Meat Loaf: The Handbasket From Hell

By Jeb Wright

Meat Loaf is back with a new album and this time there are no bats going in or out of hell. Instead, hell is in a handbasket and, according to Meat, the whole world is inside it and heading for the fire pit down below.

In the interview that follows, Meat Loaf discusses his angst with idiot rock reviewers and how he can’t help but shake his head at some of the not so amazing insights that have been assumed concerning his music. We also take time to dissect the new album as Meat explains how famous rappers came to be included.

When asked if he would work with Jim Steinman again, the man who wrote the iconic Bat Out of Hell and Bat Out of Hell II, Mr. Loaf sheds new light on why there is no Bat IV, at least yet. We close the interview with Meat’s recounting of how close Bat Out of Hell came to being a failure. In fact, if it weren’t for John Belushi and Gilda Radner, it may never have seen the light of day.

Jeb: Hell in a Handbasket is in stores and you were able to perform on Jay Leno with “Giving Tree” on the album’s release date.

Meat Loaf: It takes all day to do Leno but we were really lucky getting to be on the show the day the record was released. We really did a good job on that song. We had never sung “The Giving Tree” live before. My wife is my biggest critic. She will tell me things like, “I’ve heard you do better” or “It was okay.” I asked her how we did on Leno and she said, “You really did great.” I have to tell you, that really made me feel good.

Jeb: I did an interview with your daughter, Pearl, on her album a while back and she told me that when she was little you put her down for naps in guitar cases. Is that true?

Meat Loaf: We did when she was little. We wouldn’t take one of the old beat up ones; we only used the new ones. The new ones are all felt lined. We would put her blankets in there and she would take a nap. They were high enough on the sides and we would lock the wheels on it. We would be in the dressing room and she would go to sleep. We didn’t do it when she was two or anything; just when she was very small.

Jeb: You say that Hell in a Handbasket is a very personal album for you. Define that, do you mean emotional?

Meat Loaf: No, it is very personal. There was a reviewer in Seattle that didn’t like the record, but it really confused the hell out of him. Sometimes when I read these reviews, I just have to say they must be really dumb people. I really wish people would use their brains for a second. He said, “How could this be personal if there are five different writers on the record?" Does he think they just send me a song and I record it?

How I work, when I’m not working with Jim [Steinman], is that I meet with writers and I tell them what direction I am going on my album. I tell them what type of songs that I need.

They say for me to sit down with them and work with them for two days. I tell them that if we sit down together for two days then it will never get recorded by me, which has been the truth. Every time I have written with them for the first two days, other people end up recording the songs. I have had a # 1 and a few Top 20’s for other people, but I won’t touch them with a ten foot pole.

Once they get used to working on my ideas without me being there, then, on the second day, they send me what they have and I start to rework it. I tell them, “This is really good but I’m going to rewrite the first verse.” I did that with “All of Me.”

Jeb: Many artists would take songwriting credit for doing that.

Meat Loaf: The difference between me and everybody else in this industry – we won’t name names – is that people will not record a song unless they can put their name on it. They stick their name on the song, as a writer, and then, they record the song just as it was given to them.

My ego has always been that it doesn’t make any difference who gets the credit, as long as the song gets done. If I change five lines in a song, then I’m not going to go beat them up for a writer’s credit. In “All of Me” I probably changed eight lines, which is no big deal. The first verse was originally about a girl and I flipped it around to be about me.

A lot of times I will let them keep the credit, but if I did a lot of changes on the song, I will take the publishing on the song. When you work on everything the way that I work on it, then you really are making it personal.

I even changed a small lyric on “California Dreaming.” I even changed “Mad Mad World” by Tom Cochrane. I used his words, but then I brought in Chuck D, who completely wrote a whole different thing. I mold these songs and they become personal. Anyone, like the guy in Seattle, that writes stuff like that is wrong. It would be like going up to Marlon Brando and saying, “How can you possibly play Stanley in Street Car Named Desire? Tennessee Williams wrote that.” Brando found the truth and reality in that character.

