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Metallica's quest for respect

By Carly Carioli

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  I remember exactly where I was on that night in 1989 when Metallica got robbed -- robbed, I tell you, blind, in a contest as legitimate-looking as a Don King promotion -- at the Grammys. This was the year after the release of . . . And Justice for All (Elektra), which I had on the double-LP-equivalent "long-playing cassette," because the record player was downstairs in the family room, and your parents -- even if they were liberal ex-hippie types, like mine -- didn't want to hear that kinda noise, so what you did was get one of those cheapo double-tapedeck boomboxes and plant it in your room and keep the door closed tight. On this night, however, the doors were being thrown open and Metallica were being beamed downstairs into living rooms all over the country, right alongside Melissa Etheridge and Bobby McFerrin on the Grammy telecast because, for the first time ever, the AARP or the NBA or whoever gives the things out had recognized "hard rock/heavy metal" as a category worthy of its regal attention.

Even though Metallica were already selling in the millions, this wasn't just about money -- after all, Guns N' Roses were selling way bigger than Metallica, and they were eliminated from consideration that year on a dumb technicality. You have to remember that it was still possible at that moment in time to be as big as Metallica were -- headlining hockey rinks, going platinum -- and not hear a peep about them on the radio or anywhere else that your parents or other normal people would recognize.

You might think that this was sorta the point: that heavy metal was the kind of thing that you listened to because your parents hated it and it marked you as some kinda wasteland teenage rebel and who gives a fuck about shitbox television awards shows, but that was only, at best, half-true. The other half was that those of us who were listening to Metallica at just the right age -- roughly, between 13 and 16 -- believed them to be absolutely without question the greatest band in the world, and important, too, and we wanted some goddamn recognition and respect from our parents and the Grammys and everyone else, because we were angry for all the right reasons and raging against injustice and the system and all that nonsense. We were grown-ups, dammit, and we had taste -- and now we were gonna get what was coming to us. Because not only were Metallica nominated for Best Heavy Metal Band and not only were they far and away the only band on the ballot worth a dick hair -- the others were a buncha ancient fogeys, AC/DC and Iggy Pop and some other classic-rock dinosaur, plus some wimp-assed Zeppelin-wanna-be joke band called Jane's Addiction -- but they were actually gonna play a song on live network prime-time television. Metallica! In Pushead T-shirts and wristbands! Playing "One"! In a ballroom! In front of people wearing tuxedos! With our parents watching in the living room!

Lemme backtrack here for a second and mention what a crock of shit the Grammys were in those days -- I know, like they aren't now, but I'm tellin' ya it was worse: even USA Today and the New York Times had their panties in a bunch in '88, when by looking at the nominations you'd never know there were any rock bands except U2 and Paul Simon. Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson walked away with everything that wasn't nailed down, and the rest went to Terence Trent D'Arby (who?) and leftover singer-songwriters from the '70s. It was so bad, in fact, that the Powers That Be actually felt horrible enough to do something about it -- adding to the ballot metal, rap, and, um, bluegrass (the winner was a guy old enough to have written the B-side on Elvis's first single -- which in fact he had). Of course, rap was still so taboo that they wouldn't show the presentation on national television, and so all the nominees save Kool Moe Dee boycotted -- including this kid who'd gone to my high school named Jazzy Jeff, who along with some cat named Fresh Prince won for, appropriately enough, "Parents Just Don't Understand." Man, it was horrible: James Brown was in jail, and Tracy Chapman was considered "progressive." But you see, that was just it -- suddenly it seemed possible that things could get better, that Metallica could usher in this cool new era, and we were all going along for the ride.

So Metallica come on and do the ballad ("sheer torture," the LA Times called it the next day) and there's James Hetfield with his goatee and long hair, and that's me sitting on the floor in front of the tube with my "Damaged Justice"-tour T-shirt and the 'rents on the couch, and my dad's friend, who worked for the phone company, looks at the TV and sniggers, "Where's Ted Nugent when you need him?" And I don't even blink because I know what he doesn't -- that in about five minutes someone's gonna come on television and proclaim what I've been harping about for the past three years: that Metallica are the best, champions, rulers of the world.

I don't remember who actually said it, but the words went something like, " . . . and the winner is . . . Jethro Tull!" Deep, long, pained gasp. I think I started screaming. Eventually I turned around and glared at the 'rents, because of course this was at least partly their fault -- all those boomer fucks -- with that dogeared copy of Aqualung rotting in the cabinet beneath the record player and the good stereo in the living room. It was absolutely inconceivable: Jethro Tull hadn't even put out an album since, like, before I was born and the whole thing was fixed, it had to be, there just wasn't any sense in it. No justice, no peace: it was back to the bedroom and Master of Puppets on the boombox and fuck closing the door this time.

