Meat Loaf It's All Gravy

It's been one helluva stretch for Meat Loaf. In April, the singer, whose two "Bat Out of Hell" rock operas make for one of music's most successful franchises, moved out of his L.A. home. For reasons he's unclear about, police arrested the moving van's driver and then impounded the packed-up vehicle. Of course, it was full of copies of every recording he'd made--and, of course, they were all stolen from the impounded van. Then he asked Scarlett Johansson to do a duet with him on the third and final opera installment, "Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose," which will be released on Halloween. She said no, he reportedly begged, then finally settled on Marion Raven ... you know, formerly of girl group M2M? Despite the indignities, he tells NEWSWEEK, "I'm grateful for what I have ."

What he has now is some closure. In the music industry's dismal history of internecine battles, few rival the 30-year "Bat Out of Hell" saga for sheer longevity, misery and mounting legal bills. The original, released by Epic Records (now Sony Music) in 1977, sold 23 million copies and transformed Michael Lee Aday, a chubby guy from Dallas, into a star. But it also set in motion a series of bitter disputes about how to divvy up profits and credit among collaborators, managers and others. In the end, Meat Loaf was bankrupt and broken. Now, with "Monster," he's telling cautionary tales about the hellish side of success. "The music business is like swimming in a river of snakes," he says. "The only way to survive is to get a rowboat. Allow those people to come into your rowboat once in a while, but have a big stick to keep them out."

Meat Loaf, now 58, doesn't appear haunted by his past. When the original "Bat Out of Hell" was released, he weighed in at more than 300 pounds; he's now down to about 250 and plans to do more fine-tuning before embarking on a world-wide concert tour next year. His inspiration: the Rolling Stones. "After seeing Mick Jagger not long ago, I started riding my bike and working out," he says recently from his room at New York City's Four Seasons Hotel. Sipping coffee, he says Jagger's performance also prodded him to bolster his voice: "I went to a vocal coach this year, so I could strengthen things back up."

The rock opera's roots date to the early '70s. It began as an off-Broadway, musical-theater collaboration between Meat Loaf, who'd been in shows like "Hair" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and songwriter Jim Steinman. No one would record them--after all, who'd put money on an album-length, Wagner-inspired rock opera? But musician Todd Rundgren liked it and produced the album; a small Midwest label, Cleveland International, released it through what is now Sony Music. Steinman and Meat Loaf would split royalties, though Meat Loaf says the duo's handlers decided his name would appear on the album cover as the artist. "That was when trouble started," Meat Loaf says. "I don't believe Jim was ever happy with that." On tour, Steinman left no doubt about it. Meat Loaf says Steinman told him, "I really hate you." (Steinman declined to comment through his manager, who said the matter was "too convoluted.")

Things only got worse. The fighting with Steinman, Meat Loaf says, made an already grueling "Bat Out of Hell" tour worse. He turned to drugs and alcohol, and lost his four-octave voice at one point. Despite the tension between Meat Loaf and Steinman, Sony demanded they begin the next project. "Record companies don't care about people," Meat Loaf says. "They might like you when you have a product they like. To them, we're a can of Campbell's soup." (Sony declined to comment.) Lawsuits began to fly between Steinman (who turned to solo projects), Sony and Meat Loaf. It was too much. He says he had a nervous breakdown and, in the mid-1980s, declared bankruptcy. "I was not in any shape to argue," he recalls. "I just went and hid out in my apartment. I was out of control emotionally."

Unable to find the same financial success apart as they did together, Meat Loaf and Steinman put their differences aside. In 1993, they finally delivered that next project: "Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell." It was a hit--combined, the first two albums have yielded tens of millions in sales--and, flush with cash, Meat Loaf went after Sony, alleging it owed him millions in back royalties. (They settled for an undisclosed sum.) He wasn't done: Meat Loaf sued Steinman in the run-up to "Monster" last June. Steinman sought to block the use of "Bat Out of Hell" on the cover, saying he controlled its trademark. "Blackmail," Meat Loaf alleged in the suit. "One-hit wonder," Steinman told a reporter. They settled in August.

These days, music seems to be little more than a business matter for Meat Loaf. He has recruited new collaborators (what an idea!) for "Monster," which he describes as a "very, very intense" album. Although he says he will go all out to make "Monster" a hit--music-industry experts expect it to sell between 5 million and 7 million copies--he says his passion for music is gone: "If I created a hell, it would be a recording studio that I'd have to spend eternity in." So after the "Monster" tour is done, he'll get out of the limelight and do ... what? "A television series," he says. Surely, there's a dark drama lurking inside him.