Fixed Points in Our Timeline:
- In the late Nineties, during the lead-up to rock legend Meat Loaf's release of his album Welcome to the Neighbo(u)rhood ("u" only included in international packaging), Meat and his long-time collaborator, Jim Steinman, had had tentative discussions (or, as Meat once put it, "two-thousand dollar dinners where Jim orders everything on the menu") about following up their "little sequel that could," the unexpectedly successful Bat Out of Hell II, with a third album that would complete the saga. As Meat was the artist with which Jim was most associated in the public consciousness, this was a wise move indeed. Ultimately, however, Jim's enthusiasm had as yet only led to ideas -- tempting ideas, but ideas rather than actual product. And so Neighbo(u)rhood instead had only two songs from Jim's pen, both previously recorded... but the prospect of a Bat III was still lingering in the air.
- Part of the reason Jim was distracted from developing Bat III was that he had begun his long-planned return to musical theater in a big way: his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Whistle Down the Wind, had a troublesome tryout in Washington, DC, but managed to recover in time for a healthy West End run; Tanz der Vampire, a collaboration with Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski and renowned European playwright/songwriter Michael Kunze, was beginning its reign of Europe, and Broadway was showing interest; a screen-to-stage transfer of Footloose incorporated "Holding Out for a Hero," which meant Jim was included in the ensuing Tony Award nomination for Best Score; and Warner Bros. had tapped him to help them compete with Disney's stranglehold on the theater district by scoring an adaptation of the Tim Burton Batman.
- Meat took enough of an interest in Jim's new theater work to record two songs from Whistle Down the Wind (and a third song by Jim not written for the theater, although it was a collaboration with noted theater songwriter Don Black) for a career-spanning greatest hits compilation entitled The Very Best of Meat Loaf released in 1998, which he followed up with a noteworthy promotional appearance on VH1's Storytellers and a concert tour that followed the Storytellers format. The time was ripe for a new collaboration between Meat and Jim to eat up the market if they could ever get their heads together again.
And so our story begins just before the third bullet point, during the selection process of songs for The Very Best of Meat Loaf, as the timelines diverge...
"No thank you, I'm not hungry, but I appreciate the offer."
For Meat Loaf, as for anyone else, be they in first class, business, or coach, airline food doesn't taste very good. The scientific reason is that at high altitude the air is drier and there is low pressure. These combine to alter a person's taste buds, and so food on a plane has fewer flavors. The food isn't actually awful, we're just mixed up. Not that it matters -- plane bathrooms suck, no one wants to use them if they can be avoided, but the food they serve makes it impossible to do so. Better not to eat. (Especially if you're Meat, who has been advised to watch his weight by well-meaning assholes pretty much since he came out of the womb.)
And they never give you enough portion-wise to actually be useful, in either case. Travel amenities are a tiny life: the flight attendant gives you single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter, and a microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit; the people you meet on each flight are single-serving friends; and then you've arrived, ready to relax at what you think is a nice hotel, only to discover tiny bars of soap, sample-package mouthwash on the bathroom sink, and a shampoo-conditioner combo in the shower. No luxury for a road warrior, even a higher-class road warrior like a platinum-selling rock-and-roller. You almost have to steal stuff from the maid's cart to feel like you've enjoyed your vacation.
And why was Meat hurtling through the air in a flying metal bird to Vienna? A city he had played maybe twice in his life? All Jimmy's fault. "It's a show you have to experience for yourself! One minute it's funny, the next minute it's serious... if I give you a demo, you won't get the gist!" That certainly seemed to be true. He'd heard what Steinman was writing for Batman, or at least the material he thought might interest Meat if the show didn't work out, and it wasn't clicking. Too theatrical, better suited for Fiddler on the Roof or Man of La Mancha. "Then again, you didn't work on it in the studio, and you're not hearing it in context," Meat reproachfully thought to himself. "And the Whistle stuff was alright when he played it for you." Still, he wasn't looking forward to recording any of it; working with Jimmy meant working with Rink, and working with that united front was painful.
