ROCK / The Loaf goes into Bat again: Fifteen years after Meat Loaf released 'Bat Out of Hell', the tills are still ringing. It looked like a one-off, but now 'Bat II' is top of the charts. Ben Thompson has a rare audience

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'SOMETIMES going all the way is just a start.' These words come up in antique scroll at the start of the video to Meat Loaf's current single, 'I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)'. They make a fitting motto for the triumphant return of a performer whose mission to entertain has never taken prisoners, and whose kinder, softer qualities have often been overlooked. 'I don't want to be a rock'n'roll idol,' Meat vouchsafes in mid-interview, 'I want to be a rock'n'roll friend.'

Back in the video, police cars and helicopters chase the bulky but fast-moving form of a daredevil motorcyclist. It may not look that much like Meat Loaf, but we know in our heart of hearts that it is him. At the entrance to a gothic castle, he vanishes into thin air. Inside we see him as a lonely demon, a Klingon in fingerless gloves. He conducts a touching Beauty and the Beast-style courtship with a young woman, dressed (her, not him) in a bewildering succession of Marks & Spencer's shifts. The scene reaches its climax when he turns a magic crankshaft, and the chaise-longue on which she has been disporting herself rises, unsupported, into the air. Then the police come and the couple rides off into the desert on a motorbike.

The song follows the classic Meat Loaf recipe. It has endless stirring choruses, and lasts, in its full-length version, a mighty 11 minutes. The best bit starts about eight minutes in, and is cruelly abridged on the video. It's a duet with an enigmatic female Tynesider called Mrs Loud, who peppers Meat with tricky questions such as 'Can you colourise my life, I'm so tired of black and white?' His replies are heartfelt: 'I can do that, I can do that]' But when she predicts he will betray her, he insists, voice quivering with emotion, that he 'won't do that'. This probably seems absurd, and in many ways it is, but it is also very touching. And there are a lot of people out there waiting to be touched. Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, the new album which the song kick-starts so effectively, sold more than 300,000 copies in Britain in its first two weeks.

Meat Loaf's following was a sleeping giant, one which has been mobilised by a promotional budget big enough to buy several Premier League footballers. Away from snooty metropolitan centres, the excitement has been genuine. News of Meat's reunion with songwriter Jim Steinman, the crazed Wagnerian responsible for the original Bat Out of Hell (26 million sold and counting), has spread like wildfire, and the screech of tyres has echoed across record-shop forecourts. Bat, as Meat Loaf affectionately terms it, was one of those records which broke free of critical constraints and flew into every corner of people's lives. When he claims that it gets played at 'births, weddings and funerals', this is no idle boast.

Fifteen years ago, when Bat first came out, there was not much in Meat Loaf's resume to suggest imminent greatness. True, he had recently starred in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but his musical career had been distinctly patchy - this was, after all, a man who had worked with Ted Nugent. Born Marvin Lee Aday in Dallas, Texas, in 1947, Meat played football in high school and sang with the excellently named Popcorn Blizzard in late-Sixties Los Angeles. He moved to New York a few years later to act in musicals, and met writer and producer Steinman while auditioning for a show enticingly described as 'South Pacific set in Vietnam'. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1993, in person, Meat Loaf is trim - far from the human butter-mountain of unkind legend - and his shirt does not have a ruff. He has a gentle handshake and a speaking voice that is not only pitched higher than you might expect, but also seems constantly on the brink of some great, all-consuming emotion. He does not shout, and only occasionally does he refer to himself in the third person, but in no way is he a disappointment. The early success of Bat Out of Hell II is 'mind-boggling, just . . . mind boggling,' Meat Loaf says. 'I've cried about four times in public in the last fortnight alone.'

He thinks it's too early to say if Bat II will have the same, almost physical impact as its illustrious predecessor, but the signs are good.

