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Ellen Foley, Meat Loaf’s ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ Sparring Partner, on the Making of Rock’s Greatest Duet

duet paradise by the dashboard light
Meat Loaf: AP; Foley: Epic Records

In the wake of Meat Loaf’s death Thursday, singer Ellen Foley described her working relationship with Meat Loaf in the 1970s as “a beautiful, feisty, joyful friendship. Meat and Jim (Steinman) brought me into the consciousness of the rock ‘n’ roll world. And through ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light,’ I get to be a horny teenager for all time.”

Indeed, that duet in particular is still so much in the forefront of the collective rock imagination, it’s as if she said to time itself, “Stop right there” — and, just as Meat Loaf was forced to, time also obeyed.

She, Meat Loaf and Steinman first worked together on a National Lampoon tour in the mid-’70s, then on the making of 1977’s “Bat Out of Hell,” one of the most popular albums of all time. Foley left the camp when she declined to go out on the tour supporting the album, and was replaced not only on the road but in the “Paradise” music video by Karla DeVito (who lip-synched Foley’s part for the cameras). Nevertheless, even if she hadn’t gone on to work with Ian Hunter and the Clash and make her own solo albums, or to act in “Night Court,” “Hair” and other film and TV projects, she would have gone down in history… just for asking Meat, and us, if we would love her forever. If you were any kind of rock ‘n’ roll kid at all, it wasn’t something you needed to sleep on.

Foley spoke with Variety from her east coast home Friday, not long after she and the world learned that Meat Loaf had passed.

Because of the work you did on “Bat Out of Hell,” Jim Steinman called you “the Maria Callas of rock ‘n’ roll,” right?

That’s true. Because you had to be very dramatic and histrionic and not hold anything back. So I guess I was the Maria Callas of rock ‘n’ roll. You know, I’ll take it.

There are those of us who would consider “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” the greatest duet ever recorded. But that’s such a broad category, you do kind of want to double-check the history of pop music, in your mind, just to make sure. Anyway, among truly dramatic duets, there is not much that compares.

I think so, definitely. Well, “Up Where We Belong,” by Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker — I think that’s considered maybe No. 1, and then we’re pretty close behind there or something. But I mean, come on. How do you compare?

What were your feelings upon hearing Meat Loaf had died?

It was shocking because it all happened so quickly. There are certain people that you think are always going to be there, like Betty White and Meat Loaf.

He was so much a part of my youth, more so than later on in my life, because most of our interaction was when we were young. So when I think of him, I think of myself as this girl who did her first Actors’ Equity show with him in this National Lampoon tour, driving around the country in a blue van. The first record I ever sang on was “Bat Out of Hell.” it just brings up so many feelings and so many images — it’s joyful, and it’s hard. And the fact that we also lost Jim Steinman is a double whammy. I assume they’re up there negotiating about something at this point in time. [Laughs.]

When you were doing the National Lampoon tour together before working on “Bat Out of Hell,” was this somebody that in your wildest imagining you looked at and thought, “Of course — this guy could be a major rock ‘n’ roll star”?

Yeah, because when Meat walked into a room, he was already Meat Loaf. So you knew he was going to be something. The movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was just coming out, and he symbolized this crazy rock ‘n’ roll sexuality in that movie, and so he was already kind of a cult hero. And he was always a star in his own mind. So it was like a self-realizing prophecy, that he knew he was going to be it, and he made himself it. But, no, without Jim Steinman — I mean, it was all about that relationship.

He seemed like someone who was extremely comfortable in his own skin, to a degree that maybe someone going through life as this really big, truly outsize guy might not be.

Right. Like, he was fine walking around with no pants on. [Laughs.] He was! It’s true.

Where do you think that came from? Was he just born with that personality?

What did that come from? Good question. I think he was proud of himself and who he was. And [breaks into an accent] he was a boy from Texas, and if you didn’t like it… I don’t think he’d kick your ass, but he would still walk around with no pants on.

Did you have much interaction on stage, doing that National Lampoon tour?