Rink, of course, was Steven Rinkoff, the studio engineer who'd been practically glued to Jim since 1986. As much as people would call Meat Jim's Frankenstein monster, Rink actually looked the part. Slap some makeup on him from the Lon Chaney collection, and you've got a clone. (About as skilled as an assemblage of random parts too; once recording was over, one-take Jake considered his initial mix-down perfect. Meat wasn't the only person who'd ever worked with Jim to grouse that cement made better mixes than Rink.) Meat didn't hate the guy, per se; their working methods just didn't gel. He'd been with Jimmy so long he was content to move at the speed of stop like him, but not Meat.
Flashbacks of the Bat II sessions ran through his head... recording parts that weren't needed because Jim decided it had to be done, strings and horns throughout entire songs, every possible way to play a guitar solo tested, decisions unnecessarily second- and third-guessed about when and where certain things happened. ("There's supposed to be a horn there." "Jimmy, we took it out. There's so much happening in that section, it needs to breathe a little." "I want to see what it sounds like!" And so they'd automate the parts back in, no easy feat with analog, only for Jim to sit there, take a deep pull on his joint, cloud the room with smoke, and respond, "You know what? You're right. Take them out." And so automation needed to be redone, sometimes taking as long as a week with every new pass. At least now Pro Tools was widespread enough to make that shit easier, leave the faders open and just un-mute what you want to put back in.) If he was being a stickler, then came the endless mixes: lead vocals up, lead vocals down, backing vocals up and down, horns up and down, strings up and down, drums up and down, guitars up and down, until there were 20 different versions of an 8-minute song and they'd burned through boxes and boxes of tape. And when you look for sanity, for a voice of reason, for someone to tell Jim that they started the session at 10 AM, that Jim had woken up at 7 PM and not gotten there until 8 or 9 and not started until 10 and not picked which song to focus on until 11, and that it was unreasonable to insist everyone stay until 9 or 10 AM the next morning, what does Rink say? "What's that? You want the guitar to sound like a Harley-Davidson morphing into a gargoyle-like beast who's mad at his parents? YOU GOT IT, BOSS!"
Another pained thought crossed Meat's mind: "What if he calls Todd?" He shuddered at the prospect of getting Todd Rundgren involved. Ah yes, the wizard, the true star. Meat would always be grateful for what Todd did for him on Bat, he had no animosity to Todd, but he could get very abusive in a work situation and Meat had no desire to be around it. He still remembered the time he ever dared to make an arrangement suggestion on the first album.
Working with someone as big as Mr. "Hello It's Me" himself was intimidating; Meat was doing his best to soak it in and learn, but he often felt it was easier for everybody if he just stayed in the corner until it was time to record. But finally they were at an impasse, and Meat thought he had a solution. He got up the nerve and went over to Todd and Jim. "Uh... fellas?" Todd turned to look at him as though he was a studio employee who'd wandered into the room on some unimportant task. In a tough acerbic tone, he replied, "Yes? What do you want?" Already, Meat could feel himself withering, but he'd come this far. "Well... I was just thinking, y'know... this part here? You could do it like Motown, y'know? R&B?" This elicited a dramatic eye-roll and an even more dramatic sigh heaved as though Todd were a dragon bellowing smoke. "Yes, we could. That would be wrong, though, if we did. So why don't you go back to the corner and let us make your record?"
Back then, the words cut deep enough that Meat had actually attempted suicide that night. Later, of course, Meat learned to deal with this behavior in typical Texan fashion. When he went to Rundgren's house to do background vocals for Bat II, and Todd was in one of his foul moods, he had the presence of mind to holler "Screw you!" and leave. He had certainly gained that from therapy: if someone wanted to be the worst human being possible, he didn't have to tolerate it. All the same, Jim was really good at tossing cats in among the pigeons. He wouldn't put it past him to bring Todd in on this. Maybe if he got lucky, he could convince him to keep it to Kasim... at least Kasim Sulton, Todd's bassist and Meat's frequent sideman (especially on Jim-related projects), could capture that sound without being an ornery old cuss.
