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

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There is one scene from that tour in the recent Metallica home video in which you are reading aloud passages from the Guns n' Roses tour rider – in a rather sarcastic voice.
Yeah, Metallica humor. It didn't really matter what the hell was on it. Just the fact that Axl had his own rider was funny. It's hard to grasp. When we saw he had his own dressing room, I just didn't understand that.

The show in Montreal was a disaster. You ended up in the hospital, burned by one of your own fire effects, and the audience rioted when Guns n' Roses cut their set short. How did you end up in flames?
There was a new pyro cue in the set, and our pyro guy said, "This cue is going to happen out on the wings." But what he didn't say was "in addition to what usually goes on in this other spot." And I found out that there was the old stuff, too. I was playing guitar – and then all of a sudden I was not playing guitar anymore. It was during "Fade to Black."

How appropriate.
"Hand to Black" is more like it. That was the joke: What's the first line to "Fade to Black"? "Fuckin' hell! Aaaaargh!"

It was a string of bad luck, basically. Axl had lost his voice before, so he had some time off. I went down to Mexico, had a few too many tequila poppers, got into a fight in some bar and had a bottle cracked over my head. I still had wounds from that. So when Axl's voice got better, we came back on the tour, and Montreal was the first date back. Then this shit happened.

When did you find out about the riot that occurred later that night?
I was at the hospital. They drugged me up. So I had one of the guys who works for us go and get my boom-box. I was tuning through the stations, and all of a sudden I heard, "James Hetfield got burned, and there's a riot going on. . . ." I went, "What the hell?"

Do you think Axl Rose should have gone on with the show, no matter what, in light of what happened to you?
I'm a singer. I know how it is. If your voice is in bad shape but you've got shit to do, you're not in the mood. He was pissed off at the monitors or whatever. For some reason, he didn't get enough volume, strained his voice, and it wasn't working for him. He threw a fit, and that was that. I was so disappointed in him. Because he could have won so many people over by continuing the show. And he went the exact opposite way and made things ten times worse and jeopardized people's lives. There was a lot of unnecessary violence because of his attitude. He could have turned it into a great evening.

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: James Hetfield

How would you describe the typical Metallica fan?
It's gotten really weird lately. I can't physically describe one. There's all kinds. The most common one is high-school males who like to get aggressive and work their problems out that way. Then there's bankers, girls who like the lyrics, people who are hunters who like the songs about that lifestyle. But I hate fads and trends. I hate buzzwords. There's a lot of people at our gigs because of that crap. And either they're not going to be there the next time we tour or they're gonna get into what's really going on. We're not too worried either way.

What kind of rock & roll fan were you in high school?
I wrote letters to Aerosmith. They were my all-time favorites back then. I wanted the lyrics. "Man, I can't understand what the fuck he is singing. Can you please send me the lyrics?" I sent it to Steven [Tyler], Joey [Perry], Tom [Hamilton]. . . . I put all their names on the letter. Of course, I expected something back. I had no idea of the magnitude of it all. Because they were so personal to me. I could feel their music, they were my buddies. And I didn't get anything back. I got an order form for a Draw the Line T-shirt. Wow, thanks a lot.

When we started getting more into the music and meeting these people, it was, hell, they're regular guys. They have problems dealing with the public. But I did learn a lot about how I would like not to treat our fans.

One guy with a real hero vibe about him is Cliff Burton. When his picture comes up on the video screens during your show, the cheer from the crowd is really touching. What was Cliff really like?
He was not your basic human being [laughs]. He was a character. The first time we saw him was in Los Angeles at some bar. His band Trauma had come down from San Francisco to play. We heard this wild solo going on and thought, "I don't see any guitar player up there." It turned out it was the bass player, Cliff, with a wah-wah pedal and this mop of hair. He didn't care whether there were people there. He was looking down at his bass, playing.

We met him after the show. We said: "We're in this band, we're looking for a bass player, and we think you'd really fit in. Because you're a big psycho." And he knew that. It was no surprise to him. But the music made him feel like that. He loved music. He was really intellectual but very to the point. He taught me a lot about attitude.

My favorite picture of him is the inside sleeve photo on Master of Puppets, where he's shooting his middle finger at the camera with a real mean look on his face.
He had the biggest middle finger. It was huge. He'd stick it out, and it would practically jump into the camera. Like "I really mean this, man." He was a wild, hippie-ish, acid-taking, bell-bottom-wearing guy. He meant business, and you couldn't fuck around with him. I wanted to get that respect that he had. We gave him shit about his bell-bottoms every day. He didn't care. "This is what I wear. Fuck you."

What do you remember about the night he died?
I saw him dead. It was really, really terrible. Me and him were up late that night – I was drinking vodka, he was smoking his preferred substance. We went to sleep, and then when the bus was getting jostled around, I knew we were not on the road anymore. When it hit the side, I went out the escape hatch, went around and saw people yelling. It was freezing cold, we were in our underwear.

I saw the bus lying right on him. I saw his legs sticking out. I freaked. The bus driver, I recall, was trying to yank the blanket out from under him to use for other people. I just went, "Don't fucking do that!" I already wanted to kill the guy. I don't know if he was drunk or if he hit some ice. All I knew was, he was driving and Cliff wasn't alive anymore.

As someone who had written an entire album on the subject of death – Ride the Lightning – how did it feel having to deal with the real thing?
I had experienced my mom dying, so I had felt that before. But the subject matter of the songs wasn't going to change. It's a heavy subject, and that accident made it even heavier. At first, when I started writing, it was kind of like "Hey, I think about this stuff a lot. Don't you?" Writing helps you get things off your chest, whether it's a letter to your congressman or home to your parents. Or writing lyrics.

Yeah, there was all kinds of shit coming at me after Cliff died – "Oh, you're going to stop writing those lyrics now, right?" Fuck, no. If anything, it made it that much more real.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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