Eventually I got over it -- and so did the Grammy committee, who must've realized they'd screwed up big time, because soon Metallica were winning Grammys hand over fist, even when they weren't putting anything out. They won in 1990 and again in 1991, but it was as if the Grammys were making up records to give Metallica awards for -- by the time Hetfield and company won for a freakin' Queen cover released as a B-side ("Stone Cold Crazy") it didn't even matter anymore, and anyway, it couldn't come close to making up for that slight at the end of the '80s when our hearts got broke and we realized, on some level, that the fix would always be in whether it was in our favor or not.

Funny story, though: I don't think Metallica ever got over it. By the time they returned with Metallica, they were so determined to be the biggest thing ever that they decimated their epic thrash suites down to radio-rock nuggets. It worked: they've rolled through hemispheres like panzer divisions, working up from arenas to super-stadiums, selling so many gazillion of records that the NTSB or the MPAA or whoever had to come up with a new sales award -- diamond, 10 million sold -- to hand 'em like it's the Purple Heart or something. A couple of years ago some magazine writer with access to all sales data and Pollstar tracking called Metallica "The Biggest Rock Band in the World," and it finally hit home that, hell, they actually were. But even that hasn't been enough for them, and lately there's been this element to Metallica's imperial domination that's started to feel a bit tawdry, like kicking a dog. Load and Re-Load I could stomach -- just the age-old story of a band past their prime getting softer and more distant and exponentially huger, no biggie -- but the Garage Days re-release last year made me sorta tweak. You know, like it wasn't enough to be the biggest rock band on the planet, they hadda try to be the best at everything: "We're punk!" (More Misfits covers.) "We're classic rock!" (The dreaded Bob Seger cover.) "We're Nick Cave!" That sort of thing.

Metallica seem to have the low-self-esteem complex of all these nuevo-rich types you read about -- even with the Grammys under their belt and the new haircuts and the cover of Rolling Stone and everything, it's like they can't get a membership in the right country club. So when the word came down that Metallica were playing this one-off date with the San Francisco Philharmonic, it was like, "Whew." Because finally, I thought, maybe they'd get this conspicuous-consumption crap outta their system. Actually, I thought maybe it would be enough when those funny little Apocalyptica albums came out on Mercury a couple years ago, where guys with cellos played all your Metalli-faves as arranged for the drawing room, as if they weren't already cranking "For Whom the Bell Tolls" up in the plush apartments above Fifth Avenue, and who knows, maybe they weren't. So -- I was thinking, looking at these photos of Metallica in tuxedos, noticing how comfortable they seem in the monkey suits -- they would do this gig and yell "We're classical!" and that would be as far as they could possibly take it, unless they decided to scream "We're the space shuttle!" and leap straight over the Golden Gate Bridge and into the stratosphere and on up, up, and away into the darkness and the void beyond the world altogether.

Of course, now they're releasing that gig as a double CD -- S&M (Elektra, out this week). And, horror of horrors, they opted to stage an encore performance in New York last week. Which is just about par for the course for a band who seem intent on delivering an increasingly bloated parody of themselves as a replacement for actual artistic growth. As you might expect, S&M is a mess, a complete embarrassment from the first note. Sure, it was a silly idea to begin with, a joke where the set-up is the punch line, but even the absurdity of the premise doesn't begin to prepare you for what actually happens. And what happens is this: Metallica invite an orchestra on stage and then proceed to play their standard speaker-shearing two-hour set at full bore and maximum volume -- complete with audience call-and-response parts -- while the orchestra attempts to play around them, or at the very least keep up. Along about the seventh minute of "The Thing That Should Not Be," it becomes apparent exactly what twisted freaks Metallica have become -- they're the only band with egos huge enough to demand an orchestra yet insecure enough to have to blow the orchestra off the stage.

The guy they brought in to arrange (and conduct) this massacre -- Michael Kamen, who wrote the Brian Adams hit "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You," scored Mr. Holland's Opus, and was the hired hand behind treacly arrangements for Sting, Bowie, and Clapton, not to mention Metallica's sapfest "Until It Sleeps" -- doesn't seem to know whether he's writing for Disney on Ice, some swashbuckling epic, a college football game, a Shaft flick, or -- and this is where it gets kinda funny -- one of those Broadway production numbers that invariably opens the Grammys. And at some point, you get the sense that standing on stage in San Francisco, Metallica are suddenly, at least in their heads, back on stage at the Grammys 10 years ago, acting out this warped passive-aggressive ballet where the orchestra has become a stand-in for the avatars of respectability whom the band suspect are always snickering behind their backs. At least twice on the double-disc set, James Hetfield breaks down in laughter (in retrospect it's kind of amazing they were able to keep a straight face at all). And most of all, that's what you hear on S&M: the sound of Metallica getting the last laugh, albeit at their own expense.

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