Meat Loaf With David Dalton
To Hell and Back: An Autobiography
By Scott Rosenberg
When I was in high school there was an ad in the back of comic books for a children’s literacy campaign, or something equally touchy-feely. The most memorable thing about the poorly drawn plea was that it starred washed-up novelty rocker Meat Loaf, who traipsed through the frames in a ratty denim vest and a mullet, lecturing a group of youngsters about whatever the cause was. At one point, a wide-eyed towheaded boy looked up at him and asked, “But Meat Loaf, how can we help?” Countless times after that, in response to some complaint or other from one of my nebbishy friends, the whole group would turn and tease the whiner: “But Meat Loaf, how can we help?”
Now, after all these years, I feel a little bad about that. It turns out that Meat Loaf, born Marvin Lee Aday, is a complex guy, with feelings. He’s been a close friend of John Belushi and Billy Joel; he’s done Shakespeare in the Park and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he sang half of Ted Nugent’s Free-for-All and then had a hit with the sentimental epic “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” He’s a little bit Ozzy Osbourne and a little bit Ethel Merman–a uniquely versatile washed-up novelty rocker.
Despite his long, strange resumé, high school smart-asses today may know Meat Loaf most intimately as Robert Paulson, the bearhugging, “bitch-titted” testicular cancer survivor in Fight Club. Meat Loaf’s autobiography, To Hell and Back, and his newest CD, an installment in the “VH1 Storytellers” series, both came out the day Fight Club opened–which was perhaps the most savvy marketing move so far in a professional life strewn with poor decisions, miserable timing, and ruinous management. In one fell swoop, Meat Loaf has reentered the public consciousness, reinvented his image without costumes or fog machines, and extended a musical career that’s already floated for more than two decades on a single album–1977’s bombastic, theatrical Bat out of Hell. On the cover of his book, Mr. Loaf looks downright dignified, a weathered, flattopped man in black a la Johnny Cash.
To Hell and Back is written in a conversational style with help from David Dalton, who’s also done bios of James Dean, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Sid Vicious, and was published by Regan Books, the Harper Collins imprint that unleashed Marilyn Manson’s story. It’s chopped up into about a hundred one- to three-page chapters, which have goofy titles like “Um, Jim, What Do You Think We Should Call This Album?,” “Hey, That’s My Ear!,” and “She Was Wearing No Underwear.” And it never goes more than two pages without a graphic. There are countless uncaptioned photos of Meat Loaf–obviously this is him as a kid, this is him with a famous person, this is him with a family member, and so forth, so gee, let’s not waste everyone’s time with more words–and hundreds of semi-gothic drawings and etchings, also unexplained, that seem to exist merely as eye candy for the easily bored Meathead. Early on in the book Meat Loaf enumerates the 17 concussions he’s suffered, and by page 99 or so I started to wonder whether this was intended as comic relief or a disclaimer.
The first chapter introduces the central paradox of Meat Loaf. He describes himself trashing a hotel room “like a big wounded animal.” He’s not mean violent, see, he’s “wounded animal” violent. But, he warns in the children’s-book tone that tempers the entire tale, wounded animals can be berry, berry dangerous. A couple paragraphs down, he storms out of the hotel. “Outside a sign said ‘Keep Off the Grass.’ I didn’t.” Whoa! This badass grass-stomping motherfucker ain’t gonna keep off nobody’s grass.
In fact, Meat Loaf follows every description of violence in the book–and there are a few–with an apology or expression of fear. After revealing that he once slapped his mother, he writes, “I’m telling you, to this day that image pops into my head over and over again and it makes me crazy. I just want to go, ‘MOM, I’M SORRY.'” He scares off gun-toting attackers, slams his head through walls, and gets run over by a VW, but he also faints while giving blood, is afraid of getting hit by a baseball, and is deeply hurt by taunts about his weight (in seventh grade, he weighed 240 pounds). He’s a faygeleh trapped in a greaser’s body. But “when you walk on a stage…you go into character, things take you over,” he writes. “Under attack, I become Godzilla. That’s my totem animal, my hero. I only get scared afterward.”
This totem-animal stuff is all a hair too close to the 12-stepping foibles of Fight Club for comfort, so for relief, midway through the book, I turned to the “VH1 Storytellers” disc, hoping that it would be sort of like watching the movie version of Great Expectations. Actually, it was better. “VH1 Storytellers” brings in geezer rockers to reminisce and play in an intimate setting; Meat Loaf dug his turn so much that he’s spun a tour off it (he comes to the Arie Crown Theater on Sunday). The tunes are all Meat Loaf classics–besides “Paradise” you get “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “You Took the Words Right Outta My Mouth (Hot Summer Nights),” and the Grammy-winning “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” from 1993’s shameless Bat out of Hell II–and the storytelling, which echoes the book, is OK. Meat Loaf presents himself as no more more self-important than the next middling rocker, and he sounds a lot less dopey than in the book, even though that’s supposedly just him talkin’ as well.
The disc raised my interest enough to return to the book, where things started rolling a little faster. How this white guy from Texas, by his own account rhythmless, gets signed to Motown is never adequately explained, but his slow rise to glory and his subsequent downfall have all the trappings of the classic rock fairy tale: the unhappy childhood, the fucked-up parenting, the crappy garage band, the hippies and freaks, the good breaks, the long-term creative partnership (with Jim Steinman, who built Bat out of Hell out of a musical meant to update Peter Pan), the discovery, the fame, the fortune, the drugs, the hotel trashings, the nasty split with the long-term creative partner, the nervous breakdown, the greedy management screwover, the dead drummer, the redeeming love of a woman. It’s all in there, some of it twice.
The thing with Meat Loaf is that everything happens on a much smaller scale than usual. It’s like he got the budget version of all the important rock star experiences–he’s neither as rags to riches as Elvis nor as riches to rags as Willie Nelson, neither as wasted and dangerous as Perry Farrell nor as remorseful as David Crosby. Sure, this B-movie life produced one of the best-selling albums in history, but how Bat out of Hell became a megahit is as much a mystery to Meat Loaf as it is to everyone else, which is sort of refreshing. Unlike other egos with record sales in his range–Michael Jackson, Alanis Morissette, Garth Brooks, Led Zeppelin–he never seems to believe he’s entitled. His dedication to theater and softball (he coaches and plays) continues throughout his misadventures. His excitement at rubbing elbows with stars, from being backstage with Janis Joplin to golfing with Joe Pesci, is almost embarrassing: a full paragraph is given over to the thrill of visiting Linda Ronstadt’s house…after she’s moved out. His candor and lack of defensive irony allow him to reveal that he stole an idea for a stage prop (a 50-foot inflatable bat) from This Is Spinal Tap (“It looked more like a big yellow, grinning chicken”). Best of all, there is only one brief reference to sex with groupies.
Overall, Meat Loaf comes off as the dorky hanger-on you start to miss when he’s not around–not unlike his character in Fight Club. What makes his story so poignant is that he knows it. At the end of the book he recounts an argument with his manager, Allen Kovac. “I’m sick and tired of being a cartoon, I don’t want to be that Meat Loaf comic book character any more,” he tells him. Kovac more or less directs him to look in the mirror; in the end, he decides Kovac is right. “So, instead of rejecting the cartoon, I would embrace him,” he writes. “I was going to bring that cartoon to life, put him in living color and take him on the road. And that’s what I did. I came to the realization that, like Popeye, ‘I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.'”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Mazur.