It never felt so good, it never felt so right

As the story goes, a Texas woman named Wilma Oday gave birth in 1947 to “nine pounds of ground chuck,” as Wilma’s husband Orvis described the infant’s reddish appearance.

Marvin Lee Aday soon came to be known by his initials “M.L.,” which also stood for Meat Loaf among those who would bully and tease the boy for his large, chubby frame.

That this kid would grow up to become one of the most unlikely rock stars of his generation speaks volumes about how serendipity, perseverance and a phenomenal voice can combine to create one of the best-selling albums in the history of rock and roll.

Meat Loaf died last week at age 74. There’s no official word on the cause of death but it appears to be due to complications from the coronavirus. What a sad ending to a dramatic life.

But I don’t want to dwell on that, because this is a rock music blog, not a medical science forum or political soapbox. Let us focus, if you please, on Meat Loaf’s talents, his accomplishments and his unique story that thrilled many millions of record buyers and concert goers between his dizzying debut LP in 1977 and his passing in 2022.

The man’s name may have been Marvin Aday (which he later changed to Michael), but the entire world knew him as Meat Loaf, which means that, on second reference, I’m supposed to refer to him as Loaf, which seems either awkward or amusing. (The staid New York Times, following its formal newswriting style, would always refer to him as “Mr. Loaf,” which I found hilarious.)

Getting the facts about this guy’s story is a challenge, largely because he relished the opportunity to continually embellish it with fantastic tall tales that contributed to his larger-than-life persona. In most articles published since his death, the authors have conceded that they don’t know for sure which anecdotes are fact and which are fiction.

For example, Meat Loaf himself claimed that when he was 16, he was hit in the head with a 12-pound shot put thrown from 50 feet away, and woke up the next morning with a three-octave voice of great power and nuance. True? It’s never been verified, but it makes great copy. In a 2013 interview, he stated he had survived 18 concussions, eight car crashes and a three-story fall. Any proof of this? Nope.

Here’s another: When his mother passed away in 1966 when Loaf was 19, he insisted that his violent, alcoholic father tried to kill him following her funeral, kicking open Loaf’s bedroom door and coming at him with a butcher knife. “I rolled off the bed just as he put that knife right in my mattress,” he had said. “I fought for my life. Apparently I broke three of his ribs and his nose, and left the house barefoot in gym shorts and a T-shirt.” (Note the use of the word “apparently.” Even Loaf isn’t sure what happened.)

What we do know for certain is that Loaf played tackle on his high school football team but also sang in his high school chorus and appeared in drama productions of “The Music Man” and “Where’s Charley?” His passion for and abilities in the arts led him to Los Angeles in the late ’60s, where he shone in rock and soul bands while also appearing in stage productions. His band Floating Circus warmed up for bands like The Who, The Stooges and the Grateful Dead, and concurrently, he appeared in the L.A. cast of “Hair.” Improbably, this led to a contract with Motown, where he was teamed with Shaun “Stoney” Murphy and, as Stoney and Meatloaf, released one album in 1971 that included a single “What You See is What You Get,” which managed to reach #36 on R&B charts (and #74 on the pop charts).

Meat Loaf in 1971

Overall, though, Loaf found his initial experience in the music business to be unsatisfying. He once said his biggest struggle in life was “not being taken seriously in the music industry. They treated me like a circus clown.”

Consequently, he pursued theater arts again by moving to New York and rejoining the cast of “Hair,” this time on Broadway, and also appeared in several other productions alongside future acting stars like Raul Julia, Mary Beth Hurt and Ron Silver. In 1973, Loaf appeared in an L.A.-based production of Richard O’Brien’s notoriously campy “The Rocky Horror Show,” a chaotic but hugely successful mix of science fiction, B horror movies, transvestism and ’50s rock and roll. When the play was made into the film “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in 1975, Loaf was again cast as the deranged Eddie, a small but important role that led to bit parts in more than 50 movies over several decades. Most were forgettable, but his appearances in “Wayne’s World,” “Black Dog,” “Spice World” and “Fight Club” drew good reviews.

Meat Loaf as Eddie in “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in 1975

In 1973, during his time with “Rocky Horror,” Loaf met eccentric songwriter-producer Jim Steinman, who had been working on developing “Neverland,” a futuristic rock version of the Peter Pan story, for which he had written several lengthy, grandiose songs. Steinman worked with Loaf on the set of the stage show “National Lampoon: Lemmings,” where Loaf served as understudy to John Belushi. Hearing and seeing Loaf sing and perform convinced Steinman that the two should collaborate, and with singer Ellen Foley also involved, they set out to create demos of four of his songs: “Bat Out of Hell,” “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”

Each of these extravagant, theatrical tracks were presented to, and rejected by, dozens of record companies over the next couple of years. They were told the material didn’t fit any “recognized music industry styles,” a typically myopic view that record executives have adopted in almost every decade of the rock era.

