in some way, personally offended the great maestro.

Feeling distinctly unwelcome, and distraught at the thought that the whole event was becoming hi-jacked by ego-trips, Meat Loaf had finally decided to offer to “go home.”

THE WHOLE EPISODE, you can’t help thinking, can best be summed up by one phrase: ‘story of his life’.

Not without reason, Meat Loaf has turned insecurity into an artform.

Now 47, his life, like his songs, has been a saga of struggle and survival, anxiety and upset.

Born Marvin Lee Aday in Dallas, Texas, he was given the nickname ‘Meat Loaf’ at the age of eight and kept it ever since.
“My theory is that in 400 years, there’ll be hundreds of people with the name, ‘Meat’,” he roars, upset by any suggestion that the persona is a marketing gimmick.

Despite some success playing American Football, his childhood was spent as the target of remorseless teasing and bullying.

At 10, he already weighed 200lbs, eventually ballooning to 330 lbs.
“I was the small one in the family,” he grins. “One of my uncles was 6ft 7”, 700lbs.”

His schoolmates’ cruelty became the cornerstone for the courage and resilience he’s relied on later years.
“It helps you become your own person. You can’t just go along with the crowd because the crowd don’t want you to go along with them.”

Having lost 80lbs, today’s Meat Loaf is like a Russian doll version of the original, identical except two sizes smaller.

In plain shoes and shapeless black jeans, his hair tied back in a thin ponytail, his simple enthusiasm and energy make him instantly likeable.

Renowned for doing and talking as much as possible to sell the product, when his relentless schedule finally wears him down it’s like watching the air go out of a giant inflatable. Until then, only his small round wire spectacles hint at his vulnerability.

Even though he’s been married to his wife Lesley (Lesley Loaf ?) for 20 years, the pivotal relationship in Meat Loaf’s life was with Jim Steinman, who he has described as his “wife in another life”.

Having left home at 16 after his mother died of cancer and his alcoholic father (a salesman who he once said could sell four tyres to a man with no car) had driven him out of the house at knifepoint, without Steinman Meat Loaf’s would probably have been in the theatre.

He first made a name for himself in productions of ‘Hair’, ‘National Lampoon’ and ‘The Rocky Horror Show’.

To Steinman, who found performing his own material uncomfortable, meeting Meat was like meeting the voice he had always wanted.

For Meat Loaf, Steinman, who wrote everything specifically for him, would spend years being perceived as his Doctor Frankenstein, something Steinman encouraged and probably actually believed.

According to Steinman, Meat Loaf’s frustration and paranoia at being seen as Steinman’s Monster resulted in several “imaginative” suicide attempts.

During their legendary early live shows, he would forbid Meat Loaf to speak on stage, saying it would shatter the mythic image of the material.
“When he speaks,” Steinman siad, “the audience suddenly sees he’s just the fat kid who works at the gas station.”

Ultimately, ‘Bat Out of Hell’ is as noteworthy for the awesome size of its success (it still sells a million copies every year and will probably remain in the Guinness Book of Records for having spent 395 consecutive weeks in the UK chart), as the impact its success had on Meat Loaf’s life.

Paradoxically, after such a struggle to Make It Big, success did not restore Meat Loaf’s already frayed self-confidence. In fact, success ruined what little self-confidence he had left.

“It still does,” he says now, sounding edgy at even the mention of the word. “The sequel did the same thing. At least I didn’t quit this time. I came right back.”

After ‘Bat Out of Hell I’, Meat Loaf says, he “went all the way down” and didn’t come back.
“Some people are born for stardom. They love it. Other people walk on shaky ground… I didn’t feel good about myself. I didn’t like myself.”

He describes the period between June 1978-84 as “90% negative.”

Stories of alcoholism, depression, and attempted suicide are legion but talking about them still upsets and angers him (he feels his part in these times has been widely mis-understood).

