by Bill Palmer
“I haven’t had a break in forever,” says Meat Loaf, “and I think that’s why I’m wearing out.” He’s laughing, but he means it. Just hours earlier he had been in the hospital, fighting off exhaustion. Now he’s on the phone telling me about his new album, and his genuine excitement about its release is matched in intensity only by the extent of his pessimism for where the world is headed in general, which he says has lost its dignity. On top of that, he believes his new record is being blackballed by the media because of his political views, which he says have been misreported to begin with. It’s fitting, then, that he’s titled the whole thing Hell In A Handbasket.
Despite the soul bearing nature of his new music, this is a record that he couldn’t wait to make. Rather than taking time off after his last tour, he went right back into the studio to carry forward with the momentum from the previous record. “Working with Rob Cavallo gave me so much energy, and working on that record was such a pleasure,” he says of their previous outing Hang Cool Teddy Bear. “I love his whole attitude. His attitude is ‘This is not my record, this is yours, and I don’t care whether people know Rob Cavallo produced it or not.’ Which if you work with other producers, they want to make sure that people know they produced the record.” He makes clear that he’s not referring to longtime collaborator Jim Steinman, but “other producers” who’ve ignored his input over the years. “So when we first started with Rob I kind of was quiet, and eventually one day I said ‘Look, I think we should try this,’ and Rob goes ‘Okay, Meat wants to try this. Let’s go that way.’” But if he’s pleased with the album collaboration, little else gets spared in our conversation – including the actions of my fellow journalists.
Meat Loaf is already being misquoted about this album. In the midst of a UK media blitz, he mentioned that there were still songs remaining from the previous record with Cavallo, and one media outlet reviewed the new album as being “nothing but leftovers” from the old one. “Which wasn’t the truth,” he makes clear. “There’s no song on this record left over from Hang Cool Teddy Bear. What I said was the songs, I had songs left over, and they inspired me to move to a direction for Hell In A Handbasket.” The direction is a complex one, as can be expected from a record which at one extreme offers an urgent rendition of California Dreamin’ and at the other extreme features guest vocals from Chuck D of Pubic Enemy. But the main thrust of the record is that it peels back the layers of how he views the world around him.
“I’ve never said this, and I figured it out in the hospital actually,” he admits with another laugh. “I’ve never said it, not to a journalist or to the public. I say it to producers all the time. I always say don’t look at this as a song. You can’t look at it as song. You have to look at it dramatically, and you have to look at it thematically. I don’t care what you do. You can look at it any way you want, but I’m telling you how it’s got to be. You can look at it in 4/4 time all you want, but if you listen to my records I’m constantly adding 6/4 bars in things. I went, ‘Can I do this?’ And they went, ‘Yeah. It might be weird.’ And I said ‘Perfect.’ So I’m constantly doing that, but as a listener you never catch it. But I don’t look at albums as a collection of songs. I look at them as universes, as worlds to themselves. So right now if something’s the sun, I have twelve worlds floating around this sun. It’s not twelve albums on a string hanging in a record store with songs on them, they’re twelve worlds. All different, all with different emotions and landscapes and colors, and they’re all completely different. Thematically and emotionally, everything’s different. This one was really based on me saying for the last six years, the world’s gone to hell in a handbasket.”
“It started when I heard a friend of mine, an actor, got booked on a big commercial and they were gonna pay him a lot of money. And he went to start and they said ‘We’re not using you.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ And the producer looked at him and said ‘You’re a republican.’ Now I had heard this, but it’s the first time I ran into it. And right now on Hell In A Handbasket, I’ve been blackballed from shows because USA Today has me listed as ‘Celebrities who are republicans.’ And I’m not. But I’ve been blackballed from two different shows right now. So I can’t get on and talk about Hell In A Handbasket because they assume I’m a republican. And when the world has gotten to that point, when it had divided itself into the haves and have nots, it has gone to hell in a handbasket because we’ve reverted back to 1952 McCarthyism. It’s an absolute crime and an absolute shame, and you’d think in the year 2012 that people would be more forgiving. So that is really what the album is about. It is about humanity and compassion for each other. It is political in its nature, in a way, and Mad Mad World is definitely political because the lyrics and the chorus of Mad Mad World, really, in today’s world and today’s technology, you can’t open your mouth about anything. You can open your mouth and say ‘I love Campbell’s chicken soup’ and some internet journalism site is gonna be open for comments and you’re gonna be called every name in the book because you like Campbell’s chicken soup. Somebody will come along and go ‘I like it too’ and other people will go ‘What are you, stupid?’ It’s created this world of hatred, and it has driven me completely nuts.”