Enter Todd Rundgren, songwriter/singer/producer and still one of the true innovators in rock. “They set up in a rehearsal studio, Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf and (singer) Ellen Foley, just the three of them, and they essentially performed most of what turned out to be the first record for me. I saw the whole presentation as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen, a guy who I thought needed to be spoofed. That’s why I decided to get involved. There was a lot of interesting stuff in there.  Steinman kind of wove this sense of humor into the material in a way that Springsteen didn’t.  I was rolling on the floor laughing at how over-the-top and pretentious it was.  I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this album.’”

Rundgren added guitar parts and brought in his bandmates from Utopia, plus Edgar Winter on sax, and even Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, pianist and drummer with The E Street Band. Rundgren brought an intensity and “Wall of Sound” richness to the production, befitting the bombastic nature of the material.

“Bat Out of Hell” wasn’t well received in the US upon its release. Critics found it overly operatic and ostentatious, and radio program directors didn’t quite know what to make of it. Some DJs embraced it from the beginning, like the great Kid Leo on Cleveland’s dominant WMMS-FM, but it was slow to get any sort of national attention. Intense, persistent marketing efforts by Steve Popovich of Epic Record’s Cleveland International label eventually paid off, and once Meat Loaf and company performed on “Saturday Night Live” in March 1978, the floodgates opened. Suddenly, there was praise. As critic Stephen Erlewine put it, “It’s epic, gothic, and silly, and it’s appealing because of all of this. Steinman is a composer without peer, simply because nobody else wants to make mini-epics like this. It may elevate adolescent passion to operatic dimensions, but it’s hard not to marvel at the skill behind this grandly pompous yet irresistible album.”

“Bat Out of Hell” now ranks third on the list of all-time most successful albums, with more than 45 million albums sold. It still sells something like 200,000 units a year.

Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf in 1978

Meat Loaf and his ensemble toured relentlessly as momentum continued to build, which took its toll on the star, who was diagnosed with a chronic heart condition made worse by his frenetic delivery on stage. He was advised to step away from performing for a while, but he eventually resumed recording, with and without Steinman on hand to write songs for him.

Four Meat Loaf LPs in the 1980s — “Dead Ringer” (1981), “Midnight at the Lost and Found” (1983), “Bad Attitude” (1984) and especially “Blind Before I Stop” (1986) — stiffed pretty badly in the US, although they always seemed to find an appreciative audience in Britain. It wasn’t until Loaf and Steinman reunited fully in 1993 and had the audacity to release “Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell” that they were able to pull off one of rock’s greatest comebacks. The album matched the first one’s grandiosity, reaching #1 in a dozen countries, and its lead single, “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” also topped the charts around the world.

Loaf’s 1995 follow-up, “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” did respectably, as did the single, “I’d Lie For You (And That’s the Truth).” But by 2006, it was clear he’d gone to the well one time too many. He and Steinman had had a series of legal disputes that delayed production of “Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose,” and it showed. Critics pounced, calling it “overblown and frequently ridiculous.” The fact that it’s the only Meat Loaf LP unavailable on Spotify says all you need to know.

Throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, Loaf seesawed between suffering poor-health episodes (heart attack, shattered leg, exhaustion/collapse) and following a physical therapy regimen that permitted periodic returns to touring. You’ve got to give him credit for staying in the game for as long as he did.

Many people, including my wife, regard the original “Bat Out of Hell” album as life-changing, an absolute classic of teenage angst and bravado, and I’m inclined to agree. I’m crazy about the title song, and the funny sex romp of “Paradise” never fails to liven up a party. Without question, it has earned its place in the pantheon of pivotal rock and roll music. Not bad for a guy who Foley once described this way: “Growing up in a bumfuck Texas town, he might have become a serial killer or the guy who shot up the local 7-Eleven. 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.”

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I’ve assembled a Meat Loaf playlist on Spotify that features songs from throughout his career, many of which, admittedly, I didn’t know until I took a deep dive into his catalog over the past seven days. Naturally, my list emphasizes the “Bat Out of Hell” material, but also includes early tracks like his “Rocky Horror” moment, “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul,” and other worthy tracks from his later years.

Somebody tell me what it’s all about

I’ve received quite a lot of response to the posts I’ve made here where I reveal the back story and true meaning behind some well-known classic rock songs.

