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A Few Last Words From Meat Loaf: In an Unpublished Interview, the Singer Reveals Secrets of ‘Bat Out of Hell’

In a 2016 conversation being published for the first time by Variety, Meat Loaf gets into the nitty-gritty of his most famous album ¡ª including the fact that, besides being underestimated by critics, it's "f---ing funny!"

US musician Meat Loaf sits in
Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In 2016, I went into a conference room in Beverly Hills to spend a couple hours talking with Meat Loaf, who had just finished recording what would be his final studio album, “Braver Than We Are.” The project found him dipping into nearly 50 years’ worth of Jim Steinman songs that he’d never gotten to or that had been newly revised, and he also brought in Ellen Foley and Karla DeVito for cameos to really make the project feel like old home week, as much he was adamantly opposed to trying to recreate the sound of his 1977 breakout, “Bat Out of Hell.”

The purpose of our get-together was to create some press notes for “Braver Than We Are,” but the conversation often detoured toward “Bat,” his history with Steinman, the rejection they experienced before becoming stars, and the working methods he used in firmly believing that he was an actor above all, and a singer secondarily. Almost none of that 2016 chat ever saw the light of day, but with Meat Loaf having died on Thursday, it seems like an appropriate occasion for Variety to bring some of our lively conversation out from the vault, as we say a last adieu to Marvin Lee Aday.

Is it difficult to put out a new album, knowing that it’s going to be rated against a classic?

There are fans out there that are gonna not like it, because it’s not like “Bat Out of Hell.” It’s like Springsteen trying to recreate “Born to Run”—it’s not gonna happen. You’re not gonna ever be able to do “Bat Out of Hell” again. There will never be another “Paradise.” You might get another pop song like “Took the Words,” which we have, but it’s not like “Took the Words.” But there are people that say they’re fans that only own “Bat Out of Hell,” and it drives me crazy. Because they come to shows, and expect me to sound like I did when I was 26. And besides that, “Bat Out of Hell” had to be sped up to get on vinyl. So, I’ve never sounded like that. [Laughs.]

That album was sped up?

The song “Who Needs the Young” [finally released on “Braver Than We Are”] was originally going on “Bat Out of Hell.” And Todd (Rundgren, the producer) didn’t like it. And then he said, “Plus, you can’t put it on the record because we don’t have time.” Because we were dealing with vinyl, and vinyl, with a rock record, the maximum was like 49 and a half minutes, and we were almost 52. So they sped that record up by almost a minute and a half, because if not, you couldn’t get any volume. You could make a symphonic record 53 or 54 and still get some volume out of it, because there’s no drums and no electric guitars. So that’s how much we sped that record up. When “Two Out of Three” would come on the radio when it was a hit, man, I sounded like Alvin from the Chipmunks! It would come on the radio and I would turn it off. Usually people want to hear themselves on the radio, but “Two” would come on and I’d go, “Not gonna listen to that.” [He imitates the sound of his voice on the song, in a comically warbly way.] “Maybe we can talk all night…” I could walk out there and sing it live like that and sound just like the record, but I’d be a complete fool, because people wouldn’t believe a word of it. It drove me nuts. It still does to this day — obviously, you can tell.

“Bat” is considered one of the biggest international sellers of all time, although there never seems to be a clear reading on exactly how many tens of millions it sold or where it ranks.

I don’t know really whether it’s No. 3 or No. 5 in all-time sales. It depends on which newspaper or magazine you get your hands on. The L.A. Times has it at No. 3; the San Francisco Chronicle has it No. 3; the New York Times has it No. 3. And after Whitney Houston died, on Wikipedia it was 3, and all of a sudden Whitney Houston became 3. Because you can write anything you want on Wikipedia. Somebody mentioned that there’s some newspaper article saying Whitney Houston’s record sold 43 million, and that’s their premise for saying that. I don’t really care. 5 is good, 3 is good, 4 is good. Top 5 — hey, come on.

Only some celestial accountant knows for sure, right?

I think it’s No. 3. That’s my opinion. But if they want to say it’s 5, that’s good!

What was happening with the early stages of “Bat,” when Jim was writing it?

“Took the Words” was the first song he wrote for “Bat Out of Hell,” and he already had “Heaven Can Wait” and “Crying Out Loud,” and then he wrote “Bat Out of Hell.” And I remember when he came in with “Bat,” I said, “That’s pretty good, Jim, where’s the rest of the song?” He looked at me and said, “What?” I said, “Finish the story. You’ve only given me half a story to work with.” And he looked at me funny and came back and he had the rest of the story.  Because I’m a storyteller.

