Cover feature, Music Connection magazine
A funny thing happened on the way to the garage….Metallica became one of the most popular rock bands in the world. Initially, the notion of Metallica was a social thing – a gathering of high school friends to down a few brews, jam Diamond Head covers in drummer Lars Ulrich’s home in Norwalk and let off the steam that accumulates in the pressure cooker of any young person’s mind. But, between six packs, the idea evolved into a band, whose sound represented a new way of presenting old musical expressions. Eventually, they would slam their metal up the asses of a puckered industry while, at the same time, spawning several sub-genres, all without any preconceived notions of success by industry standards.
“Certain bands sell records because of MTV. There are bands who sell millions of records, but no one comes to see them live because the kids can stay home and see them on TV. We’d rather have people come to our shows…because we’ve prided ourselves on the live thing, and that’s how we got our following.” – singer/guitarist James Hetfield
Throughout the evening of March 10, 1985, the band onstage at the Hollywood Palladium pummeled the audience with the fastest, meanest shit I’d ever experienced in my life at the time.
As the encore began, the band ripped into a subtle tribute to Moses called, “Creeping Death,” from their recently released second album, Ride the Lightning. As bodies spun around like electrons in an atom, the song detonated toward its climax. At some point, James Hetfield stripped off his saintly white guitar, perched himself on the altar-like lip of the stage and baptized himself in the sea of humanity that rippled before him.
As he flung himself into the first few rows, his boot cracked against my head and sent me stumbling to the ground under the trodden foot of hundreds who cared not whether I lived or died. As I grappled to recapture my balance, I began to understand spirituality like I had never before in endless Sundays at the chapel. Life was not about solemn repentance or quiet forgiveness, but rather about survival – and making some fucking noise to counteract all the bullshit that God and his disciples have graciously left for us to wallow in.
Religion and Alienation
“Religion is basically something to ease people’s minds about why we’re here and what happens after…but it was extra-alienating for me.” – Hetfield
Metallica have always been vocal in its condemnation of religion’s mixed bag of hypocrisy and subversion. The band established its stance, vaguely at first, with the thinly veiled metaphor, “Phantom Lord,” on their debut Kill ‘Em All. Subsequent releases more clearly defined the band’s condemnation of the Church with the epic “Creeping Death,” “Leper Messiah,” “Blackened” and now their most definitive religious anti-statement, “The God That Failed,” featured on the band’s fifth full-length disc, Metallica.
In creating the enigmatic Metallica lyrical perspective, James Hetfield remains anything but an open book. One garners fragments of his personality through the words he writes, but rarely with obvious metaphors or direct opinions, which he kindly leaves up to the listener’s discretion. But the feeling of alienation (religion or otherwise) that has pervaded much of the band’s work, stems, at least in part, from Hetfield’s upbringing as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, Scientist.
“Christian Science is very spiritual, not body,” Hetfield explains. “It’s total reliance on God to fix everything that’s wrong with you, even physically. Break your arm? Don’t go to the doctor; God will heal it. But I thought, ‘If God gave us the knowledge to have doctors, why can’t He let us use them.’
“I couldn’t get into that, especially at school, because I couldn’t even be in health class. I’d have to leave the room because of my religion and, fuck man, kids started asking me, ‘Why do you leave the room every time…?’ And it was too alienating. I mean, I liked being different, but when you’re younger, you don’t want to be different; you wanna be like everybody else. It’s in high school that you develop your own style and want to stand out.”
Metallica has today evolved from its whiplash origins into the most proactively ball-busting band in the world. Both the new single, “Enter Sandman” and (to a greater degree) “The Unforgiven” continue the struggle of childhood innocence lost and isolation that the band had earlier explored with the suicide solution single “Fade to Black” and later with the parental subjugation laments “(Welcome Home) Sanitarium” and “Dyer’s Eve.”