In two installments in 2021, I explained (or let the composers explain) what the less-than-clear lyrics were really driving at, and many readers said they were surprised to learn things about songs they thought they knew. I featured songs like Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” Yes’s “Roundabout” and Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” which each have fascinating origin stories. You can read about them at these links: https://hackbackpages.com/2021/05/07/lord-do-you-know-what-i-mean/

https://hackbackpages.com/2021/07/30/were-gonna-find-out-what-its-all-about/

In the week’s post, I offer background information on eight more songs you thought you knew. This is the kind of stuff I love to research and write about, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading about them. As is customary, there is a Spotify playlist at the end so you can conveniently hear these tunes anew.

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“Baba O’Riley,” The Who, 1971

Many people think this epic track by The Who is titled “Teenage Wasteland,” from the oft-repeated line in the lyrics. But in fact, Pete Townshend came up with the title by merging the names of two people that inspired him the most at that time in his life: Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master with hundreds of thousands of followers, and Terry Riley, an influential but obscure American composer who experimented with minimalist concepts. Both pursued the idea of oneness — the notion of one absolute deity, and music with modal repetition of one note. Townshend wrote the piece as his vision of what would happen if the spirit of Meher Baba was fed into a computer and transformed into music. The result would be Baba in the style of Riley, or “Baba O’Riley.” It was to be the leadoff track of “Lifehouse” (another rock opera to follow “Tommy”), about a Scottish family that would set out across the hinterland for London, where a divine concert was to be held. The project was aborted, but this and several other songs from it were collected for the “Who’s Next” LP in 1971. Following The Who’s performances at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight festivals in 1969, Townshend said he was disturbed to see the acres of trash and all the drug-addled teenagers which, together, comprised what he disparagingly called “teenage wasteland.”

“Fire and Rain,” James Taylor, 1970

As the song that introduced Taylor to the mainstream, “Fire and Rain” is a remarkably personal work, much more so than any of his other hits. The chorus is straightforward enough, referring to life’s balance between the good times (“I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end”) and bad times (“I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend”) he has experienced. The verses, though, are separate vignettes about different challenges he has had to face. First he agonizes over the news that his troubled friend Suzanne had committed suicide six months earlier (“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone”). Then he shares how difficult it has been to recover from depression and addiction, calling out for help one day at a time: “Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus? You gotta help me make a stand, you’ve just got to see me through another day…” In verse three, he comes to grips with fame and fortune, and mentions the struggles he had in his first band, The Flying Machine, before his big break (“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”). He concludes with a final reference to his friend (“Thought I’d see you one more time again”) and a nod to his imminent success (“There’s just a few things coming my way this time around now…”).

“In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins, 1981

This powerful song, full of restless anticipation, was the leadoff track and first single from Collins’s first solo LP, “Face Value,” released in 1981. It reached #1 across Europe and #2 in the UK but managed only #19 in the US. I think it’s one of his very best songs ever — sonically, melodically and lyrically. Many listeners interpreted the song’s primary couplet (“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, /I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life, oh Lord”) as full of hope and excitement, but in fact, Collins wrote the song amid the grief he felt after divorcing his first wife in 1980. “I had a wife, two children, two dogs, and the next day I didn’t have anything,” he said in 1981. “So songs like ‘In the Air Tonight’ reflect the fact that I was going through these difficult emotional changes.” The mood is one of restrained anger, told in words that are seriously bitter and resentful: “Well, if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand… You can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been, /It’s all been a pack of lies…” The music builds fairly ominously until the final chorus brings an explosive burst of drums to finally release the musical tension. Originally, Collins had offered it to his bandmates in Genesis as a track for their 1980 LP “Duke,” but they chose to turn him down, a decision they later regretted, said keyboardist Tony Banks. “It’s a hell of a song,” he conceded.

“Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Elton John, 1975

In 1968, before Elton John became popular, and before he had acknowledged (even to himself) that he was gay, he became engaged to a female friend named Linda Woodrow. She had been a fan of the music he and collaborator Bernie Taupin were writing, and the three of them were sharing a place in London’s East End. Elton and Linda weren’t intimate, and he didn’t really love her, but she was putting on the hard-court press and, having just turned 21, he figured this was the next step people took at this time in their lives. Still, he felt uneasy about it, so much so that he even made a halfhearted attempt to kill himself with a gas oven in his home. Finally, it was John’s gay friend Long John Baldry who stepped in, publicly scolding him. “What are you doing living with a fucking woman? Wake up and smell the roses. You’re gay. Hell, you love Bernie more than you love her!” He broke it off with Linda the next morning and never saw her again. Six years later, for the 1975 LP “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” Taupin wrote the story of that evening as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” with these harsh words about Linda: “You almost had your hooks in me, didn’t you dear? You nearly had me roped and tied, alter-bound, hypnotized…” Despite its 6:45 length, it reached #4 on US charts as perhaps Elton John’s most personal single of all.

