(I’ll resume my posts about the retreat tomorrow. Today, I want to share my Meat Loaf story.)
November 5, 1999. I was store manager at a record store, playing a little music on the side, living in a lousy second floor apartment in Lewiston, Maine. It hadn’t been quite a year since Dad died, so my relationship with Mom hadn’t completely deteriorated yet. Things were still strange and tender. As ever, I was still looking for ways to connect with her and draw her out of her grief.
One of the perks of working at a record store, in addition to all those free CDs, is the near-constant flow of free concert tickets. This was the late 90s, before the ubiquity of cell phones and the proliferation of social media. Hype for artists, tours, recordings, and music in general was created one pair of eyes and ears at a time.
That morning at work, I found out there was a free pair of tickets available to see Meat Loaf that night at the State Theatre in Portland. When there were no takers amongst our crew, the first thing I thought was, I wonder if Mom would like to go. So I called her.
‘Hey, Mom. Do you wanna go see Meat Loaf tonight? For free?’
I seem to remember a long pause. ‘Ah, sure, why not?’ Exactly what I thought.
I left work early that day, and in my excitement I even locked my keys in my car at the 7-11 near my apartment when I was getting gas. Luckily, there was a kind stranger there with a pickup truck who had the tool required to get me on my way (just a quick shim on my ’96 Ford Escort wagon – a car that had nearly 300k on it when I junked it in 2004).
I went up to Hebron and picked up Mom in time to drive us to Portland and to the Indian place down the street from the venue to enjoy a nice dinner. I even remember getting a little bit of curry on my shirt, leaving a small turmeric stain that would never come clean for the duration of that shirt’s life.
The conversation during the meal was, as it always was in those grief-laden days, stilted and awkward. I think we were both eager to get to the concert, and to lose ourselves in the live music experience.
Our bellies full, we walked down the street and filed into the venue and took our reserved seats near the back. As soon as the music started, Mom and I were both more at ease. We paradoxically relaxed into the excitement of the show. Live concerts were something that my parents and I enjoyed so often in my youth. I saw so many shows with them of so many styles – Allman Brothers, Moody Blues, ZZ Top, Black Crowes, Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Phish, Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton, Tom Jones (my first concert, when I was nine!!), Jane’s Addiction, Motley Crue, Judas Priest, etc. etc. The list is a mile long. During my tenure at the record store, I went to countless shows at venues large and small around New England, seeing some legends and legends in the making – Ozzy, Motorhead, Moby, Fishbone, Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Tool, Dick Dale, etc. etc.
Anyway, back to the Meat Loaf show –
There was a pattern forming in the band’s set list. They would perform a song or two, and then Meat Loaf would sit on a stool at the front of the stage and take questions from the audience. Black-clad roadies with boom mics would pace around the room to folks whose hands were raised.
‘Who are your favorites?’ and ‘How did you get your start?’ kind of questions poured in, and Meat Loaf kindly and entertainingly answered each one.
During the first round of questions, my mom leaned over to me at one point and joked, ‘You should ask him if you can play with him’, and we both chuckled.
The band started up again, and suddenly, I couldn’t let go of Mom’s idea. I couldn’t even hear the band anymore. My heart started pounding and my hands were sweating.
She sensed what was happening to my attention. The next round of questions began. ‘Go on, ask ‘im’, she goaded. I sat on my hands. I was too nervous.
The band started up again, and then something came over me. I started rehearsing my question over and over in my mind, thinking, What’s the worst that could happen? That he’ll say no and everyone will get a laugh? Which, of course, is what I absolutely knew would happen.
The third round of questions began and, as if it had a mind of its own, my arm shot into the air, and my mom smiled. Meat Loaf pointed and said, ‘The girl in the back with the blue shirt.’ When he said that, I remembered the stain from dinner. Then my mouth went dry as the boom mic approached, and against the thundering of my heart, then I heard myself say:
‘My name is Heather, I’m 23 years old, I play piano, and I’d love to play some rock ‘n’ roll with you.’
And without missing a beat, Meat Loaf said, ‘You’re on.’
And my heart almost stopped.
A cheer came up from the crowd as another black-clad roadie came down the aisle to accompany me to the stage. I made my approach, up the little wooden stairs, and then there I was, suddenly shaking Meat Loaf’s hand, and I turned around to see a sold-out crowd of over a thousand people who were cheering. Cheering for this moment!
I nearly shat myself.
The keyboard player stood up from the bench of the electric baby grand with flames painted on the side. Badass, I thought. He watched me take his seat, smiling and curious.
Meat Loaf turned to me and said, ‘We’re gonna play Johnny B. Goode in the key of A, how does that sound?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’ I played a few licks on the piano in the key of A, just to try and warm up my nerve-wracked, ice cold hands, and Meat Loaf’s head was on a swivel. The crowd went crazy!
Suddenly, I wasn’t nervous anymore. I was friggin’ PSYCHED. Let’s do this!
Someone – probably Meat Loaf himself – counted the band in, and we played ‘Johnny B. Goode’, and I took at least one solo, maybe two. I didn’t hold back. I let ’em have it.
It was one of the wildest and most fun moments of my life.
When the song was over, the crowd was on their feet, screaming. A standing ovation halfway through the show! For little ol’ me. I’ll never forget the smile Meat Loaf gave me as I was leaving the stage. It was certainly not what either one of us was expecting.
For the rest of the show, I sat in my seat, completely stunned, unable to stop smiling. People in the row in front of us kept turning around to look at me, and they were smiling too.
Towards the end of the set, another black-clad person tapped on my shoulder and said, ‘We would like your contact info.’ He handed me a small pad and a pencil, and in perfect penmanship, I wrote my name, address, and phone number.
When the show was over and we were all filing out onto Congress Street, I got all kinds of ‘Woo!’ and high fives. Then, several different people approached me with a question: they all wanted to know how far in advance this had been planned. They really thought it had been set up!
And each time I laughed and said, ‘I didn’t even know I was coming to this concert until this morning!’
They talked about it on WBLM, the big classic rock station in Portland. It might have been mentioned in the local news, and the Portland Press Herald, too. ‘Some girl got up and played with Meat Loaf…’
And of course, if something like that had happened now, there’d be grainy cell phone videos of the thing all over social media.
This may sound weird, but I kinda loved the anonymity of it. I loved that the news and radio never found out or mentioned my name, like it was just this crazy fluke thing that happened – because it WAS this crazy fluke thing that happened. This wild, beautiful, random, awesome thing that a roomful of 1000+ people got to share one wild, beautiful, random, awesome night.
To be completely honest – at the time, I did it for Mom. And then once I was up on that stage and sat at that piano, I did it for me.
23 years later, it almost feels like a strange dream I once had.
‘Yir faither would’a been s’proud,’ my mom kept saying later that night on the quiet, surreal drive home. We both missed him so much.
And you know, I never did hear from Meat Loaf’s people. It’s okay.
Rest in peace, Meat Loaf. And may many more wild, beautiful, random, awesome things wait in store for all of us.