Ten years of close encounters with Metallica
By Ted Drozdowski
NOVEMBER 17, 1997: The Monsters of Rock Tour in '87 was my wake-up call. Even if waking up in Akron is like rising with a hangover.
I'd heard Metallica's albums Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets many times and been drilled through by their sound: bigger and heavier than anything else around, paced so intensely they made hardcore seem tame and a tad traditional. Metallica were the nexus of punk, metal, and the avant-garde -- the music that rocked my world. But it wasn't until I set foot in Akron's Rubber Bowl arena that I began to understand what they would become.
In a way, it was a miracle that Metallica even made it to Akron. The guys are so stubborn about doing things their own way. They wanted to call their first album Metal Up Your Ass, even after its distributors balked at the name. Had they not relented with Kill 'Em All -- a title expressing their feelings about those distributors -- that indie-label debut might not have sold 20,000 copies in its first two weeks and Metallica might not have grown to be Metallica.
Certainly not the Metallica we know: the Lollapalooza-headlining, 16-million-selling (of 1991's Metallica), industrial-music pioneering, metal-redefining outfit who are putting out their ninth album, Re-Load (Elektra), this Tuesday.
I'm sure Akron has its virtues, if a rust-belt industrial wasteland that zips itself into a body bag after 5 p.m. can have virtues. But the worst place to be in record-breaking summer heat is the concrete Rubber Bowl. Fate and some big-time booking agency had placed Van Halen, the Scorpions, Metallica, Dokken, and Kingdom Come in this unholy place for two days.
What got me there was my own big mouth. I grew up on loud guitar players -- especially the proto-metal/blues sound of outfits like Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow -- and I got sucked into the '70s punk scene as it began. So when I became a junior editor at Musician, I felt bound to pry the pages of that magazine open for punk and metal players. My editor relented to my badgering about a serious Monsters of Rock story after Van Halen agreed to an interview.
Rubber Bowl security staff sprayed water on the crowd to keep them from vomiting or passing out. Those who'd downed multiple beers and maybe pills before the concert -- which started at noon, when the sun focused like a laser beam -- were red-eyed and staggering and harvested like floating mackerel by the first-aid crew.
Blistering as it was in the arena, the thermometer pegged at 117 on stage. During the Scorpion's first-day set, Rudolph Schenker's sweat-soaked guitar slipped from his hands as he swung it over his head to produce swirling feedback; it flew 20 feet and split in half.
Backstage it was a more temperate 90 or so. Gatorade was the beverage du jour. And as I worked through my interviews and observations -- moving between dressing rooms like a desperate groupie -- I learned some things. Lenny Wolf, the ersatz Robert Plant of Kingdom Come, had an ego fat enough to fill the Bowl. The Scorpions were some of the nicest guys around, a blast to hang with. Music aside, Van Halen were the dumbest band I've ever encountered. Sammy Hagar was the brains of the operation. No shit. Dokken guitarist George Lynch was a very serious musician, even if his band sucked. And Metallica were a house divided -- at least emotionally.
Kirk Hammett, the speedy lead guitarist, was an easygoing guy with wit as fast as his licks. But he seemed distanced from founders James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich. Jason Newsted, who'd replaced the late Clif Burton a year earlier, seemed absolutely isolated -- as if serving a sentence as the new guy. Lars was a talkative, pleasant creative sparkplug with a real vision for Metallica. Hell of a drummer, too. But that vision was something that Lars and James seemed to hoard between themselves. James was tight-lipped and sullen, with an abrasive edge. Obviously there was a lot inside his impenetrable armor, since Metallica's lyrics about mind control and ostracism (let's overlook the early netherworld mythology, since it was abandoned by '88's . . . And Justice for All) were smart as their sound -- and as plugged into their culture as Bob Dylan's early recordings were to his. Nonetheless, Metallica seemed glad to be on tour with flag bearers of the old-school metal they were making obsolete. They got on especially well with the fun-loving Scorpions.
Metallica also had an edge -- a sense of drive and focus that was more than greed (Kingdom Come) or blind momentum (Van Halen). And when they got on stage, they came together like the muscles in God's right arm. Their live sound was gnarlier and harder than the records; they played even faster, which somehow hadn't seemed possible. And the crowd was theirs. Not just the 10,000 or so kids who sang every song with James, but the fans who'd come to see Van Halen and the Scorpions only to be drawn from the bleacher seats, as if the Pied Piper had been reincarnated as the loudest and heaviest goddamned thing since Vesuvius blew up. Following Metallica, those bands seemed like shells that the spirit of rock and roll had abandoned like a hermit crab. I bought a T-shirt.
