The Sound and the Fury of Meat Loaf: ‘I Am Not a Rock Star’
As it turns out, in the hill country west of Austin, in a big-ass house in a big-ass gated community, the singer known as Meat Loaf is hanging in there. He’s 70. His hair is thinning, his hands are unsteady, his back is such a mess he can’t get into bed at night without help from Deborah, his wife of 10 years, much less put on his socks and shoes. To get to the easy chair he’s sitting in now, he had to plod along using a real-old-duffer’s walker. It all pretty much sucks. “And because it hurts my back, I haven’t been able to sing in a year,” he says. “You use everything to sing, and I just cannot do it.”
He takes a swig of sparkling water, eases himself back in his chair and looks miserable. And miserable is not how you want Meat Loaf to look. You want him to look all fat and sweaty – great masses of hair flopping back and forth, eyeballs bulging right out of their sockets, voice soaring to hammy operatic heights – more or less just as he did back in 1977 with the release of his debut album, Bat Out of Hell (and its two greatest, most bombastic, over-the-top songs, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”), which went on to sell more than 40 million copies and is now marking its 40th glorious anniversary, despite most rock critics hating it (and this magazine calling it “mannered and derivative,” full of puerile comic-book “pretensions”). That’s how you want to see him. A born-to-lose Texas redneck who teamed up with a genius-type songwriter-producer named Jim Steinman and beat the odds to become a rock star, a fine bit-part movie actor and a temper-tantrum-thrower of some renown. So, it just doesn’t seem right to see him here like this. It’s a real bummer.
Anyway, with singing and touring out of the question, what he mostly does these days is watch reruns of Blue Bloods and Law & Order. Or he loses himself in an online role-playing game called Gladiator (“It stops my brain from thinking”). Or he starts detailing the particulars of his various surgeries (“Now, the first back surgery was to remove an arachnoid cyst, which looks like an alien in my spinal canal. . . .”). Or he kibitzes with people on his Facebook page, where if you tick him off, you better watch out, because he can spew with the best of them. “Sorry you are so jaded, tired, bored, lacking enthusiasm, surfeited, sated, satiated, glutted, dulled, blunted, deadened, inured, tired, weary, wearied, unmoved, blasé, and apathetic,” he recently wrote, in response to a critic. “It is a shame that your life has led you down this road.”
He also tends to get upset when anyone dares to say that his voice isn’t what it once was, if they cite, for example, the 2016 show in Canada during which he passed out, back pain shooting through him “like a sword,” with him dropping the mic to the ground, after which his voice seemed to warble along on its own, disembodied, suggesting that he’d been lip-syncing.
“Morons!” he says. “I’m going, ‘Before you make a comment, learn something about music. Learn something about tone.’ People saying, ‘You can’t sing anymore.’ I mean, OK, I can’t get up to the B’s anymore, but I can still hit the high C’s, and A is a really strong note, too.” He goes on, “In my music, nothing is blues-based. Everyone else, their songs are an octave, an octave and a half, that’s as high as they get.” He snorts, scoffs. “Yeah, man, I’m at two and a half, sometimes three and a half. The main thing that’s different now is the tone of my voice. They call it flat or out of key. It’s not. It’s just that my tone is completely different from what it was, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
He pauses, takes a deep breath and says, “Those Facebook people, man, you know, yeah, I get upset.”
And that, in fact, is one of the great things about Loaf. He’s always getting riled up about something, which was most infamously seen during his 2011 stint on Celebrity Apprentice, when he got into it with hapless Gary Busey over some purloined paints – they had been tasked with creating original art to be sold at a gallery – and went into an apoplectic rage, shouting, “OK! Motherfucker! I bought those motherfucking paints!,” a grand bit of theater that went on for a full five ratings-boosting minutes.
“Well,” he says today, somewhat sheepishly, “I’m not an internal guy. You piss me off, you’re gonna know it.”
At the same time, he’s a well-known softy who seems to spend half his days in tears. A girl gets kidnapped on some TV show, he cries. A record-company exec gives him a Babe Ruth autograph, he cries. Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, which was 16 years in the making, debuts at Number Three, he cries. Whitney Houston dies, he cries. His team wins on Celebrity Apprentice, he cries. He’s an equal-opportunity weeper. “Oh, I cry all the time,” he says. “I mean, I’ll even cry about dog commercials. It’s stupid.”
