Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Most Unlikely Rock Star

Everybody loves the underdog. There is just something really joyful about a person succeeding against all odds.

I was watching a DVD I picked up heavily marked down in a sale bin at WalMart, a documentary of sorts about the Meat Loaf album Bat Out of Hell.

Think about how crazy the story is...

It's 1977, and the pop music world is dominated by flashy disco, sullen punk, and glamorously made-up rock stars . Along comes a 350 pound sweaty Texan with an operatic (though untrained) voice, wearing a a ruffly tuxedo shirt, who goes by the pseudonym Meat Loaf. He joins forces with a geeky Jewish pianist and showtune writer named Jim Steinman. They come up with a concept album that blends Bruce Springsteen-like lyrics, Who-like power chords, Eagles-like harmonies, a storyline about a motorcyclist who crashes his bike and watches the beating heart fly out of his chest, operatic drama, show tune riffs, teen angst, and campy humor (one song on the album, "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad", includes the line: "But there ain't no coupe-de-ville hiding at the bottom of a cracker jack box").

Nobody wants to make this record. These guys are simply nuts.

The duo are rejected and laughed at by literally thousands of record company executives who can only shake their heads in disbelief. That is, until Todd Rundgren agrees to make the record on his own label. Rundgren produces the album, and even simulates a motorcycle revving up on the record album, using nothing more than his guitar in a one-take impromptu performance.

The project acquires a couple of backup singers and a backup band. They take the show on the road with no props to assist the storytelling. They keep up a frenetic pace, as Meat Loaf strains his voice to the point of vocal (if not heart) damage as he "becomes" the character night after night on stage.

The album sells 34 million copies worldwide, and becomes a cult classic.

The DVD interviews everyone involved in the album 22 years after the fact. Unlike the usual rock and roll personalities, this group has a sense of self-deprecating humor, a humility about the whole thing that still genuinely believes they can't believe they actually made this thing work. Meat Loaf comes across as a genuinely nice guy, lacking the typical rock star pompousity and delusions of grandeur. They really seemed to have had fun creating the music, performing it, and now, telling the story about it.

Though the DVD doesn't get into all this, the post-Bat Meat Loaf story remains interesting. Later on, Meat Loaf loses his voice, goes bankrupt, and has an acrimonious split with his longtime friend and collaborator, Jim Steinman. Over the years, Meat's voice returns, he loses a lot of weight, has a successful acting career, patches things up with Steinman, and actually puts out a successful "Bat Out of Hell II" album, as well as more hit records - never losing the music's hallmark epic, gothic rock-opera sound, but with a joyfully silly sense of humor that refuses to take itself too seriously.

See below for a live performance of the title song, "Bat Out of Hell." And when you think you can never be successful, just remember, with hard work, tenacity, and refusing to be beaten down by "conventional wisdom": "Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through."

5 comments:

Der Bettler said...

I still hold out hope that Meat and Steinman will put aside their differences and come together for one last effort. The Eagles did it. Fleetwood Mac did it -- kind of. There's something about that pairing that was simply magic on an album.

Meat Loaf is easily one of my favorite artists, not only because of his unique style but also because he is such a role model for us Famine-Resistant Americans.

The Priestman said...

As every priestman knows, Paradise By the Dashboard Lights remains the definitive teaching tool on the 6th commandment.

So now I'm praying for the end of time. . .

The Priestman

Jeff said...

"As every priestman knows, Paradise By the Dashboard Lights remains the definitive teaching tool on the 6th commandment."

Truer words have never been spoken.

TKls2myhrt said...

Now THAT'S a great story. Todd Rundgren is so talented and creative.

Father Hollywood said...

Priestman:

One of my first theology teachers, a Jesuit named Mike Benton (who was also a former Benedictine monk) did just that in our 10th grade Theology class.

That was my first exposure to Meat Loaf.