Don't Tread On Me: Metallica's James Hetfield

This is Metallica. This is James Hetfield. This is the voice of a generation. Get used to it

April 15, 1993
james hetfield metallica 1993 cover
James Hetfield of Metallica on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

James Hetfield of Metallica is not a Song-and-Snappy-Patter man on stage, the singer-guitarist's idea of between-song banter is the kind of street-simple, off-color word jive that you can hear any night, anyplace where the citizens of Teenage Wasteland gather over a six-pack. "All fucking right!" Hetfield bellows to a houseful of rabid Metallicats at the North Charleston Coliseum, outside Charleston, South Carolina, before leading drummer Lars Ulrich, bassìst Jason Newsted and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett into a Godzilla-like stomp through "Sad but True." "You all got the Black album, right? Studied all your lyrics and shit? No fuckups now. Hey, any time this stuff gets too heavy for you . . ." There's a pregnant pause as Hetfield's square iron jaw creaks into a maniacal leer. "Tough shit!"

Offstage, when he talks at all – which isn't often, at least compared with Ulrich, the band's voluble Mr. Interview – Hetfield doesn't mince words, either, or blow florid, rhetorical smoke in your face. "We keep ourselves hungry," he says bluntly of his and Metallica's modus operandi, over the vintage strains of a Lynyrd Skynyrd CD in his hotel room. "We have high expectations for ourselves all the time, with everything – songwriting, touring. We're always trying to better ourselves. What can be bigger?

"What can be better than the Snake Pit?" he adds, referring to the area carved out for fans right in the middle of Metallica's diamond-shaped stage. "Maybe we go into your garage and play. But when people say no to us, our response is always 'Why the fuck not?' We have to investigate. There's always something we can do to turn people's heads."

Metallica has been turning heads for more than a decade. First, it was just heavy-metal insiders blown away by the incendiary marriage of muscle and velocity on the band's early demo tapes and on its 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All. Later, it was a mushrooming cadre of misfit teens who heard echoes of their own bottled-up anger and self-doubt in Hetfield's lyric meditations on death ("Ride the Lightning"), adolescent rage ("Seek and Destroy") and suicide ("Fade to Black"). Today the enormous scale of the Metallica phenomenon is enough to take one's breath away. The 1991 "Black" album, Metallica, has sold over 6 million copies, and when their current world tour ends in July, the members of the band will have been on the road nonstop for almost two years.

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James Hetfield – who on the street looks like a cattle-baron version of Erik the Viking, with his long, curly yellow mane, narrow blond beard rimming his jaw, big cowboy hat and brown leather coat with thick sheepskin collar – is also a phenomenon unto himself. Throughout Metallica's career, he has remained an enigma, rarely giving interviews and, until this one, never in great confessional depth. But Hetfield has become a hero to successive generations of metalheads not just because he speaks their language; he knows their hurt and confusion firsthand.

Born August 3rd, 1963, in suburban Los Angeles, the son of a trucking-company owner and an amateur light-opera singer, Hetfield was raised in a strict Christian Science household rent asunder by divorce – he didn't see his father for about ten years after that – and, later, the death of his mother. Like many of his peers, Hetfield turned to hard rock for refuge. "Music wouldn't lie to me," he says frankly, "or leave me." But even in Metallica, he wasn't immune to tragedy. In September 1986 the band's original bassist, Cliff Burton, died in a tour-bus accident in Sweden. A sizable chunk of the twenty-minute historical video that opens Metallica's shows is dedicated to Burton.

When Hetfield describes the typical, early Metallica fan, he's talking about someone very much like himself; "Someone who was very stubborn, with a fuck-you attitude. A little afraid of their surroundings, too. Looking into themselves, saying, 'Wow, I don't fit into anything, so fuck everyone else."' Indeed, Hetfield is a wealth of contradictions. A self-confessed loner, he has all the time in the world for Metallica's devoted fans, signing autographs on the street and graciously chatting with awestruck kids at the backstage door every night. He's made five platinum albums with Metallica – and still drives a Chevy Blazer. An avid hunter, he is a member of the National Rifle Association, as well as of Ducks Unlimited, an organization dedicated to the preservation of wetlands. He admits to being patriotic, but he has never voted. Politically, he's a defiantly individual mix of right-of-center values with a strong dislike of rules – kind of a conservative anarchist.

He is also uncertain about how much he really enjoys his stardom. In the beginning, Hetfield concedes sheepishly, "I thought that when you were in a band, you were supposed to be a household name, that when you go to the store, someone says, 'Hey, you're in Metallica."' Now that it happens almost every day, he talks about his other dream, to get a ranch "somewhere out in the middle of nowhere." On tour breaks, he heads out to a place well outside of San Francisco owned by a friend. "It's tough to get to without a four-wheel drive," he says. "We just sit there on the porch, drinking, playing music. I always say, 'Let's just stay here, they won't miss us. Maybe I could just send a demo tape with a carrier pigeon and a little note: "Here's the new stuff.""'

Hetfield laughs, a loud rifle-crack guffaw. "That would be great," he raves, "to be able to make music and not be seen."

I've seen your show several times over the past two years, and one of the best parts is still the "Seek and Destroy" sing-along, when you jump down into the photo pit, hug the kids in the front rows and let them yell "seek and destroy" in your face. It's heavy-metal male bonding at its finest.
It depends on the type of person they are. Some freeze up. Some really get in there and want to hang on to you, get a piece of clothing or my wolf pendant. If so, they get this ring right here [laughs, brandishing the silver skull ring on his right fist].

But there's a physical contact that's really cool. Which is weird, because I'm not a real physical-contact kind of person. I don't like people touching me. And I don't like touching people, unless it's my girl or someone I know. I'm not very personable in that way. I think it's kind of weird when people are like that, real flirty. They have to touch you when they talk. It's like instead of using what they're saying to get your attention, they're using physical contact to make you like them.

Still, you don't mind the "touch" thing in the pit.
Shit, it's simple. We don't like to separate ourselves from our audience. We're playing music, they like our music. Why should there be a big separation? It would be very easy for me to go like this [raises middle finger] and say, "Fuck off." It's the easy way out.

When did the magnitude of Metallica's success first hit you?
I didn't realize it myself. I had to get it through the other guys. I had an apartment, and they were renting houses. So, okay, maybe I can rent a house, too. Then they went and bought houses.

I don't sit and talk to my accountant about what I got and how much more I can get. I live comfortably. I buy stuff that makes me feel good. But I like to buy things that I know I can take care of. I change my own fucking oil. There are real things that you've got to hang on to, that people just don't do anymore. And it eliminates them from the normal things in life.

There wasn't much that was normal about your summer tour with Guns n' Roses last year. In fact, in your nightly opening video, there's a shot of Kirk Hammett mooning the camera and saying, "That's what I think of the Guns n' Roses tour." What did you think of it?
That's Kirk's way of saying something . . . without saying something. Actually, he should have wiped his ass in that video [laughs]. It's not too pleasant to look at every night.

Did I enjoy the tour? [Long pause] It was different. It was a good idea. We really had no idea what was going to come with it. They're a different type of band – and I use the word band loosely. It's a guy and some other guys. We were out to show people that there was something a little more progressive and hardcore than Guns n' Roses. And to go about it our way. But it was hard going on, dealing with Axl and his attitude. It's not something we'd want to do again.

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