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Why Meat Loaf Mattered: A Salute to Horsepower, Hormones and Heft

No need to apologize for considering 'Bat Out of Hell' one of rock's great albums: In capturing teen passion, it wiped out lines between the ridiculous and sublime, while the singer changed perceptions of how a rock star should look or sound.

Meat Loaf on 06.04.1988 in München
Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Among Meat Loaf’s critical defenders — which, as you may have realized if you’ve paid much attention over the years, is a very niche market in the world of rock tastemakers — there’s a word that comes up over and over again, employed as a sort of backhanded compliment: “ridiculous.” I’ve used it myself, and fairly recently. It’s a qualification meant to convey that we know rock ‘n’ roll is not supposed to be about Wagnerian grandiosity, eight-minute song lengths, singing that even a tenor at the Met might say could be toned down a little, fantastical Richard Corben cover paintings, 24-track recordings that can sound like 124… or that word that most strikes dread into the hearts of music critics everywhere: “suite.” If you’re going to profess your love for (or even just tolerance of) “Bat Out of Hell,” it’s necessary to preface or succeed that admission with a quick acknowledgement that you get just how silly it all is.

But is it, really? “Bat Out of Hell,” at least, among Meat Loaf’s catalogue, does not have to be patronized to be defended. Of course, it doesn’t have to be defended, anyway: 14x platinum in the U.S. (and supposedly 40 million-plus worldwide) pretty well defines “Dave Marsh-proof.” In this case, though, if there was a split between popular and media opinion, there’s a case to be made that it was the public that got it dead-right. “Bat Out of Hell” is one of the greatest rock albums of all time — no asterisks necessary. And OK, sure, pretty ridiculous, in a certain sense… but not in the way that word is usually taken to mean, which is: camp. Granting that this is a record teetering between a smirk and slapstick for a good part of its running time (anything written by Jim Steinman knows exactly how funny it is), in intention and execution, “Bat” is really as serious as a heart attack. A teenage heart attack.

Let’s skip to the ending of “Bat” before we go back to the ending: “For Crying Out Loud,” the one song on Meat Loaf’s solo debut that never got much airplay, and not just because it’s 8:48 long… something that didn’t stop the album’s even longer title track, at 9:48, from becoming an FM staple. As a fan of the album, this epic ballad is a song I’d even kind of allowed myself to forget, until I put it on again in the car recently for the first time in years, and nearly drove off the road. Besides the fact that it’s a symphonic ballad — not powered by Todd Rundgren’s guitar, Roy Bittan’s piano or Max Weinberg’s drums, like most of the other tracks — it’s probably under-remembered because it’s the most earnest, least overtly clever of Steinman’s contributions to the album. Even Meat Loaf said it was the only humorless song on “Bat,” and he meant that as a recommendation. Hearing the album’s other songs, you may be distracted by the genius of the guy who wrote them. With “For Crying Out Loud,” there is nothing entering your brain but the all-consuming lung power of Meat Loaf, turning in one of the most technically and emotionally magnificent vocals in rock ‘n’ roll history.

With his open-throated delivery of the multiple climaxes of “Crying Out Loud” in particular, Meat Loaf didn’t sound like any other rock singer who ever existed. But unlike nearly any other rocker whose style was ever described as “operatic,” he didn’t sound like he’d wandered in, slumming, from the wrong genre. He could convince you he should be wearing leather pants and Viking horns, taking the Valkyries for a ride in a Thunderbird. (He could also convince you that his physical exertion was about to send him into cardiac arrest, right in the studio.)

If the slammers weren’t taking Mr. Loaf and Steinman to task for turning the stuff of Springsteen into a night at the opera, they’d raise the specter of “musical theater,” which in the late ‘70s, if not today, was about the worst invective you could come up with. Of course, Steinman started out writing for the stage (albeit with student counterculture musicals involving radical politics and copious “Hair”-like nudity). And “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” is the greatest rock-opera song that never appeared in a rock opera. But if you paid half-attention, it would be hard to argue — as Clive Davis did when he turned “Bat” down — that this was music only steeped in staginess. The first track on the album takes the girl-group car-crash death fetishes of “Leader of the Pack” and turns it into something like proto-metal; the second is an homage as overt as homages get to Phil Spector’s wall of sound. These were guys who encyclopedically knew their pop music, even if their aim was to enhance it with melodramatic steroids.

For however many times “Bat” got accused of being a “Born to Run” rip-off, atop of all other sins (hard not to invite those comparisons, however unwarranted, with Bittan and Weinberg on board), it was distinctly its own thing. Yes, it was the opposite of the burgeoning punk movement, but if it was in a way the enemy of that, it was also the enemy of punk’s enemy, country-rock… off in its own corner, where maybe only a Freddie Mercury would also dare to tread. (This, notwithstanding Rundgren’s admission in later years that, if you isolate the backing vocals of “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” you can hear that they were styled on the Eagles’ harmonies — more a production whim than discernible influence.)

