Arts

Meat Loaf: I've worked my entire life – I didn't have time for friends

A stage and screen actor as well as the artist behind one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, Bat Out Of Hell singer Meat Loaf talks to Luke Rix-Standing about his four back surgeries, giving his all on stage, and how he got his name

Meat Loaf – 'I bent over so much while touring, I think that's probably what happened to my back'

FOR the notoriously bombastic Meat Loaf, it's been an extremely draining couple of years. In 2017, he was filming a television pilot when a pain began developing in his back, and it quickly became so limiting that the director had to rearrange scenes around him.

"I had four back surgeries," the Texas-born singer recalls. "There was a loose screw in my first surgery and they tried to fix it by putting things called 'baskets' underneath my spine, but they fell out within a month, leaving me in excruciating pain. I don't remember being alive – I don't even know the pain I was in."

After two long years of physical therapy, Meat is still heavily inhibited – "if I move around it's not pleasant" – but has now returned to public life as the face of restaurant chain Frankie & Benny's new vegan menu. The perfect punchline for a punny PR person, Meat resisted calls to rebrand as 'Veg Loaf', but shot an advert that marks his first role since going under the knife.

He's not actually vegan himself, but he was 11 years a veggie after a distressing incident in a local restaurant. "The guy we were with said, 'I've had rabbit here before and it's really good'," he explains. "So we ordered rabbit and they brought out a rabbit with its head on – no ears but a head. I thought, 'I don't think so'."

Did he find it hard staying away from meat? "Not after seeing that rabbit."

Bunny corpses aside, there are two obvious questions to ask Meat Loaf, and, since he must be sick of explaining what he wouldn't do for love, I query the origin of his name.

"OK," he says with purpose. "If I'd come up with that as a stage name, I should have been committed. I didn't tell the story initially because I did a lot of theatre in New York. I did a horrible Broadway called Rockabye Hamlet and understudied for John Belushi, but by late '75, I stopped and concentrated on Bat Out Of Hell.

"Everyone hated it at first. Rolling Stone reviewed it and gave it no stars, and if Rolling Stone said anything in 1977 the entire world went along with it, but eventually the reviews started coming round..."

Several minutes later, I'm no closer to the origins of his name, but a little closer to the origins of one of music's more unusual careers.

A born performer with lifelong social anxiety, Meat Loaf's oeuvre spanned stage, studio and screen, and there's a whole generation that might know him as much for his role in 1999's Fight Club as for his arena-rocking sound.

Bat Out Of Hell ranks among the bestselling albums of all time (anywhere from 3rd to 33rd, depending on who you ask), but though Meat's musical legacy is enormous, it's hard to pin down. The man himself doesn't bother trying: "What you've done in the past doesn't make any difference," he says, "what's important is what you do next. You see all these actors going, 'Look what I've done', and you think, 'Yeah, back off dude'."

It's a mantra Meat has lived by, and he rarely stopped moving long enough to enjoy his fame and fortune. "I've worked my entire life," he says, "so I didn't have time for friends, except for people I worked with. I didn't 'hang out' a lot."

For someone so consumed by frenetic activity, you might have thought the bad reviews would have upset the young Meat, but he never doubted that Bat Out Of Hell was destined for the charts.

"It was because of what happened when we played the live shows," he says. "We did the songs at small supper clubs in New York, with 250 people in the house, and the record guys assumed we knew all of them."

He's the first to admit he changes the subject a lot, and after a short pause, he remembers that he was telling me how he got his name.

"Nobody ever asked me about it when I was doing theatre," he continues. "I did As You Like It, and I said to the producer that maybe we shouldn't use it. But in the cast list, there I was: Amiens – Meat Loaf. Then I started doing film, and the first role I was going to do was Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but they had a writers' strike so I went off to do the Rocky Horror Picture Show over in the UK..."

I still don't know where he got his name...

Meat's supply of anecdotes is near-endless, and there's a tangible sense of frustration from the now-stricken performer, clearly used to living at 100 miles per hour. Constantly darting between different branches of showbiz, Meat recalls one stretch when he was home for just 12 weeks in two years.

Anyone that's seen Meat live knows the superhuman effort he puts into performing – "those songs aren't normal rock n' roll songs, some go three-and-a-half octaves" – and he paid an emotional and physical price for his life lived on the road.

He recalls taking medication to manage his crippling stage fright – "I was scared to death every night" – and collapsing with exhaustion after each encore.

"I worked so hard that when I came off stage, it was like running full speed into a brick wall. An Australian photographer once caught me on the floor backstage, and wrote in the paper that 'Meat Loaf died last night'."

"Watching the videos now makes me wince," he concedes. "I bent over so much while touring, I think that's probably what happened to my back."

As our time ticks down, Meat remembers one last time that he was going to tell me about his name. "I got the name when I was four days old," he says, "because I was born bright red. Back in the Stone Age when I was born, you had to stay in the hospital a few days, and my father said, 'I want you to put Meat on the front of that crib'.

"The 'loaf' came about in the eighth grade. I stepped on a football coach's foot, and he screamed: 'Get off my foot you hunk of meat loaf'."

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