Well, the one thing I really remember that we did together was a sketch [that was loosely a takeoff on] “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which was on around that time. So I’m a girl, I come to my apartment, I’m really happy, and I throw up my hat and I miss it, because I’m blind. And then my boyfriend comes in and is doing things like pretending he’s my dog and humping my leg, and just doing terrible things to me because I’m blind. But I’m very cheerful. That was us, and that was the highlight of that show, as I recall.

Was “Bat Out of Hell” being written around that time, and Jim and Meat were part of your circle on the tour and said, “You’d be great for this?”

Yes, that’s what was going on. Meat was cast in the tour and somehow it was finagled that Jim would come on and be the piano player. I mean, he was a one-man band. If you ever saw Steinman play, he totally banged on the keys, so you didn’t need anybody else on stage. So he was the music. Jim wanted to come along because he was writing the songs and wanted to be around Meat while he was writing the songs for him. And I was in the right place at the right time with the right voice.

It all happened organically. After the tour, the relationships stayed together because there was a lot of rehearsing we did. I think I performed live with Meat Loaf once, in a place called Reno Sweeney’s in New York. But developing the stuff, we were together a lot, doing these auditions for these record companies. Of course I was so excited because I had never sung on a record before, and I loved them, and I loved it. But what did I know? People always say, “Did you think it was going to be a big hit?” It’s like: Beats me. I just thought it was brilliant and fantastic, and it fulfilled me, singing the music. That’s what I knew.

Having done some musical theater, it must not have seemed as strange to you, when you heard these very unusual songs, as it might’ve to somebody else, to…

…to play a character. Exactly. And I don’t think that Jim could have found anybody else to sing those songs other than Meat Loaf, because he was an actor. But I don’t want people ever to tell me, “Oh, you’re a Broadway singer,” Because I’m not a Broadway singer. I’ve done Broadway, and Meat did Broadway, but we’re rock ‘n’ roll singers. But Steinman was able to find somebody to fulfill his Wagnerian dreams in Meat Loaf.

 

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Ellen Foley Gregg Delman/Courtesy Prime Mover Media

With the material from that album specifically and what Steinman sort of specialized in generally, he seemed very fixated on material that captured teenage feelings, but with this adult sophistication wrapped around it, trying to get to the essence of what it felt like to have hormones raging, and feelings about what might happen with your life, elevated into something that sounded more mythological than adolescent.

You said it all so perfectly. The thing about Jim is — I keep using the word and you do too — the mythology. It’s funny — he loved the idea of surfers and the west coast, but the one place, or one of the very few places, on the planet that did not play that record and it didn’t get sold was in L.A. and in California. I know that stuck in his craw. Because “Hot Summer Nights” and all those lyrics were inspired by that. But they weren’t having it. That was the laid-back late ‘70s, and California did not want to know. One of my best friends grew up in San Diego and lives in L.A., and I don’t think that unless she knew me that she would have even heard the record. But, God, that would be the epicenter of his dreams. It’s crazy.

Somewhere it was rumored that, in the original writing, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” started out being 27 minutes long, or something like that. Did you know anything about that or was it just presented to you in its finished form?

It certainly could have been. But I seem to think that it was originally 12 minutes long, and that it had to be cut down to the eight-plus that it ended up to be on the record. But I wouldn’t be surprised by 27 minutes at all. One of the ongoing battles was trying to get Jim to cut down the length of these songs. I mean, he loved Wagner, and you have to go for three days to hear the Ring Cycle, apparently.

When we hear “Paradise,” we hear it as if we’re seeing it on stage, and we imagine this amazing chemistry with Meat Loaf. Did you record it together or did you just piece it all separately, as people generally did by the mid-’70s?

We recorded it separately. But I made Meat Loaf come into the booth with me when I was singing. Sat him in a chair and performed it at him. Demanded it — demanded everything from him — until he was the weeping puddle on the floor that you hear on the record.

Did you have any expectations for the song as a breakout from the album? There are seven songs on the album, and all seven are incredible, but to this day, it’s like, that’s the one.

Wait a minute, there’s only seven songs? Is that true? Oh my God. That’s hysterical.

