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

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In songs like "Dyers Eve" and "Leper Messiah," you've also drawn heavily on the darker side of your childhood and religious upbringing.
"Dyers Eve" portrays a child who's been sheltered from most of the outside world, as I was with this religion that my parents were involved in, Christian Science. That alienated me from a lot of the kids at school. Like when I wanted to get involved with something like football. You needed a physical from a doctor, and I would be like "I don't believe in this, I have this little waiver saying I don't need this."

In a way, it was going against the rules, which I kinda like. But as a child, it really fucked with me as far as being different from other kids. You wanna be part of the gang, you wanna do the things they do. During health class, you don't want to have to get up and excuse yourself because your parents don't want you to learn that stuff.

Were your parents strict Christian Scientists?
Yeah, pretty strict. When something was wrong, they would go to a practitioner, the person who was supposed to help you with the Scriptures and find certain ones that related to your problem. I just couldn't understand it. And it didn't really work. When one of the kids from church broke her arm, they didn't get it set or anything. They just let nature take its course. I looked at her arm, and it was like she had two elbows. I thought: "That's not right. We have the knowledge to fix things like that now." I love the natural ways about everything. I think nature needs to take its course with a lot of things, instead of human intervention. But I'm sure if a deer had the knowledge to fix a broken leg, it would.

When did your relationship with your father bottom out?
The divorce. My dad would go on business trips. "Dad's gone, when's he coming back?" This time, I was lied to for a while. Then finally, "No, he's not coming back." It took me a while to wonder why he left, didn't support us. There's still a lot of unanswered questions. I mean, you could hate someone like that forever. Things aren't that bad now. We hang out together and have a good time – hunting, things like that. After I met him again after ten years or whatever, I saw a lot of myself in him. And that was really wild.

Is your father aware of how much of him and your feelings about your childhood are in your songs?
I don't know. We don't talk about that, because there's no doubt that we'd argue about things. Things are going pretty good, and I don't want to stir the water up. He knows, I think. I don't know if he studies the lyrics. He just knows his son is out there doing what he wants to do. I don't want to get technical with him over the whys and wheres. The past just fucks things up – always.

How would you characterize your relationship with Lars Ulrich? You started the band with him, and you've worked together for over ten years.
He is more into the rock & roll life as a lifestyle on its own. All the guys love the band to their limit. But if everyone was so 100-percent Metallica all the time as Lars, it would definitely not work. He's the guy who will do an interview while he's sitting at home on his time off. Uh, I don't know why.

There's a deep-rooted respect for each other. We give each other a lot of shit, too. There's little whispers and little games and little crap that goes on. But when it comes down to a problem, something serious going on, we go to each other, and there's no bullshit. When there's something serious being talked about, it's not talked about with the other guys or with anybody else. It's like an unwritten law. And I definitely like that.

Kirk Hammett once told me that – specifically in terms of songwriting – you have veto power in the band. If you don't like a riff, it does not get past you.
When you hear a riff and you like it, that's it. If it's crap, it's crap. Lars and I have been the song-writing team since Day One, so the other guys respect that. It'll make them come up with better stuff. We're always working to come up with something that will blow the other guy away. But Lars and I really have to do it ourselves. Having four guys in there is impossible.

How come you've never written any songs about sex? Every rock band writes at least one.
We'd had sex. We'd done it. We weren't in the business to get laid. That was not what was on our minds.

What was on your minds?
The first album, Kill 'Em All, was what we knew – bang your head, seek and destroy, get drunk, smash shit up. It had a lot to do with the L.A. poser scene, where you had to look right to get into this or that club, have the poufy hair. We were playing, and people would just have this lost look on their faces. We'd go: "Man, what the fuck is the matter with you? Give me the finger, spit on me, yell, smile, do something." In those days, no one was even paying attention. That made us angry.

What inspired the switch from smash-shit-up to capital punishment in "Ride the Lightning" or teenage suicide in "Fade to Black"?
I don't know if CNN was the thing starting out then. We just got into some social topics. The death penalty was a big question and the electric chair. That's heavy. What if that was you, mistakenly? That's what that song was about, being accidentally found guilty and put to death with no way to stop it. It was just a matter of putting myself into other people's situations and trying to get these feelings out.

Were you surprised by the fans' impassioned response to those songs?
I felt a lot smarter after those lyrics came out. Sometimes I don't even realize it's me writing that shit. But "Fade to Black" got good and bad response. When the censorship thing started, that was one of the songs they tried to attack. These parents finding their kids dead in the garage with these lyrics, sucking on an exhaust pipe. People tried to sue bands for their mistakes.

But we got tons and tons of letters – we still do – that say, "'Fade to Black' saved my life." But no one wants to read that. It's too nice, too boring.

What was the inspiration for "Fade to Black"?
We were very depressed. We were about to embark on our first European tour, and our equipment was stolen. We had no gear, that shot down the European trip, and we were stuck in New Jersey, bumming.

That's quite a leap, from bumming out over stolen gear to contemplating suicide.
It was my favorite Marshall amp, man! [Laughs] I'm sure I wasn't really thinking of killing myself. You gotta be pretty bad off to want to take your life.

The irony about the teen-suicide uproar over "Fade to Black" is that you simply call it as you see it, without getting preachy: If you decide to kill yourself, this is what you'll go through.
I definitely don't want to tell people how to live. We've said since Day One, "Think for yourself." If someone's dumb enough to just follow somebody else, that's their own fault. When you're a role model, you have a responsibility and you lose your creative juices. You worry about what other people think of you. Why worry about what people think?

You have to be true to yourself, write what you feel. When people see that you're full of shit, then it's over. We can't fool our fans very much.

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