“I’m completely different than any other rock person you’ll ever talk to,” Meat Loaf told me. He wasn’t lying.
I spoke to Meat Loaf on a several occasions. Our last conversation happened in 2017 when he was in town to promote the Toronto engagement of Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, the stage production featuring his greatest hits. He was an associate producer of the show.
Meat Loaf had recently endured spinal-fusion surgery and walked around with a limp. He couldn’t sing like he used to. “I sing with my whole body,” he said. More than that, he sang with his whole heart, and it was killing him not to be healthy enough to tour.
Meat Loaf, born Marvin Lee Aday, died on Thursday. He was 74.
The only child of a gospel singer and a cough syrup salesman, Meat Loaf appeared in a Dallas high school production of The Music Man before going on to eventually sell some 65 million copies of his three-album classic rock series that included 1977′s Bat Out of Hell, 1993′s Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell and 2006′s Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose.
In his prime he was a burly and beefy performer whose personal humidity soaked his frilly white blouses clear through. Think Celine Dion meets Chris Farley. Think of the keening melodrama and magnum balladry of Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad and I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That). Think schlock-rock Springsteen. And think of all the American Idol winners who weren’t fit to wash his XXL wardrobe.
Meat Loaf roared into pop culture consciousness with the first Bat Out of Hell, a gloriously over-the-top epic written by the singer’s Wagner-loving mentor Jim Steinman. The record was produced by Todd Rundgren, who was, like Steinman, in favour of Phil Spector’s grandiose sonic production.
On the eight-minute opus Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Meat Loaf sang to teenagers and those who wished they still were: “‘Cause we were barely 17, and we were barely dressed.”
Shortly after the album came out, Meat Loaf and Steinman (who died last April) were doing a round of Canadian press interviews at Toronto’s Harbour Castle hotel. While Steinman spoke with Canada-based rock critic Ritchie Yorke, Meat Loaf was on the phone explaining to a journalist about his maximum effort approach and why he sucked on oxygen to help him get through performances.
“When you put out that much energy, it’s not such a spectacular thing to take oxygen,” he told the interviewer on the call, according to Yorke, who wrote about Steinman, Meat Loaf and Bat Out of Hell for Sound Magazine. The singer then slammed down the phone and turned to his collaborator Steinman, exasperated. “Tell me Jimmy, what’s so bizarre about a tank of oxygen?”
Meat Loaf was barely 31 years old, and he was already out of breath.
For his backstage snacks, Meat Loaf demanded promoters supply two boxes of Cracker Jacks. He was a baseball fan who threw out the ceremonial first pitch at more than one Toronto Blue Jays game. I have the only baseball signed by both Meat Loaf and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer.
“He was a really sweet guy, and very animated,” concert promoter Michael Cohl told The Globe on Thursday
Cohl is one of the producers of Bat Out of Hell: The Musical. He remembers when Meat Loaf participated in the press announcement and promotional performance for the Toronto production of the show. The cast members were scheduled to sing a few numbers on a temporary stage on a closed-down Yonge Street outside the Ed Mirvish Theatre.
“I tried to get Meat Loaf to get up on stage to sing too, but he said he hadn’t rehearsed, and that he was hurting from his back surgery and that he really couldn’t sing,” Cohl said. “But within minutes of seeing the cast singing, he told me he had to get up there on stage.”
Meat Loaf sang for five minutes, in pain and out of vocal shape.
“It was in his blood,” Cohl said. “It was in his DNA.”
I was at that impromptu performance. I saw a teenaged boy walk by and ask what all the fuss was about. An older woman told him that the crowd was for Meat Loaf. The teen had no idea who Meat Loaf was. “Trust me,” she assured him, “he was big.”
He really was.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.