When the Wheels Came Off: Meat Loaf, ‘Midnight at the Lost and Found’
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Meat Loaf‘s ‘Bat Out of Hell’ should have been one of the biggest feel-good stories in rock ‘n’ roll. The product of a unique bond between a one-of-a-kind singer and the songwriter whose gift for over-the-top melodic rock epics was perfectly suited to his partner’s rafter-rattling vocals, the album’s runaway success only took hold after years of hard work and ceaseless determination. For every schlubby kid with talent and a dream, ‘Bat’ seemed to suggest that if you just kept at it long enough, you too could reach the big time.
Behind the scenes, though, the record’s multi-platinum sales were just the glitzy front for a cautionary tale as old as the music business. Following up that kind of hit is never easy, particularly after you’ve submitted to a punishing touring schedule, and for Meat Loaf and his musical partner Jim Steinman, sustaining momentum in the years after ‘Bat Out of Hell’ proved all but impossible.
In fact, it took almost exactly four years for Meat to release another album after ‘Bat’ — and in the interim, he ran a gauntlet of problems, starting with the crippling vocal problems that derailed an early round of recording sessions in 1978. Although doctors were unable to find anything wrong with him physically, he couldn’t hit the notes anymore, and while indulging in the standard ’70s music biz lunacy didn’t help the situation, Meat later chalked everything up to the fact that, as he told Rolling Stone, “I was nuts. I mostly turned it inward. And it was all over being famous. I didn’t want people to call me a star.”
“I spent seven months trying to make a follow-up to ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ with him and it was an infernal nightmare,” added Steinman. “He had lost his voice, he had lost his house, and he was pretty much losing his mind.”
“I was an angry, violent guy who was out of control,” admitted Meat in a 1993 conversation with the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t know how to deal with being popular. I didn’t know how to deal with a lot of things. I just fell apart.”
When Meat fell apart, so did Steinman’s plans for what was supposed to be the follow-up to ‘Bat Out of Hell.’ Originally titled ‘Renegade Angel,’ it eventually morphed into the Steinman solo album ‘Bad for Good,’ which didn’t arrive in stores until the spring of 1981. Meanwhile, Meat kept plugging away at his next record: ‘Dead Ringer,’ an eight-song collection of new Steinman compositions finally released in Oct. 1981. Although ‘Ringer’ sold respectably, it failed to come anywhere near the delirious commercial heights enjoyed by ‘Bat,’ and enthusiasm at the label quickly cooled. Meanwhile, he continued to face personal and business problems offstage.
“I had 45 lawsuits totaling $80 million thrown at me,” Meat recalled in a 2003 interview with the Guardian. “It was a game. And the only way to stop them playing their game was to declare a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Because every time we’d get one case dismissed, they’d throw another one at me. And everybody thinks I had all this money, but I didn’t, because CBS did not pay my royalties until 1997. I got paid the royalties for ‘Bat Out of Hell’ 20 years later.”
When it came time to follow up ‘Dead Ringer,’ Meat found himself up against a label unwilling to foot the bill for another ‘Bat’-style extravaganza — or, as it turned out, for the new Steinman songs he wanted to record, which included ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ (later a massive hit for Bonnie Tyler) and ‘Making Love (Out of Nothing at All),’ which hit No. 2 after Air Supply recorded it as a new song for their 1983 ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation. Contractually obligated to deliver a new album, Meat was forced to scramble for new material.
Rather than trying to find a new songwriter who could tailor an LP’s worth of songs around his voice, Meat cobbled together a grab bag of songs from a variety of writers, including his wife Leslie, Alice Cooper guitarist Dick Wagner, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ vet Ted Neeley, and Chuck Berry, whose 1964 song ‘The Promised Land’ became part of the sessions for the next album. Somewhat surprisingly, Meat himself got in on the action, co-writing four tracks for what would ultimately become 1983’s ‘Midnight at the Lost and Found.’