I had to learn how to re-sing “Bat Out of Hell” in the studio. Because I would just always sing it loud, but I couldn’t sing it loud in the studio like I sing, because I would clip the mic all the time. So I had to learn, and everything became hushed and pulled in. The people that think I can sing that way, I could barely sing that way then. They have no idea, until musicians start to play “Bat Out of Hell,” how difficult it is, and until somebody starts to sing it, how difficult that is. And I hear these tribute bands, and they don’t sing the melody. They will stay on the same note; they won’t go up on certain notes.

The humor on the record — not just on “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” but most of the rest of it too — is not obvious to everyone.

Jimmy and I have a sense of humor that I think a lot of people have never understood. Because Jimmy and I think that “Bat Out of Hell” is a very funny album. Except for “Crying Out Loud.” But “Took the Words” is funny, “All Revved Up” is funny, “Bat Out of Hell” is funny. With “Bat Out of Hell,” they’ve always said, “Oh, he’s so over the top and so melodramatic.” Well, yeah, because he’s doing comedy, dude! “Breaking out of my body and flying away” — that’s fucking funny. I’m sorry! But to deliver it, you have to tell the truth, and you have to be real. So I didn’t deliver it funny. I delivered it from the character’s point of view as if he meant every word of it. But when you step away from it, it’s hysterical. I mean, come on. “I can see myself lying in a pit” — you know, give me a break. And that’s how Jimmy thinks of everything: it’s all funny.

You are very much about being in character in music… all the time.

If you come to a show and you watch each song — because each song is a different character — each character in the show has different mannerisms, and they move differently. And I learned that from reading three different books about how Brando would prepare for a role. I didn’t know Lee Strasberg, but Brando did. I thought that was the perfect way of developing a character, and that Brando nailed it — that you need to move like that character moves before you can become that character.

Brando was particular about what he wore. I’ve never been particular in a film about what I wear. If it’s something that’s really out of character, I will tell the costume person, no, we can’t wear this. And they will come to me and say, what do you want to wear? I said, “I’m not a costume person, you’re a costume person, you know more about it than I do. Bring me your choices, let’s look at them, what you think this character wears.” And most of the time they’re pretty good. In “Fight Club” the guy was great. In “Crazy in Alabama,” well, it was a sheriff’s outfit. … I have pictures of what I think it should be, but I’m not going to tell them.

But with every character on this new record, with enough time, I could go through and tell you what he’s wearing, what he’s thinking, what his truth is of that moment. Inside any song. It is absolutely, positively, 100 percent the truth of the moment. And they’re not abstract moments. There are particular moments that those characters live in and they sing that song in, and that’s like a musical. In everything I’ve done, I think (in terms of) a musical. Everything I’ve ever done.

Do the people you’ve worked with always get that, that you’re acting as well as singing?

Clive (Davis), who I’m okay with now, said to me (when Meat Loaf and Steinman auditioned for him), “You’re an actor. Actors don’t do records. You’re like Ethel Merman.” Well, I took that as a compliment! What made me mad is when he said to Jim Steinman, “Do you ever listen to rock ‘n’ roll records?” And Jim Steinman is a rock ‘n’ roll encyclopedia. He can tell you the B-side of Jan and Dean’s song that they had in ’62, and who wrote it, if it wasn’t them. I got really mad at Clive Davis. And I’ve had lunch with him and everything’s fine now. But when he said that to me, I said, “Oh, that’s cool. I love Ethel Merman.” But when he said that to Jim, that made me really angry.

Before I can sing the song, I’ve got to find the character. I don’t just walk in and sing a song. As far as I’m concerned there’s no meaning or reason to sing it. You’re just another singer singing some song. I’ve never thought of myself as a singer. I think of myself as an actor. So it’s the same as doing a movie or a play. … So I guess in a sense, everything I’ve ever done, even though I don’t consider what I do on stage as a musical, the way I think through it is like a musical. I have a rock ‘n’ roll band that I think is the best in the world, so it is a rock ‘n’ roll show. But I guess in the way of my arc through the show, it is like a musical in the fact that there’s different characters singing these songs. But if you just go (to the concert), most people never notice that they’re different mannerisms and they’re different people singing. It doesn’t cross their mind.

Do you ever look at the audience and wonder if all that character work you put in is just wasted on a bunch of beer-drinking guys?