'Two weeks ago in America,' Meat reports, 'There was an eight-year-old autistic child who had never responded to one thing in her entire life. She was in the kitchen and 'Anything

for Love' came on the radio. Her grandma and her parents and her elder sister were there - her whole family - and the little girl got

up and walked over to the radio and started responding to the music, and everybody began to cry.' This was not the end of the story. Hearing the glad news, Meat Loaf's record company sent her a complimentary CD. 'And now,' he concludes triumphantly, 'she's responding to the whole album]'

Why did the first record become a part of so many people's lives? 'Because it gives you a mirror image of yourself,' says the man whose name is on it. 'You're not borrowing time from me; you're not walking into my life and living my life with me when you listen to it; you're only living your own life.' I'm not sure if that makes things any clearer.

'In America,' Meat Loaf continues, 'psychologists give people a copy of Bat Out of Hell to take home and listen to, and then they ask them what they thought of it, because you can get an image of a person from that, you can find out how they're thinking.' But wouldn't that be true of a lot of people's music - why should it be more the case with Steinman and Meat Loaf's?

'Because these songs are not written about us,' he explains. 'They're not written about anything that happens in our lives. That's why we use fantasy art on the sleeves; not to represent motorcycles or bats or anything, but to show that what you're stepping into is a fantasy, and that fantasy is about yourself.'

'Jim writes for everyman,' Meat Loaf insists. 'It's just that if the songs aren't interpreted the right way, nobody can see it.' We are getting into dangerous territory here. During the two men's prolonged creative separation in the Eighties, Steinman's attempts to find other suitable interpreters of his work, from Barbra Streisand to Bonnie Tyler, did not always go down well with Meat Loaf.

Meat has something to say to anyone critical of Bat II's inclusion of several songs that have already seen the light of day on various Meat- free Jim Steinman products. The message is 'Give me a break, go hang yourself, these people have the brains of a small cow'. 'They're my songs,' Meat Loaf continues emphatically, 'they were written for me, and the only reason they ever came out before is greed on the part of various record companies.' So dissatisfied is he with the whole 'very crazy period' that followed the first Bat that he even plans to re- record Dead Ringer, the original 1981 follow-up album, though he admits 'This is a very strange idea, and some people might lose their minds when they hear it'.

The Loaf / Steinman partnership has a future as well as a past. Bat II remakes such as 'Out of the Frying Pan (And Into the Fire)' certainly benefit from Meat's added testosterone bluster, but it's the new songs that make the deeper impression. As well as 'Anything for Love', there's a very funny piece of lumbering saloon-bar philosophy called 'Life is a Lemon and I Want my Money Back', and a classic extended auto metaphor, catchily entitled 'Objects in the Rear View Mirror may Appear Closer than They are'.

Meat is currently limbering up for two years on the road, which sounds like a daunting prospect. 'Are you kidding? I've got guaranteed work for two years, man, that's thrilling.'

Anyone lucky enough to have tickets for his forthcoming British tour is assured of a big show. 'I'm a performer,' Meat Loaf says reasonably. 'That's what I do. I think I'm a good actor, and an OK singer, but I don't sing like Aretha Franklin. I would never put myself in her category - she's brilliant. And Lisa Stansfield's great too. I don't even know if

I'm as good as Lisa Stansfield. But there's never been a single moment in my career when I have walked on to a stage, a set or a recording studio when I haven't given everything I had to give. People can say what they want about me, but at the end of the day if I were to die tomorrow on my tombstone they could write 'He gave it all' . '

'The bottom line,' he continues, 'is I know who I work for. I work for the people who buy those tickets, that's who pays me, and anyone who thinks other than that has no base in reality.' Meat Loaf's interpretation of Steinman's dream landscape might seem to have no base in reality either. 'But that's the performance,' Meat stresses, almost exasperated. 'The performance is real.' Does he have any fondness for motorbikes off stage? 'No, not really - I have ridden them, but I choose not to.' So Meat Loaf isn't safe on a motorbike then? 'I'm not safe on a bicycle.'