I have read scripts that were written by seven people. I can find the character even though seven people wrote it. It was not very intelligent for that guy in Seattle to write that. He thought that just because I didn’t write the song that I couldn’t make it personal. It is very sophomoric thinking and they just don’t think it through. Stop and think about the fact that I am an actor, who has done five films and done stage work. They don’t think of the craft and how I do research and how I analyze things. All they think about is that I have a funny name. “He calls himself ‘Meat Loaf’ so he can’t be taken seriously.”

Jeb: You can look at “California Dreaming” and get your point. You really changed the feel of that song.

Meat Loaf: I always thought of “California Dreaming” as this nice little hippy pop ditty. I met John Phillips, Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass through Lou Adler when I was doing The Rocky Horror Picture Show back in the ‘70’s.

I always thought the song was about some people who were out on tour and wanted to go home. For some reason, this particular time that I heard the lyrics, I heard them differently. I heard, “All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray.” I said, “Wait a second, there is nothing happy about that.” I got the lyrics out and I studied them and discovered that this song was not about a guy wanting to go to the beach and look at girls in bikinis. The song is about the fear of failure and about someone not following their dreams because they are afraid.

The album Hell in a Handbasket is about humanity, compassion, dignity and fear; that is why it is a personal record. On the song, “All of Me,” I open myself up and I take responsibility for the times, and the things, that I have done, and the next day, I get up and am totally embarrassed and guilty and I think, “Why did I do that?”

I heard “All of Me” and I loved the song. It talks about the fortress falling around my feet. For the last five years, that is what I’ve been trying to do. Everyday, for the last six years I have said, “People are going to hell in a handbasket.”

Why are people spending so much time on Roger Clemens? Let baseball handle it. Why is it that a girl and her mother, who are atheists – which is fine, I’m not putting them down for their beliefs – but why do they attack a school because there is a prayer on a wall that has been there for fifty years? Why does the ACLU want to get involved and tackle that kind of case when there are so many cases that are really important? I would hear about stuff like that and just say, “The world is going to hell in handbasket.”

Jeb: You seem like a man who is ruled by his emotions.

Meat Loaf: Absolutely. I couldn’t finish the song “Another Day” because I was crying all the time. I eventually finished it at four o’clock in the morning. It was the last song that was mixed for the record.

Jeb: Tell me about “Blue Sky.”

Meat Loaf: The version of “Blue Sky” that you hear was done at sound check. We were going to go back to the studio and redo it, but I didn’t want to. There was a small crack in my voice but I wanted to leave it the way it was because it was emotional. Was it a perfect vocal? No, but it was perfect for what it was.

Jeb: I love Patti Russo and the song “Our Love and Our Souls” is amazing.

Meat Loaf: That is one of the songs we are doing live. We are doing that, “Stand in the Storm,” “Mad Mad World” and “Giving Tree.” It’s a beautiful song. The two Sean McConnell songs…I worked on that song three years ago with him, so I didn’t change that one. Sean, Greg Becker and Rick Brantley are my favorite writers to work with.

Rick is a young guy and he didn’t get anything on this album because it just didn’t fit. I have an amazing song written by Rick Brantley. I want to get the movie rights to it and make a movie of it. It would be an incredible film. Rick can write an amazing story song. I can’t tell you what the story is because people will steal it.

Jeb: Do you know where the phrase “Hell in a handbasket” comes from?

Meat Loaf: Most people think that ‘Hell in a handbasket’ comes from the Civil War. It meant that you’re heading for disaster. If you continue to read about the origin of the phrase, then you find that the phrase actually came from the 17th Century in the UK. Back then, they didn’t mind if they cut your head off and put it on a spike out in front of their house, but they didn’t want to tell anybody to go to hell. They used the terminology “Going to heaven in a wheel barrel” as a derogatory remark that meant ‘Go to hell.’ It evolved from that.

Jeb: Earlier you were talking about small minded people and I am probably being one right now. I am a rocker and I do not like hearing people rap on Meat Loaf albums.

Meat Loaf: You know what? I get it; you’ve never been a rap fan. Let me tell you what I did. I met Lil Jon and I decided to download some of his stuff. I listened, and I listened, and I listened and then, I discovered there was an art form to what I was hearing. I, then, went and downloaded the hardest case of rap that I could find, which was NWA. I didn’t listen to it once; I listened to it over a period of days. Next, I downloaded Public Enemy – this was before I even got Chuck D to be on the album. I also downloaded 50 Cent. I already had LL Cool J because he is a friend and “Mama Said Knock You Out” is one of my favorite songs of all time.