When I was dispatched to Amsterdam to reconvene with Metallica after . . . And Justice for All started blowing out of stores, it was two years after Burton's death. Jason seemed more relaxed -- and accepted -- in his role as bassist, though he was still tight-lipped. Kirk was, as always, comfortable and glad to talk about the growth he'd been enjoying as a guitarist. But he still seemed frustrated by the way the band worked in the studio. Tracks were built from the ground up by James and Lars -- in that order. The drums on Metallica's first half-dozen albums essentially follow James's powerful, down-stroked guitar rhythms. Kirk's only job was to come in and play some leads when . . . And Justice for All was nearly finished. At that, James played a number of the solos too.
Lars was so stricken with flu he kept his head under a warm towel and above a steaming teapot as we spoke, but he was buzzed by the creative leap the album represented. Songs like . . . And Justice for All's "One," inspired by Dalton Trumbo's anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, brought Metallica into new tempos and textures, and even sharper lyric terrain. James was still a bit surly and reserved -- reticent to speak freely about his creative inspirations. Nonetheless, we decided I'd ride with him to what was to be the final date of Metallica's European headlining tour, which would be played in a cattle market in nearby Leiden.
The potent Dutch weed I'd puffed with Kirk that morning started to kick in as we rode past fields of sheep, giving the interview and the scenery (which included dikes and windmills) a surreal edge. But after easing into our discussion by talking about the relationship between James's rhythm playing and that of Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, he stopped sidestepping and spoke freely about how his songs were in part a product of his fundamentalist upbringing. He'd broken those intellectual and spiritual shackles alone, the same way he continued to do just about everything in his life except for his collaboration with Lars and the time he spent on stage. In the matter of a half-hour, he morphed from a spiked battlement into a relaxed and complex man with a clear-eyed genius for expressing his worldview in song.
A few hours later he also became a drinking buddy. This was in the days when Metallica earned the nickname Alcoholica. They consumed a prodigious amount of beer, vodka, and especially Jaegermeister before the show. And convinced me that I needed to do the same. For the previous two years I'd been ripped by undiagnosable stomach trouble, so I was reluctant. But I figured you only die once. So . . . to this day I remain grateful to Metallica for restoring my ability to consume alcohol.
The concert was a spectacle. The hall was literally a big cow barn; they shoved the piles of shit outside on Friday nights for shows. Kirk got lifted off his feet when he stood too close to a pyro charge. And the Dutch fans were fevered. If any of the 20,000 there didn't know every lyric, I didn't see 'em. The afterparty was a pleasant haze of smoke, liquor, and accented conversation. Metallica were beautiful with the fans who came. Lars hugged and comforted one young woman who wept as she left, saying, "Hey, don't be upset. It's only a band. It's only Metallica."
"Only Metallica" seems inadequate now. After the success of 1991's so-called "Black Album," Metallica, the band seem more like an industry -- an import/export manufacturer on an grand scale. They have a lucrative contract with Elektra that essentially makes them and the label 50/50 partners in the costs and rewards of Metallica's endeavors -- save for those the band don't want the label involved in. Metallica have never relinquished creative control. When you hear an album like '96's Load or its new sequel, you're hearing pure Metallica. Which today is the sound of metal's best band ever, working at a creative high.
If Metallica are an industry, it's driven by a human heart. When I joined them in Milan for a few days last fall to research a Musician cover story, I found the guys more relaxed and happier then ever -- even if they must now travel with bodyguards.
Lars is still Lars, a plainly gregarious man. But today James has shed all the
traces of his old reserve. Perhaps his uneasiness has finally been put to rest
by a global embrace. Better yet, Kirk and Jason are enjoying creative peaks now
that Lars and James have kicked open the recording-studio doors. Kirk and Jason
were both involved with Load and Re-Load from day one, and they
brought an array of fresh ideas to both CDs. But best of all is an infectious
camaraderie they've never enjoyed before. More than a decade of being Metallica
has finally erased any distances among them. Now Metallica aren't just making
great music; they're having fun.
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