This is the second extract from my new Meat Loaf biography, Like A Bat Out Of Hell, which has just come out this week.
Marvin’s alcoholic ex-cop father Orvis was a big, strong guy, and so were his brothers. Little Marvin was big too. In first grade he was bigger than all of the other kids. By seventh grade, aged just eleven, he weighed 240lbs and shopped for his clothes in the men’s store. The football coach called him ‘Tree Trunks’ because of the size of his legs. There was a TV commercial for jeans that had the tag line ‘Poor fat Marvin can’t wear Levi’s…’ and it made him hate his name.
Marvin: fat kid’s name. Marvin the fat kid. Poor fat Marvin the fat freak.
The alternative wasn’t great, but at least there was one. All his life, his daddy had called him ‘ML’, which was short for Meat Loaf. It was meant as a term of endearment for his plump baby son. But as the years sped by and the boy just grew, it became a horribly apt name for a kid his size. It was still better than Marvin, though, anything was better than that. Plus, you know, there were Marvins everywhere, but no one else was called Meat Loaf. Or even ML. Right?
So to hell with poor fat Marvin. There are some things that a fat kid from Texas just can’t be expected to take.
Marvin’s mom was something different. Like the rest of the family, Wilma was a big lady. But so what? She held everything together for him, the defining force of his childhood. For twenty-five years she worked as a schoolteacher. She could sing too. She and her sister Texie were part of a gospel group called the Vo-di-o-do Girls who got as far as appearing live on Bing Crosby’s syndicated radio show.
Texie went on to marry Frank Heath, who ran a chain of furniture stores across Texas, and they lived a rich, comfortable life. Wilma scrambled along with Orvis, her daredevil drunk, and Meat Loaf, her accident-prone, outsized son. Meat Loaf was a handful, no doubt. When he was four years old, he liked running away. Then he began getting concussions, all shapes and sizes: hit in the head with a toy arrow; hit on the head by the back window of the car; knocked out in a collision with a kid in a football helmet; kneed in the head playing football; hit on the head by a shot put (ended up in the hospital after that one); hit in the head by a baseball; hit in the head by a brick; running into a goal post; getting his head stuck in a Corvette steering wheel… that’s in addition to all of the fights and other scrapes he got himself in.
Between Orvis and Meat Loaf, Wilma had plenty to worry about. Yet her son was like her in one way – well, two if you count the size thing – he was a singer, a performer, a born ham, made for the stage.
Not that Wilma saw that straight away. ‘My mother was a singer,’ Meat recalled, ‘my grandfather played four instruments: piano, trumpet, guitar and something else weird, like violin.’ But Wilma never saw any real musical potential in big little Marvin. ‘I can remember driving down the road singing some song on the radio and my mother turned to me and said: “You can’t carry a tune in a bucket. One thing you won’t be is a singer! You better find something else to do, boy.” I think that made me very angry, at that point. So just to spite her I decided to open my mouth and scream.’
Through high school he got a part in every play he could wangle his way into – The Bad Seed, Charley’s Aunt, The Music Man, Plain And Fancy – sometimes with a few lines to say, sometimes with more, and he’d do anything – tell a joke, sing a song, improvise a laugh or a gasp somehow. When the baseball coach told him he’d have to choose between sports and the play, there was no choice. He was a ham and he knew it, but he loved it, loved to connect with the crowd and his fellow performers.
‘I was shy, as a kid,’ he would tell me years later, fidgeting nervously in his chair, flicking his unkempt hair and drumming his fingers. ‘When I was in high school I was shy.’ Going on stage was a good way of concealing that shyness, he explained. He didn’t have to think up things to say, how to be. He’d stand up there like Lennie from Steinbeck, a giant kid playing the sucker, playing the fool and milking every moment. Years later, even after Bat Out Of Hell had been such a success, he was still happier, he confessed, being onstage being someone called Meat Loaf, than he was off it, being Marvin the Fat Kid.
Off-stage, back in the so-called real world, was where all ML’s troubles lay: the father who terrorised him; the kids at school that despised and bullied him. The disgusted looks of strangers as he came walking down the street with his heavy sailor’s gait, avoiding his own glutinous reflection in store windows. He would watch movies on TV – cowboys and Indians – and imagine himself the white-hatted hero, sweeping the gorgeous gal off her feet. Then drag himself up out of the chair as reality came crashing back in. He knew poor fat Marvin was never going to be the one that got the girl. Yet onstage things were different. He would get double the attention, but in a good way. He still feared the bullies and the shitkickers, but he didn’t feel so worthless anymore. Didn’t feel like roadkill. Onstage he could be anyone he wanted to be, almost. Turn that pain inside into something that gave pleasure to the outside.
Speaking to him years later, I wondered if it was this odd mix – of Meat Loaf the scary monster and Marvin the scaredy cat – that drew so many women to his shows? That explained the hot chicks lined up backstage? ‘I don’t know,’ he said, apparently embarrassed by the question. ‘I don’t think it’s me anybody’s really interested in. It’s the part I play.’