I started downloading a lot of hip hop and I started to understand the art form. Everyone has their opinion on art. I had someone actually write me and tell me that they had edited the rap parts out. I wrote back and said, “Why don’t you go down to an art museum and because you don’t like Picasso go ahead and run some razor blades through his art.

Jeb: I understand what you are saying.

Meat Loaf: I didn’t like disco back in the ‘70’s and I was asked to break a disco record on a show. I said to the guy that told me that, “Why don’t you just go burn some books like a Nazi while you’re at it.”

You’re a rock guy and I understand it. I think that people in our business, whether they like it or not, should understand all of the art. The only exception I can think of is some of the really racist speed metal that is out there that deals with subjects that are just so out of my wheelhouse. I have no respect for that and those records, I actually would break those records as I think they are immoral. I don’t think NWA or Public Enemy are immoral. I find that they’re telling me the truth about their situation. Anytime someone will tell me the truth, and not be bigoted or racist, then I respect that.

I think people need to understand the art form. Chuck D gave me “The Good God is a Woman and She Don’t Like Ugly” and it was perfect. You have to understand the poetry. If you will listen to Public Enemy then you will understand his poetry. Lil John, on “Stand in the Storm,” was dead on perfect. His contribution is easier to figure out than Chuck D’s because Chuck D is a more complicated person. When I heard Chuck D, the hairs on my arm stood up.

Jeb: After hearing your explanation, I will crank it up and give it one more try, but I am not saying I will like it.

Meat Loaf: I didn’t just say, “Geez, lets be cool and put some rap on the album.” We were going to do “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” I told Chuck and he sent me his take on it and there was no way I was not going to use that. I didn’t want to just do “Mad Mad World.” I didn’t want to rewrite Tom Cochrane’s version of “Mad Mad World,” even though I did change some lines around.

Jeb: This is my last one: Would you consider working with Jim Steinman again?

Meat Loaf: People don’t understand the situation with Jim and me. We actually exchange emails with each other every six or seven weeks. Jim gave an interview recently where he said that he wanted to do Bat Out of Hell IV. The guy that did the interview told me that he said he wanted to do Bat IV and I said, “Anytime Jim wants to do Bat IV then I am there.” It is not me going around saying, “I don’t want to work with Jim Steinman.” If Jim is ready to go to work then I am ready to go.

Jim has had some health issues and Jim is slow – he is very slow. There is another problem with doing Bat IV. You have to find a record company that is willing to give Jim the kind of money to produce Bat IV the way that he would want to produce it. Even if we did Bat out of Hell IV, it would not sell seventeen million copies. We would have to get really lucky and get a song as good as “Rolling in the Deep.”

The original Bat Out of Hell was almost a failure. It was within minutes of being a complete bust. My friend, John Belushi and Gilda Radner just put their foot down and told Lorne Michaels that they were bringing their friend, Meat Loaf, on the show, Saturday Night Live. After that show is when Bat Out of Hell broke.

Jeb: That is amazing.

Meat Loaf: The final piece of the puzzle was a deejay in Buffalo, New York named Sandy Beach. After we did “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” on Saturday Night Live, he heard the lyrics, “You’ll never find your gold on a sandy beach.” He said, “That has my name in it, so I am playing this.”

It became # 1 in Buffalo in about four seconds. Before Saturday Night Live and Buffalo, we had sold no records. This was the end of May, and by the beginning of July, we were Platinum. By the end of July, we were Double Platinum and were selling over 700,000 copies a week.

All of it happened because Walter Yetnikoff, John Belushi and Gilda Radner went completely bonkers on Lorne Michaels because he didn’t like the album Bat Out of Hell. It is kind of the same kind of deal like you not liking that song because you don’t like rap music.

Jeb: Even though you’re a singer it seems you relate to actors more than musicians.

Meat: Everybody looked at me as an actor and that is why John and I were friends. All of my friends are actors. There are very few musicians that I have ever had conversations with… Sting, Jon Bon Jovi and Whitney Houston…I can name them all on one hand.