No, because it’s not about them. It’s about what I’m doing, and it’s about me being able to present them with the truth. They would know if I wasn’t telling them the truth — subconsciously, they would know that. Yeah, if I wasn’t giving them the absolute truth in the moment, they might not know it consciously, but subconsciously they would know it.

Everything about what you do would be easily misunderstood, from a typical music industry standpoint. It’s kind of a wonder that it worked, and you’ve been able to sustain it.

I was gonna call my book when I wrote it “On the Outside Looking In,” because that’s how I feel about how the music business has looked at us. It’s like they’re inside a store window, and Jimmy and I are standing on the street looking in like kids at Christmas time. We’ve always been on the outside looking in. It’s never been that way with films, but it’s always kind of been that way with music. And I think it has to go back to the fact that with “Bat Out of Hell,” the songs were long.

We just got turned down by everybody. But I would not let Jimmy quit, and I wasn’t about to quit. At that time I had offers to join REO Speedwagon. They talked to me about going out with (Ted) Nugent. Mick Jones talked to me about joining Foreigner. And I said “No, you don’t understand what I have and what Jimmy has with me.” Because we’d been playing little clubs around New York and they would go completely insane. And record companies would come and they’d go, “Well, these are your friends (cheering).” I was like, “No, I don’t have any friends, dude!” It was kind of true. I’ve always been like this, and Jimmy the same way — we’ve both kind of been loners. I’d go out with girls, but I wouldn’t go hang out with guys in bars. It wasn’t my thing. I’d rather stay home and watch “The Price is Right” than go out to some bar with a bunch of guys and drink beer. It’s’ just not my thing. So we’ve always been loners, except that together we’re not.

Even after the record became a behemoth, it’s still not as if everybody got it.

I would much rather people hate me or love me than to be lukewarm. Like, give me five stars or give me one star — don’t give me three. I don’t want to know about three. I don’t particularly like one star, I can tell you that, but I’d rather have that than a three-star. Don’t give me three stars! Three stars suck. At least if you get one star, people want to talk to you about it.

I have the proof of that, because when we did our show in London back in ’78 at the London Odeon, the theater there — it wasn’t Melody Maker, it was the other one, NME — across two of their pages, in giant letters, it said, “FAT OUT OF HELL.” What was weird about the review… well, they didn’t like the show, obviously, but they never really wrote about the songs. They wrote about what I was wearing, they wrote about the shoes the guitar player had on; it was like some fashion magazine article. And every once in a while they’d mention this song or that song. But that title, “FAT OUT OF HELL,” across two pages in their magazine… We played the Wollman Rink in (Central Park) in ’78, and there were more people there than they had ever seen before. It was completely full inside, but as far as you could see, outside the rink, there were people. Somebody estimated there were about 60,000 people there. And we had press from India, from Singapore, from all over the world, because of the NME “FAT OUT OF HELL” one-star review. They had to see this for themselves.

So when the show was over, I was doing a lot of interviews, and they’d look at me and go, “I didn’t think you were that bad! I thought you were pretty good!” So I said, “Then don’t write anything if you just thought I was pretty good.” They’d look at me and go, “What?” And I’d say, “If I was just pretty good then don’t write anything. You either thought I was good or you thought I was bad. If I was good, write about it, and if I was bad, write about it.” They’d look at me funny, and I’d go, “That’s just how I feel about things. Don’t call me mediocre, because the last thing I am is mediocre. I’m either bad or good.”

Rolling Stone reviewed “Bat Out of Hell” and I won’t tell you the writer, but believe me, I know who it was. We had the same dentist, and I won’t tell you what the dentist did to him, because the dentist loved “Bat Out of Hell,” so you can just use your imagination. [Dave Marsh wrote the original album review.]

That’s where that whole thing about “Bat Out of Hell” sounding like Springsteen came from. Well, first of all, Max (Weinberg) and Roy (BIttan) played on the record. And I kept going, Springsteen doesn’t have anything like “You Took the Words” or “Heaven Can Wait” or “All Revved Up” or “Paradise” or “Crying Out Loud.” The opening verse of “Bat Out of Hell,” OK, there’s a lot of people with stuff like that. But that’s the only Springsteen-esque part of the entire record. The opening is not Springsteen; all that guitar harmony and stuff like that, he would never do that. The opening verse about sirens are screaming, yeah, I guess it’s a little Springsteen-ish, but after that, the chorus has nothing to do with Springsteen. So it was this guy (Marsh), because Max and Roy played on it. But Max and Roy could have gone and played on the Bay City Rollers and he would’ve probably wrote they sounded like Springsteen.

