Crusaders of the Heart: Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, You and I

Yeah, I did it. It was partly an impulse buy at one of three shops worth its weight in gold in Hoboken, New Jersey, and it was partly because of my fond nostalgia for the artist that I picked up his latest album that fateful day early in 2017, though the album had been out since September, 2016.

Nope, I’m not talking about Tom Waits, and I don’t mean Eddie and the boys of Pearl Jam, either.

I’m talking about the most dramatic singer and performer this side of a three-penny opera as reimagined in Baz Lurman lighting and a fast knob-flick turning up of the bass.

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That’s right –– I’m talking about Meat Loaf!

I walked into Tunes that day and picked up some vintage Springsteen for the “Nice Price” of $2.99, and I stepped back after my purchase, thinking to myself “let me see if there’s any old Meat Loaf in the stacks. And there I saw it, its bold yellow cover art screaming “danger, Will Robinson!” with all the power of Sinestro’s ring of Fear, yet at the same time, strangely inviting, like a yolk that’s burst from the egg’s center and frying in the pan because you didn’t over easy it easy enough.

I didn’t buy it then, that’s the worst part. I thought about it all night and it’s $12.99 brand new price tag. I hit up the Google machine for an hour or so before bed, reading articles about Braver Than We Are, and two things hit me: First, all the songs were written by Meat Loaf’s long time collaborator Jim Steinman, who wrote Meat’s greatest hits Bat Out of Hell (1977) and Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell (1993), as well as seven or so of the songs on Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose (2006), though this third installment swerves severely from the alternating fornications of fast and furious and forlorn and lost that made its predecessors the masterpieces they are. Second, I read about the cover of the album in this article from Ultimate Classic Rock, and Meat Loaf explains in it how the Four Horsemen (Cyclemen?) of the Apocalypse represent the music industry, and it’s up to Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman to battle them and save the music world from total annihilation. At closer examination, and being a super fan of Meat Loaf in my youth, I realized that the motorcycles the Horsemen ride upon were the same hellbound hogs featured on all of the covers of some of his other classic albums he and Jim had worked on together, namely the Bat Out of Hell Trilogy and Meat Loaf’s second album Dead Ringer (1981), which you can read more about from yours truly here, since I think it’s their most underrated collaboration and a fantastical followup to 1977’s Bat Out of Hell.

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And here’s that amazing cover art for Braver Than We Are by Julie Bell.

So, the following day, and after a good night’s rest, I journeyed back to Tunes and swiped my credit card and took Braver Than We Are to my car, unwrapped it, then slipped the CD into my car’s player and listened to the first track, which was supposed to have been included on Bat Out of Hell. Well, my initial thought was it’s a damn good thing that it wasn’t.

“Who Needs the Young” starts out with a blues riff that quickly decides it doesn’t want to be a blues riff, and instead adopts the guise of a 1950s doo-wop bop, invoking sad reveries of crashed muscle cars, flaming vintage leather Schotts, and various scenes in Back to the Future, spilling “Tears on My Pillow” into the sewers littered with the careless blood of youth and empty glass bottles of Coke. And then, like a brokendown American classic that refuses to be run into the ground even after 100,000 miles, the song shifts its gears yet again into something out of a Bertolt Brecht play, dark and stormy rhythms cut to pieces once Meat Loaf’s… voice?! –– enters the fray. Yes, it is Meat Loaf’s voice, but it’s like nothing I’d ever heard before. It’s no secret that musicians who start out singing soprano or tenor end up baritones or bass at best, with scratches on the vinyl of their vocal chords, making everyone sound a bit like old Tom Frost or the later years Leonard Cohen. But I just didn’t expect it from Meat Loaf, whose voice was so recognizable in songs like “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” and even its debut in the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show with the song “Hot Patootie (Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?” and I had read in that same Ultimate Classic Rock article I believe that his voice was different, and according to Steinman, it’s what his voice should’ve been in all their albums.

Don’t get me wrong –– I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just different. Jarring. Unnerving, even, and by the time “Who Needs the Young” ended, I didn’t know how to feel. I gave the second track a listen –– the eleven-minute-and-change anthem “Going All The Way,” which is a song in six movements, and just when I expected a more classic Meat Loaf sound, there was that same crumpled construction paper voice again, like he’d swallowed one of Jim’s earlier drafts of the song and was only now conjuring it up from his very bowels in the recording studio. Believe me, I know how this sounds. It sounds like I don’t like this album. That I’m upset that I went all the way back to Tunes to pick it up for two bucks on top of a Hamilton. (Three bucks if you count the 99 cents.) That this is my first (and only) music review.

Well, it’s none of these. See, I got through those two songs and a little bit into the third track, “Speaking in Tongues,” and then I found myself tapping the arrow on my Pioneer car radio twice to get back to the start of track two. And for a week straight, I went all the way with “Going All the Way.” I listened to it over and over again. It helps that the car ride from my apartment in Jersey City Heights to my fiancée’s (yeah, we don’t live together yet) downtown takes close to eleven minutes with a moderate amount of traffic. And the more I heard it –– Jim’s lyrics sung harrowingly through Meat Loaf’s new broken baritone, blessing each strained syllable with newfound melodrama; Ellen Foley and Karla DeVito’s dueling backups causing a ruckus in the heavens; and what seems like a damned choir in the background, particularly during the “Say a Prayer” segment of the song –– I started appreciating the entire composition all the more. It’s very much a piece of musical theater than a single song sung on an album, and as a closet enthusiast and proud owner of both the original Broadway recording and “The Complete Work” of Jekyll & Hyde, I’m no stranger to gothic musicals.

