30 June 2007

The Great Rock'n'Roll Dwindle

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I almost never write about music. Up to this point, I haven't even had a tag for it.

This is partly because music is a rather marginal art-form in my life, compared with my preferred media of TV and books (then cinema, then whatever we're supposed to call actual art to distinguish it from other types of art, then probably comics.) It's partly also because I can rarely afford to buy CDs, let alone attend concerts -- except at Greenbelt every year, where I occasionally find myself essaying momentary music criticism in my reportage for Surefish.

Doing so makes me uncomfortable because -- and this is the main reason why I usually never blog about anything remotely related to this -- my taste in popular music is notoriously dreadful, lacking any kind of coherence, sophistication or class. I'm partial to -- among miscellaneous other things -- '80s syth-pop and glam rock, a certain amount of strenuously heavy metal, Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Lehrer, Dire Straits and Celtic folk-rock. These are not the preferences of someone whose opinion -- let alone whose CD collection -- anybody else wants to listen to at all.

Which brings me with crashing inevitability to last night, when B. and I attended the latest engagement in Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell III tour, just up the road from us at Ashton Gate.

(It was smaller than I expected. I always imagine football stadia as being bloody huge, but this one was almost cosy.)

The last time I attended a Meat Loaf concert was, not altogether coincidentally, also the last time I attended any kind of popular concert whatsoever, except for the free ones at Greenbelt. This was back in the early 1990s[1]: I was young, happy, in love (well, kind of, ish), and Mr Loaf, already in his mid-forties, sang like a portly, ill-kempt angel. His transports of cheap, theatrical sentiment, self-mocking yet so very sincere, spoke evocatively to the fierce romantic joy so recently and unexpectedly released in my buttoned-up public-school soul.

This time round I was fifteen years tireder. My back, legs and bladder ached from all the standing, and the gentlemen standing directly in front of me kept backing into my personal space, treating the quiet romantic passages as opportunities to chat loudly with one another or their mobile phones (with which they also filmed the more spectacular visual effects, thus impeding my view of same), and treating the loud apocalyptic passages as opportunities to do the same only VERY MUCH LOUDER.

Admittedly I'm still in love (and on a much more permanent and reliable basis than with my fondly-remembered companion from that concert half a lifetime ago), but otherwise it was a lot more difficult to lose myself in the moment, and the music.

I'm not the only one who's older, either. The problem with a rock icon nearly as old as your Dad[2] is that, however dedicated he is to touring, by the time you're wanting to recapture your lost youth he's bound to be getting on a bit. Meat Loaf has lost none of his enthusiasm, but his voice is a lot older and has trouble with the high notes: what was once an endearing shambling slouch when performing has become a bizarre bent-double posture as he strains to recreate the passion and power of his youthful lungs. To be honest, he looked a lot of the time as if he was in pain, which given his health issues did worry me a bit. But he's a trooper, and he soldiered on.

That said, the first half of the concert, a reprise of some of the songs from Bats Out of Hell I and II, seemed strangely enervated, as if even Loaf's heart wasn't really in it. I noticed that a lot of the songs had been arranged or abridged to allow for a reduced input from him, giving a lot of the lyrics to his (very good, and very nicely-shaped) female backing vocalists and playing up the role of the instrumentals.

Things picked up a lot when he moved onto the new material from Bat Out of Hell III.

I'm still undecided about the album, which I only got around to buying recently -- there's some excellent stuff on it, but it's a lesser album than Bats I and II to the precise extent that Jim Steinman was less involved in it. Meat Loaf without Steinman is a showman without a show; Steinman without Meat Loaf is "Total Eclipse of the Heart". Given that the original Bat Out of Hell only had seven songs on it, I don't see why Bat III couldn't have worked with just the Steinman songs and nothing else... but these days people like to feel they're paying for quantity rather than just quality. As it is, a good third of the album is irksomely bland and could be dispensed with.

Be that as it may, the performances of "Bad for Good", "If It Ain't Broke, Break It" and the astonishing "In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King" had all the violence and verve that had been missing from the first half of the concert (and which aren't nearly so apparent on the CD, either)[3]. And the finale -- a straight-down-the-line, album-template rendition of "Bat Out of Hell" itself -- was as gloriously, headbangingly rousing as it ever has been.

Afterwards we walked home aching, and were too tired to interact sensibly, and went to bed. As far as recapturing my aforementioned youth went, it was probably less of a success for me than it was for Mr Loaf. But I had fun anyway.

In spirit he's as magnificent as he was when I was twenty, and in my memory he always will be. But I can't help hoping I don't manage to dilute that memory further by seeing him perform in person again.

[1] My life appears to have developed a continuity error at this point: for my personal chronology to work out properly, I must have attended this concert in 1990 or 1991. But I could have sworn that Bat Out of Hell II, released in 1993, was on sale at the venue, along with its related T-shirts. Did I perhaps go to more than one Meat Loaf concert in the early '90s? It's unlikely, but possible. At this remove, however, my brain remains confused on the matter.

[2] In fact he's eight years younger. But Debbie Harry actually is as old as my Mum, which I find disturbing to contemplate.

[3] Are these songs written for Loaf's new vocal range? It's possible, but I don't know nearly enough about how these things work to say.

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