A decade ago, Meat Loaf was invited on to Sky Sports' Saturday morning show Soccer AM.
He didn't know anything about football, but being an actor by background, he did what actors do – he prepared. First, he knew he needed a club to support. "I thought, I don't want to go on and say I'm a Manchester United fan or a Liverpool fan – I'm gonna go down to the third level. And so I picked Hartlepool. I read about them and I found that the people of Hartlepool had hanged a monkey thinking he was a Frenchman, and I loved that story. I read everything I could about every game they played. I knew all the players. I knew who the coach was. I knew there'd been major criticism of the coach, about whether he should have put one player in or not. I was ready." And lo and behold, it entered folklore that the unlikeliest of rock stars was also the unlikeliest of Hartlepool fans.
And there the story should have ended. Except a month later, the Hartlepool Mail ran a story, picked up in the national press, that Meat Loaf was looking for a home in the town. "My favourite part of the story was that I had gone to Hartlepool with this realtor and looked at houses. There were pictures of these houses!" Meat Loaf pauses to consider his fame and the things that have been written about him. "Oh, there have been great stories. I hit [Kiss singer/bassist] Gene Simmons and gave him a black eye. I threw a butler through a plate-glass window. I got in a fight with Billy Joel. It goes on and on."
The thing is, Meat Loaf is prone to embellishing the truth. That Hartlepool Mail story? It quotes his then UK publicist – and there is a British music publicist of that name – laying down Meat Loaf's requirements for his Hartlepool home. Then there's his age. Sometimes he says he was born in 1947, sometimes 1951. Today, given that he says he's nearly 66, it must be 1947. He's keen, too, on the odd unverifiable claim, such as his insistence that the song Bat Out of Hell is one of only two pieces of music in existence that end with a singer having to reach three successive high Cs; the other, he says, is by Wagner. So when he says the UK tour that begins this Friday is to be his final bow before leaving the stage for good, one has to gently remind him that he's retired before: he undertook a farewell tour in 2003, only to return in 2007, when he again announced his retirement after a disastrous gig in Newcastle. This time, though, he insists it's for real.
"I've had 18 concussions," he says. "My balance is off. I've had a knee replacement. I've got to have the other one replaced. Two weeks before the knee surgery, I literally couldn't walk from the bedroom to the kitchen. They took me to the hospital in an ambulance to get my knee replaced. And when they did, it was so damaged and torn up it's going to take a year to come back. It's just the travel. It takes it out of you. I want to concentrate more on acting. That's where I started and that's where I'll finish. This time, they're not going to rope me back in."
To be honest, one hopes they don't: Meat Loaf is reminiscent of nothing so much as a veteran boxer, moving awkwardly, talking slowly until he finds his rhythm. He's had plenty of problems on stage in recent years – a Wembley show had to be abandoned in 2003, with him requiring heart surgery afterwards – and it's him, not me, who observes that those of his contemporaries who are still touring hard are rather less substantial figures than he is: "All those skinny guys can keep going."He certainly doesn't seem to be yearning to do concerts. Most rock singers will tell you the two hours on stage make up for the 22 hours of tedium. Meat Loaf doesn't. Sitting in a suite in a London hotel, he says how sick he is of hotel rooms. He bemoans the internet culture in which people say whatever they want about whoever they want, especially him: "If people don't know what they're talking about, why open their mouths?" Though he's not cantankerous – he laughs often and talks freely – there's a sense of Grumpy Old Man about him these days.
He offers his opinions on getting the blame for poor sound at shows ("No one says anything about the promoter – the promoters aren't the one who took the hit; I am"), on people who see his contracts and assume all the food requirements are for him ("They don't realise you're feeding not only your crew, but all the staff at the venue, and you're feeding them breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is mind-boggling how naive people are – OK, stupid – that they think I eat four packs of bacon. Are you kidding?"), on people who don't like Bat Out of Hell ("The people that didn't get it basically have no sense of humour. They're drab"). But he does it with enough good grace that he manages, just, not to sound as if he is moaning.