But hey, somebody liked it.

What’s it like, performing these familiar songs years and decades later?

What I see on stage (in his mind) is films. People say to me, “You gonna do the old songs?” I say, “There are no old songs. Because every night, it’s like the first time I’ve ever sang ‘Bat Out of Hell,’ because I have a different film.” I never have the same films rolling in my head. I never see the same girl that I’m singing to in any of the songs. They’re always different. Different faces. Sometimes it’s like, as we’re driving into a show, I’ll see people going to the show, and I’ll see a girl’s face, and I’ll go, “Oh, I’m gonna use her face tonight for ‘Took the Words.’” I’ll keep looking at her and I’ll kind of memorize that face, when we get to “Took the Words,” that girl who’s sitting out in the audience has no idea that hers is the face I’m looking at.

How were things with you and Steinman, with him consulting on this album (“Braver Than We Are”)?

Jim and I, ourselves, one on one, have never had ups and downs. It’s always been fights between managers, and then the two managers will get two lawyers involved, and then the lawyers say to us… I say, “Let me just write to Jim.” “No, you can’t.” So literally how I got this record done was, I only communicated with Jim. Because I was told, “No, this record can never happen.” And so I went, OK. So then I started communicating with Jim about four years ago about doing this record. Then I had to stop. I had back surgery, and that took us about seven, eight months to deal with that. Then we had other things in the way, then we got started again. But I did this record with only myself and Jim in communication, and not involving any lawyer and not involving any manager. My manager said, “Well, maybe we should call…” I said, “No! Jim and I are fine. Let me and Jimmy do what we do.” And that’s what we did. I had how I wanted the titles to go, and then people were balking at it, and so they sent it off to Steinman’s manager, and then we played the old game again, and I kept wanting to write to Jim, and they go, “No, no.” So without them knowing it, I eventually wrote to Jim, and then everything was OK. So me getting back and communicating with Jim is why we got the okay to move forward. But nobody knows that except you and me, and however you print it there.

Even though your new album is an album of all Steinman songs, unlike “Bat Out of Hell III,” you didn’t call this “Bat IV.”

I loved that title, “Braver Than We Are.” And it wasn’t going to be “Bat IV”, because “Bat III” ruined all the Bat (feeling). It ruined it. I can’t even listen to it, because Jimmy’s not involved. We won’t talk about that anymore. We’ll be quiet.

What do you think the future holds for the two of you?

I don’t think Jimmy will do another record … unless it’s the “Neverland” musical. And I don’t know that I will ever do another rock record. I want to do a gospel record and a Christmas record. Those are the two records that I have left in my head that I want to do.

You have the two women forever associated with “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” singing together on a song on this album, “Going All the Way is Just a Start.”

I got Karla (DeVito) and Ellen Foley to sing with me. Karla was on tour with us, and Ellen Foley was the voice on “Paradise” — and also my girlfriend for over a year. … Because (elsewhere on the album) we were doing “Who Needs the Young,” and that was meant to go on “Bat Out of Hell,” I’m pretty sure this ws my thinking: that I needed to get the two girls who were most involved in “Bat” back together. I wanted Ellen and Karla to get to know each other. Because Ellen had always, I think, been upset with Karla, but now they’re really good friends. I wanted them to get to know each other, for one.

So Ellen and Karla did actually come in and record their parts together?

Oh yeah, and I did some recording with them as well. I don’t really remember it, because I was in character. … I don’t think they’re on the record, but I did a couple lines with Ellen, just to get her moving in the direction where we should go. And once we moved her, she was dead-on.

I brought ‘em in together. Somebody said, “What do you think? I think you should bring ‘em in separately.” I said, “No, I want them together.” They stayed in the same motel, and they got in the night before, and I guess they saw each other checking in around the same time. And they had dinner together the night before, and when they came in the studio, they were like best friends, which was fantastic for me. I didn’t have to do any manipulating or anything like that. They came in like sisters, like, loving each other. It was really fascinating to watch that go down. It’s like, “What is going on here? Okay, cool, let’s do this!”

But even with all these old friends on board, you didn’t want this new record to really sound like “Bat Out of Hell,” per se.

No. Rolling Stone can’t accuse us of sounding like Springsteen again.