Like a Bat out of Hell – the larger than life story of Meat Loaf book review by Mick Wall

Meat Loaf’s name and his eventual legacy might forever be tainted in Australia by the inglorious spectacle of his 2011 AFL Grand Final performance. We can blame the AFL for this piece of wishful thinking/lack of intuition about their punters, but around 15 minutes of a badly sung, greatest hits pastiche is apparently all it takes to damage your reputation in the age of YouTube.

Of course, Meat Loaf did himself no favours by calling those who criticised him “butt smellers”, so it was with some car crash anticipation that I waded into this summer reading. But that MCG gig is simply described as a nightmare at the end of a long tour in Meat Loaf’s life that Mick Wall documents in Like a Bat Out of Hell – The Larger than Life Story of Meat Loaf (Hachette Australia).

Wall is a veteran music journo with books on Prince, Lemmy (reviewed here), AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and more. He’s a music industry insider with a vault of unpublished material from which he draws for his books written during  35 plus years of interviews and hanging about with musicians and their crews.

Like a Bat Out of Hell takes a rock opera approach to the story of Meat Loaf as the ground has been covered several times before — as Wall graciously notes in his acknowledgments. It has been told best by Meat Loaf himself in To Hell and Back and by Sandy Robertson in The Phenomenology of Excess.

But the title of this book is a bit of a misnomer; it’s also the story of Jim Steinman, the writer of the Bat Out of Hell songs (and many others) and the dynamic that exists between these two larger than life characters.

Wall pursues two major themes. The first is that Jim and Meat could only do their best work together and each was tortured by the ups and downs between each glorious collaboration. The second is that Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman are both Quasimodo-like outsider characters — Meat is haunted by his weight and Jim by his vampire-like nature.

Much of the book is about how Meat Loaf saw himself as a freak because he was bullied and laughed at through his youth. His role in showbiz was as a freak show performer in the rock and roll carnival; his audience are drawn to him but simultaneously repulsed by the spectacle of this gargantuan man singing outsider love songs to pretty little women (with big voices).

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The sad part of this is that Wall’s concentration on the freak show aspect of Meat Loaf’s public persona serves only to accentuate the circus freak picture, even though he expressly attempts empathy for the Loaf. Even so, the book becomes another cash-in capitalising on the sideshow. Steinman is treated as a latterday Phil Spector figure, becoming increasingly isolated and weird as his success grows and his distance from reality increases. When these caricatures are the lens through which events are shown, Wall’s account presents as a nightmare cartoon show.

But the positive to this approach is that there is great emphasis on the recorded output — which songs are on each album and their genesis (Steinman constantly replundered his own material). It’s not a studio nerd account by any means – though there are few technical details.

There’s a lot of material about the music theatre – meets rock – meets opera dreams of Steinman as a songwriter. I listened to the music again as I read the book and these observations are both obvious and insightful. Indeed, it’s amazing that it’s only last year that a Bat Out of Hell based musical finally made it to the stage in London.

Meat Loaf was always specific about how he could only sing the songs properly if he did it in character (he got his big break as Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show on stage and screen). Steinman’s songs were always bombastic; he saw no dividing line between Richard Wagner and Little Richard. The spectre of the 150 plus kilogram singer sweating his way through the songs juxtaposed against a waifish female partner (Ellen Foley – inspiration for the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go, Karla de Vito, Patti Russo and more) aptly emphasised the songs “we’re all losers looking in” themes.

Wall threads these outsider themes through the book; Meat without Jim bottoms out; Jim without Meat has great successes and huge failures and retreats from the world; Jim and Meat break up and fight through their people, then reunite, then split again; Meat Loaf is sensitive about the character he has helped create but runs from it while still using it for his career. The music from each of the non-Bat albums reflects these failures and successes.

There are also side stories about Steinman as a Svengali for Bonnie Tyler and Meat Loaf as a successful actor (Fight Club, Black Top and about 40 more). But the details of the legal battles between the two is missing. This is the untold story that represents a whole corporate rock age as the money guys got in the way of success by wanting to own everything. Obviously fear of legal action is part of this, but it seems to me that this the underlying story that permeates the period between 1978 (the peak of Bat I) and 2006 (the settling of a dispute over Bat III).

As a holiday read it’s not too long, nor too deep. (If you really want more detail then try the other two books above). It’s aimed at the group that Wall says made the Bat Out of Hell machine a massive success – those who bought just an album or two and liked the songs on the radio but didn’t really care too much about music otherwise.

But as an exercise in nostalgia, revisiting those huge songs and shedding some light on the Jim/Meat vampiric twinning, it’s great fun — even if it leaves you feeling a twinge of shame for participating in the freak carnival.

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