Metallica’s frontman celebrates a milestone on the road
We all have rock ‘n’ roll moments, don’t we? Right now, I’m not talking track record, longevity, popularity, record sales, any of those things. Just moments. Here’s one of my best.
It’s 1996, and the Lollapalooza tour was crisscrossing this great nation of ours – yet to have landed permanently at its home base of Chicago The headliner was Metallica, which prompted much grumbling and cries of “blasphemy!” in certain punk/alt-rock circles. The putting Metallica on the bill – not just on the bill but at the top of the bill – signified a metal sellout by the Lolla guys. Metallica wasn’t what Lollapalooza was about, was it?
Metallica singer-guitarist James Hetfield got it: “The idea that we weren’t supposed to be here is why I agreed to do Lollapalooza in the first place,” he said.
Here was the moment. The Metallica guys took the stage and blasted into “So What?” an obscure – to most – punk rocker by the UK second generation punk band Anti-Nowhere League. It’s a thrasher where the ANL singer Animal – or Hetfield here – boasted about fucking a sheep and a goat and in fact, shoving his cock right down their throat. He was a traveler too – “I’ve been here and I’ve been there/I’ve been fucking everywhere!” Alcohol? He drank it and not only that, piss, which he spewed up. All of these claims are big boasts – which were answered by the other band members with “So what? So what? So what, so what you boring little cunt? /Well, who cares, who cares what you do? /And who cares, who cares, about you? /You you you you!”
AUDIO: Metallica “So What”
I’m sorry but that’s as punk rock as it gets. Full of idiotic braggadocio and putdown, set to a pummeling rhythm and slashing guitars, all over in about three minutes.
Hetfield, who turns 60 Aug. 3, is also responsible for singing and co-writing with drummer Lars Ulrich one of the best anti-war songs I’ve heard. Right up there with the Eric Bogle duo, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)” and the Kinks’ duo “Some Mother’s Son” and “Yes Sir, No Sir.”
Metallica’s stab at it is “One.”
Let me take you to the Grammy Awards in 1989, where Metallica took it to the largest audience that would ever possibly hear it. It started with a series of explosions, as the low-lit stage filled with flames and chemical smoke. It began as a slow mood piece and then speed-shifted into a blitzkrieg of molten metal — drums like machine guns, guitars like air-raid sirens. The song is based on Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, and sung from the same point of view — inside the mind of a deaf-dumb-and-blind, limbless war victim. Hetfield tore into the final stanza: “Landmine/ Has taken my sight/ Taken my speech/ Taken my hearing/ Taken my arms/ Taken my legs/ Taken my soul/ Left me with life in hell.”
The book and song implicitly ask the question: What good is victory if you’re not there to see it?
I was covering Metallica later a couple of months later, down in Lakeland, Florida.
I asked about it.
“We’ve written about death and dying in a lot of different ways,” Ulrich told me, following the concert.
VIDEO: Metallica “One”
The band became more intimate with the concept in September 1986. Cliff Burton — one of the band’s chief songwriters, the one with the most formal training, the one who brought elaborate arranging skills to the group — died after the band’s van crashed in Europe.
Hetfield said some folks figured that, when Burton died, Metallica might pack it in, or at least temper its obsession with violent imagery. In fact, Metallica’s first U.S. concert after Burton’s death was played on a Providence stage made up to look like a cemetery: six large white crosses on stage and row upon row of crosses on the backing scrim. It was what they planned before he died; they chose not to alter plans. Of Burton’s death and its effect on his songwriting, Hetfield said simply that death “means so much more to me now.”
“There’s a lot of negative,” admitted Hetfield, of Metallica material. He was chiefly the lyrics guy, Ulrich, the music. “I’m writing about life as I see it. I look at the news every chance I get. I used to hate reading; now I get into it.”
Metallica didn’t pander to preconceptions and didn’t write overtly catchy melodies. It played ferocious, somewhat intricate, hard-edged, complex heavy metal. Its music took a number of sharp zigs and zags. Its lyrics addressed a world in turmoil. Nuclear devastation, personal isolation, drug addiction, misplaced justice, bogus faith healers, capital punishment and gut-level, day-to-day frustration all figured in.
“The world is a dark place,” explained guitarist Kirk Hammett. “It isn’t a picnic, and a lot of people don’t like to see that in their music. They like to see it as a wonderful place. Come on, wake up and smell the coffee.”
Will Metallica ever lighten up? Play a song less chockablock with violent images?
Maybe, shrugged Hetfield. “As long as there’s a powerful message. Energy in any direction.”
The next year Metallica was up for a Grammy for Best Metal Performance.
“I think it’s pretty bizarre,” said Ulrich. “Pretty left field.”
“Amazing,” said Hammett.
“I’ve never been into that award kind of stuff,” said Hetfield. “I’ve seen it a couple of times on TV and thought it was a bunch of hooey and brown-nosing. They were pretty boring.”
Hetfield says if anyone charges the group with “selling out,” well, “I don’t think they have a concept of what selling out means. Selling out means you’re up there with these other bands who have sold out. We’ve done it our way from day one.”
And Metallica won that Grammy.
The band carries on. Last year, the title song of their 1986 album Master of Puppets entered the Billboard charts for the first time. Why? It was featured on Stranger Things. Then, “Nothing Else Matters” – one of the band’s best – was given the string treatment by L’Orchestre d’Academie and featured on Wednesday, the Addams Family spinoff.
For those who love the two S&M albums – that’s Symphony and Metallica, featuring the San Francisco Symphony – this string song made perfect sense. I’m one of those who love ‘em. (I do not love Lulu, the collaboration they did with Lou Reed in 2011. I don’t think anyone does.)
Now, we have the 72 Seasons album, which is 77 minutes long and Metallica’s first new album in seven years. Yeah, they still got it.
Hetfield – who’s been in rehab more than a few times, most recently in 2019 – has said: “72 Seasons came out of a book I was reading about childhood, basically, and sorting out childhood as an adult. And 72 seasons is basically the first 18 years of your life. How do you evolve and grow and mature and develop your own ideas and identity of self after those first 72 seasons?”
Questions, not answers. I like that. I also like banging my head now and then and am doing so with the earbuds in and 72 Seasons blasting away deep into the night, ending it with the 11-minute, very Sabbath-esque “Inamorata.”