Volume 2, Issue 70: Hell Is Chrome
|Will Leitch||Aug 3, 2019|
My musical education began in high school, with Nirvana, with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" somehow bum-rushing WLRW 94.5 pop radio in Champaign, blasting open a huge hole in the middle of my brain which I scrambled to fill with all the culture I now knew existed outside Mattoon, Illinois. Nirvana was the gateway drug to everything, from R.E.M. to Woody Allen to David Letterman to Janis Joplin to "The Larry Sanders Show" to sarcasm to emotional self-awareness to the actual act of creative expression. Nirvana opened up the entire world to a kid who, up to that point, mostly just thought about baseball, girls, "The Legend of Zelda," Axl Rose and how much he didn't want to mow the lawn. Nirvana was the intro course to everything.
But Nirvana didn't come around until 1991, and that gave me nearly 16 years of listening to all sorts of junk before that. We all had our phases. Some weren't terrible: I wore out my Dad's "Born to Run" cassette, and "Appetite for Destruction" remains ferocious and primal still today. But, yes, there was a Vanilla Ice phase, which was followed up by an extended hair metal phase, a stage in which I would go by pawn shops and try to find cheap used cassettes by Queensryche, or Bruce Dickinson, or Anthrax. (Or I'd try to sneak two albums onto one of those clear, flimsy 90-minute blank tapes.) I owned a Nelson album. I owned multiple Telsa and Mr. Big albums. Did I once go to Mister Music at the Cross County Mall and purchase a Damn Yankees record? I did. I very much did this.
This is a period of my musical history I'd prefer to keep buried: The only bands from this era that ever resurface in my rotation anymore are G'n'R, Metallica and Faith No More, who were a little too weird to count anyway. (I'll confess a Skid Row weak spot as well.) But there is one album I listened to constantly during this time, one that even my metalhead friends all made fun of me for back then, that I still put on just as regularly as I always have. It is terrible and embarrassing and easily mockable and absolutely irresistible. I will be able to recite every lyric from it on my deathbed, it stirs up pure, unadulterated human emotion from me in a way that actually makes me uncomfortable and I'm not sure listening to it has ever failed to cheer me up.
I learned about "Bat Out of Hell" from my high school scholastic bowl coach. (Yes, I played scholastic bowl, and I was very, very good at it. We've discussed this. Look, you can even read about our team from this piece from a 1991 copy of the Mattoon Journal-Gazette.)
(I apologize for nothing. Let's move on.)
Our coach would pick us up at the high school at 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays in his old Chevy Suburban and drive us to meets at Stephen Decatur, or Normal Uni High, or Springfield Lanphier, wherever, and he always had records for us to listen to for the trip. Most of these albums were not good: I heard "Sister Christian" in that Suburban for the first time, and his appreciation for the band Yes very much exceeded the rest of ours. But one day he pulled me aside, handed me "Bat Out of Hell" and said, "Will, you're going to LOVE this." He was not wrong. (He was only our coach for one season. The school fired him for "undisclosed reasons," which we all assumed was because he was gay, and I gave an impassioned speech in his defense in front of the school board lambasting them for their bigotry, and it turns out he wasn't even gay and they fired him for budgetary reasons, and we're Facebook friends now and it all turned out fine.)
I first thought "Bat Out of Hell" was a heavy metal record -- the cover certainly made it look like one. But it didn't take many listens to realize that it was something much better than that: A big sweeping over-the-top crazypants rock opera, full of way-too-overdramatic-and-overstuffed eight-minute epics about motorcycles and cheerleaders and muscle cars and teenage rebellion and necking and parents who don't get it man and more motorcycles and ROCK AND ROLL. I didn't really relate to any of this: I liked my parents, no cheerleaders would talk to me and motorcycles were my cousin Denny's thing. But the pleading sincerity of the album, the unapologetic showmanship, the way songs swung recklessly from comedy to tragedy to farce to violence, the desperate, almost pathological yearning of it ... it hit me in my stomach the way that no album ever had before, and, if I'm being honest, few have since. I know the album is pure '70s cheese now -- I don't care, but I do know it -- but I didn't know that then. I didn't like it ironically because only sociopaths are ironic at 15. I just knew the album was full of huge, slobbering emotions, and I happened to be spilling over with those myself.
I wore out several cassettes. I remember a week I spent with my grandmother in Moweaqua -- a town where there is one bowling alley and one gas station and that is it -- where I just rode my bike around all day, listening to the album over and over on my Walkman. I imagined performing the big numbers with a live band at a school assembly, hitting all the high notes and sharing this feelings this album brought up with everyone who knew me but didn't understand me. I even became a Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman (the guy who wrote all the songs) enthusiast, buying all the other records they worked on, from "Dead Ringer" to "Midnight at the Lost and Found" to "Bad For Good." Steinman worked mostly with Meat Loaf, but he wrote songs for everyone, and his dopily audacious, over-the-top, an-angel-chorus-rises-to-the-heavens style has given us all sorts of non-Meat Loaf contributions to the culture, from "Making Love Out of Nothing At All" to "I Need a Hero" to "Total Eclipse of the Heart" to "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." (Steinman has a very specific style.) He and Meat Loaf had a split after "Dead Ringer," their "Bat Out of Hell" follow-up -- with a title track that's a duet with Cher! Check out this video! You should know that I have sung that song into a mirror roughly 100 times in my life -- but reunited in 1993 for "Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell," a surprise late-career hit, though 2006's "Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose" was after yet another split and remains the object of considerable consternation between the two to this day. I recite this information to you from the top of my head.
