Of all the unlikely breakout stars of the unlikely hit movie musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Meatloaf (one Marvin Lee Aday) was by far the least likely. Sure, Susan Sarandon nabbed an Oscar and blossomed into a respectable cougar queen and Tim Curry effortlessly moved beyond mad scientist/drag queen Dr. Frank-N-Furter. However, a mere two years after the movie and before it reached cult status, Meatloaf unleashed the surprise mega-hit Bat Out of Hell (Epic Records).
Far more unlikely was Bat's sound and contentan avalanche of guitars, percussion and echo mixed so full that it bordered on opera; song scenario's about teenagers in heat; and Meatloaf's big, big voice dripping with sweat, passion and brio. It was over-the-top maybe, but no one could deny that this was music designed to be played: loud, really loudthe better to drown in. Although Curryin ripped fishnets, toeless '40s platform pumps and an electric leer straight out of Fioruccibecame an icon, Meatloaf's three-minute rave-up "Hot Patootie-Bless My Soul" was the liveliest thing in the movie.
It's 34 years later and history has proven highly unpredictable, if not generous. Bat spawned three hit singles and sold more than 40 million copies, which did not guarantee a happy ending. With flop albums, forgettable movies, financial ruin and ongoing lawsuits, Meatloaf was even reduced to playing roadside bars to keep a roof over his head. Never mind that record executives hooted when he and writing partner Jim Steinman approached them with the idea for a sequel to Bat Out of Hell. They put it out anyway and started an assembly line of gargantuan hits ("I'd Lie for You [and that's the Truth]," It's All Coming Back to Me Now," "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I won't Do That))" and multimillion-selling albums (including Bat Out of Hell II and III). There were duets with Cher and Jennifer Hudson, Grammies, yearly SRO world tours, and even a warts-and-all autobiography that proved, surprise, to be one of the best ever written (To Hell and Back). And, yes, the book was made into a movie.
Decades ago, no one could foresee that Meatloaf would last so long or become so popular (in the UK, he is second only to Fleetwood Mac in album sales) or, for that matter, force us to take him seriously. His oversized appearance, voice and music actually obscured what he really was. In case you forgot, as I did, the video for "Los Angeloser"with its hunky shirtless hero, pelvis-thrusting surgical team, syncopated chorus line of female cops, etc.reveals him as not just a Texas screamer but a Broadway star with a wayward sense of humor. (Meatloaf and Curry were the only members of the original off-Broadway Rocky Horror Show to jump to the Picture Show.)
Sad to say, his new album, Hell in a Hand Basket, doesn't have anything as catchy or vulgar as "Los Angeloser," but the bigger surprise is that the record is merely solid. The opener, "All of Me," is the kind of straight-ahead rocker you would expect from Melissa Etheridge while "Live or Die"with gobs of guitars slopped on top like soggy pancakeshas the aroma of '70s-era Southern boogie. "Mad Mad World," a thunderous state-of-the-world rant with an uncharacteristic Chuck D. rap, keeps the album from tipping into productbut just barely.
The real gem here is a cover so obvious that it forces one to question why somebody hadn't thought of it before: a re-reading of The Mamas and The Papas' "California Dreaming." Shearing away the original's relaxed accoustic setting and four-part harmonies, Meatloaf fleshes out the words and melody with sincerity and barely restrained passion, giving it a weight that is new. I'd be the last to sass Mama Cass, but Meatloaf has turned the 45-year-old chestnut into a living, breathing declaration of freedom for the new century. Yeah, I know, the only word to describe it is, ahem, unlikely.