It’s not stupid, of course. It’s just another side of the guy, just as there’s the side that won’t go to an upcoming premiere of the Bat Out of Hell stage musical if he has to use the walker (“Not a prayer”), and the side that doesn’t want to go out, period. “I don’t have any business going out to where all the bars and bands are. They’d look at me and say, ‘Who’s the old guy? What’s that old guy doing here?’ No, man, I don’t belong in those places.”
So this is how Loaf lives today. This is what’s become of him after 50 years in the rock & roll business. But, in a sense, that’s OK, because it’s a miracle he got this far at all.
As an actor, Loaf has appeared in 50-plus movies, starting with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, as Eddie, the greasy biker), moving through Fight Club (1999, as Bob, a fatty known for his “bitch tits”), thence to Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006, as Jack Black’s dad), and along the way flinging himself into TV shows like Tales From the Crypt (1992), Monk (2009) and Glee (2010). He rarely stops to breathe. His albums have just kept piling up, 12 of them altogether since 1977, the best of them being the two Bat ones he made with Steinman. As a touring performer – larger-than-life, overwrought, stage-strutting, bellowing, raging, crooning, wearing puffy pirate shirts, “a mesmerizing, wonderful presence,” Steinman once said, “his pupils would roll up in his head, and you’d see the whites of his eyes, and his hands would clutch, it was really powerful, he was extraordinary” – he’s gone on the road for decades at a time. He used to be indefatigable. You want him to play poker on Celebrity Blackjack, to hunt ghosts on Ghost Wars, to warble opposite Luciano Pavarotti, he’s always been good to go. “I’ve always had a target on my back,” he likes to say, which maybe explains why, until recently, he’s never slowed down. What else can a targeted guy like that do but keep running and, in his case, run fast, because what a big target he is and always has been.
“Meat,” he says, “came about on the fourth day of me being alive.” This was in Dallas, when his dad, a cop, took one look at his newborn son and said, “He looks like meat,” and so Meat he became, nevermore his given name, Marvin. He weighed 185 in the fifth grade, 240 by the seventh. He was bullied about his weight constantly. “Oh, man, I was tormented,” he says.
Life at home wasn’t any better. His father was a violent alcoholic who would disappear for days at a time. He’d return and slap his boy around or throw him through a screen door, then vanish again, whereupon Meat and his mom, a schoolteacher, would hop in the car and go from bar to bar, trying to find him and bring him home again. Bad stuff.
Even so, by high school he was beloved by his classmates for his mow-’em-down ways as a football player, and despite his size, he claims he never had a problem with the ladies. “I had my first three-way in my mother’s car in the fifth grade,” he says, happily. “OK, it was a make-out session with two girls, but that’s still a threesome.” His eyes turn liquid. “Cindy and Judy,” he says.
His mom, who sang in a gospel quartet, used to say to him, “Good thing you’re not going to be a singer, because you can’t carry a tune in a bucket.” That’s how Loaf remembers it, anyway. But he claims that all changed in his sophomore year, out on an athletic field, when a 12-pound shot put sailed 62 feet through the air and hit him in the head; after that, just like that, while trying out for choir, he discovered he suddenly had a three-and-a-half-octave vocal range.
His mother died of cancer in 1966, when Loaf was 19. Shortly after the funeral, his father, drunk and bereft, kicked open his bedroom door and came at him with a butcher knife, for reasons unknown. “I rolled off the bed just as he put that knife right in the mattress,” he says. “I fought for my life. Apparently I broke three ribs and his nose, and left the house barefoot in a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt.” He never went home again and, in 1967, moved to L.A., started acting, started singing in bands, was John Belushi’s understudy in a Broadway production of the National Lampoon Show, which was where he met Ellen Foley, the actress-singer with the cracked-velvet voice who is the recipient of his love and lust in the 1977 hit “Paradise.”
“Growing up in a bumfuck Texas town, he might have become a serial killer or the guy who shot up the local 7-Eleven,” Foley says. “But the first time I saw him, he walked in with this incredible bravado and confidence, like in his mind he was already fully formed. He had this will that allowed him to do what he had to do to survive and exorcise a lot of his demons, through music. But there’s a lot of sadness and anger, which is pretty much at the core of what he does.”
He met Steinman while auditioning for a play. The two began working on Bat in 1972, finished a demo (with the help of Todd Rundgren) in 1975, and spent the next two years being rejected by every record label in the land, before someone took a chance and probably regretted it until March 1978, when Loaf appeared on Saturday Night Live and the album finally took off, propelled by a half-sappy, moon-pie Springsteen-on-acid-and-a-sugar-high-rush theatricality that’d never really been seen before and that blew right through the melancholy confines of the then-dominant punk scene.
