I once met Meat Loaf, the rock god who died last week. It was a fleeting encounter, no more than a minute or two, but it left an impression on me.
I was a massive theater kid, always acting and singing in school productions, and when I was 11, a casting agent visited my middle school. He was looking for boys to appear in “Whistle Down the Wind“—not the 1996 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but a different, earlier musical based on the same novel.
It’s a weird story, about a criminal who escapes from prison and hides out in a barn. There, some local kids find him and become convinced he is Jesus because, when a child asks him his name, he is surprised and answers “Jesus Christ!” It’s odd. I’m not sure why it became one musical, let alone two. But it did, and I was in it.
After an audition with some other choirboys, I was cast in the chorus of this show, which meant I got to perform with the UK’s National Youth Music Theatre at the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith, London. A genuine run of an actual piece of musical theatre! It was awesome. We’d head down there after school, get backstage—tons of precocious, pretentious theatre kids like me convinced we were the next Kenneth Branagh—put on overcoats and wooly hats (our scene was set in winter, you see), then traipse out onto the stage for the grand finale.
In the finale the children of the village, me among them, linked arms outside the barn in which the convict is hiding, determined not to allow the police to take him away. I remember it vividly: kids in bobble hats and duffle coats, crammed together arm-in-arm, being jostled by cops as they try to make their way through the human barricade. Though I didn’t know it then, it was good preparation for the protest lines I’d join later in my career in the streets of Ferguson after Mike Brown was shot. There was an energy, a thrill I always get from performing onstage, heightened by the music and the loud sound of police sirens.
I can still recall the song we sang, the melody and the words, even though I haven’t been able to find a soundtrack for the show:
“Follow, follow, follow him! Follow, follow, to the King!”
Today I find the show rather creepy, a crypto-Christian oddity with a confusing moral message. But then it was electric, by far the biggest stage performance I had ever done.
Because this was a National Youth Music Theatre production, and because the NYMT is very well-connected, many famous people came see the show. We had a royal, I am hoping Prince Edward rather than Prince Andrew, though in truth I’ve never had much interest in the royals and find it difficult to tell one from another. But he came and sat in the royal box, and people were excited.
I was much more enthused by Bob Holness, the British TV presenter who hosted “Blockbusters,” one of my favorite game shows as a kid. In the game, players had to get from one side of a board to another by selecting letters from a grid filled with hexagons, and then they’d get a question for which the answer would be something beginning with that letter. Contestants would say “I’ll have a T please, Bob!”, and Bob Holness would ask “What T is a fairy in the J M Barrie’s play Peter Pan?” I loved that game show, so when he came to see our musical I took great delight in meeting him. A few of the more mischievous kids hid behind pillars, popping out as he passed to make everyone’s favorite joke: “I’ll have a P please, Bob!” Simpler times.
But the absolute highlight was a visit from Meat Loaf.
I was not a cool child. I was much more into medieval polyphony than rock music. I was a choirboy and a nerd and still am. But I knew Meat Loaf. I knew Meat Loaf because he had been in Wayne’s World, and I adored Wayne’s World, and this had spurred me to listen to his music. I think, even at 11, I immediately appreciated the campiness of his performance style, the iconoclastic sense of fun he brought to both his music and his acting. So when kids started to whisper that Meat Loaf was in the audience, I was stoked!
After the show, a few of the braver kids went out to find him, to see if we could meet him. We were nervous, because he had a fearsome stage persona, and you never know how famous people will act toward their fans. But it turns out it wasn’t hard to find him, because he just sat in his front-row seat, waiting to talk to us children. My first impression of him may sound unflattering, but it’s just an image that came to mind: he looked like a human dumpling with very long hair. He was round and sort of cuddly, and he just sat there calmly talking to all these pre-teen kids who came to speak to him.
I didn’t say anything. I just huddled on the edge of the group and gazed upon him. By that time, he was already a massive star, having sold millions and millions of records, and he had that aura famous people often have, an aura created not so much by them but by how others react to them. But he himself was totally down to earth, extremely generous with his time, and just endlessly kind. He simply sat in his theatre seat talking to all these kids most of whom, like me, could hardly say a word. It was sweet, and lovely, and good.
I now know more about him. I know the incandescent queerness of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and his inimitable performance as Eddie, and I know of some of his support, late in life, for some awful politicians. Perhaps a good reminder of the complexity of people, a reminder never to idolize anyone. But that little meeting is what always comes to mind when I watch Rocky Horror or put on I’d Do Anything for Love. That little moment of kindness from a superstar to star-struck kids. That moment when a rock star came down to earth, and wasn’t scary at all. My moment with Meat Loaf.