The Grammy-winning singer-actor explains why he chose “Hell in a Handbasket” as the title for his new CD and shares how he uses art to address the devolution of our culture.
Singer-actor Meat Loaf
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Meat Loaf to this program. His iconic record, “Bat out of Hell,” not only made him one of the biggest names in the music business, but remains to this very day one of the five biggest-selling albums of all time.
He is back now with a much-talked-about new album called “Hell in a Handbasket.” From the CD, here’s some of the video from the recording session for the song “Fall from Grace.”
Tavis: What’s up with you and this affinity for hell?
Meat Loaf: (Laughter) Well, you know how that – because I’ve been going around and saying it has nothing to do with the “Bat out of Hell” records. But I’ve been going around and for about the last five, six, eight years, going, “The world’s going to hell in a handbasket.” It comes out of my mouth three times a day.
I hear these things on the news, and I go, “What are they – what are you talking about? The world’s gone to hell in a handbasket.” A typical example, the one that got me the most, a prayer, and I don’t remember the high school, 50 years ago – 50 years – a student, a graduating senior, wrote this prayer, and they put it on the wall of this high school.
It has hung in the same place for 50 years, and a girl and her mother decided they didn’t want the prayer on the wall anymore. Now, after 50 years of hanging on a wall, nobody even sees you anymore. (Laughter) It’s like they walk by and you’re invisible.
But they decided they didn’t want the prayer, and I just – I just said, “The world’s gone to hell in a handbasket, because there’s a lot more things to worry about than whether there’s a prayer on the wall that’s been on the wall for 50 years that you need to think should come down.” There’s unemployment, there’s this, there’s people in great need, there’s people talking about blowing us up. I’m going, “There’s a lot more things to concentrate on than that.
So I just keep hearing these things. I’m schizophrenic; I watch, like, CNN and then I turn over to Chris Matthews and then I’ll turn over and watch Bill O’Reilly. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s why you’re screwed up.
Meat Loaf: That’s why I’m a mess, dude, I’m a mess. (Laughter) Because I have a lot of left and I have a lot of right. I’m not even in the middle. I’m like somewhere – I’m schizophrenic, completely, and so I just think the world – but the original phrase came from the Civil War, and it came a general, and it sounds very Southern to me.
It didn’t say whether it was a Southern general or a Northern general. He told his troops, “We’re going to hell in a handbasket,” which was saying to them we’re going into a disaster here.
It originated – then I kept research, because I’m a research nut, that the phrase, that phrase, translated from 17th century England, which was a derogatory term, “heaven in a wheelbarrow,” which is a way of telling somebody to go to hell.
Now, they didn’t mind cutting off your head and hanging it on a post, but they weren’t going to tell you to go to hell. They’re going to tell you heaven in a wheelbarrow. (Laughter) They had no problem cutting off your head or slicing you open or doing any of that, but they weren’t going to tell you to go to hell.
Tavis: How does an artist take that and treat it artistically?
Meat Loaf: Well, there was a band in Australia named Midnight Oil and they were a very, very political, and they literally hit you over the head with a hammer. U2 sometimes can hit you over the head with a rubber hammer. So it’s not quite as hard.
I didn’t want to hit you over the head with a hammer, so we kind of did it through metaphors, and except for the one song called “Mad, Mad World,” which pretty much sums it up; it says in there if you open your mouth about anything, somebody’s going to shoot you down.
We have divided ourselves, since I’ve been alive, I think since 2001, we have divided ourselves to a point where the division is so great that no one will really talk to each other. I could be totally off-base and totally wrong and people could totally disagree with me, but I think that a lot of it comes from the Internet, where they leave it open for comments, and people with a lot of low self-esteem and a lot of hatred can get in there and hide in the corner and say these things.
When Whitney died – and I wasn’t good friends with Whitney, but I saw her in 1984 in London and I couldn’t speak, that’s how good she was, and I went backstage and she was so friendly, so I talked to her for about 45 minutes, which is the longest conversation I’ve had with a musician in my life.
Then I saw her again a couple of years ago at Clive’s party and I wished her good luck on her tour and she said thank you, and then they whisked her away. When she passed away I was upset because I felt an affinity with her, and it started off and it was oh, God bless her and I hope her family does well.