The recipient of 22 lawsuits claiming $ 60million, he
was declared bankrupt, split up with Steinman and his manager (who then, bizarrely, became Steinman’s manager) and lost his voice.

Whilst Meat Loaf’s relationship with Steinman was certainly symbiotically successful, it was never exactly straightforward. (During one row, Steinman reckons Meat Loaf once threw a piano at him.)

An engagingly eccentric, enigmatic character, Steinman seems unable to talk about Meat Loaf without deriding him, summing up Meat Loaf’s problems at the time by saying, “he lost his voice, lost his house and was pretty much losing his mind. Once he started singing like Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist’, I left.”

He’s also fond of telling interviewers how, as a kid, Meat was hit on the head by a shot putt.

Even after they were reunited 16 years later for ‘Bat II’,
Steinman didn’t like the fact that Meat Loaf had lost so much weight. (There are stories he would leave doughnuts around the studio for him.)

According to Steinman’s vision, Meat Loaf was “the embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll, much more than these pretty skinny guitarists.”

According to Steinman, the huge poignancy at the core of Meat Loaf’s performance, and arguably the reason why his wildly romantic sentimentality could be so powerful, came from being “this enormous, heroic monster, a grotesque, bloated creature, who stalked the stage like an animal but acted as if he were a prince. He had no recognition of his size. He defied it totally.”

I mention Steinman’s, rather dual-edged, interpretation to him, but Meat Loaf seems too tired to rise to any feelings of hurt he might harbour.
“Yeah, well he’s good at that,” he mutters, slightly sulky. “He’s the master of that.”

“Jim’s a bit strange. We’re completely different, except for artistically. On ‘Bat Out of Hell 2’, we would sit there not saying anything. Then suddenly turn to one another and say the same thing.”

The relationship changed when Steinman turned to him “and said ‘I hate you’. When I asked why, he said ‘because we did these albums together and you became a star and I didn’t.’ You see, Jim always wanted to be famous. Jim likes the circus. I don’t like the circus.”

Even after the triumph of ‘Bat II’, Meat Loaf refused to relent. He played 200 gigs in 300 days, and did every interview and every photocall he was asked to.

Asked why he works so hard, he looks at you as if you were the dumbest thing alive.
“I got so much to learn. Every time you learn something, you figure out how much you don’t know. Every time. Bar none. It’s like, ‘wow. that’s great !”

Even now, Meat Loaf just cannot understand why everyone thinks he should just relax and enjoy it, or why doing so well should in any way boost his confidence.

Having hits, he insists, has “nothing to do with reality.”
“I hate the word ‘hit’,” he announces. “I hate it when people come up to me and go, ‘hey, that’s gonna be a hit’.”
This is unfortunate given that when an artist is as insecure as Meat Loaf, one of the ways people try to encourage or reassure them is by going up to them and telling them their new record sounds like a hit.

‘Bat Out Of Hell’s place in the history books means nothing to him anymore.
“It’s like a track star saying, well two years ago, I could run 100 metres in 10.9. Well, now you’re doing 11.7. ‘Yeah but I could do it in 10.9’. So what ?!? Just because someone bought your record, that and a dollar 25 will just about buy you a cup of coffee.”

If selling records does nothing to salve his anxiety, neither does performing live or doing television (which he dreads).

“I find it frightening to have to sing, to deal with these little vocal chords. If I walk on stage and it’s not perfect, I lose my mind. After the last 22 shows in England, I was completely devastated.”

In Germany, he asked the promoter if there was a way of giving the audience their money back.
“I pray to God that he will allow me to go back to that venue in Berlin and do a better show. That’s literally the truth.”

You more you talk to him, the more it seems that what drives Meat Loaf, what drives him mad sometimes, is the fear of being mis-understood.

The thing that has, ever since ‘Bat out Of Hell’, driven him to distraction is the thought that people might treat him as a star; or think that he wants to be treated as a star; or that he has become a star.