What made Meat Loaf a rock star – after years spent scratching around with minimal success, including signing a deal with the Motown subsidisary Rare Earth for an advance of $6.25 – was his rehearsal for an off-Broadway musical called More Than You Deserve in 1973. The show was written by Michael Weller, then in his early 30s, and a young man in his mid-20s called Jim Steinman. Meat Loaf and Steinman hit it off immediately.
Meat Loaf says his relationship with Steinman is more like that of an actor with a playwright than a singer with a songwriter; he even compares Steinman with Samuel Beckett. And, truly, the three Bat Out of Hell albums the pair have made – especially the first, which has sold 43m copies since 1977 – are far more like musical theatre than rock'n'roll, which is probably why a faint air of naffness has always hung around Meat Loaf. Steinman created a bizarre and grandiose version of heartland America, in which ordinary lives are made mythic by gothic melodrama – and only someone as unconstrained as Meat Loaf could deliver his songs.
Bat Out of Hell made both of them famous, before it led them into lawsuits and feuding, but it also meant they have both always been defined in terms of the other. "Some people say, 'If it wasn't for Steinman, Meat Loaf wouldn't be where he is. Other people go, 'If it wasn't for Meat, Jim wouldn't be where he is.' I think they're both right." Certainly, each matched the other's willingness to go further over the top, song after song after song.
He thinks more performers ought to do that, suspecting they sometimes get poor advice from people who ought to know better. A while back, he was watching American Idol when Jimmy Iovine, the show's expert critic, upbraided someone for oversinging. "And I'm going, 'Iovine, you mixed Born to Run and most of Bat Out of Hell – you've got two of the biggest oversingers in the world, and you're responsible!' These guys on American Idol say you've got to be more internal and I'm, 'Oh, that's just being a bad actor, dude.'"
The acting comes up again and again. Meat Loaf itself is a role, he says, one he invented in 1977 "when I went out on to the road to do all the interviews". He says he uses a technique he learned from acting coach Lee Strasberg to get into character for the different songs when he performs – though try as I might, I can find no reference to the "image method", as opposed to the plain old method, except in other Meat Loaf interviews.
"I hit flat notes and sing flat because I'm not listening to myself sing. I'm into the character, I'm into pictures," he says. "It's really a technique called image method acting. I have a movie rolling in my head when I'm singing. I have no idea what I'm singing. I check in every once in a while. People say: 'Oh he's out of time,' and I go: 'No, I'm not at out of time. I phrase like a saxophone. If you start on one and end on four you're in time, dude. Just 'cos all these people want two and four nowadays … hell, that ain't real. Saxophones don't come in on two and four."
But doesn't it all get a bit like The Mousetrap, summoning his mental movie yet again when he has to sing Bat Out of Hell for the 25,000th time? "No! Because every night the images change, the pictures change. The initial thing of Bat Out of Hell – 'The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling/ Way down in the valley tonight/ There's a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye/ And a blade shining oh so bright' – is based on Psycho. Well, I never used that as the image. I got a different street every night, I got a different police car."
To find the character, he says, he has a specific physical action: "I have a trigger, and I've been using it for years to find the character in Bat Out of Hell, and I have different triggers for every song." Then the Grumpy Old Man comes to the surface again. "But when I'm doing that and they write: 'What stupid thing was he doing putting his fingers in his mouth and tapping his heart for?' I just say: 'Well, how stupid do you look writing about it? Because you don't know what you're talking about.'"
After the last encore of the last show of this last tour, when the Meat Loaf stage persona has been packed away for good, he might hope one question that has plagued him for the last 20 years will disappear. It's: what's "that"? As in the song I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That), a Steinman number that reached No 1 wherever there were record shops. As Meat Loaf has explained countless times, the answer is in the lyrics. The things he would not do are: "forget the way you feel right now"; "forgive myself if we don't go all the way tonight"; "do it better than I do it with you"; "see that it's time to move on"; and "screw around".
He says: "Jim and I had a huge argument about it. He said people would not know what 'that' was. I said, 'Jimmy, audiences are not stupid. They will know.' He was right, I was wrong."
• Meat Loaf plays the Newcastle Metro Arena on Friday, then tours until 21 April. Details: meatloaf.net. Bat Out of Hell: Special Edition is out now on Sony.
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