Finally, Meat summoned the strength to abandon these thoughts. Eight and a half hours of sheer boredom on a plane was enough to put anyone in a dark place, but thankfully the flight from New York to Vienna had a stop in Dubai. He could call Leslie and the girls long distance (and groan about the charges later when he paid the phone bill, but life ain't perfect, and they were all his rock and support), maybe find some decent food, use some airport Internet to keep up with his eight teams on Prodigy Baseball Manager (another charge, fantastic), and then be rejuvenated enough to endure another six to twelve hours to Vienna. Touch ground, get a cab, find his hotel, and sink into a deep sleep, pronto. Then off to see this show of Jimmy's... what was it called? Dances With Vampires?
* * * * * * * *
Austria is a big breakfast country. If you like bread-rolls, butter, coffee, a few varieties of muesli, some cold cuts (ham, smoked bacon, cut sausage), boiled egg, cake and pastries, jam, and orange juice, then boy, have they got a spread for you. After that whirlwind flight and a dreamless sleep, it hit the spot for Meat the next morning, even though he knew he'd be paying for it later that night. As of the last call, Pearl and Amanda were fine; Pearl had been helping her mom go over the set-list for the tour (there were too many hits to count, knowing what to drop and what not to drop was no small feat, and Meat, perfectionist that he was, would no doubt change it three more times once he got home), and Amanda was still auditioning around town. "I'll get you somethin' on Crazy In Alabama, that's the next one I'm doing." "Dad, I appreciate it, but..." "Don't you 'but' me, young lady! My little girl wants to act, I'll help!" "It's just that... well, I'm not ungrateful, I just wanna stand on my own two feet, y'know?" He couldn't help but admire that about her. Leslie had admonished him about breakfast, and of course he had promised a thousand times he'd cut back the next time. (Well, just a little... bread and butter with jam, a glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee was technically cutting back, right?)
He leafed lazily through a travel brochure on his nightstand. Vienna, the fabled city of music and culture, certainly wasn't lacking in sights, although Jimmy would be more keyed up about them than he was. He was doing rock opera several nights a week on tour; the Bayreuth Festival would leave him feeling exhausted on the singers' behalf instead of mesmerized by the melody. Besides, the music Steinman wrote for him was more than enough Wagner to suit his appetite, as far as he was concerned. Speaking of songs Jim wrote, he had yet to play the tape of the song that wasn't from Whistle that he was pitching for the greatest hits album. He hadn't done the lyrics for this one; apparently the guy who wrote "Ben," Michael Jackson's first #1, was responsible. "Well, as long as it's not a touching love song to a rat, I should be okay," Meat chuckled to himself. Into his Walkman the tape went, as he ducked onto the balcony of his room for a quick cigar. Jim's work usually cried out for a ghettoblaster with decent speakers, but given the circumstances, this would have to do.
Typical Wall of Sound so far, heavy piano, some background vocals that sounded like Todd and crew (of course)... then a female's voice. A distinctive, nasal sound. That son of a bitch... "FUCK CELINE!" Meat shouted to the open air, scaring pigeons off a nearby rooftop. Yanking the headphones off, he flung his Walkman into the room. Of course he would, that conniving bastard. "I've got a song for you, Meat, it's perfect, here's a demo by her." He stomped around the room for a while, reliving yet another painful memory of a song Jim had sent him when they began discussing Bat II.
He thought he'd understood its meaning, and he wanted to record it desperately; Jim was nostalgic about working with Meat, likewise he with Jim, and this was the perfect reunion number. Unfortunately, Jim had said "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" was better suited for Bat III, and he had let it slide. (After all, the trade-off was "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)," and he couldn't argue with results.) And then he tried to record it for Neighborhood when Bat III seemed to be indefinitely postponed. He pleaded. Jim said no. He begged. Jim said no. He cajoled. Jim said no. He recorded it to show him how it would sound, and Jim successfully sought an injunction -- a fucking injunction -- to prevent him from releasing it. "It's a woman's song, Meat, I was playing it to you to show you a sample of the material I'm working on." And, to add insult to injury, Celine Dion broke every record when she released it a year later. So yes, twist the knife, here's a new song and here's Celine already singing it. Why the fuck not.
Some mindful breathing and pacing later, Meat was ready to switch off his personal feelings. Like the singer or not, he had to evaluate the song. He picked up his Walkman and pressed play again, the sound of music filling his ears.