A year later, without telling Loaf, Steinman holed up somewhere in New Jersey with Bruce Springsteen keyboardist Roy Bittan to work on a Bat follow-up. “And that pissed me off,” Loaf says. “I’m going, ‘No. That’s wrong,’ because Jim and I did everything together on Bat Out of Hell, and we need to do everything together. Roy Bittan. When I found out, I thought I was going to kill myself, and I think I had already tried, but I don’t remember it. What happened next is, I basically had a nervous breakdown.”
“From how I grew up, that’s where I learned to be tough and to never stop. I mean, I’m tough as nails. … Nothing, nothing has ever put me down. … I never go down.”
For the next few years, in fact, Loaf regressed into a pre-shot-put-to-the-noggin state and couldn’t sing. He’d open his mouth and, as Steinman once said, “he sounded literally like the little girl in The Exorcist . . . like a dragon trying to sing. It was a horrifying sound.” It took daily visits to a shrink for six months for him to get his voice back. After that, he released solo records that went nowhere, got into various big-money lawsuits with Steinman, finally patched things up with him, and together they staged one of the most startling comebacks in rock history with 1993’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell and the single “I’d Do Anything for Love.”
“From how I grew up,” Loaf says, “that’s where I learned to be tough and to never stop. I mean, I’m tough as nails. Once I was hit in the head with a pool cue and just turned to the guy and said, ‘You just made a big mistake.’ Got hit in the head with a whiskey bottle. Had my head slammed into a locker. I’ve had 18 concussions. And nothing, nothing has ever put me down. Yeah, man,” he says, “I never go down.”
The day is getting short, the light turning brittle, and Loaf has been sitting for far too long. “I’ve got to get up and walk,” he says, rising to his feet. “My back is driving me crazy. But then I’m probably a little crazy anyway, because of all the concussions.”
He gets behind the walker and shuffles forth, down a hallway past wife Deborah in the kitchen.
Along the way, he enumerates who he’s voted for: McGovern, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama the first term but not the second. As for Trump, whom he met several times while filming Celebrity Apprentice, he’s been reluctant to talk about him. It’s the same today. “I’m not gonna tell ya,” he says, mulishly, when asked who he voted for in 2016.
But if you shout at him loud enough, maybe moan something like, “Oh, come on!” he’ll once again demur, only to shrug, lower his voice and say, “I voted for Trump.” But that’s all he says. He doesn’t say why or how he feels about him now, which just about says it all regardless.
He presses forward, going deeper into the past. He’s got all this history, all these stories. There’s the time he gave Springsteen advice about how to make a music video. “I said, ‘You just can’t let your eyes go dead. When you’re lip-syncing, just repeat the words with your eyes and they won’t go dead.’ That’s working-the-camera 101. I told Billy Joel the same thing.” There’s the time he sat next to John Lennon in a diner and the only thing he could think to say was, “Pass the Sweet’N Low.”
Then he returns to Springsteen. “You know, your magazine started this thing where we stole everything for Bat Out of Hell from Springsteen and it was nothing but a rehash of Born to Run.” He shakes his head. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Where does Springsteen have a ‘Two Out of Three’? Where does he have a ‘Paradise’?’ The only thing that is close to Springsteen is the first verse from ‘Bat,’ and Steinman wrote that verse before Born to Run was released.”
“Look, I am a sex god. But I am not a rock star. … I don’t pretend to be [a legend]. I want to be just a normal human being.”
He’s back at his chair again, looking down, figuring the angles to get himself seated. He doesn’t know whether he’ll ever make another record, doesn’t know if he’ll ever tour again. It’s all dependent on the vagaries of his health. And Steinman, who rarely speaks to the press, seems to be in the same boat. “He doesn’t want me talking about his health, but I’m worried about him,” says Loaf. He adds, “You know, my dream was never to be a rock & roll star. I wanted to play professional football. I’ve never wanted to be a rock & roll star.”
“Oh, tell the truth,” says Deborah from the kitchen. “You sex god, you.”
Loaf smiles. “Look. I am a sex god. But I am not a rock star. When people call me a legend, I say, ‘Don’t call me that, I’m not a legend.’ I don’t pretend to be one. I want to be just a normal human being.”
But, of course, he’s never been normal. Normal would have died the second the 12-pound shot put landed on his skull. He’s Meat Loaf, the guy who right now says, “I’m not done unless you are.” Which seems to be just about right.
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