He is obsessed with remaining humble – “I’m not an artist. I’m trying to become an artist.” Asked to describe how he sees himself, he says carefully: “Sensitive. Loyal. And guarded against being egotistical.”

He never has anyone carry his bag. If a restaurant’s full, he’ll just go somewhere else rather than exploit his fame to try and get in.
His house in Connecticut is a small three-bedroomed house with no land, in a small ordinary town.

“People drive up,” his wife smiles, “and they go, (dismayed) ‘he lives here ?!”

“I work hard not to get into this fame thing. I try not to be any different here with you than I would with anyone. The pretentious crap some artists do drives me completely up the wall. It’s like, get a life will you !!!” he shouts suddenly. “Not everyone wants to worship at your feet, you little fuck.”

Just as suddenly, his humour returns.
“I also see myself looking a lot like Tom Cruise.”

Despite his reputation as one of the most gregarious and garrulous people in pop, he agrees with his wife’s assessment that he is “totally sociably inept.’’

‘‘When Pavarotti called on the phone, I didn’t want to talk to him. I get nervous around celebrities…I don’t know ‘celebrities’,” he says with distaste as if we were talking about child molesters.

Meat Loaf has spent his whole career feeling mis-understood with people either assuming “you don’t write the songs so it must all be down to Jim Steinman” or saying “well if it’s in your lyrics or your video, it must refer to you.”

He has the frustrations of someone who has spent his whole life waiting and wanting respect and not getting it because of the way he looks or because of the cruelty of others.

What hurts and infuriates him most is when people can’t even get his name right, and spell it as one word, which even his own record company has done.

A press conference to launch ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ highlights how difficult Meat Loaf’s quest for respect must be, especially as he tries so hard not to seem egotistical.

As it’s in his nature to play the fool alot, to make people laugh, that is invariably how he gets treated: as a joke.

To counter-act this, naively, he ends up over-compensating, launching into impassioned, energetic explanations of his role in his records, like a child who has spent so long waiting to be heard, everything has become much more complicated in his own mind than in anyone else’s.

He explains that he is more like an actor than a singer but that when he walks out on stage “I’m not acting. That’s not an act, that’s a performance. Big difference” and makes long, rambling, parallels with Scorsese, de Niro and Monet.
“See, once I’ve finished the record, it’s not my record anymore. Monet does a painting, finishes it, but someone else owns it now. It’s not Monet’s painting anymore. He’s dead.”

“I create characters. When people say ‘that’s not real’, I say, ‘go and tell Robert de Niro when he was playing Raging Bull he wasn’t real”.

He talks about how he ‘directed’ the first ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ album, and now acts like an editor on his records or his videos.
“Anyway, I don’t make video. I hate the word video. I make film.”

He explains how he came up with the storyboard for the new album (from a character’s birth to his death) but that it would be a mistake, simplistic, to think of it as a concept album.

The press conference also makes you realise that Meat Loaf has grown up discovering that, just as he was at school, the adult world still sees him as nothing more than a fat man with a funny name.

Even as a hugely successful artist, a ‘star’, Meat Loaf has spent his life being judged, being laughed at, because of the way he looks. The world has not changed.

Just as one journalist famously once turned up to interview him and began with the question, ‘so is it a hormone problem ?’, he endures a series of journalists making lame jokes about bringing his name up-to-date or slimming it down, calling him, to his face, Veggie Roll or Nut Cutlet.

In some way, Meat Loaf’s career has succeeded as a result of the way he has accepted this, like living proof of Andy Warhol’s maxim that we should turn the weapons people use against us and make them our gimmick.

In the video for ‘I’d Lie For You…’, Meat does not play the dashing Indiana Jones role, “because that would have been bad casting”.

The role he plays is the fall-guy, the one who wants to be the hero but keeps crashing/getting blown up/falling over a cliff.