...dammit. When Jimmy was good, he was very good. The arrangement kind of sucked, but they'd play with that anyway. Could it be a duet with Patti? Eh... try it both ways. This wasn't gonna burn up the charts any time soon, but for "new material for a greatest hits album," it was actually great. This could hold its own. He'd send it to Kasim and see what the band could do with it. Good exercise of his skills, now that he'd been promoted to musical director of the Neverland Express. Let's see how Kasim shapes a song.
At that point, Meat glanced at his watch. Shit! Leave it to Jimmy to get me tickets for the matinee! Barely enough time for a quick shower, a change of clothes, and...
*knock knock knock*
"No housekeeping, please!" Meat hollered as he grabbed some jeans and a shirt out of his suitcase. For a moment, he considered how his fellow theatergoers would feel, and then shrugged it off. One American tourist who didn't dress up for an afternoon of entertainment shouldn't break their stride.
"Good, we ain't keepin' the house!" a pair of familiar voices hollered. What the... could it be... He opened the door, and in walked Kasim, with a cheeky grin, and Patti Russo, the great actress, singer, and comic, infallible timing, willing to go way out on a limb, who'd been his onstage foil since 1993. "What are you two doing here?" Meat asked, with a trace of amusement in his voice but no small amount of confusion. "We're here to see the show," Kasim said. "As if we'd let you go wandering through Europe alone!" added Patti.
"Well, Jimmy paid for my ticket... are you guys all set? I can spot you." "Pay for dinner after the show, and we'll cover our own entry?" Patti bargained. "Done. I gotta hop in the shower, I'll see you guys in a minute." Meat made a beeline for the bathroom, clothes in hand, as Kasim and Patti took seats on the sofa.
"So, what do you know about this thing?" Patti asked Kasim. He picked up the travel brochure and began looking it over as he spoke. "Well, you know Roman Polanski?" "What, you mean like Rosemary's Baby? Chinatown? Yeah." "One of his first movies was this schlock Dracula spoof called The Fearless Vampire Killers, he put it out like twenty years ago. Apparently it was really big here, but it kind of fizzled out when MGM put it out in the U.S. This show is supposed to be a musical of that movie." Patti's face registered unwelcome surprise. "Well, shit, I dunno what to expect now. Is this gonna be like Disney or something? Some vampire pops out and goes 'Boo!' and we have to pretend to laugh?" Kasim smiled wryly. "Rink gave me some clue of what to expect. Apparently, if you take one part Fiddler on the Roof, one part Rocky Horror, and one part Phantom, you get this thing." "Yikes. Thanks for the warning." "Hey, even if it sucks, you know how Jim operates. Pay close attention to the music, this could be most of the next album."
They shared a laugh as Meat emerged from the bathroom. "Shall we?" he inquired of them. "Surely," Kasim responded. "Do you know where we're headed?" "Jimmy said it's called the Raimund Theater. Shouldn't be too hard to find this place."
* * * * * * * *
Not knowing a word of German, and struggling to find someone who spoke English well enough to give them directions, Meat, Patti, and Kasim finally made it to the Raimund jam on time for the afternoon show. As in maybe seven minutes to curtain. A poster the size of a billboard hung over the marquee, emblazoned with the title Tanz der Vampire and a giant pair of fangs. "Ah, dammit, is this in German?" Meat said to himself. "Looks like it," Patti replied. "You chickening out?" "No, no," said Meat. "I just didn't think crowds would come for something that wasn't in English." "In Vienna?" Kasim snorted. "Wait a minute, is that the line for tickets?" Patti pointed to the milling crowd, which indeed seemed to form a surprisingly long line to the box office window. "Huh... well, Jimmy did always wanna make a splash in theater. I guess he has. Let's get in there before someone recognizes us."