He goes on to cite a more concrete example. “When Whitney died, I was upset and I was reading the internet and I started reading comments. The beginnings of them were all ‘Oh, we’re so sorry and we pray for her family’ and all that. Then all of the sudden the tone started to change, and it became racial and I stopped reading. I almost wanted to throw up. It was full of hate, and there was no compassion. This woman had just died. I really don’t care how she died. She passed away. You owe respect. It’s human dignity. We’ve lost our dignity. We’ve lost our humanity. We’ve lost our compassion. A lot of Hell In A Handbasket deals with that. I deal with it with myself on the opening track. Also what people haven’t figured out with Hell In A Handbasket yet is that they see the name Meat Loaf and they assume what they’re gonna get, and they don’t actually listen to it. They just assume, and they hear a guitar, and they hear this, and they hear that, and they assume they’re hearing what Bat Out Of Hell was, or what this was, or with that style of song, or a wall of sound. And there’s no wall of sound. I should include a sticker on my record: ‘This does not include the Phil Spector wall of sound.’”
“In fact everybody in the band thought it was incredibly brave of me to open the first half of the verse of the album with vocals, bass, and a kick drum. No piano, no guitar, no acoustic guitar, just that, with no auto-tuning, just as it came out on the album. And I’m sorry, there is not a singer in the world that in the last ten years has released an album without auto-tuning. And so that’s what I wanted. I wanted this album completely to be free, and to be real, and to be exactly who I was. It’s the first record that didn’t deal with characters. It dealt with how I see the world through my eyes.”
So has he intentionally avoided getting this personal on his previous records? “No, I’m an actor. That’s all it is,” he says emphatically. “The rock elite press decided in 1978 and ’81 and ’83 and whenever. In fact Clive Davis, when Jim and I went to play him Bat Out Of Hell, he told Jim, ‘Do you know anything about rock and roll?’ And he said to me, ‘You’re an actor. Actors don’t make records.’ And so that was how the rock elite looked at actors, because actors don’t write. Because I don’t write my songs, there’s no way I can interpret them. There’s no way I can actually feel that internally. And my comment to that has always been go find Marlon Brando and tell him that, because Tennessee Williams wrote Streetcar Named Desire, there is absolutely no way that Marlon Brando could actually play Stanley.”
Despite all this, his new record is receiving some of the most positive press reviews of his career. Not that he minds any negative reviews, so long as “they’ve listened to the record and the understood what I was going for, but still didn’t like it,” he says. “What bothers me is when somebody will review a record, and they have preconceived that it’s Meat Loaf. You couldn’t do that with the Beatles, because the Beatles were evolving. And my voice sounds the same. The Beatles were lucky enough to have four different people singing, and they had harmonies, and they did all these things, and they had George Martin. But my voice does a certain thing.”
“I can growl a word or two and make a change, and people want me to growl more, and I don’t like it. When I was working on Bat Out Of Hell, Jim wanted me to use that rough voice more than I wanted to. Every producer wants me to use this other rougher voice, and they all want me to use it, a little more Cocker-ish, a little more Steven Tyler, I guess. And I don’t want to use it. I want to use my Adam Lambert voice. I don’t have my Adam Lambert voice. I never did have my Adam Lambert voice, it’s just what I want to have. That’s funny. That makes me laugh. Adam Lambert, by the way, is possibly one of the three greatest singers in the entire world. I link him with Aretha, Whitney, and Adam Lambert. I couldn’t touch those three with a ten foot, or hundred foot, pole. Emotionally I can, vocally I couldn’t.”
Upon further reflection, he concludes that “Jim may have been right. I hear Bat Out Of Hell now, and I go oh maybe I should have used my rough voice there” in certain spots.
“Critics just assume that a Meat Loaf album is going to be this particular thing,” he says, even as his last two records have left the earlier Meat Loaf blueprint behind. “Hang Cool Teddy Bear was a true character driven record, and it was one character by the name of Patrick. And Hell In A Handbasket is not character driven. If it’s character driven, it’s my character.”
The new tour, aptly titled Mad Mad World, kicks off in June in Austin, Texas and runs through August.