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.

Disappointment haunted all my dreams

Mention the name Michael Nesmith, and casual observers of classic rock music might not recognize it. Fans of The Monkees will surely remember him as the tall guitar player wearing a wool hat who often served as the voice of reason amidst the zany chaos of their weekly TV comedy series that ran from 1966-1968.

Michael Nesmith

But even fans of the band’s music and/or TV series might not know about Nesmith’s other notable accomplishments as a songwriter, band leader and video visionary. In light of Nesmith’s death last week at age 78, it seems appropriate to shed a little light on his life to broaden understanding of his talents and influence in the music business through the years.

But first, let’s get a little perspective:

I was only 11, so I didn’t really understand what was happening.  I was pretty much a pawn in the show business game of foisting a product upon an unsuspecting public. It was September 1966, and overnight, I joined millions of other teens and pre-teens in becoming a huge fan The Monkees.

“They’re going to be bigger than The Beatles!” I told my skeptical parents.  “They even have their own weekly TV show!”

This was just what the show’s producers were counting on — gullible American kids buying into the sanitized Hollywood vision of what a rock band should look like and sound like:  Four zany young guys with dreams of making it big, making their way through one silly weekly adventure after the next, always finding a way to work in a “performance” of at least one of their songs, which were often being heard concurrently on Top 40 radio.

And it worked.  For a while.

The half-hour NBC-TV show “The Monkees” was an instant hit in the ratings. At the Emmy Awards nine months later, the program scored an upset by winning Outstanding Comedy Series, triumphing over shows with far better credentials like “Bewitched,” “Get Smart,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Hogan’s Heroes.”

On the Billboard Pop charts, the first singles and albums released by The Monkees all went to #1 and stayed there for many weeks on end.  “I’m a Believer” was the #1 song in the nation for nearly three months.  Here’s a fact that still astonishes me today:  Year-end sales figures for 1967 show that more units of Monkees records were sold than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined!

But there was a fly in the ointment that soon derailed this runaway success.  When the public learned that the band members weren’t really playing the instruments on the records they were hearing or on the TV performances they were seeing, there was a backlash from which they never fully recovered.  Critics pounced, calling The Monkees “The Pre-Fab Four,” a derisive take on The Beatles’ “Fab Four” nickname.  The TV show lasted only one more season through continually sagging ratings, and was cancelled in the summer of 1968.

Still, there were six commercially huge hit singles between September 1966 and March 1968 that cemented The Monkees’ name in pop music history.  “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” all reached at least #3, with four of them topping the charts.  They’re so ingrained in my head that I could sing you every word of these songs right now, today.  But then the bottom fell out, with each successive single faring worse through 1968 and 1969, and by 1970, the jig was up.

In retrospect, the case can be made that the four individuals who comprised the band — Nesmith, Peter Tork, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz — were just as much pawns in this show business game as anybody.  They were hired not as musicians but as comic actors playing the roles of musicians in a TV sitcom.

Producer Bob Rafelson had come up with the concept of a TV show about a rock and roll group as early as 1960, but it wasn’t until The Beatles’ spectacular arrival and, more specifically, the success of their film “A Hard Day’s Night” in 1964 that Rafelson got the green light from Screen Gems, the TV arm of Columbia Pictures, to develop his idea.  At first he thought of using an existing pop band to star in the program, but after being turned down by the likes of The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Dave Clark Five, he decided to manufacture his own group.

Rafelson concluded that Jones, whose Broadway acting pedigree had already won him a contract with Screen Gems and Columbia as an actor/singer, would be an ideal choice for this project, bringing a charming Brit-pop sensibility.  The rest of the group would be found through auditions, just as was done with any other TV show at the time.

This was the ad copy that ran in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter:  “Madness!  Auditions.  Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for four insane boys age 17-21.”

Tork, a budding musician, won one of the three remaining parts, along with Dolenz, a former child actor who had starred in the inconsequential 1950s sitcom “The Circus Boy.”  Rounding out the quartet was Nesmith, by far the best musician of the four, a competent songwriter/guitarist with a droll sense of humor and a business acumen inherited from his mother, an executive secretary who had invented “Liquid Paper” correction fluid and built it into a multi-million-dollar company.