Ah, famous last words... already a gentleman in line is stammering, pointing at them, barking excitedly at his wife. No matter what the language, Meat can recognize this behavior at fifty paces. "Schatz, das muss er sein! Es könnte niemand anders sein! Es ist Meat Loaf! MEAT LOAF!" "Spoke too soon, Meat," Kasim chuckled. "See if you can buy 'em off with an autograph so we can get in there." Meat turned on the charm. "Yes, hi, that's me." "Meat Loaf, sir, bitte ein Autogramm für mich und meine Frau! Ein... wie sagt man... an autograph?" "Absolutely!" Then came the typical frantic search for something to sign, before they found an old shopping list in her pocket-book. Their wish for an autograph obliged, they thanked him and returned to the line. A warning sound issued over the tannoy from the lobby. "Meat, the show's about to start, let's go!" Patti hollered to him.
Meat immediately strode over to Patti and Kasim, who were standing with a man in a suit. "You must be Herr Aday," the man said in accented English. "I am Rudi Klausnitzer, I'm the president of Vereinigte Bühnen Wien, we are presenting the show. Herr Steinman told us to expect you. Are these your friends?" "Yes, sir," Meat replied. "This is Patti Russo, she sings with me, and this is my musical director, Kasim Sulton." "Charmed, I am sure. Come, we have special box seats for all three of you." "About the matter of our admission..." Patti began. "Nein! Friends of Herr Aday do not pay at this theater. We are accustomed to an entourage. Herr Steinman always seems to arrive with one. Please, come and enjoy the show!"
* * * * * * * *
As the strains of the powerful overture began, things were off to a rocky start. "It's 'The Storm,'" Kasim whispered to him. Meat nodded gravely, recognizing it all too well from an album that shouldn't have existed. Painful flashes... "The doctors say there's nothing wrong with my throat, it's got to be psychological"... "Jimmy, I got 'em to cheer even though I couldn't fucking sing!"... "Meat, I can't bear for people not to hear these songs. David thinks it's best if I cut this album. I'll write a whole new one for you, don't worry"... He shook his head, as though to clear his thoughts. Enough of that. It's the here and now that matters.
The show unfolded, and it was more or less what he'd expected. The music was lush and grand; Steinman always sounded better with a symphony orchestra added to the rock band. The onstage action was suffused with fairly even doses of comedy and live wire eroticism. The synopsis in the programme was also in English, which made things a little easier to follow, even though he couldn't understand a word of the lyrics. It was funny in the right places, surprisingly serious in others. Very black humor. This was connecting with the audience for sure, the way they seemed to be reacting. And connecting with him in unexpected ways... early in the first act, the lead vampire made his entrance down the center aisle through the audience, in full regalia, turning to sing what sounded very like "Original Sin," redone, in a booming baritone voice. Kasim and Patti nudged him from either side. "Yeah, I know," he whispered. At intermission, they inform him this gentleman is Steve Barton. "Wasn't that guy in Phantom with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman?" "I think so," Patti said. "I thought he looked familiar. He blended well with her, and he was a good contrast to the other guy... baritenor, right?" "Yeah." "Well, good for him. It may be in German, but Jim's lyrics fit him like a glove."
Curtain up on Act Two, and Lord if that ain't "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Now it's a duet. "Huh... it kinda works," Meat marvels to himself. A song or two later, the young hero has a nightmare to a pounding beat with more than a few riffs from Bat II interspersed, and lots of Latin chanting. "This must be that 'Carpe Noctem' number Jimmy really wanted me to hear. Too early to turn that guitar lick around again, but maybe an album or two down the line." Later in the show, Barton has another big solo in the castle graveyard, ruminating on his existential angst. The melody is all too familiar... on Bat II, it was the most personal and difficult song for him to record. "Meat, he's singing 'Objects'!" Patti stage whispered, loud enough to be heard in Uruguay. Neighboring boxes shushed her, as did Meat. Still, the number fit the moment... sometimes objects in the rear view mirror did appear closer than they were, even for a creature of the night. Here he'd always thought himself the one person best equipped to sing Jim's lyrics, to find the characters in the songs and tell their stories, and Steve Barton was walking away with his song... and doing a damn fine job of it. Meat was surprised, but then again not, to find himself giving the actor a standing ovation at the number's end.
By the time the show was over, to the strains of a rewrite of "Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young," Meat idly mused to himself: "You know, I could do this part in my sleep. Maybe I will... some day." But for now, he had to pay for a quick bite at the coffee shop, discuss preparations for the tour. So he filed away the experience in a mental drawer for safekeeping.