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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.