Meat Loaf’s music existed outside of any music genre – an already-nostalgic rock opera that has itself become part of the fabric of our collective memory.
I won’t lie, I was rather taken aback this morning at just how much the news of Meat Loaf’s death at the age of 74 hit me. I’m not someone who gets upset by the death of a celebrity I’ve never met and I was never by any stretch of the imagination a fan of Meat Loaf – I don’t even own a single record of his. So why did the news of his death sadden me so much?
I think it’s at least partly because you can’t not know Meat Loaf’s work – at least the work done with Jim Steinman. Those songs are part of the soundtrack of our lives, numbers you don’t just recognise but know intimately, despite your indifference or even outright dislike. His 1977 album Bat Out Of Hell (and, to a lesser degree, the various follow-ups) is as ubiquitous as Beatles records even though it sits outside anything remotely fashionable, then or now. Or maybe it’s because it sits outside the fashionable and unfashionable – hating on Meat Loaf records because they are not cool seems to be both missing the point and a moment of desperation from people determined to cling to their teenage tribal rebellion at all costs. As I said when writing about Steinman after his death last year, I’m not even sure that this is rock music, at least not as we might recognise it. It’s no surprise that Bat Out Of Hell started life as a stage musical because the best way of describing this rock ‘n’ roll pastiche is ‘theatrical’. I never understood why people were surprised to see Meat Loaf acting because, of course, he was an actor all the time – these bombastic, over-the-top songs feature Performances with a capital P. You’re not seeing a singer baring his soul and singing his heart out on deeply personal songs – this is someone playing characters from song to song.
It’s one reason why Meat Loaf and Bat Out Of Hell transcend the other rock ‘n’ roll revivals of the 1970s, from glam to punk to Showaddywaddy and American Graffiti, because even more than those genres, the album absolutely wallows in a nostalgia that had already become a series of sentimentalised clichés. Songs like Paradise By the Dashboard Light take those clichés and crank them up to the point where they become mini-operas, full of bluster and bombast. The songs, in fact, are far from the two or three minute stabs that rock ‘n’ roll was and various ‘back to basics’ movements sought to emulate. Structurally, the songs are closer to prog – several minutes long with various movements and an ongoing narrative structure both within each song and across the album. But they are not prog either. They stand outside of genre categorisation and that’s probably why the album was so huge – it sat in the UK charts for years, watching pop fads come and go. Ironically, while Bat Out Of Hell has – of course – become a popular theatrical musical, it’s hard not to think that its success is based entirely on another sort of nostalgia and familiarity – that the sort of performances you’ll get in a West End or Broadway musical will have none of the sweaty vitality of the originals but are carried along on the wishful thinking of the audience who are caught up in the moment, imposing their memories of the album onto the new performances. The album is now awash in several levels of rose-tinted longing for a past that never existed.
Of course, the question always remained: who gets the credit for all this? With Steinman as writer and Meat Loaf as interpreter, who was the most important? Certainly, Meat Loaf’s musical work without Steinman is almost entirely forgettable – but similarly, Steinman’s work without Meat Loaf has been equally anonymous for the most part. As an actor, Meat Loaf needed his lines writing for him; as a writer, Steinman needed an actor who implicitly understood how to deliver those lines to the best effect. In the end, it seemed that together they became more than just the sum of their parts (we can also throw the production of Todd Rungren into the mix to confuse the argument about creative control even further).
If Bat Out Of Hell transcended – or perhaps side-stepped – rock music categorisation, so Meat Loaf himself was someone who you kinda liked even if his music did nothing for you. He was a great – if unstoppable – interviewee at his peak, able to fly off onto motor-mouthed flights of fancy at the drop of a hat. I remember a Whistle Test interview where the presenters joked that they had a second question lined up for him but only had a ten-minute slot for the interview. Even when he was grinding out awful, anonymous albums or flogging a dead horse with a Steinman-free Bat Out Of Hell 3, that was fine because everyone has to make a living and – like anyone else – he probably had an ego that kept him performing and recording even when he could’ve just retired. His screen acting career has tended to be overlooked outside of seminal roles in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (another theatrical rock ‘n’ roll pastiche, interestingly) and Fight Club, but he made more movies than you might think. You’ve probably seen him in something without even realising because of course, Meat Loaf didn’t even look like a rock star for most of his career. He worked as a character actor because the person we saw on screen didn’t look like the person on stage and so we accepted him in roles in a way that perhaps we can’t do for more recognisable rock stars who take acting roles.
There’s a place for unique art, even in a music industry that loves to categorise, copy and ambulance chase. Bat Out Of Hell doesn’t feel like anything else from the 1970s – especially not from 1977. It’s a record that is both of and entirely removed from its time – you can’t imagine anyone getting away with this in any other decade. Meat Loaf felt like someone who stood alone, outside whatever else was happening in the music scene – not above it, but somewhere off to the side ignoring it all and creating a sort of alien rock ‘n’ roll that came from having it described by someone who had had it described to them. In recent years, I’ve come to realise just how brilliant that is – a parallel musical universe that somehow leaked into our own and remained impossible to imitate or duplicate, even by the people who created it. Meat Loaf’s contribution to music is at once enormous and inconsequential and that’s what makes it so interesting. It’s a cliché to say this but we really won’t see his like again.
Marvin Lee Aday: September 27, 1947 – January 20, 2022
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