Then all of a sudden these comments started to get racist, and they started to get – and I just went, “Oh, my God,” and I just had to turn it off. It happens with Adele, when she had her throat problems. People were kind, and then all of a sudden here they come, and they were going, “Well, she’s fat anyway.”
I’m just going, “Oh, my God – these people, where has humanity and compassion gone to?” This is where that was – this was the inspiration for that to start with – where’s our humanity? Where’s our compassion?
Tavis: If I didn’t understand your modus operandi, if I weren’t connected to your heart and knew who you were as a person, I’m not sure that I would read humanity on an album cover that has the world made of skulls.
Meat Loaf: No. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m looking at this; I don’t know that it – does it come through on the screen there? I think you can see that if you look real close. So you can see certain countries, as a matter of fact, on the –
Meat Loaf: Yeah, there’s three different –
Tavis: I see the three different – I see those countries on there, but they’re all made of skulls. I’m not sure I see humanity in that, Meat Loaf.
Meat Loaf: There is no humanity in that.
Meat Loaf: That’s basically what I’m saying.
Tavis: That’s the point, yeah.
Meat Loaf: That’s the point.
Meat Loaf: That there is no humanity and there is no compassion in that cover, and I try on the first song, “All of Me,” to lay myself open. To say I have done things that I shouldn’t have done and that I’m guilty for, and I’m telling you, I’m confessing to you.
Now at the same time, in the words of the actor Michael Caine, he says, “Whatever role I take, I want people to be able to go and be in my shoes.” So through that, through my confession, I’m hoping that people will understand I’ve done wrong as well, and then you get into things like “Giving Tree,” which is a gospelly kind of number, and I don’t really want to go back and – it’s hard to follow your dreams.
I was homeless in L.A. for over a year, trying to break into acting, music, whatever, and I found this great spot up in the Hollywood Hills where nobody would bother me, just coyotes, and (laughter) I had a little tent and I had a whole – and I’d get people to drop me off and the police wouldn’t bother me, and nobody knew I was there.
Then people would pick me up in the morning and go take me down to their house, and I’d have a shower, and then they’d sneak me back up to my hill. So I wasn’t – I had people to help me out, which was a good thing. But in “Giving Tree,” I’m saying I don’t really want to get back to sleeping on the floor on a mattress with no food in my kitchen.
A metaphor again, I want to get back to who I am, who I am meant to be as a person, who God put me on this Earth to help my fellow man, to have a kind heart, to be a good person. I want to get back to that.
That’s what I’m saying through the whole record. That’s what I’m trying to convey. I said this on a TV show over in England, and I got this comment about he’s blaming the unemployed, what a right-wing – well, how did they get that out of that? I’m not blaming the – no, I’m trying to help, we want to help. We want people to stand up; we want people to feel good about themselves.
We want people to have self-esteem, we want them – having a job makes you feel good about yourself. Makes you feel worthy of being a human, taking care of your family. Then once you establish that and you have this personal responsibility, you feel good about helping other people. That’s where all this album came from. It came from all that.
Tavis: I think part of my sense is, to your point now, part of what people are struggling with more than anything else these days is just trying to hold on to their dignity.
It’s one thing to live in a world, as you suggested earlier, where your humanity is not affirmed, but on top of your humanity not being affirmed, to have to fight to hold on to your dignity because you can’t find work.
Meat Loaf: Yeah, and that’s –
Tavis: Because you can’t – that’s a whole nother – that complicates things at a whole nother level.
Meat Loaf: That complicates things way – it’s like my daughter, she’s 31, has been going through it, and she finally found a job, and then all of a sudden a complication arose where this guy was able to get some money, and – I can’t explain it, but it was – the person they wanted to sign as an artist to this record company was not a good person, and her father – they were from Africa, and her father was not a good person.
My daughter had real – saying, “I’m going to quit, because I cannot deal with this.” I don’t know what the exact circumstances are. I just know she was really upset about it. But dignity – and then what goes with the dignity is the people, they lose the compassion for that, so that’s what this is all about.
Tavis: It’s complicated stuff.
Meat Loaf: It’s very complicated, and it’s hard to – and we also in the world don’t deal with the truth.
