me, metal, and Metallica
Tuesday, March 22 2005
I'm going to be writing in this entry about the band Metallica, and I think it's important for you to know up front my history with the music.
I have always been something of a fan of heavy metal. But as a kid I never had friends who listened to it and at the onset of the 1980s it was rare to encounter any on the radio. I'd make do with the occasional Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Cream, "Don't Fear the Reaper," or that one popular Judas Priest song, "You've Got Another Thing Coming." I liked metal's extremeness and grandness, features which I'd learned to appreciate while listening to my parents' small collection of classical music.
I didn't know enough about heavy metal to actually buy any; in those pre-web days the best I could do was appreciate it from afar. Late one night as a teenager I stayed up on the promise of a radio show about "heavy metal." I recorded its highlights on an old reel-to-reel tape and listened to it for years. The two songs I remember from it were Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and Iron Maiden's "Flight of Icarus." I'd never heard music from either before. I remember being particularly impressed by a moment of dead silence in "Crazy Train" during its signature riff near the end of the song - the first time I heard it I felt like I'd momentarily gone unconscious. (It turns out that this was an artifact resulting from the fact that I'd only recorded one of the stereo channels, but I was still deeply affected.)
Later I absorbed various parts of heavy metal without ever delving too deeply. I know Led Zeppelin isn't really heavy metal, but my interest in it seemed to coincide with the early "mature" phase of my metal interest, which began during my sophomore year in college. By 1989 I'd bought most of Led Zeppelin's albums on vinyl and had moved on to Black Sabbath, which I found mostly disappointing. Technical Ecstasy anyone?
Meanwhile metal had gone mainstream and hair metal was all over MTV. But the only contemporary metal I appreciated at the end of the 1980s was Guns 'n' Roses. There was also that time in the Fall of 1989 when I went hitchhiking through West Virginia and smoked some pot with these guys who played a classic Def Leppard album. By then I thought of Def Leppard as heavy metal pussies, but on that occasion I remember thinking it was the perfect soundtrack for driving up out of the Cheat River Valley on the newly-built I-64.
My first exposure to Metallica came in the Spring of 1989 when I taped Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets from CDs owned by my friend (and fellow Oberlin student) Chuck Webster. At first I didn't know what to make of it - it was so fast and non-melodic that I wondered if it was really music. Perhaps it was some other form of sonic expression. Gradually, though, it started making sense to me and preparing me for all the other speed metal I would grow to love: Slayer, Anthrax, Sepultura, Megadeth, Nuclear Assault, Exodus, and even Kreator.
With the exception of Slayer, all those other bands were introduced to me by my friend Josh Furr. In those days Josh was a truck driver for his father's stockyard business, and for some reason he'd made himself into something of a metal expert. Josh had been a year ahead of me in high school, but I didn't start hanging out with him until after I'd left Oberlin. Throughout the early 1990s we'd get together, drink some beers, smoke some pot, listen to tapes, and watch videos of metal bands (many recorded off Headbanger's Ball). Then we'd break out our instruments and make music of our own. I'd play guitar and he'd play drums. He had one of those double-kick bass sets and everything.
Steeped as I was in so many big noises made to move quickly, I remember thinking Metallica's 1990 untitled album suspiciously radio-friendly. Where were those crazy complicated rhythms from the earlier albums, the ones that sounded as if they'd need a conductor to pull off? Still, I liked most of the songs, particularly the vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding Wherever I May Roam."
As it happened, though, that was the last Metallica album that I didn't find embarrassing. Aside from what I've heard on the radio (radio friendly indeed!), I'm mostly unfamiliar with their subsequent material. Mind you, had Metallica transformed into a quality non-heavy metal band, I probably would have continued listening. But the truth of the matter is that when they weren't being fast and heavy they were being rather conventional, or, in their own words, "stock." This while they maintained a kind of willful macho bluecollar pigheadedness and an absence of the only thing that might redeem it all: melody. Listening to slowish music lacking melody is a little like eating cold french fries - it's okay when you're really hungry but otherwise you want something else.
Tonight Gretchen and I watched the new Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster on DVD. It wasn't a great movie, but it was instructive nonetheless.
At the beginning of the movie, Metallica had just sequestered themselves in San Francisco's Presidio in an effort to recapture whatever it was that had allowed them to climb to the summit of rock superstardom. The resulting music seemed to be something of a return to their metal roots. Along the way they'd apparently made a decision to abandon their tepid experiments with melodic alternative rock from the previous several albums to concentrate once again on anger-fueled rhythm. But without na&ium;ve youthful anger and without the speed that those long lost brain cells used to facilitate, this stuff ends up being goofy and ponderous. The lyrics James Hetfield came up with and "sang" into a microphone were those of a pissed-off teenage mind trapped in a happy middle aged body, so content with his success that he no longer had a creative well from which to draw. Long gone was the hardscrabble frenzy of the early days or the youthful sense of awe that provided such depth to their classic albums. Hetfield was going through the motions, and the result was a not-especially-funny self parody. At this stage in their career, the guys in Metallica seem to be doing what a lot of aging rockers do - casting around unsuccessfully trying to figure out how next to proceed. They don't want to do the same old thing, but they don't know how to do anything else.
Adding to the ridiculous pathos were the constant scenes of Metallica meeting with their $40,000/month group therapist. He was a shrunken little man with blotchy, transparent skin, looking like the survivor of a ghastly radiation experiment. But since Metallica can afford the best, one has to imagine this guy fit the bill. But he certainly didn't sound like it; nearly everything he said was either a platitude or a truism. He obviously hailed from the world of corporate boardrooms, where people speak lots of words with the intention of meaning nothing at all. One would think the greatest titans of metal could benefit from something a little more, well, kick ass.
But there were two parts of the movie that I found moving. The first came when James Hetfield was off for a year of rehab and Dave Mustaine was invited in for one of the group therapy sessions. Dave was evicted from the band in the early 1980s, supposedly for his excessive drinking. In the session with Metallica, he was unexpectedly confessional and contrite, admitting his jealousy at Metallica's success (Dave's band Megadeth is "only" #2). It was a very "California" moment. Seemingly on the verge of tears, he said that if he had it to do over again he would have cleaned up his act and done what it would have taken to stay in the band. Despite his meek attitude, though, one had the sense that his ego would have ruined things even if he'd been able to control his drinking. There just wasn't enough room in the band for the combined egos of Hetfield, Mustaine, and Ulrich. (Though Ulrich's manifested in more of nuanced, sensitive, chatty way than, say, Hetfield's brooding, relatively crude charisma.)
The other moving moment in the movie came when Metallica selected Rob Trujillo as their new bassist. He seemed like such a nice guy and such a calm, talented musician, and here he was getting his reward, beginning with a million dollar advance. It was like watching someone else having a wonderful dream, except it was for real. Of course, among other things, Some Kind of Monster has to be interpreted as Metallica propaganda, and perhaps Metallica doing so right by Trujillo was part of what they felt they needed to do to chase away the ghosts of their ill-considered Napster lawsuit.
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