It was a decision he’d live to regret. “Because I suck,” Meat bluntly retorted during a 2006 interview when asked why he didn’t write more of his own songs. “You know, I wrote with a guy named John Parr who had a hit, ‘St. Elmo’s Fire,’ I don’t know, in the ‘80s. I wrote a song and it was Top 20. It’s really the only thing that I’ve ever liked and I, in, what was it, in ‘83, I wrote songs for that album, ‘Midnight at the Lost And Found,’ which were all demos. I really didn’t want to do them and just really didn’t like it.”
‘Midnight’ has been the target of Meat’s animosity on more than one occasion over the years; he referred to it as “that stupid album” in an interview with Broadway World, saying he “walked away from the project,” again dismissing the final track listing as “all demos.”
It probably wasn’t any consolation at the time, but these days, Meat can at least rest easy knowing ‘Midnight’ is one of his less-heard albums. An abject commercial failure, it spelled the end of his tenure as a CBS-affiliated artist; his next album, 1984’s ‘Bad Attitude,’ marked the start of a new deal with Arista. Sadly, the change of corporate digs didn’t do anything to reverse his flagging sales, and by the time Meat returned with 1986’s ‘Blind Before I Stop,’ he’d been reduced to awkwardly attempting to fit into current trends, shoehorning that big Meat voice in between synth-dominated arrangements recorded by future Milli Vanilli mastermind Frank Farian.
Like ‘Midnight,’ ‘Blind Before I Stop’ featured a smattering of Meat Loaf co-writes, and even found him contributing guitar on a couple of tracks — another example of how he tried to assert control over a career whose success had turned him into a commodity that could be packaged and repackaged according to corporate whims.
“He always wanted to feel like he was writing, involved in the writing,” claimed Steinman in a 2003 interview. But, he added, Meat quickly learned to be careful what he wished for. “One thing Meat will admit to, I’m sure, is he’ll say, ‘I never wanted to be a star. I’m not comfortable being a star.’ He had a lot of breakdowns and problems, which I think had a lot to do with it [being] just his name. He felt much more comfortable when it was the two of us, ’cause we shared the burden and he wasn’t the person who had to come up with the creative work. He didn’t have to write the stuff.”
But even when with Steinman’s pen to rely on, Meat’s name in lights made it difficult to relax. “The audience thinks actors make up their lines, they think the singer — to this day, a lot of people think Meat Loaf wrote the songs,” pointed out Steinman. “That proved to be a great burden on him, and I think taxed everything. I still to this day honestly believe had it been billed as a duo, Meat would not have had one-tenth of the problems he had psychologically and I think I would’ve been happier because I wanted to feel part of it, more than behind the scenes. But once it happened, it happened, you know.”
It all added up to a dark decade for Meat, one that forced him to adapt his stage show to progressively smaller venues and found his highest-profile moments coming courtesy of a film career that included a starring role in 1980’s ‘Roadie‘ and supporting appearances in 1986’s ‘Out of Bounds’ and 1992’s ‘Wayne’s World.’ Ten years after ‘Bat Out of Hell’ made him a superstar, Meat looked like he was all washed up.
Appearances can be deceiving, however, and as we all know now, Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman had a well-received reunion waiting right around the corner. Signed to a new deal at MCA in 1989, the duo began work on what would become 1993’s ‘Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell,’ pulling off one of the more unlikely-seeming comebacks of the decade with a No. 1 album, a chart-topping single in ‘I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),’ and a return to arena-level sales for his live show. Meat — and the ‘Bat’ — were back on top.
And this time around, if ‘Bat II’ and its successors didn’t move the gazillions of copies Meat managed during the ’70s, his sales saw much more manageable ups and downs over the ensuing couple of decades (including ‘Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose’ in 2006). Probably not coincidentally, he’s never lost his voice — or his grip on his career — the way he did in the early-’80s.