Yeah, with those song lengths, seven was enough to max out the vinyl… Anyway, “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” were the initial singles, and “Paradise” was put out almost as an afterthought after it got the FM radio traction. But did you think it would be the keeper?

Good question.  believed it to be the best, of course, and it offered so much for the imagination. As they say, they threw in the kitchen sink. You got Phil Rizzuto [doing the baseball play-by-play], you got Todd Rundgren [the producer, also playing guitar], you got these performances, and you have a story — really a little suite, or a three-act play. So no, I guess I wasn’t surprised at all. I’m sure I thought — with prejudice! — that it would be that it would be the one everybody would be drawn to, yeah.

A lot of those songs are distinctly from the perspective of a teenager, but some, you come to realize, are from the perspective of an adult looking back. That song makes it pretty overt, because you’ve got the epilogue on the end, and a coda that says “it was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it is today.” It’s a bittersweet ending that comes after all the comedy.

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s bittersweet. I’d say it’s basically bitter. You know, “I’m praying for the end of time, so I can end my time with you!” I think marriages go through that. I’ve definitely felt that in my marriage, that I wish everybody would just drive off a cliff. I’ve been married for 31 years, perfectly happy, but you know, you go through a lot of stuff in marriages. … If you had to say what the epicenter of it was, it was Jim loving to delve into the teenage stories and pictures. But then it wasn’t just about those kids, it was about what happened to the kids, which, as part of the three-act play, made it so special.

Was there anything else that you sang on on “Bat Out of Hell” that was special to you? You were part of the girl-group wall of sound on “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth,” so memorably.

You know, what I like is “All Revved Up With No Place to Go” — I got to sing that line “Do you know what it’s like?” And it was paired with Edgar Winter playing the saxophone, where my voice and his horn sort of played together. I love that; when I hear it, I get excited.

Following “Bat,” you were out of the picture by the time of the tour, which Karla DeVito went out on. And the community splintered from there after the tour — Jim and Meat had a falling out and took many years to come together again. And there were great careers that followed for everyone, yet “Bat Out of Hell” sort of stands as this one thing that was perfect and then never got completely recaptured.

Well, that’s the problem. I mean, it’s like “Citizen Kane.” You have that one perfect moment. And then what kind of anxiety, torture, it would be to follow up. It was all pretty dramatic with those guys.

Do you have any thoughts about Meat Loaf as a personality now? Having been around him, it’s easy to see how charming he was, and he also had a lot of manic energy that it’s easy to imagine would not be for everybody, day in and day out.

You know, I think there’s probably good and bad points to the fact that I didn’t go on tour with them. Because it was the Meat show, and you do get a lot of, like you said, a lot of emotional stuff, a lot of ups and downs. I’m sure he was pretty nutty and would sort of drive people crazy. … I think being on tour, you have to live in fear when you’re going to have to get up and sing those songs. They’re so hard, and he had so much pressure weighing just on his shoulders, really. So at at the end of the day, I can sort of understand why. … But at the same time, I think it was OK that I wasn’t there and went off and did my own career.

It doesn’t sound as though you kept in touch too much over the years, but there was at least some kind of coming back together when you went in to sing on his last album, “Braver Than We Are,” in 2016.

Yeah. And that’s another thing I have to reflect on a little bit more today; I haven’t had the chance. But yeah, that’s so fortunate that that came together, because otherwise a memory from a long time ago would be all I would have to remember him by. Getting together and the maturity of just being able to be relaxed and do these tracks, it was really very, very pleasant. Everybody was behaving like grown-ups. It was nice.

It also sort of reunited me and Karla DeVito. [Meat Loaf invited the two singers most associated with “Paradise,” Foley and DeVito, to come together and sing on the album’s 11-minute-plus epic, “Going All the Way (A Song in 6 Movements.”] We didn’t really know each other for all those years. Later I asked her to sing a duet on my album that came out last summer. [On Foley’s “Fighting Words” album, she and DeVito duet on the track “I’m Just Happy to Be Here.’] And now we are very close. It’s a great thing… really great.