Veteran British music journalist, radio and television presenter and author Mick Wall has been featured here at Loud several times previously, and on each occasion it yields a lengthy, yet fascinating conversation. Wall is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain’t a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Foo Fighters, Lemmy, Prince and Guns N’ Roses (Last of the Giants).
That there’s always fresh subject matter to discuss is largely attributable to Wall’s prolific nature and willingness to dissect the careers of some of rock’s biggest and most enduring names. This time around the topic at hand is Wall’s new biography, Like a Bat Out of Hell: The Larger than Life Story of Meat Loaf.
After Meat Loaf’s rock opera Bat Out of Hell was released in 1977, it became one of the biggest albums of all time, selling more than 45 million copies worldwide to date. Its release marked the start of a roller-coaster ride of incredible highs and seemingly career-ending lows. By the ’80s, Meat Loaf was battling with drug and alcohol addiction and escalating money problems that would eventually lead to a nervous breakdown. But just when it seemed like it was all over, Bat Out of Hell II and the mega-hit ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’ marked an extraordinary new wave of success.
Loud spoke to Wall about the book, Meat Loaf’s unique relationship with songwriter and composer Jim Steinman, how Meat Loaf became an unlikely superstar, Wall’s upcoming Jimi Hendrix biography and more.
Q: A lot of great rock stories feature that clash of egos and personalities, and in this instance it’s the dynamic between Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman. That must have been a fascinating relationship to attempt to dissect.
A: Definitely. The relationship between Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman is the story of Meat Loaf. But I think more so even than, traditionally there’s the clash between the singer and the guitarist. You know, Jagger and Richards, Axl and Slash, or in the case of The Beatles, both singer/guitarists Lennon and McCartney. There’s this frisson that when it works it’s spectacular, but when it doesn’t work could result in the end of the band’s career. In the case of Meat Loaf it’s not a guitarist, but the relationship is even more stark. Jim is not just a keyboard player, but a classical composer, a soundtrack maestro, encyclopedia of rock ‘n’ roll. In the book he himself describes what he does as like a meeting of Richard Wagner and Little Richard. And he’s also a wildly eccentric character, who comes from a very privileged background. He went to an elite American school, worked with people like Joseph Papp with Shakespeare In The Park, long before he met Meat Loaf. He really was, and is an extraordinary person. Meat Loaf, the complete opposite, came from a very troubled and challenging working-class background. His mother died when he was very young, his father tried to kill him with a hunting knife. His father was an alcoholic Dallas policeman. And when they finally meet, it’s this incredibly unlikely scenario where they’re both coming out of theatre. Meat Loaf had been in Hair, had been in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but in no way did he look like your regular rock ‘n’ roll singer. He wasn’t fit, he wasn’t good looking. He certainly didn’t write any songs. In fact, he’s not a musician at all. He’s an actor with a fantastic voice.
And yet the two of them, Steinman describes in the book seeing Meat Loaf for the first time and it almost being love at first sight. He really did want a kind of a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ type character to come and sing these very joyful, but quite dark and Gothic songs. These epics, these mini-movie soundtracks that he wrote. He needed somebody larger-than-life to do that, and Meat Loaf needed someone to take him seriously and write hits for him.
So it was a very fortuitous but slightly bizarre meeting. And from the get-go they had a kind of a love-hate relationship. I liken it in the book to Dr Frankenstein and his monster, in the sense that Steinman’s work has been hits for other artists, but never as spectacularly as when Meat Loaf sings his songs. Meat Loaf in turn has also worked over the years with other songwriters, but to absolutely no effect when compared to the two Bat Out of Hell albums he made with Jim Steinman.
Q: As mentioned in the book, it’s a troubled, even dysfunctional dynamic that still exists today – to the extent that Meat Loaf’s name is nowhere to be found in the billing for the recent Bat Out of Hell musical.
A: Well, that’s right. I mean, they’ve known each other for nearly 50 years. That’s longer than Meat Loaf’s marriage lasted. And it’s that terribly… A lot of musicians get into this position of being around for decades, they need each other in career terms, but they can’t be in the same room together. It all stems back, as these things often do, to money as well. Steinman made millions out of the first Bat Out of Hell album, which was released 40 years ago this year. Meat Loaf didn’t make anything. In those days, in complete reverse to how things are now, you made your money from record sales. Tour tickets were relatively cheap. In fact, artists more often than not lost money touring. And so by the end of the Bat Out of Hell tour and album, Steinman was a multi-millionaire and Meat Loaf was still existing on a wage, because he hadn’t written any of the songs and the touring hadn’t really made him any money.