Tavis: That’s the understatement of the night. (Laughter)
Meat Loaf: Yeah, we don’t deal with the truth, and Martin Luther King, I believe, said, “Truth will set you free.” That is, that’s absolute fact. There’s no argument. Like any actor who walks on a set to do a role – I saw a picture with Sean Penn, and if Sean Penn didn’t tell you this, he knows it. When he goes on a set, besides what Laurence Olivier said, “Every time an actor walks on a set, he’s absolutely terrified.”
The other thing is you, as a character, are always searching for the truth. If you cannot find the truth, you cannot find the character. There’s not enough truth.
Tavis: I’m always amazed, given how wildly successful you’ve been musically, as I mentioned at the top, you still, to this day, have the fifth best-selling album of all time –
Meat Loaf: Well, they go between three and five, so.
Tavis: Yeah, it bounces between three and five, depending, yeah. (Laughter)
Meat Loaf: Depends on what you read. If you read the “L.A. Times,” we’re three. So I’m going by the “L.A. Times,” okay?
Tavis: We’ll take the “L.A. Times” number; we’ll go three, then. (Laughter) So you’re in the – three or five, top five albums of all time in terms of sales, and interestingly, speaking of Laurence Olivier and Sean Penn, your acting career took off before the music thing did.
Meat Loaf: Oh, long before.
Tavis: Long before, yeah.
Meat Loaf: Long before, yeah. I started in New York in ’69, doing “Hair” on Broadway, and my joke on that is they gave me an extra $12.50 a week not to do the nude scene (laughter) so that the audience would be there for the second act.
Tavis: Well, it worked, because –
Meat Loaf: It did, and so –
Tavis: – it took off from there, from “Hair,” yeah.
Meat Loaf: From “Hair,” and I was lucky. There’s a luck involved, and you have a natural talent, but that doesn’t make it always you being in the right place at the right time, because there’s a lot of people with unbelievable talent that just never get in the right place at the right time.
I was lucky enough to be in the right – and I met Joe Papp, who was the head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, the public theater, Lincoln Center. People would know him as the producer of “Chorus Line,” but he produced a lot more than that – “Threepenny Opera,” so forth, so on.
He saw something in me and took me under his wing, and he made me the 13th actor ever in history to be on salary full-time at the public theater, and I still to this day do not know what it was that he saw, but he saw something. So I did a lot of work for Joe Papp and I got a lot of pep talks from Joe Papp, and I was called into his office.
He would say to me, “You don’t know how good you are. You’re paranoid and you’re scared,” and I’d say, “Yes, sir, you’re right.” (Laughter) He goes, “Well, you need not be, because there’s no reason for you to be,” and he kept working with me and doing plays, and eventually Lou Adler signed me to come out to L.A. to do the “Rocky Horror Show,” and then they hired me to do “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
My career could have totally changed and never gone to music, because I was cast as Billy Bibbit in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with Jack Nicholson, and there was a writer’s strike that lasted for nine months. The directors changed, and Milos Foreman was looking for me and to this day I can’t believe – we have cups at home that we drink out of every morning that say, “I see dumb people.” (Laughter)
This is one of those moments, where, like, there’s a whole cast that know me and know I’m doing this movie, and people at the thing, and Milos Foreman is looking for me and nobody says, “Well, why don’t you try him in London?”
They come back and say, “Oh, Milos Foreman’s been looking for you.” I said, “Really?” I called him up at midnight, and I was scared to death, and with that accent, “Oh, I was looking for you,” and he said, “Oh, I cast the part this afternoon.” My career –
Tavis: (Laughter) Wow.
Meat Loaf: My career would have changed, but I wasn’t meant to do that. I was meant to hook up with Jim Steinman, because Jim Steinman came from Joe Papp. He had a musical with Joe, and Joe introduced us and I remember going to see – they hated us.
We went into people’s – we didn’t do demo tapes because we couldn’t do demo tapes of this stuff, “Bat out of Hell.” We would go into people’s offices and sing live with piano, just piano and voice, and we used to sit there and sing “Bat out of Hell” for 10 minutes, and they’d look at you like, “What the hell are you doing?”
“Paradise” at the time was 22 minutes long. Wound up on the record as eight because of Todd. Clive Davis, I didn’t get along with Clive Davis for the longest time because of this, but we’ve now – we’re good now.