“It’s true what they say about never knowing what you had until you’ve lost it.” –Hetfield
James Hetfield grew up in Downey, California, but moved to Orange County to live with his brothers after his mother passed away. He was 15. “(Her death) was a pretty huge thing, because my parents were divorced at that point,” he explains softly. “(After their divorce) she all of a sudden had to take over the finances, and she was bugging me to get a job. But I couldn’t because I had long hair and it’d be like (she’d say) ‘Fuck it, cut your hair.’
“All of a sudden this shit was going on, and the pressure really got to her. That brought on her illness, I think. The fact that I wasn’t as close to them as I had wanted to be….,” he pauses. “Now I realize that I should’ve been, and now it’s too late. That really bugs me.”
Where earlier material suggested an emotional tunnel for which there was no light, Hetfield seems to have come to some conclusions on the new album with the bold sentiments of “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Wherever I May Roam,” wherein he defiantly announces to be “free to speak my mind anywhere…and I’ll redefine anywhere.” For the first time, since the youthful vigilance of “Seek & Destroy,” the writer exerts a stronger, more secure sense of self that may partly stem from a reconciliation he recently cemented with his father.
“Being in L.A., recording the album…(my father’s) there, so we kinda got a little closer and found out why the divorce happened,” Hetfield explains. “He told mw more about himself and, being a male myself, I kind of…not sympathized, but realized why it went on.”
So what does dad think of his son’s canon of noise? “He digs it now,” James admits. “But at the start, it was typical dad: ‘Fucking cut your hair’ stuff. Now he really digs it, and he’s very proud of me. I like that.”
As it turns out, Hetfield’s father is one of a horde of new fans that Metallica has steadily gathered with each new release. Their last album, 1989’s …And Justice for All has garnered double-platinum status, while Metallica incredibly topped that plateau in its first three weeks.
Loyalty to the Cause
“It’s strange because we’re growing, and we’re kind of hoping that our fans are growing with us.” – Hetfield
With any band that’s initially aligned with the proverbial cult audience, there’s always a danger of isolating old fans in favor of pleasing new ones. But Metallica fans, both old and new, not only trust the experimental instincts of the band, but also realize the anarchistic possibilities of Metallica controlling the mainstream. A band that challenges established mores the way Metallica does needs to be heard by the masses to insure any kind of impact.
“The core of the Metallica audience knows that buried inside of us is this desire to fuck with new stuff,” explains drummer Lars Ulrich during a separate conversation. “As people, our attention span is really short, and we get bored very easily. On this album, we wanted to just have fun playing some shorter songs, instead of trying to remember all these fuckin’ breaks and shit that we go through when we play those ten-minute songs. It just became so introverted that it became difficult to play. Now there’s a joy in playing again, because we’re not playing so much from our mind as from our body.”
A Rock Meets a Hard Place
“I think Bob (Rock) was intimidated at first. I don’t know if he was afraid of being sacked right away. But we had to s ay, ‘C’mon, give us some ideas here. We can take it. We’re open-minded.’ ” – Hetfield
By now, much has been made of the band’s decision to hire Bob Rock, who made his mark producing the Motley Crues and Bon Jovis of the world. Although there was speculation that the band had copped the proverbial MTV sell-out, the sound turns out to be the rawest since Ride the Lightning. Whereas Lars describes former producer Flemming Rasmussen as “more of an engineer person who was more concerned that everything was in tune,” Rock emphasized tighter structures, with performances designed to achieve maximum potency in a more minimalistic fashion. Hetfield’s vocals now dare to stretch beyond the patented guttural drawl, which, in the case of “The Unforgiven,” offers a chilling perspective on the familiar theme of youthful promise unfulfilled.
Without compromise, Metallica has now achieved the kind of success formerly reserved for the tapioca pop artists of the industry. At last, the underground has a voice, and while their success proves important in providing legitimacy to the genre, Hetfield characteristically downplays its importance. “I just hope we create timeless music,” he says, “and are known as four pretty regular guys doing exactly what we wanted to do.”