But there is a sense in which you could compare the material not to country-rock but to classic country, in the way Steinman could take a lyrical twist and run with it, the way Nashville’s best writers used to. The height of this was, indeed, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” — not than many country tunesmiths would have the temerity to follow one great bridge with a second endorphin-producing bridge, in rapid-fire succession. But there was something out of the C&W songbook in the song’s daring you to laugh and cry simultaneously. I LOL-ed many times over the years at the audacity of the lyrics’ central conceit, a romantic triangle between a man, his new woman and the girl who ghosted him. And then, at some point, I had my heart ripped out when I realized I was caught up in a real-life version of the sad situation that Steinman and Meat Loaf rendered seriocomically.

“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” of course, became the gold standard for anyone who ever wanted to write a male-female duet that involved some dramatic tension… still an endeavor few would even. There could be no greater foil than Ellen Foley (see Variety’s interview with her here), who brought immeasurable pleasure to a subject as painful as the middle third’s blue-balls saga. Like some of the other songs on the record, “Paradise” looked at teen passion through the eyes of a grown-up. And on the suddenly poignant outro, adulthood and adolescence literally co-existed for a couple of minutes— Meat singing the nostalgic lament, “It was long ago and it was far away / And it was so much better than it is today,” and Foley, a vision of the idyllic past, countering with “We were glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife.”

But there was no mistaking it: Steinman was more invested in the unadulterated passions of being a teenager than further exploring the trap the “Paradise” couple finally found themselves in. And there was something comic in the very idea of Meat Loaf playing an eternal teen when he looked, and sounded, like such a very adult slab of beef. It may be hard to conjure or recall in the present day just how revolutionary it was for him to come along and assert his way into being a major rock star, as if 265-pounders regularly passed for golden gods in a rock era that still belonged to Led Zeppelin.

He seemed unabashedly powerful enough that you could believe he had been, at some point, the “varsity tackle and a hell of a block” described in “All Revved Up With No Place to Go.” If you were a jock, or a Texan, or a Texas jock, surely Meat Loaf represented you. But, as rock’s first real plus-sized model (male division, anyway; there was Mama Cass before him), he also stood in for you if you were a fatty, or even a 98-pound weakling who also hadn’t seen himself looking at the Adonises who were becoming pop stars. His outsider status proclaimed itself from the moment you first glimpsed him… or first saw that moniker, because as the cocky advertising slogan said, “With a name like Smuckers, you’ve got to be good.” If Meat Loaf could be that unlikely a candidate for stardom and charge in like a bull in a china shop, maybe awkward kids could feel for eight minutes like they had a shot at becoming insiders, too.

It didn’t last, what they and we all had with “Bat Out of Hell,” and later on, what do you know… it felt like it was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it was today. Meat Loaf blew out his voice on or right after the “Bat Out of Hell” tour, and so Steinman himself played frontman on the album that was supposed to be “Bat II,” the half-glorious yet badly sung “Bad for Good.” When Meat Loaf got his voice back, he was sometimes right on target, sometimes a pitchy Pavarotti. The stars re-aligned when he and Steinman did just one more full project they both were in on from start to finish, “Bat Out of Hell II,” 16 years later. It was a blockbuster, and “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” became their biggest joint hit. I had problems with it — not because I couldn’t figure out what seemed to be a lyrical riddle to the whole world (it’s right there in the verses, kids) — but because the whole lyrical conceit seemed so strained that there didn’t seem to be real emotion in the payoff. But there were terrific songs on the album, as well, and that carried through the LPs Meat Loaf cut using some of Steinman’s trunk songs. You didn’t want to imagine these two music soulmates would be joining the protagonists of “Paradise” in a sort of eternal divorce-court waiting room.

The parts of Meat Loaf’s recording career where he was estranged from Steinman were interesting, in their dead ends and possibilities. It’s weird to think of him having recorded material like Tom Waits’ “Martha,” and intriguing to imagine an alternate universe where Meat Loaf was famous primarily as an interpreter of the great singer-songwriters. More often, he seemed to solicit or attract writers who tried to work in the Steinman style, even if they were as famous on their own terms as a Diane Warren. (Step number one in emulating Steinman: Make sure you have a parenthetical thought in your title, then proceed.)

There were many worthy songs to come, from both Meat Loaf and Steinman, apart and together. But it’s hard to disagree with Foley that “Bat 1” was, for both of them, their “Citizen Kane,” if that’s not too blasphemous a comparison for the Loaf-phobic. There’s no age limit on looking back on adolescence, but, with that as their specialty, they were at their best at it when objects in the rear-view mirror appeared exactly as close as they were.

Maybe the musical sophistication was more than all that back-seat drama deserved. (Did you know meticulous is one of the few English words that rhymes with ridiculous?) Or maybe, as it seemed to be in Meat Loaf’s and Steinman’s world, whether a girl was going to wear a boy’s ring was as important as the Ring Cycle, and the pettiest lusts and emotions of high schoolers are akin to the problems of the gods. “Less is better” can be a good maxim, but life is not minimalist, least of all a young one.

You remember the audience-participation line from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” right? “Meat Loaf again?” Shed a tear… or, all right, laugh at a career’s worth of purposeful ridiculousness… as we ponder the sobering thought: Meat Loaf, never again.