And Steinman for his part, coming from a privileged background, the money was great, but that was never his main motivator. He wanted fame, he wanted glory. And he’d written all these hits and no one knew who he was. Again, it’s this bizarre, topsy-turvy relationship; when it works it’s yin-yang. It’s the sun and the moon. But if it goes slightly off-kilter, which it did almost from the start, they go shooting off in opposite directions.
Yet at the same time, their lives are very mirrored. Both men are now 70 this year. Both men are very ill and have been for some time. Steinman’s in a wheelchair, he’s suffered several strokes in recent years. Meat Loaf’s had heart attacks, had various problems. One of the main motivators for me to write the book was when I was talking to Meat Loaf this time last year, he was telling me he wasn’t going to make any more records, it was essentially the end of his career. And I thought, wow, and yet the story has never really been, in that kind of forensic way, has never really been examined.
And yet it still goes on, as you say. The Bat Out of Hell stage musical is being promoted by Meat Loaf because Jim’s too ill to do so himself. And yet Meat Loaf’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the billing; he’s got absolutely nothing to do with it in reality.
Q: It is discussed in the book just how unlikely a star Meat Loaf was. Do you think it was simply that his voice and the songs that Jim wrote for him were both just simply undeniable?
A: Absolutely, you’ve just nut shelled it perfectly. The appeal of Meat Loaf is so broad, it is like a Hollywood movie. It’s mums and dads that bought that album, little kids loved those songs. In no way was it a music paper-reading, devoted album-buying rock audience. They bought it too, but you didn’t sell eight million records 40 years ago if you were just selling to devoted rock fans. You sold to everybody.
And I think again that’s one of those things that nobody could have foreseen. They were turned down by every major record company. Clive Davis, who likes to claim credit for advising all the great artists over the past few decades personally told them they had absolutely no chance, and that Jim Steinman needed to start listening to Top 40 radio and learn how to write a three-minute single.
But they ignored everybody. They wrote 12-minute epics, sung by a guy who looked like something out of a nightmare at the time. He’s very trim these days compared to what he was like as a young man. He weighed nearly 400 pounds when Bat Out of Hell was released. And it’s not even that they wouldn’t have a chance now, on paper they had no shot even then. But the public of course isn’t so… The public are far wiser than people realise. The public enjoys great music, and that’s why things like demographics that record companies get into now, and formulas, they don’t work. There’s always someone ready to break those rules, and of course that’s the great thing about rock music.
Q: On paper, he may be the least likely music superstar in recent memory.
A: Absolutely. To the point where in the ’80s Meat Loaf’s career withered on the vine without Jim Steinman. By the time they got back together for Bat Out of Hell II at the start of the ’90s, Meat Loaf didn’t have a record deal. He’d gone bankrupt. Steinman himself had also recently had a massive failure with an entirely self-funded project called Pandora’s Box, which contained in fact some of the hits that then ended up on Bat Out of Hell II, and then later for people like Celine Dion. So they certainly surprised the world, and I think they surprised themselves too. Yes, it’s hard to imagine a less likely duo making any kind of dent, then or now (laughs).
Q: You mentioned how Jim Steinman wanted fame and recognition. From your conversations with him, do you feel like he believes he has received his due by now?
A: If you ask Jim, he’ll tell you that’s definitively not the case. I said that, ‘surely after all this time you can move forward, I mean, look at all the success you’ve had?’ And he said, ‘I don’t believe in moving forward, I don’t believe in this concept of letting it go. I like to hold on to my bitterness and anger, and use it as fuel for my creativity’.
You have to remember, Jim is a guy who lives at night, he literally lives at night. He doesn’t get up until dusk, he works all night in his own weird sort of artistic cave, and then he goes to bed at daybreak. Weeks and months will go by where Jim doesn’t even see fresh air. The opening scene in the book describes an incredible meal I once had with him in an Indian restaurant, where he literally orders every single dish on the menu. Then proceeds to dip into it using his fingers; he doesn’t even use a knife and fork. He eats with his fingers.
He believes he’s a wine connoisseur. He tells me that he’s kept notes that would make the greatest book on wine ever published, were he to compile it. This is a guy, long before he was famous, and long before Meat Loaf was famous, when they first used to meet in a small rehearsal room, just the two of them and a piano, Jim would turn up wearing a cape. He’d remove the cape, and then he was also wearing gloves, and he’d remove the gloves to reveal more gloves underneath. I mean, this is not your average guy. But then his songs, if you examine them and you think about them, they are not your average songs. Yes, it was extremely unlikely that they would make it, but then these are two very unlikely people. These guys, I think if hadn’t been in the rock world, Steinman would have gone on to just become another amazing stage musical composer and director. And I have no doubt Meat Loaf would have had a career in acting.
