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On Meat Loaf’s Subtleties

Loving someone is hard. This is what Meat Loaf teaches us. Sure, love is great, exuberant, sexy, bombastic, self-dissolving, but in addition to all of these things, loving someone is tedious, repetitive, and boring.  We all love Meat Loaf, for the expansiveness of his performances, for the queerness of his emotions, for his unabashed horniness as Robert Cashin Ryan points out, for the wild and impossible emotion that Rax King calls “Motorcycle”:

not classically a feeling, no, but what else can be said about the lyric “I’m gonna hit the highway like a battering ram/ on a silver-black phantom bike” except that it encapsulates the feeling of Motorcycle—that is to say, motorcycle-qua-motorcycle, the Springsteenian motorcycle, the emblem of masculine longing to get out?

But there’s more to Meat Loaf, too. His magnum opus Bat Out of Hell is certainly structured by Motorcycle, yelling and longing and adventure, but the album has almost as many moments of tenderness, of holding and whispering—the experience not of launching down the road or into the sky on a silver-black phantom bike but of holding hands, catching breath, plummeting into the despair of vulnerability—of falling.

“And will he starve without me?” Marcia McClain asks in the intro to Bat’s second song, “You Took the Words Right out of My Mouth.” It takes a long time to starve to death. If the “Yes” that answers McClain’s sentence is sincere (and in Meat Loaf’s world, everything is sincere), then this is not a song of ephemeral lust but of maddening, life-destroying love. The scale of Meat Loaf’s love is the lifetime, if only because love will cut that life short. The song plays with the intertwining of mouths and meanings (“You took the words right out of my mouth / It must have been while you were kissing me”) as something as simple as speech becomes unthinkable without the lover, who becomes literal sustenance. Meat Loaf might be the first person to really mean “Till death do us part” as the lover’s kiss becomes a ventilator, the sustenance of breath and song and life itself. His twelve-minute 1993 #1 hit refuses to name the single thing that Meat Loaf won’t do for love because it is literally, conceptually unthinkable.

But maybe I’m blowing things out of proportion: Romeo and Juliet would never die so quickly if Meat Loaf told the story. His performance embodies the eloquence of Shakespeare, but he’s constantly trying to narrate something that can’t fit in a three-act play, a something that instead finds its ideal expression in the seven-minute power ballad. It takes a long time to starve to death—at least seven minutes. “Heaven can wait / And all I got is time until the end of time,” Meat Loaf croons on Bat’s third track: “I’ve got a taste of paradise / It’s all I really need to make me stay.” These songs arc towards utopia, perhaps even taste it, but only so that they might return us to the mundane. Meat Loaf understands that utopia cannot be realized, otherwise it would cease to be. Yes, Meat Loaf embodies the impossible and the extravagant, but these are only part of the story. Paradise, love, sex, fucking become the way that we point toward that impossibility only to turn away from it and back to the imperfect, the all too real, the frustrating, all the things that we love, lose, fuck up, hurt, and no matter what, still miss while we’re hurtling down the road from Now to Paradise.

Meat Loaf was large, he contained multitudes. He existed in the virtuality between Michael Lee Aday and Meat Loaf, between the lyrics of Jim Steinman and the instrumentation of Todd Rundgren, which his performance held excruciatingly together. Between, on the one hand, JB’s abusive, puritan father in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, and on the other, Rocky Horror’s saxed-up Eddie, hot enough to break out of the deep freeze, motorcycle and all. At once seeming Republican and lesbian icon. The brilliance of his performance as Robert Paulson in David Fincher’s Fight Club is his ability to travel between these two poles, sobbing cancer survivor become eager anarchist terrorist. We all live these contradictory possibilities all the time with an intensity that Meat Loaf might describe as “Everything Louder than Everything Else.”

Ode to the Dad Bod...His Name is Robert Paulson - Onnit Academy

Like Carly Rae Jepsen, he was his era’s poet of contradiction. Meat Loaf’s most famous song, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” is after all about both a one-night stand and a break-up. More than anything in Rocky Horror, the song warps time; the backseat hookup folds back to find eternity in the trunk, as heaving and moaning beget unending questions, “Do you love me? Will you love me forever? Do you need me? Will you never leave me? Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life? Will you take me away and will you make me your wife? Do you love me?” Meat Loaf’s lesson is this: eternity, infinity, forever are hardly out of our grasp; no, they saturate our mundane and ordinary present. Even in his bravado, Meat Loaf returns us again and again to the moments of ordinary subtlety. Heaven can wait because until then, we have something infinitely worse and infinitely more necessary. Call it eternity; call it love; call it life.

Forever is not about heaven or paradise; it’s about reality, no matter how shitty, painful, or disappointing. The fullest elaboration of Meat Loaf’s metaphysics can be found in “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” The song takes the form of a one-sided dialogue, narrated in the wake of irreparable heartbreak, as the singer tries to sort out how to live with another who will never quite replace the melancholic lost object. He (perhaps cruelly, perhaps honestly) tells his lover:

I want you

I need you

But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you

Now don’t be sad

‘Cause two out of three ain’t bad

The song dwells in resignation—“there ain’t no Coup de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box,” Meat Loaf muses at one point—an incomplete, wounded, two-thirds of a love song. The song’s twist comes in the final chorus, when its refrain returns in the voice of a past lover: “She kept on telling me, ‘I want you, I need you.’” You know how the rest goes. The cool, disaffected refusal of love reveals itself as a repetition of past heartbreak, the attempt to heal a wound by inflicting it on someone else. Meat Loaf’s music doesn’t celebrate this action so much as attempt to understand it. Love is hard because, once upon a time, we ourselves weren’t loved enough. Meat Loaf returns us again and again to the wound of heartbreak, which we will live with, quite literally, forever.

This replay of heartbreak across his discography, though, searches for the moment when this eternal, heartbreaking present might become something other than a repetition of the familiar. Loving someone is hard, Meat Loaf teaches us, but he also teaches us that love is most exciting when it’s least recognizable. Love is boring and painful, yes, but it’s also where we can make demands, where we can ask for anything, especially that which we didn’t get in the past. Love is about frustration, fallenness, and brokenness, because these are the things that make us really need someone else. In Bat Out of Hell’s title track, Meat Loaf aligns love not with paradise but with eternal damnation: “If I gotta be damned, you know I want to be damned.” But in the next line, “damned” morphs into a different, jubilant word: “Dancing through the night with you.” I think this is Meat Loaf’s real image of love: dancing in Hell but dancing together. Given that opportunity, I agree, Heaven can wait.

Adam Fales gets up early and stays up late. He tweets at @damfales.

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