Meat Loaf, a large man who made me think less of Bruce Springsteen and once saved my life, is dead. He was 74 years old, or thereabouts.
He was born Marvin Lee Aday in Dallas at some point between 1947 and 1951, depending on the source. Aday played football in high school and came up with a stage name befitting somebody who looked like he never missed a meal before getting his first show business break: a role as Eddie in 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film beloved by a generation for its endless midnight movie showings across America. His comfort foodie handle became ubiquitous for a time after teaming up with unknown but ambitious songwriter Jim Steinman to record Bat Out of Hell, an album released in late 1977 that aimed as high and sounded as big as any rock opera that preceded it. The record would sell tens of millions of copies. He was once identified as “Mr. Loaf” by The New York Times, though a friend of mine whose family once did contracting work for the singer says he always insisted, “Call me ‘Meat.’”
Back to me: I grew up in Falls Church, Va., but as a teenager in the late 1970s, I began spending large chunks of my summers with my cousins in Queens. New York was the wild west and, though the whole place smelled like pee in August, paradise to me. I would spend my days playing really intense neighborhood-wide wiffle ball games in the streets of Astoria, going to Mets games with free tickets from a guy across the street who worked at Shea Stadium, and drinking 25-cent draughts in the corner bar. Life could not possibly get better than this. It was there in the summer of 1978 that I was exposed to Meat Loaf. Bat Out Of Hell was everywhere; it seemed the soundtrack of the city.
I came back to D.C. in early August because Falls Church High School football practice was starting, and also because I had tickets to see Bruce Springsteen at the Capital Centre. I had been a massive fan of Springsteen from his first LP, which got oodles of play on the local cool station, WHFS. And as if it were yesterday I remember sitting on the hood of a Pinto drinking warm beers on a summer night (no soft rain, alas) with my buddy Louie listening to an 8-track of Born to Run and just feeling happy as hell and being so excited about that Cap Centre show. I was awed by the massiveness of “Jungleland” and, surely related to my desire to identify with all things NYC over suburban Virginia, fell for Springsteen’s urban rebel pose. The concert, a three-hour sweatfest, indeed hit me like a train.
But something wild happened right after my return to Falls Church. I had asked my sister to take me to Loehmann’s Plaza, a local strip mall, so I could go to Kemp Mill Records and buy Bat Out of Hell, the album that all of New York seemed abuzz about. On the way home, she wanted to stop at Safeway, a grocery store across the street. While she shopped, I stood by the exit doors, reading the liner notes of my new album. I grew up an obsessive rock trivia nerd, and there were lots of nuggets here. Like, hey, this was produced by Todd Rundgren, the “Hello It’s Me” guy! And Edgar Winter, the albino dude who did “Frankenstein,” plays sax! And, coolest of all, Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, from Springsteen’s E Street Band, are on it! No wonder this was so huge in Astoria!
While I was taking all this in, I noticed some commotion and heard some raised voices in the store around me, but was too involved in eating up the cool minutiae from the Meat Loaf sleeve to find out what it was about. My inertia was disrupted, however, by somebody brushing against me while running out the Safeway door. I looked up as he sprinted into the parking lot like a bat out of hell, and saw that the guy was carrying a pistol. He’d just held up the Safeway. I’d never seen an armed robbery outside of the movies and television to that point in my life, and I’m fairly certain that I’d never actually seen anybody with a handgun other than a policeman. In the moment I was exhilarated by being sort of a witness to the crime, because I was young and stupid. But pretty quickly, as I replayed the events in my head, I realized how lucky I was to be preoccupied as the robbery took place, since I was semi-blocking the armed perpetrator’s getaway path. There’s zero chance I would have tried to be a hero. But had I been paying attention, I might have made some wrong move or done something to annoy this armed, frantic man, and that could surely have ended badly for me. Doing nothing was the best possible tack. And I did nothing all because of Bat Out Of Hell. Meat Loaf, I joked and also kinda believed, saved my life.
I got home and listened to the record, but even with the heaps of goodwill I had for Meat Loaf from that Safeway incident, I never took to it. I was to insecure as a rock and roll fan to embrace the bombast and the cheesiness served up in unfamiliar abundance here. I put Bat Out of Hell back in my album stack and never played it again.
Fast forward to 2005. I went to see Meat for the first time, to write up his concert at Wolf Trap, an amphitheater outside D.C., for the Washington Post. He hadn’t been on the charts in more than a decade and he was a complete physical wreck. His voice was shot, and he was often so out of breath that death seemed not only possible but imminent. But Meat gave his best to deliver every song that the fans came for with every ounce of bombast and cheesiness he’d put into the material all those years ago. And at some point in the nearly two-hour performance, while winning over everybody in the crowd with sweat and nostalgia, it occurred to me that Meat Loaf had been mocking Springsteen his whole career. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” it seemed so obvious, was “Jungleland” without the street cred.
A couple years after what I thought was my pithy revelation, I read an interview with Rundgren where he not only admitted ripping off Springsteen while recording Meat Loaf’s debut, he boasted about it. He said he set out to craft the record “as a spoof” of Springsteen.
“You take all the [Springsteen] trademarks—overlong songs, teenage angst, handsome loner—and turn them upside down,” Rundgren said. “So we made these epic songs, full of the silly puns that Steinman loves. If Bruce Springsteen can take it over the top, Meat Loaf can take it five stories higher than that—and at the same time, he’s this big, sweaty, unappealing character. Yet we out-Springsteened Springsteen.”
Meat Loaf didn’t outlive the Boss, we now know. No cause of death has been released. As I try to do in times like these, I will now go put on Bat Out Of Hell and think good thoughts about Meat. It’s the least I can do for a man who, you know, saved my life.