If you’re going to build a pop star by committee, you’re not going to end up with Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman. But nevertheless, they existed in the world and they prevailed.
Q: While Meat Loaf did at times struggle to maintain a successful career in the US, the UK and Europe were strongholds for him. Australia was another key market, to the extent that Bat Out of Hell is one of the highest-selling albums of all time here. Why do you feel the music had such international appeal?
A: That’s right, I think they went platinum something like 29 times with Bat Out of Hell in Australia. They kicked the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack off the number one spot. But you’re right, they were enormous in Britain, Germany, all over the world really. Because it was such a theatrical show, and he was such a filmic creation, and subversive in his own way. If you look at those old clips from ’78 of him snogging Karla DeVito on-stage, there’s something bizarrely unsettling about the whole thing. But it’s performance, it’s clear that this isn’t Mick Jagger going on and pretending he really does have sympathy for the devil. Or Axl going out there and bringing his inner pain. This is clearly a high-concept performance, presented by people that had come from that theatrical world.
So it translated all over the world. It didn’t matter whether you spoke the language or not, you just had this fantastic experience of these… I mean, Jim Steinman talks about the song ‘Bat Out of Hell’ being his version of Citizen Kane. The beginning of Citizen Kane, it frame-by-frame zeroes in from almost outer space into this one room where this man dies. He talks about the intro to ‘Bat Out of Hell’ being like that. Once he explains it and you listen to the track, you get it. It’s very filmic, it’s cinematic, and that again helped the whole thing just translate in dozens of countries around the world.
Q: You’ve mentioned how Meat Loaf’s career both on record and as a live performer is all but over. What is his legacy now? And do you feel recent events such as his performance at the 2011 AFL grand final tarnish his legacy at all?
A: With YouTube, you don’t have to have been at events like that, you can just access them immediately, these car-crash, train-wreck, flame-out, crash-and-burn moments. Do I think they (detract from his legacy?) Truthfully, no I don’t, because I think YouTube is full of shaming clips of rock stars. You can find all kinds of dreadful moments from famous people on YouTube. In Meat Loaf’s case I think it just confirms what a lot of us have known for a while, is that the man lost that voice over the years. As far as Jim Steinman’s concerned, Meat Loaf lost his voice forever straight after Bat Out of Hell. In fact, he physically couldn’t sing for a year. But he never got back what he had in the early ’70s before he became famous. At that point he was courted by people to see if he’d embark on an opera career. The man had an absolutely awesome voice.
By the time of the clip you’re talking about, he’s in his sixties, he’s blown that voice out on the road over decades. There were periods where he was an alcoholic and using a lot of drugs. This guy really needed to call a halt to it long before he did. But in the same way as Muhammad Ali, another figure I love and was immensely larger-than-life, absolutely should have stopped boxing after he beat George Foreman. It’s tragic when you look at it, particularly that as time goes on and he starts to get beaten up by people in the ring. At one point he actually fights like a kung-fu fighter or something. These are terribly awful, shaming, cringe-inducing moments. But does that actually detract from the legacy of Muhammad Ali when he was young and beautiful? I don’t think so. It just adds another wrinkle of pain, tragedy and farce to a great story.
It’s the same for Meat Loaf. But that was a rotten moment for him, and especially for the crowd. But does that stop the two Bat Out of Hell albums being two of the all-time classics? Absolutely not.
Q: Last time we spoke you mentioned you were working on a book about Jimi Hendrix. What’s the latest there?
A: Still working on it, but it’s not going to come out until 2020. So we’ve got another three years before that book comes out. It doesn’t mean I’ll be spending three years working on it, it means in terms of the timing and in terms of other stuff I’m doing, it’s just been slightly shelved. It’s definitely coming; I’ve done an awful lot of work on it already. I’ve been around America interviewing people, and also someone in Australia, his former girlfriend Kathy Etchingham.
So there’s a lot of work on that, but other things have come along that are more urgent at this stage. There’s a show I’m doing, there’s a whole thing going to happen in 2018. I’m also hoping to get out to Australia and New Zealand. Maybe this time next year (note – this interview was conducted in December 2017) we’ve got a tenth anniversary edition of the Led Zeppelin book, When Giants Walked the Earth. I’ve done a whole load of brand new interviews for that. It’s going to be about another 50,000 words long, and it’s revised as well. The existing text, if there have been errors or new evidence came to light, I’ve included that. So that’s really exciting for me.
But no, Hendrix – absolutely. That’s going to be a huge, huge enterprise. But 2020 is what we’re looking at, and that’s also the 50th anniversary of Jimi’s death. It seems a good moment to reflect on his life.
Q: Any famous last words?
A: No, I can’t think of anything else (laughs).