A quick examination of my high school yearbook reveals that, in the year 2011, the following things were cool:
Blue button-down shirts
Little rectangular glasses
Bangs for men
Monster Energy Drinks
It'll be at least ten or fifteen more years before Big Nostalgia distills these seemingly disparate threads of fashion into an easily digestible and highly marketable retro Preppy-Meth chic. For now, we are doomed to reflect grimly upon our choices.
Yes, these were the trends - at least, they were in one shadowy corner of suburban New England during my varsity days (that's varsity marching band, for anyone curious.) But in the coming years, if I don't see my own kind represented in throwback teen dramas, it will be for one lowdown reason: as a teenager, I was Not Cool.
The problem was that I was so hell bent on being Not Like The Other Kids that I was weird and alienating. Some kids who are categorized as Not Cool will still get a spot in our theoretical future Netflix Limited Series. Returning to our list format, we may discuss the kinds of Not Cool teenagers who will remain fundamental to the plot:
Kids with rich parents
Kids with access to alcohol
Kids who take off their glasses and reveal that they have both physical and inner beauty
I of course was none of these things, and to make matters worse, I listened to the Violent Femmes and smoked a lot of things that made me smell bad. I was a huge loser but in my own mind I was Different, and in being Different I felt that I was conscientiously objecting to a suburban lifestyle that was clearly very trivial and very unethical. In reality a lot of people just thought I was Weird and I ended up missing a lot of really cool stuff.
My journey into responsible adulthood, then, has ended up being a fairly embarrassing Cultural Appreciation class where I learn about all that cool stuff that I missed. I was twenty-seven years old when I first saw It's A Wonderful Life and I cried a whole lot and tried to talk about it with my parents, who had of course seen it approximately fifty times and became very afraid that I was getting Weird again. I ignored the White Stripes at the height of their popularity because I was a snob and a jerk but was forgiven when, as a twenty-five year old breakfast cook, I spent many, many hours listening to their discography from top to bottom while I cracked eggs at five o' clock in the morning in forced self-reflection. A kind man took pity on me and brought me to see Jack White at the House of Blues. (Side anecdote: this was in 2019, on the last night of baseball season, on Lansdowne Street in Boston and drunken, dejected Red Sox fans were mingling with the leather-clad Millennials in line outside the club.)
I have a whole bunch of other pitiful examples but - long story short - we're workin' on it. Which brings us to our main topic: Meat Loaf.
Meat Loaf died a couple weeks ago. I saw him first in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (first viewed at age 26) and was only familiar with him because Bat Out Of Hell was a dollar-bin staple at record stores, flea markets, and yard sales every summer. When he died I was stunned at how far-reaching his music was; in such a divisive time, it seemed incredibly unlikely that there could be any meaningful link between a Left and Right, young and old, rich and poor whose differences seemed so intractable in the year 2022 A.D. But there was; and it was Meat Loaf.
The truth arrived on the very day he died, at work, when both my fellow bartender and the night cook demonstrated that they could recite every single word of "Paradise By The Dashboard Light," by heart. I was taken aback; the two hurried off to karaoke and I went home and cued Bat Out Of Hell up on the stereo and discovered what I had been missing: this shit ruled. I reached out to Nikki Barva, poet and frequent Bird Friend collaborator, for a quick interview on the subject:
G: was Meat Loaf cool?
A lot of you are probably shrugging and saying, yeah man, we know. So forgive me, if you can. But in the following days, I continued to be surprised; Meat Loaf's death, that week, was one of the most common recurring conversations among guests at my bar. And it was a conversation had by people of all kinds, people who in most cases I would be surprised to find talking to each other at all.
Sure, it's ridiculous, juvenile, single-minded and misogynistic in the manner of every teenage boy, ever. So is Born To Run, who I've decided is Bat Out Of Hell's closet reference point: rock and roll pushed to its most Gothic, theatrical extremes. And, as the Ancient Greeks figured out a couple thousand years ago, the extreme affectations of the theater tell us a lot more about the nature of our species than mere subtle drama.
Bat Out Of Hell sold over 40 million copies, putting it in the Top 10 of highest-selling records ever, alongside dollar-bin staples like Thriller and Rumors. Not bad for a record that looks and sounds like a copy of Heavy Metal Magazine. And compared to those other albums, and indeed any of the Top Ten according to Wikipedia, this album exists so far outside of it's time and place's established definitions of success that it's practically Martian. If that seems like a weird statement, consider that Bat Out Of Hell, a debut rock album by a Broadway B-lister - and an extremely unfashionable one at that, considering it was released at the dawn of both Punk and Disco - has achieved the same kind of mainstream success as, say, The Best of the Eagles. Besides that, Meat Loaf himself is so different from what mainstream culture acknowledges a "rock star" to be that back in the 70s, he must have seemed a little alien himself: a fat guy with an 18th-century haircut and frilly clothes, he looked a lot more like a lounge singer than a teen sensation but brought more originality and imagination to the game than a lot of his contemporaries did (I'm looking at you, Led Zeppelin).
So - Bat Out Of Hell. I'm not really willing to risk spoiling the psychic energy of this thing by trying to explain why it's popular - but I can't deny that its timelessness falls far outside topical notions of "coolness." If I had given it a spin when I was a teenager, I would have probably been delighted by its high-concept ridiculousness.
After five or six repeat listens to this record, I found myself struggling for clarity. So I spoke with philosopher-poet James Grimard, in California, who had this to say:
James: We've all had adults in our life, be it fathers, cousins, uncles who we've seen rocking out, and it's totally embarrassing. Yet, the energy is so infectious that it becomes this palpable thing - that because they don't give a fuck, it's cool. Meat Loaf made what others might find embarrassing into his greatest strength, and I think that's a very human thing. To recognize sensitivity as a strength and push that discomfort.
That is extremely righteous. Bat Out Of Hell can be found in milk crates and suburban yard sales everywhere.