As in alot of his videos, he spends most of his time looking on longingly, watching as conventionally gorgeous couples make out together while he stands on the sidelines, left out.

The Beauty & The Beast video for ‘I’d Do Anything For Love…’ is genuinely poignant.

When I ask why he didn’t just use another actor as The Beast, he looks at me as if I was stupid and says, simply, “because I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it”.

WITH TWO HOURS TO GO before he goes on stage, Meat paces his ‘dressing room’ – a partition cubicle too small to contain any man so nervous – clutching a bottle of water and a packet of Halls throat pastilles looking for someone with a bottle opener. His wife trails behind him everywhere he goes, almost as nervous as he is.
Pavarotti can be heard doing his scales, sounding like someone singing in the shower, drowning out everyone’s conversation.
“Is it live ?” Meat Loaf chuckles. “Or is it Memorex.”

Backstage, Bono, Eno and The Edge, small men in big suits, mill around famously, looking as if they are going to a wedding. Yasmin and Simon le Bon are wearing matching shades.

“It’s such a scene,” Meat Loaf whines. “I don’t like scenes. I’m not a scene person.”

As if things are not tense enough Meat Loaf’s wife, Lesley, has just tricked me into jumping out of my skin by trying to open a ‘Rattlesnake’ bag she got from an Arizona joke shop when the Princess of Wales walks in to wish Meat Loaf luck.

When she asks him if he’s nervous, he says that every time he looks at the poster of Bosnian children on the wall, he calms down.

In any case, he laughs, he can’t leave as her car’s blocking everyone else in.

When she turns to be introduced to someone hovering behind her, Meat gestures to his wife that he might try the Rattlesnake bag out on her. His wife practically slaps his hand, and Meat giggles. Diana, meanwhile, wanders off without saying goodbye; another small rejection.

Meat Loaf mentions he found out that the reason Pavarotti changed his key was because, when he sang it in his natural key, he thought Meat was sending him up.

Without thinking anything of it, he says exactly the same thing happened with Marvin Hamlisch when he recorded ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ for the b-side of ‘I’d Lie For You (And That’s The Truth)’.

The funny thing about it, he says, is that the first time he saw Pavarotti in January 1979, he thought Pavarotti had ripped him off. This was because, ever since he started playing live (in1968) Meat Loaf had gone on stage wearing a tuxedo and waving a red scarf. (Pavarotti’s is white.)
“I mentioned it to him last night,” Meat Loaf smiles. “Yeah. Asked him if he’d stolen my act. He just looked at me and he went like this (taps his index finger to his temple). So, who knows…Maybe he did.”

Of course, this Italian gesture could mean, ‘you’re very smart’. But it could also mean, ‘you’re crazy’.

IT IS NEARLY Meat Loaf’s turn to go on. The concert has (amazingly) gone totally to plan. Even le Bon has acquitted himself admirably. (Only Michael Bolton’s haircut has let the side down.)

With Meat Loaf waiting in the wings, Delores from The Cranberries tells him not to be so nervous, and to ‘remember why we’re here’. She tells him it doesn’t matter if he goes out and quacks like a duck.

To roars of approval, the compere announces, “eccentrica e transgressiva…. MeetaLoafa !!!”

Meaf Loaf bounds on, his chance at last, milking the applause.

The opening melodies sound crippled by doubt, but as the song picks up, Meat Loaf’s voice steadies until for the final chorus, when the two singers come crashing in together, and he finds his true voice, his true style and his voice rises and soars past and above Pavarotti’s and the crowd rise. It is another improbable triumph.

“I thought ‘whatever comes out of my mouth, so be it,” Meat Loaf says later. “This is not about me, not about me singing with Pavarotti, it’s about those kids. There’s no mask, no act, no wall. I just closed my eyes and did it.”

Singing has never been less of a worry.
“I don’t remember anything about it,” he says. “How did it sound ?”
He looks at me, eagerly, hanging on my verdict.
“Did it sound good ?”