“Smoke on the Water,” Deep Purple, 1972

Ian Paice, drummer for Deep Purple throughout its lengthy career arc, had this to say about the band’s most well-known song: “The amazing thing with that song, and Ritchie (Blackmore)’s riff in particular, is that somebody hadn’t done it before, because it’s so gloriously simple and wonderfully satisfying.” Indeed. Total Guitar ranked “Smoke on the Water” #4 among the Top 20 Guitar Riffs of All Time, and it’s one of the first riffs every aspiring electric guitarist learns. The track was released on their “Machine Head” album in 1972, but the song didn’t become a Top Five hit single until more than a year later. As for the words, they’re not much of a mystery, but many folks may not realize that the lyrics tell a true story. In December 1971, Deep Purple had gone to Montreux, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, where they had planned to record their next album at the Montreux Casino complex, using the then-new Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. Unfortunately, at the venue’s final concert before closing for the season, a reckless fan of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention — “some stupid with a flare gun” — fired into the rattan-covered ceiling, which started a fire that burned the entire facility to ashes. From their hotel room across the lake, the band members could see only “smoke on the water, fire in the sky” as they watched “the biggest fire we’d ever seen.” The incident required the band to relocate to the abandoned Grand Hôtel de Territet nearby to quickly record their album in a makeshift manner. “No matter what we get out of this, I know we’ll never forget,” wrote singer/lyricist Ian Gillan.

“Shock the Monkey,” Peter Gabriel, 1980

A cursory look through the early albums in the Genesis catalog, when Gabriel was the colorful frontman, show he has a flair for fantasy and mystery, with dense lyrics that often had fans scratching their heads. This continued to a lesser extent once he went solo in 1977 with curious songs like “Solsbury Hill” and “Games Without Frontiers.” Gabriel raised the eyebrows of animal rights groups when his 1980 LP “Security” featured the song “Shock the Monkey” as its single. They overreacted to the suspicion that he was advocating using primates in objectionable laboratory tests. Gabriel dismissed these fears by explaining that it was actually a love song that examines how feelings of jealousy and rage can release our basic primal instincts. Indeed, he added that the original inspiration for the song’s lyrical motif came from, of all things, the cheesy 1962 monster film “King Kong Vs. Godzilla,” in which the enormous ape experienced a revived jolt of energy after being struck by lightning. Gabriel’s narrator warns his lover not to toy with his jealous feelings: “There is one thing you must be sure of, I can’t take any more, /Darling, don’t you monkey with the monkey, /Don’t you know you’re going to shock the monkey…”

“China Grove,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973

Early on in The Doobie Brothers’ career, they were on an extended road trip through Texas when they passed through the “blink and you’ll miss it” small town of China Grove just east of San Antonio. Songwriter Tom Johnston tucked that town’s name into his subconscious and, six months later, he retrieved it in order to write some lyrics to go with a killer riff/chords combination he’d been working on. “Most of my songs begin with the musical structure, the rhythm, the melody line,” said Johnston, “and the lyrics come later. All that middle bit about the sheriff and the samurai swords was inspired by Billy Payne’s rollicking piano parts.” Johnston came up with a tale about a few fictitious characters who lived there (“the preacher and the teacher, Lord, they’re a caution, they are the talk of the town…”), and how the town is full of “people (who) don’t seem to care, they just keep looking to the East…” Despite the town’s name and Johnston’s lyrics, fewer than 1% of the tiny population is Asian. It turns out the town was named China Grove because of a small grove of chinaberry trees that once stood near the train depot.

“Locomotive Breath,” Jethro Tull, 1971

I’ve been a fanatical follower of the music of Jethro Tull and its leader, Ian Anderson, since I first heard the debut LP “This Was” in a Cleveland record store in 1969. Once “Aqualung” was released in 1971, I was really obsessed, listening to that album every day for probably six months. “Locomotive Breath” has been a huge favorite of mine, and it became one of the two most often performed songs in the Tull catalog over the decades since. As for the lyrics, I was always taken by the sense of desperation in the lines, “And the train, it won’t stop going, no way to slow down.” But I was surprised to learn only recently that Anderson was actually talking obliquely about the problem of overpopulation. As he put it in 2016: “‘Locomotive Breath’ was about the runaway train of population growth and capitalism, and on those sorts of unstoppable ideas. We’re on this crazy train, and we can’t get off of it. Where is it going? Will it ever slow down? When I was born in 1947, the population of the planet was slightly less than a third of what it is today, so it should be a sobering thought that in one man’s lifetime, our population has more than tripled. You’d think population growth would have brought prosperity, happiness, food and a reasonable spread of wealth, but quite the opposite has happened, and is happening even more to this day.”

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