But we went in to see Clive, and, see, Jimmy was like a duck. All this water could just roll off his back. I took it in here. I took it here, and it made me angry. It made me one – I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
Clive Davis said to Jim, “Do you ever listen to rock and roll?” and Jim is a rock and roll encyclopedia. He looked at me and he said, “You’re like Ethel Merman,” and I was okay with Ethel Merman. I happen to like Ethel Merman, she’s fine. Then he turned to me and said, “You’re like Robert Goulet.” That made me mad. (Laughter)
Then he said – and I was down, it was 5:30 in the afternoon at Broadway and 57th, and I’m standing in the middle of Broadway – not on the sidewalk, in the middle of the street, screaming at the top of my lungs – I cannot repeat the language – and just – and cabs are honking at me and I’m slapping the cab, and I’m going, “Get, get – leave me alone.”
I’m like some crazy man on the street, and Jim’s trying to get me off the street and I’m going, “No,” and I’m screaming at Clive Davis for everything I got, after calling me Ethel Merman and Robert Goulet, boy, I’m telling you. (Laughter)
Eventually, Clive was on NBC’s “Today” show, and they did a retrospective of him, and they asked him if he had one regret, and he said, “Yes – not signing Meat Loaf.” So after he said that, all was forgiven. (Laughter)
Tavis: How did you develop that – can I call it, like, rock opera? How did you develop that style, that sound, that made you so -?
Meat Loaf: Okay. In 1972, Joe Papp put me in “As You Like It” in Shakespeare in the Park down at Delacorte, and I had an offer. Now, the most money that I had ever made in a year up to that point was $6,500, and I had these patrons of the opera come to me and offer me $60,000 a year to study for five years and make my debut at the Met, because I am what they call a heldentenor, which in layman’s terms means that I sing as high as a tenor, it just doesn’t sound like it. (Laughter) That’s all it is.
I sing the same notes as a tenor; it’s just not thin. It’s big. When somebody offers you – you’ve made $6,500 and you’re working in Shakespeare in the Park for $87 a week and somebody comes up and says, “We’ll give you $60,000,” you go, “What?”
But I did – again, I did my research and found that I would not do well in that world. I’m too rebellious and I don’t like to be told what to do. It’s okay to communicate, like on a set, directors to actors, but if a director ever came up to me and told me exactly what to do, oh, it would be all over.
But he can come up and make suggestions, “Listen, what do you think about trying this?” “Yeah, great, let’s go for it.” I’m easy. But when somebody tells me what to do, I do the complete opposite.
So that’s what – it just is a natural thing. It’s like people on this record say, “Oh, it’s the same production as always.” It’s not. This is very – it’s not a big production, not in comparison to the “Bat out of Hell” records. It’s very tame, it’s very small. It’s just that my voice is big and takes up a lot of room – kind of like I take up space when I walk in a room. (Laughter) You know how people take up space? I do.
Tavis: Yeah, but you left a little room for Chuck D –
Meat Loaf: Oh, Chuck D.
Tavis: A little room for Patti Russo, a little room for Trace Adkins, and Lil Jon.
Meat Loaf: (Unintelligible) Lil Jon, Lil Jon. To have Chuck D and Lil Jon on the record, especially after not until the last year really appreciating that art form and now appreciating it as much as I do, to have them on there was unbelievable.
Tavis: I’m certain they were honored to be on your project as well.
Meat Loaf: That’s what Chuck said.
Tavis: You ain’t no slouch.
Meat Loaf: He said, “I can’t believe you want me to do this,” and I’m going, “Huh? What do you mean?” Because I don’t look at myself in that light. I don’t ever expect anybody to know who I am; I don’t expect anybody to recognize me. I just walk around – I’m a plumber, dude. (Laughter)
Tavis: When I knew we had a chance to get you on the show, I said, “How exciting will this be, to sit and talk to Mr. Loaf.”
Meat Loaf: Oh, I’m talk. (Laughter)
Tavis: The new project from Meat Loaf is called “Hell in a Handbasket,” featuring an array of talented artists. For more of my conversation with him, hit our website at PBS.org. Meat Loaf, honored to have you on this program. Thank you, sir.
Meat Loaf: No, it is my honor.
Tavis: My delight. Can I call you Mr. Loaf?
Meat Loaf: Yeah. The only other person to do that is Clive Barnes, from “The New York Times” in the first Shakespeare I did. Called me a real person on stage. What an honor.
Tavis: There you go. Mr. Loaf, thank you, sir.
Meat Loaf: You’re welcome.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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