And while this blog post is not a music review, and I won’t be going through every song on the album, mainly because I only got through all ten tracks for the first time as I was writing this piece, I will say that it’s not all gothic, but with four out of ten tracks having featured female vocalists, it does have that big Broadway musical feel throughout the bulk of the disc. And sometimes it works brilliantly, as in “Going All the Way” and especially in the humorously titled “Loving You Is a Dirty Job (But Somebody’s Gotta Do It)” which invokes the kind of fatal attraction and the mixing of amorous chemicals that makes “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” such a 104.3 classic rock song. Other times, like in “Skull Of Your Country” which incorporates the “Turn around, bright eyes” lyric from Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (they are Jim’s lyrics, after all, written in 1969, way back before the iconic go-to karaoke duet number hit the charts in ’83), it does not, since you can’t help but want to start singing “every now and then I fall apart.” But it’s songs like that that show the importance of not taking oneself too seriously. There’s even a fun little part where Jim gets meta, referencing a well-known line from his other Bat-classic “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” that made me laugh out loud when I heard it in the song “Souvenirs,” which was also supposed to have been included on that same seminal late ’70s album.

So why am I going on and on about Meat Loaf’s latest album, you ask? Well, truth be told, I needed a blog post to write for the month of January so I could start 2017 off right. No, not really. Going back to the song “Going All the Way,” I found something interesting. I had been listening to only this song for a for about a week at least, and then a strange thing started happening to me. By movement four (or maybe it’s movement five), once Meat Loaf, Ellen, and Karla get to sing the “Say a Prayer” part of the song, well, I found myself getting a little emotional in the car as I was driving. Once I had learned the lyrics to the song, I would sing them loudly in my Scion as I sped down Palisade and then Newark Avenues. But it got to a point that once “Say a prayer for those who crawl” came out of my speakers, the words would slip right back down my throat and not be given a chance to soar. I was getting choked up. The words were quite literally sticking in my throat, and I couldn’t explain it. So I’d hit pause on my own vocals and let the trio take over. Then I’d try again with a random of “say a prayer for…” lyric. By the time I’d get to who or what the prayer was for, my voice would crack again, and I’d feel that somewhat unfamiliar heaviness you get when you watch a movie with a strong father and son moment in it like Click or Sing or something. (Okay, maybe that’s a bit too specific to me, but you get the idea.)

Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, back in the day.

Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, back in the day.

Whatever the reason, it’s bizarre. I mean, the lyrics, they’re quite beautiful (and long! –– If I knew how to anchor text, I’d probably not include one just so you still read the actual lyrics anyway), and here they are:

Say a prayer for those who crawl
Say a prayer for those who run
Say a prayer so all in all
There’s a better life to come

Say a prayer for those alone
Say a prayer for those apart
All the golden boys and girls
The crusaders of the heart

Say a prayer for all the lost
Say a prayer for the unborn
Say a prayer for all the young
It takes a fire to keep them warm

Say a prayer for those obsessed
Say a prayer for those enslaved
Say a prayer to beat the drums
From the cradle to the grave

Say a prayer for all the saints
Say a prayer for all the sins
Let the dancing never end
Let the future now begin

Say a prayer to all the gods
Some are near and some are far
Say a prayer to all the gods
To make us braver than we are

Reading them now, it got me thinking. We all do so much for things that ultimately, in the Grand Scheme of all existence, just don’t matter all that much. We go to work, we commute home; we commit ourselves to things we just don’t want to do; we spread ourselves thin, stress ourselves toward an early flatline for no good reason, because whatever will happen will come to pass with or without our suffering. We battle our own Horsemen day in and day out, and sometimes all it takes to sooth our tortured spirits is a nice home-cooked meal from the one  you love, and whom loves you with all the essence of their being. Or kicking back playing some Space Invaders with your best buds over some craft beers. Sitting –– truly sitting –– still to silence the mind long enough for it to connect to the heart once more.

And it’s that phrase in Jim’s lyrics, “Crusaders of the Heart,” that I think hits me the most, makes the tears want to burst right through my eyes. Not because I’m sad, but because there’s so much love out there. (And a lot of hatred, anger, jealousy, stupidity, and all those other not-so-positive emotions, too, of course –– ’cause without them, we wouldn’t understand or appreciate love, so stop praying for a perfect world already!) Real love. The kind of love we all are crusading after every day in our own unique snowflake sorta ways. The type of love that’s essentially nothing more than a tiny seed from which some greater happiness might sprout and grow, if only we nurture and care for it the Right Way.

Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, closer to today.

Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf, closer to today.

I’ve written this piece after good day’s work for someone else. This blog post is the start of at least one evening’s blip of happiness. Sending my fiancée our favorite new emoji seemingly out of the blue is another. Going to the Friggin Fabulous open mic night on Tuesday nights and having a Brooklyn Blast double IPA waiting for me at the bar, then reciting some of my spoken word is yet another. Now what about you? What are you doing today or tonight or this coming weekend to make sure your crusade for love comes from the heart? That you’re “going all the way” for? Because, as Jim writes and Meat Loaf sings, “going all the way is just the start.”

And yes, I know this song is really probably just another sex anthem, “a catchy cousin to ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’,” as Jim Farber from EW.com writes, but that’s love, too, and we can all find deeper meaning in just about anything. We simply have to stop, listen, and look around once in a while.

Or we might miss it.

*      *      *      *      *

Thanks for reading my first blog post of 2017, everyone! It’s a bit long, but this year I’m going to be writing 100% the kind of blog posts that I want to write, which I hope will be worth your time reading. If not (or if so), let me know in the comments below.

So… is anyone else listening to the new Meat Loaf album…?

[Crickets.]

 

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