The foursome did what was asked of them, learning their lines and playing their parts on the show. When they showed up at the recording studio, however, Nesmith and Tork were disappointed to learn their musical skills would not be needed.  Dolenz and Jones were tapped to dub lead vocal parts onto the finished tracks.  The show’s musical supervisor was the notorious Don Kirshner, who had selected Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart from his stable of Brill Building pop songwriters to write and produce most of the songs for the group’s first album, “The Monkees,” which was essentially intended as a companion soundtrack to the TV show’s first season.

The first sign of trouble, as far as Nesmith was concerned, was when that debut LP appeared.  “The first album showed up and I looked at it and my heart sank, because it made us appear as if we were a bonafide rock ‘n’ roll band.  There was no credit given for the other musicians who actually played on the tracks.  I went completely ballistic, and said, ‘What are you people thinking?’  And the powers that be said, ‘Well, you know, it’s the fantasy.’  I said, ‘It’s not the fantasy.  You’ve crossed the line here.  You are now duping the public.  They know when they look at the television series that we’re not a rock ‘n’ roll band; it’s a show about a rock ‘n’ roll band.  Nobody for a minute believes that we are somehow this accomplished rock ‘n’ roll band that got their own television show.  You putting the record out like this is just beyond the pale.'”

Kirshner, irritated at Nesmith’s objections, plowed ahead, assembling a dozen more tracks recorded in the same manner and releasing them a mere three months later without the group’s knowledge as the second LP, “More of The Monkees.”  Despite the fact that the album was a big commercial hit, Nesmith and the other Monkees had reached their breaking point about what they felt was nothing short of fraud.  Nesmith persuaded the others to used their leverage to have Kirshner ousted, and The Monkees won creative control of all their recordings from then on.

On those initial two dozen recordings, the musical parts were handled largely by the seasoned pros who made up what was known in some circles as The Wrecking Crew.  Some names you might recognize:  guitarists Glen Campbell, James Burton and Louie Shelton; pianist Larry Knechtel (who later joined the soft-rock band Bread); drummer Hal Blaine; bassist Carol Kaye; percussionist Jim Gordon.  Also contributing were Carole King, who wrote “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and added piano and backing vocals, and Neil Diamond, who wrote “I’m a Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” and added guitar.

It’s kind of unfair that The Monkees were singled out for not playing much on their own records.  Truth be told, this wasn’t all that different from what occurred with other hip groups of the period.  On several of the big hits released by The Beach Boys (“I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Good Vibrations”) and The Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), the drums, bass, guitar and keyboard parts were played by Wrecking Crew session guys because the record label executives didn’t yet have confidence in the band members’ musical abilities.

Glenn Baker, author of “Monkeemania: The True Story of the Monkees,” put his finger on the real problem that tarnished The Monkees’ image, even to this day:  “The rise of the ‘Pre-fab Four’ coincided with rock’s desperate desire to cloak itself with the trappings of respectability and credibility.  Session players were being heavily employed by many acts of the time, but what could not be ignored, as rock disdained its pubescent past, was a group of middle-aged Hollywood businessmen had actually assembled their concept of a profitable rock group and foisted it upon the world.  What mattered was that the Monkees had success handed to them on a silver plate.  Indeed, it was not so much righteous indignation but thinly disguised jealousy which motivated the scornful dismissal of what must, in retrospect, be seen as an entertaining, imaginative and highly memorable exercise in pop culture.”

From my point of view as a teen in 1966-67, The Monkees were definitely entertaining.  My friends and I held instruments and pretended to be Monkees in school skits, aping their movements and lip-synching their lyrics.  The TV show offered half-hour escapes of mindless fun each Monday evening.  Most of the controversy surrounding their legitimacy was, frankly, just not important to me at the time.

The freedom The Monkees won to control their recorded output was complicated by the fact that they didn’t share a common vision regarding the band’s musical direction.  Nesmith favored leaning toward country rock and country blues, the direction his post-Monkees solo career would go.  Jones fancied the more showy Broadway-type music, while Tork and Dolenz enjoyed dabbling in psychedelia and other more avant-garde genres.  Still, they understood the need to maintain some continuity to what their young fan base expected, which was straightforward pop with accessible hooks.

