Meat Loaf Had the Audacity to Always Go Big

He was at home among all theatrics. Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Everything about Meat Loaf, the man who was born Marvin Lee Aday and who died yesterday at the age of 74, was outsize.

He was a big guy, physically and in terms of personality. The roles and music for which he will be primarily remembered were also steeped in the gigantic and a flair for the epic.

Meat Loaf is only in The Rocky Horror Picture Show for a few minutes, seeing as how his character, ex–delivery boy Eddie, gets pickaxed to death by Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter after performing a single musical number, “Hot Patootie — Bless My Soul.” But those minutes are not subtle. (What in Rocky Horror is?) Meat Loaf enters by driving a motorcycle through a wall while looking like Elvis Presley by way of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, then owns the screen for three minutes while singing about how he fell in love with rock and roll. It’s amazing that anyone in that movie was able to steal focus away from the magnetic Curry, but Meat Loaf pulled it off, for as long as the story would allow.

Meat Loaf’s voice was a titanic beauty, able to hit high notes with precision and tenderness. More important, maybe, than its range was its capacity to reflect effort and emotion. When Meat Loaf sang a song like “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” written by the late Jim Steinman, who composed the tracks for which Meatloaf is most famous, it sounded like he was pouring his heart, lungs, and liver into every lyric.

In keeping with the notion that there are no small parts, only small actors, Meat Loaf routinely turned supporting roles into objects that were larger than they might have otherwise appeared. His work in Fight Club as Bob, a cancer survivor who had his testicles removed, was a prime example. Every time he shows up, he vibrates with an offbeat intensity that nearly crowds Edward Norton, an actor famous for his own atypical form of intensity, out of the frame.

Meat Loaf’s preference for performing in extremes was on display even when he was being himself, or at least a reality-TV version of himself. During his stint on Celebrity Apprentice, an experience that resulted in a friendship between the actor-singer and Donald Trump (another one who craves intense theatrics), he flipped out on Gary Busey in an argument over art supplies that had gone missing. “You look in my eyes. I am the last person in the [bleep] world you ever [bleep] want to [bleep] with!” he screamed with a fury not normally brought on by a trip to Michael’s, then had to be physically restrained by Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray and Lil Jon. You know you have an outsize personality when Gary Busey seems chill by comparison.

In more recent years, Meat Loaf expressed opinions that also were, um, big. In 2012, he told Esquire that he did not consider himself a Republican — “I’m neither right nor left, and I’m not sure I’m even in the middle. I have a lot of views to the left, and I have a lot of views to the right, and that really doesn’t put me in the middle. I don’t know what that makes me. It makes me weird” — but that same year, he endorsed Mitt Romney’s presidential run. Early in 2020, he accused activist Greta Thunberg of being brainwashed into believing that climate change was real, when, according to him, it is not. (Note: It is.) During an interview last year with a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he expressed frustration with COVID-19 lockdowns and mask wearing. “I understood stopping life for a little while, but they cannot continue to stop life because of politics,” he said. “And right now they’re stopping because of politics.” (TMZ has reported that the cause of Meat Loaf’s death was COVID, but that has not been officially confirmed.)

But what Meat Loaf will likely be remembered for, above all else, is the 1977 album Bat Out of Hell, a rock opera that was huge in just about every way possible. Its songs were marathons. The first track, “Bat Out of Hell,” is almost ten minutes long. Its most famous song, “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights,” runs for eight and a half.

“Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” was especially notable for its audacity. This was a song about teenagers losing their virginity in a car splayed across a huge musical canvas, one vast enough to include three acts, the bombast of a Broadway musical, and baseball play-by-play from Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto. It’s hard to imagine anyone matching the wild breadth of that song other than Meat Loaf and his co-vocalist, Ellen Foley, who rip into it as if it’s the musical equivalent of their last meal.

Though it didn’t become popular instantly, the Bat Out of Hell album eventually grew massive from a commercial perspective, too, selling more than 40 million copies and standing, still, as one of the most successful albums of all time. (As you’ll see from the many Meat Loaf remembrances, every track has entered the Karaoke Hall of Fame.)

“I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” which appeared on 1993’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, was Meat Loaf’s biggest hit, going to No. 1 on the Billboard chart and earning him a Grammy. But his second biggest, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” appeared on Bat Out of Hell. A melodically sweet love song with lyrics that stab you right in the neck — “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you” — it’s relatively restrained compared to some of the other material on the record. But even when he’s singing a song about being dismissive toward a lover, Meat Loaf has a voice that contains canyons and multitudes and constellations. There’s a version of “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” on YouTube that isolates his vocals so you can really hear how he glides through the peaks and valleys of the song. But what comes through most loudly is the feeling behind what he’s singing.

“I poured it on and I poured it out,” he belts. “I tried to show you just how much I care.”

That’s what Meat Loaf accomplished in so many of his songs and roles. With a lack of subtlety that became his greatest and most weirdly admirable asset, he poured it on and poured it out, over and over again, in just about everything he did.

Meat Loaf Had the Audacity to Always Go Big