I discovered quickly that my obsession with this album was going to have to be mine alone. Tim Grierson and I have been dissecting popular culture to each other since we were 12 years old, but Meat Loaf was never his bag; he has always treated my "Bat Out of Hell" love like some wayward friend of a family member you have to deal with but would rather not think about actually existing if you don't have to. I honestly cannot tell you another Meat Loaf fan in my life. It's never something I've shared, I've never seen Meat Loaf in concert and have little personal affection for him (he actually occupies a rather terrible place in American history!) and it's not like I'm involved with any fan groups or anything. I eventually discovered Nirvana, and Public Enemy, and R.E.M., and Radiohead, and Wilco, and so much other music that is so much better and so much more vital. But it hasn't ever diminished my enthusiasm for that album. It's just mine -- something that I am into at the very core of my being. I love "Bat Out of Hell" unconditionally. There are worse crimes. Not a lot, but a few. I can live with it if you can.
When I was in New York a few months ago, I noticed something advertised on the top of a taxicab: "Bat Out of Hell: The Musical." Apparently it was a big hit in London, and they brought it stateside, opening on August 1. As it turned out, I was going to be in the city on August 1. There was no way I was going to pass up that opportunity.
I called my friend Amy, who I knew could use some brainless escapism and, more important, was just enough of a cheeseball lunatic as I was and would lap up the pure spectacle of something as ridiculous as a "Bat Out of Hell" musical, and demanded she come with me. So there we were, Thursday night, at the New York City Center theater, gassed up on vodka and sake and ROCK AND ROLL MAN, strapped in for an experience of several lifetimes.
The stage show is as ludicrous as you imagine it is, with a bizarre Dystopian future subplot, a gang of young punks called "The Lost" and motorcycles waxed with Velveeta. It's not particularly innovative, the choreography is labored and awkward and it exists, like much of Broadway's musicals anymore (and American culture, really), solely as an excuse for older white people to hear songs they remember from when they were young and vital in a familiar, comfortable setting. It is not good or helpful for the world in any possible way.
I loved every goddamned second of it. The grand, Wagnerian rock nature of the songs was meant for musical theater anyway; it is absolutely a show that makes you want to sprint to the karaoke bar afterward. The lead actor kid is pretty terrific -- he's the son of an old Philadelphia newscaster, if you're from that area -- and all the numbers you want to bring the house down truly do bring the house down. "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" had Amy and me cackling in joy, and "Bat Out of Hell" remains the best song off that album, a song that makes you scream it at the top of your lungs as you wave your hands wildly in the air. It was all wonderful.
Every song from "Bat Out of Hell" is in the show, along with some of Steinman's other hits and, to my delight, some deep cuts from the Meat Loaf/Steinman oeuvre that only true weirdos like me would even know. It is very strange to have a song like "Dead Ringer," a song that as far as I could tell I was the only person knew existed, performed on a Broadway stage by gorgeous dancing people in their 20s. But the thing is: I love these songs, like, deep in my bones, in a way that transcends logic or taste. Our favorite songs always feel like they were written specifically for us. The show was horrible and dumb and insane -- and feels like it sprung fully formed from my own brain. I am a thoughtful person. I am a discerning citizen and purveyor of quality popular culture. And I truly love "Bat Out of Hell" and recognize it as a formidable part of my personality and soul. You might not like all those facts. But don't be sad. Two of three ain't bad.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. You may disagree. It is your wont.
1. Peyton Manning, Teflon Don, New York. Yeah, this needed to be said.
2. The Best 25 Buddy Cop Movies, Vulture. We weren't initially enthusiastic about this one, but it really does read well.
3. How the Trade Deadline Changed the Pennant Chases, MLB.com. I ended up not being on MLB Now on MLB Network on Wednesday because they had to cancel the show because of a personnel issue. I still got to write about the deadline, but I'm eager to get back and do it again next year. It is one of my favorite things to do.
4. The Thirty: Best Players Acquired By Trade, MLB.com. The Dodgers one is pretty telling.
5. Debate Club: Best Time Travel Movies, SYFY Wire. We had to exclude Back to the Future, obviously.
THE WILL LEITCH SHOW
We nailed down our plans for Season Three when I was in NYC this week. So catch up on all the ones you've missed as we start making another one on Amazon or on SI TV.
Grierson & Leitch, the big Tarantino episode, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," and a big discussion on "The Shining." This is one of the best shows we have done.
Seeing Red, Bernie and I spoke right before the trade deadline.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week, back next week.
GET THIS LUNATIC OUT OF HERE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL POWER RANKINGS
I did not watch the debates live but have caught up and agree that Harris did not have a great night. She has been No. 1 in my rankings from the start, but I don't think she has pulled away from the field in any way shape or form. And it was definitely a step back this week. She needs to sharpen her message and be a little clearer on what she stands for, across the board. She's still in the top spot, though.
Also, bye Mike Gravel, you will not be missed. You next, Hickenlooper.
1. Kamala Harris
2. Elizabeth Warren
3. Cory Booker
4. Joe Biden
5. Kirsten Gillibrand
6. Beto O'Rourke
7. Jay Inslee
8. Julian Castro
9. Pete Buttigieg
10. Amy Klobuchar
11. Steve Bullock
12. Michael Bennet
13. Bernie Sanders
14. Seth Moulton
15. Tulsi Gabbard
16. Tim Ryan
17. Bill de Blasio
18. Tom Steyer
19. John Hickenlooper
20. William Weld
21. Marianne Williamson
22. Andrew Yang
23. John Delaney
24. Wayne Messam
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
Tell me your Meat Loaf stories! Let me know I am not alone! Bring 'em on at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
"For Crying Out Loud," Meat Loaf. Obviously.
Remember: Only you can prevent forest fires.
Have a great week, all.