Their 1967 singles “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Daydream Believer” are still enormously popular today, but their third and fourth LPs, “Headquarters” and “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.,” exemplified the group’s inner turmoil and rudderless direction (although both nevertheless reached #1 on the album charts).  By the time of the fifth LP, “The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees,” the TV show had been cancelled, and the experimental film and soundtrack they released in November 1968, “Head,” proved disastrous commercially, and Tork left the lineup. Efforts to continue as a threesome — 1969’s “Instant Replay” and 1970’s “The Monkees Present” — fell on deaf ears.  The end had come.

Nesmith formed the First National Band in 1970 with songwriting partner John London and steel guitar legend “Red” Rhodes and released three LPs in the space of a year, full of songs Nesmith had been writing throughout the ’60s. But his role as a Monkee haunted him for years to come. His upbringing in Texas had given him his country music roots, and although his pop-star status tarnished his credibility among many musicians at the time, he is now mentioned in the same breath with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers as pioneers of the country rock genre.

(Remember “Different Drum,” the country flavored hit single from 1967 by The Stone Poneys, with then-unknown Linda Ronstadt on lead vocals? Nesmith wrote it.)

It’s interesting to note that both The Monkees’ music and TV show are now regarded with more respect than at their time of release.  If you analyze some of the TV episodes, you’ll find, amidst the silliness, some groundbreaking creativity.  During an era of formulaic domestic sitcoms and corny comedies, it was a stylistically ambitious show, with a distinctive visual style and tempo, an absurdist sense of humor and almost radical story structure.  It utilized quick edits strung together with interview segments and even occasional documentary footage.

It rarely gets the credit for it, but The Monkees’ show was one of the essential pioneers of the music video format. Indeed, in 1979, Nesmith created and produced “PopClips,” a music video TV show that ran on Nickelodeon in 1980-81. He was also behind the VHS release of “Elephant Parts,” a collection of comedy sketches and music videos that saw significant sales in 1981 and won the first Grammy in the Music Video category that year. Warner Cable, who owned Nickelodeon, took Nesmith’s concept, made some minor adjustments, and launched MTV, the game-changing phenomenon of music delivery in the 1980s.

Writing in 2012 at the time of Jones’ death, columnist James Poniewozik said, “Even if ‘The Monkees’ never meant to be more than harmless entertainment and a hit-single generator, we shouldn’t sell it short.  It was far better TV than it had to be.  In fact, ‘The Monkees’ was the opening salvo in a revolution that brought on the New Hollywood cinema, an influence rarely acknowledged but no less impactful.  As a pop culture phenomenon, The Monkees paved the way for just about every boy band that followed in their wake, from New Kids on the Block to ‘N Sync to the Jonas Brothers, while Davy set the stage for future teen idols David Cassidy and Justin Bieber.  You would be hard pressed to find a successful artist who didn’t take a page from The Monkees’ playbook, even generations later.”

Numerous Monkees revival tours have been met with huge, adoring crowds, mostly aging Sixties kids looking for nostalgic memories.  Ironically, MTV re-aired the TV show in the late ’80s, and a new generation of fans hopped on The Monkees’ train.  New albums in 1987 (“Pool It!”) and again in 1996 (“Justus”) weren’t commercial or critical successes, but they served their purpose of keeping The Monkees name before the public.  Tours usually featured only three of the four principals (either Nesmith or Tork holding out), but that didn’t seem to matter to those who bought tickets to see them.

Many middle-aged women wept in 2012 when their teen idol Davy Jones died of a heart attack at age 66.  Social media activity was substantial and brought about increased sales of Monkees material.  Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith collaborated once more on the praised 2016 album “Good Times!” which features several tracks written and sung by Nesmith ( “Me & Magdelena,” “I Know What I Know”).

In 2019, Tork died of cancer at age 77. Dolenz and Nesmith resumed touring in 2020 as “The Monkees Live: The Mike and Micky Show,” and their final performance came at the Greek Theater in L.A. in November of this year, only a month before Nesmith died of heart failure.

He may have had his share of disappointments, but his legacy is intact among those in the know.

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The Spotify playlist below includes The Monkees’ biggest hits, plus Monkees songs written and/or sung by Nesmith, and a sampling of tracks from Nesmith’s solo career.