Out of Hades

They went together naturally, like chocolate and peanut butter.  Just about seven months ago Jim Steinman died.  Then yesterday, Meat Loaf.  They were both born in 1947 and together they made one of the best selling albums of all time, Bat Out of Hell.  I’m saddened by the loss of perhaps the only truly Wagnerian Rock performer.  After I discovered Bat Out of Hell, raising some eyebrows among those who knew me as a kid, I was hooked.  I bought all the Meat Loaf and Steinman collaborations.  Not only was Meat Loaf’s voice big, it was also sincere.  It was easy to believe the stories he was singing to us, no matter how fantasy-prone they might’ve been.  Once I start listening to one of his albums I end up going through them all.

When we become aware of music helps to define it.  I became aware of Bat Out of Hell during my Nashotah House years.  Still fearful from my evangelical upbringing, I wondered what students might think when they came over.  (Nashotah is a residential campus, and this was largely before the days when faculty were fearful of being alone with a student.)  As strange as it may sound, for a best-selling album, I was unfamiliar with any of the songs before I bought it.  I’ve never been much of a radio listener.  I agonized quite a bit before finally buying the CD.  I quickly came to see why it was so popular.  More than anything, it was the sincerity of Meat Loaf’s voice.

That music saw me through some dark times.  Attending mass in the mornings and listening to Meat Loaf at night proved an effective elixir.  The longer I was at Nashotah the more I came to associate it with the titular geonym.  Eventually Bat Out of Hell II came out.  I was less slow about acquiring it.  The third one appeared only after my teaching career ended.  When things went south at Nashotah, I decided that I would perform some symbolic actions during my departure.  There was nobody there to witness any of them—no person is indispensable to an institution and you’re soon forgotten.  The last thing packed from our on-campus house was the stereo.  I went back alone to get it and the few last-minute belongings from well over a decade in a place of torment.  Just before leaving campus for the last time I cranked the stereo up and played “Bat Out of Hell” at full volume.  An era has come to an end.

He’s Dead, Jim

So there’s this thing called Spotify.  Like most modern contraptions, I approach it warily.  I’m not sure how it works.  Do the artists get paid?  What’s the catch?  Is it only having to listen to a commercial for Amazon every three or four songs, like the radio?  I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music, but when I do have time I like to discover something new.  Then there’s the oldies.  And I can’t help but feel a deep sense of loss at the death of Jim Steinman.  I discovered Steinman earlier than I realized it when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” came out the year my first romantic relationship ended.  That song can still reduce me to a quivering lump of emotion.  All I knew at the time was that it was a Bonnie Tyler song.

Growing up fundamentalist, even album titles like Bat out of Hell, Meatloaf’s Steinman breakthrough, were enough to scare said toponym right out of me.  I never knowingly listened to any of the songs on that album until after earning my doctorate.  When I did I was hooked.  My research skills had grown by that time to include finding out who the writer of a song was.  I discovered that “Wagnerian rock” really spoke to me.  And the only guy who seemed to know how to write it was Jim Steinman.  Most kids, I suppose, settle into their music tastes much younger, but in my thirties and forties I found Steinman a most compelling artist.  I listened to his older stuff, and his newer stuff.  I found out some surprising things, such as that even Air Supply’s “Making Love out of Nothing at All” was a Steinman song.

I seem to be hopeless at playing musical instruments.  I’ve studied piano and taken guitar lessons, leaving bewildered teachers in my wake.  My wife tried to teach me the recorder.  Despite my failure as a player, music means a lot to me.  I don’t listen to it unless I can pay attention to it.  For me it’s not background noise.  When I learned to identify operatic rock, I soon came to realize that it was the work of a singular genius who was covered by a wide variety of artists.  No one else, it seems, could capture the feeling of being young like Steinman could.  Now he’s gone.  In my noodling around with this thing called Spotify, I wonder if I can discover any more of his songs.  Meanwhile, I’m thankful that I found him when I did.

Strawberry Meatloaf

Strawberry ice cream. It tastes like summer in a waxed cardboard carton. While having a small dish of it recently it occurred to me that strawberry is my favorite flavor of ice cream. This was the first time I’d had any in perhaps twenty years. I am not diabetic, but I am extremely phobic. I avoid the things I like out of fear. There always seems to be plenty of bad to go around, but I’m always afraid the good will run out. Waiting two decades for something I like is a small price to pay. This same phenomenon accompanies my musical tastes. When I listen to music, generally, I listen to music. I’m not a background music personality. Life has been so busy lately, however, that I don’t have the time for music that I would like. I bought a CD (yes, they still make them) of Meat Loaf’s Hell in a Handbasket shortly after it was released. I just listened to it over the weekend. (It has been that busy.)

Since I had a lot to accomplish last weekend I listened to the CD as background music, violating my own standards. That meant that I had only impressions of what was going on rather than the full impact. Immediately, however, I was struck at how socially conscientious this album is. I realize that Meat Loaf is primarily a singer, performing songs written by others. Nevertheless, it seems that a singer must have some investment in the songs they perform to put the kind of empathy into them that Meat Loaf does. The theme that seems to be running through these selections is that violence and greed have become our paradigms, and we are heading to, well, Hell in a handbasket.

I’m old enough to miss album art. I don’t miss the hiss, skips, and pops of vinyl, but the square foot of album art was often a gift. The album art is part of the message of the music. Inside the back cover of the Hell in a Handbasket CD, behind where the disc is mounted, is a gothic photo of Meat Loaf holding a skull, Hamlet-like, before a large cross. Around his neck is a chain that holds another skull, and, with a bit of imagination, perhaps a small crucifix. (Like most people who still remember album art, my eyes aren’t what they used to be.) Something is happening here that I can’t quite define. Jim Steinman is not on this album, and my fear seems to rise. Then I listen and I hear my social consciousness being in some small way affirmed. It may not be Wagnerian rock, which I fear is rapidly running out, but it is worth another listen when I’m able to set aside the world for maybe an hour or two.