There was never anything cool about Meat Loaf. He was a beacon to those of us who were always, whatever we did, just a little bit naff. Twelve-year-old boys attempting to grow their hair while playing Dungeons and Dragons. Girls with T-shirts showing wolves and full moons in forests. But yeah, mostly the boys. Before Peter Jackson made it ok for grown-ups to like elves and orcs, Meat Loaf was there living a life full of leather jackets, loudly revving motorbikes, B-movie horror and flames. To all of us geeks, nerds, dorks and misfits, he brought the bombastic revelation that feelings are always bigger than their containers, that you can be sincere and preposterous at the same time, that alpha masculinity isn't the only kind. He seemed at ease with his contradictions in a way I wanted to be.
To twelve-year-old me listening to Bat Out of Hell II, Meat Loaf offered a way of being a man that didn’t fit in in some of the same ways I didn't. He was straight, but not in the usual ways. You can paint your nails, and have feelings, and wear velvet trousers and seventeenth-century shirts, and still be a man. Let’s not pretend Meat Loaf’s material, or his life, is a model of anti-patriarchy, but for me he did enough to point the direction.
I didn’t listen to him much after the age of twelve or thirteen. From fourteen to sixteen I listened entirely (I'm not kidding) to either heavy metal or showtunes, when I could have got both at once by just continuing to listen to Meat Loaf. The monsters and posturing of Iron Maiden were just as daft as Meat Loaf’s wolves and strut, but the New Wave of British Heavy Metal wasn’t complicated by anything so troubling as real human emotion. Cats and Starlight Express, on the other hand, boil down emotion to the size of a sweet so that it doesn’t ever have to touch the sides. Both these things filled a need in me that they couldn't on their own. I was sixteen before I got into anything I'd still listen to, but before that point everything was just variations on Meat Loaf (and Queen, I suppose, but that's another story).
From his obituaries I learn that Meat Loaf was in about seventy movies. Somehow every time I saw him in one I thought it was quite a coup for them to have got him. In the same way as Tom Waits gets cast by directors who want to signify a kind of hardboiled drunken rapscallionism, hoping (usually forlornly] that Waits’ unrelenting wit and invention will somehow wash off on the movie, so Meat Loaf’s job on screen was simply to signify himself. He represented, and represents, a particular kind of technicolour masculinity. Somehow he was always playing a bouncer, even when he wasn’t. He was operatic, yet reassuringly beery. He might not quite fit the normative behavioural categories of cishet masculinity, but in the end you couldn't say he really disrupted them that much.
My move away from him (and from a lot of other heavy rock) coincided with starting to paint my nails and experiment with eyeliner. The Manic Street Preachers were as swaggeringly preposterous as Metallica or Guns N Roses, but instead of beer they had glitter; instead of monsters they had politics. Meanwhile, Meat Loaf’s politics were awful. He endorsed McCain and Romney, he praised Trump. He was an anti-masker and reportedly an anti-vaxxer. The world he performed in his songs was a 1950s WASP world of drive-in movies and endless highways, Friday night dances without Bruce Springsteen's working week, a male-gaze world where women always offer their throat to the wolf with the red roses. I can't deny that world formed me. But I don't want to live in it.
Still, this morning, for old time's sake, we put on “Bat Out of Hell” and danced to it with the kids. It’s even more dizzyingly ridiculous and propulsive than you remember. Longer, too. It spends the first two minutes introducing four separate musical themes, all of them foaming with adrenaline, before the vocal even comes in. A decade earlier (unbelievably, this is only nine years after "Hey Jude"), pop songs were mostly done inside three minutes; three minutes into "Bat Out of Hell" we’re not even at the first chorus. Five minutes in, the structure can't bear any more weight, it starts to crack open, it grinds to a halt. In any normal song this would be the end. At this point "Bat Out of Hell" erupts, spewing out testosterone and lava for another five minutes of motorbikes guitar solos, and keening laments where even the slow bits are unnervingly uptempo, revving up, screeching to a halt, revving up, then slamming through another wall. LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL. Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock operas are relatively restrained; this is Wile E Coyote's Acme rock opera, on heroin, standing on the seat of a motorbike, hurtling the wrong way down Route 66. LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL.
Lots of bands and artists have that one song they do that's immensely long. "Bohemian Rhapsody" (a mere six minutes), "Stairway to Heaven", "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", "Hey Jude". With Meat Loaf outlandishly long songs aren't statements, they're the norm: "I Would do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" is eight minutes, as is "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", though some versions are as long as twelve. "Dead Ringer for Love" and "Two Outta Three Ain't Bad" are unusually short at a mere six and five respectively, but they still seem amped up on steroids, out of proportion with normal songs. There's nothing of restraint here. It's all far too much. The Hammer nonsense, the melodrama, the nerve. It’s in absolutely terrible taste. Despite everything I find I still love it.
Do you love me? Will you love me forever? Do you need me? Will you never leave me? I’ll probably never listen to Meat Loaf again, but I don’t need to. It'll make me so happy for the rest of my life just for having been there thirty years ago when I needed it. The music you get into at twelve stays part of you: I don’t ever need to listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “You Give Love a Bad Name” or “Summer of ‘69” again either. There’s nothing cool about any of this, but fuck cool. Music is a way of learning how to be yourself, if you let it, and Meat Loaf was an important stage of that for me.
Running with an idea
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