Of all the rock stars who were popular when I was 8 years old, none was more confusing and frightening to me than Meat Loaf. Sure, there was Kiss, but between their Marvel comic and that movie where they all had superpowers, they fit comfortably into the superhero mold for me. Alice Cooper hosted The Muppet Show, so he had to be safe. And yeah, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols were all out there, but they weren’t even on my kid radar.

But here was this giant, messy, sweaty guy on TV, seemingly screaming into the mic. His album had a bad word right in its title! The cover showed a big black half-demon-ridden motorcycle rocketing up out of a spooky graveyard, with an enormous screaming bat in the background. And he was named MEAT LOAF. (Hence, both frightening and confusing.) Surely this had to be the epitome of that freaky heavy metal I’d heard about.

By the time I got to high school, I was more ready for him, but Denver radio seemed to have no interest, so it wasn’t until my freshman year of college at NYU that I finally clued in. Meat Loaf was all over New York radio, despite having peaked 10 years prior. Once I heard “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” a few times, especially now that I’d had some dashboard light experience of my own, it all started to make sense. So I bought Bat Out Of Hell at last, and from the first few seconds, it floored me.

The first song is the title track, and it opens with some power chords, and then a fierce, bravura piano part from Roy Bittan, The Professor of E Street Band fame. (E Streeter Max Weinberg also plays on the album.) The band kicks in with frenzied abandon, revving and revving to a classical climax, which then swings around in the Baba O’Riley rhythm, crashing down with thunderous piano chords and guitar screams to lock into a solid groove, over which an electric guitar solo will soar, finally resolving into the main melody line. That’s all in the first ninety seconds. It’s an overture to the grand epic which begins at 1:55, when Meat Loaf starts singing, and then goes on for another eight minutes.

Cover image from Bat Out Of Hell

This is Jim Steinman songwriting. You can’t talk about Meat Loaf without talking about Jim Steinman, and he made sure of that by placing “SONGS BY JIM STEINMAN” prominently under the album’s title on the cover. I recently read a critic’s quote about Steinman to the effect that he’s in a class by himself, simply because nobody else wants to write the kind of songs he writes. To smother them with adjectives, they are, by turns: majestic, theatrical, ridiculous, emotional, surprising, bizarre, affecting, hilarious, strange, histrionic, heartfelt, sly, and beautiful. He loves grand sweeping gestures, silly wordplay, classical movements, tempo changes, dramatic dialogue, sound effects, and melodic/lyrical callbacks. If they should all occur within the same song, so much the better.

They certainly all do in “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” surely one of the longest, goofiest, and show-tuniest of all rock classics. Now listen, I love authenticity and soul-baring in rock music just as much as anybody. But for me there is something extremely appealing in this exaggerated fantasy-comedy scenario, elevated by its music to mock-operatic proportions. There’s so much pleasure and surprise in its every twist and turn.

We start with a 50’s rock and roll swagger, only missing the doo-wops in the background, then leap into Broadway production number grandiosity. But wait, here comes a whole second singer (Ellen Foley), another nod to musical theater as two characters stake their space in the song, sliding into a duet. Oh, and now we get the doo-wops, or rather the “ooh, shop shops”. The chorus recurs with more voices behind it, and falsetto parts amid the Broadway sparklers. New lyrics lead into another “doubly blessed”, which suddenly gets blindsided by a speeding truck of double-time teenage lust, switching quickly into makeout sound-effects and… Phil Rizzuto?!?

All at once we’ve got a hilarious baseball/sex metaphor going on, which both builds tension in the song and comically undercuts it, but just as you think the song and the teens are about to climax: STOP RIGHT THERE! True to its adolescent theme, some realms can’t be visited without a serious commitment, and this song commits to its character interactions while, again, throwing in the punchlines. Will you love me forever? Let me sleep on it! The back-and-forth of these two is just flat-out funny, especially the increasingly pleading tone in Meat Loaf’s voice as he keeps trying for a free pass. And then another turn, resolution of the sexual theme into the song’s final punchline — he swears to love her til the end of time… “so now I’m praying for the end of time / to hurry up and arrive / ‘Cause if I’ve gotta spend another minute with you / I don’t think that I can really survive.” Praying for the end of time, so I can end my time with you. It’s a masterful comic resolution, but the song has one more trick up its sleeve.

Over the outro, Foley lyrically reprises the beginning of the song — “It never felt so good / It never felt so right / And we were glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife,” restoring a sweetness to the memory and dissipating the bitterness and frustration of just a few moments prior. Meat Loaf’s part adds even more poignancy to the nostalgia: “It was long ago and it was far away / And it was so much better than it is today.” These parts give a thematic heft to everything that preceded them, making this a truly touching story rather than just a silly throwaway.

See, that’s part of the Steinman secret. Sure, it’s theatrical, it’s over-the-top, it’s downright preposterous. But if you look closely enough you’ll also find that it is deeply felt, even amid all the absurdity. That’s why Meat Loaf is such a perfect singer for these songs. He is one hundred percent willing to go way over the top, but he also sings with such commitment that he absolutely sells the genuine emotion that lives in these overwrought boxes. Check out some of the quieter songs, like “For Crying Out Loud” or especially “Heaven Can Wait.”

That song might as well be straight out of a musical (and indeed, was originally written for a Steinman musical, which apparently was going to be a… well, a science fiction version of Peter Pan.) It’s nothing like your typical rock song, but it also steers clear of the gaudier edges of Steinman’s oeuvre, and with Meat Loaf singing it becomes a genuinely lovely ballad. But whether it’s tender moments like this or headlong thrill rides like “All Revved Up With No Place To Go”, what binds this whole album together is that it is just. Pure. FUN.

And that’s a pretty damn great thing to be able to say about a rock and roll record.