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.
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
Have you ever been arrested?
Not as often as I should have been [laughs]. Yeah, a couple of times. Nothing major. One was in San Francisco, when they were cracking down on Broadway, where the peep shows and rock clubs are. Kids were hanging out all night. They set a curfew, I refused to leave, and I got arrested. It was at a Samhain show, I was pretending I was their van driver. "Get in, boy." Put the cuffs on me, threw me in the wagon, finally dumped me off at the station. I saw Lars in there. He got picked up, too.
There was one time in London, I got arrested for destruction of property. We were drunk. Smashed up a movie theater.
You didn't like the movie?
I don't think we ever saw it. We climbed up on top of the marquee, kicking the lights down on people. It was just one of those things we had to do when we were drunk.
You mentioned backstage the other night that you had cut down on your drinking. But there was a time in the mid-Eighties when Metallica was renowned for its alcohol intake. You even picked up the nickname Alcohollica.
I think drinking made me forget a lot of stuff at home. Then it became fun. Schnapps was the big thing when Metallica first got going. We'd drink a pint of schnapps every night. I think that's how we got faster and faster. We didn't really know what it sounded like, but it felt good.
Where did the name Alcohollica come from?
The first time I saw it was some kid had done a shirt, with silk screens or paints at home. He had the Kill 'Em All album cover, except instead of Metallica it said Alcohollica, and instead of Kill 'Em All, it said Drank 'Em All. Instead of the hammer with the blood, it was a vodka bottle dumped over. We thought it was pretty cool. We had shirts like that made up for ourselves.
Why did you decide to cut back on drinking?
I used up all my hangovers. It was basically waking up, not feeling very good and not wanting to do a show. I started to feel a sense of responsibility, at least for myself, let alone anybody else, to play better.
So what do you consider cutting back?
No hard booze. The Jagermeister really killed me. Chewed my guts out, no doubt. Me and my buddy Jim Martin of Faith No More, we were dubbed the Doctors. I was Doctor H., he was Doctor M. We prescribed this medicine to people; Jagermeister was the cough syrup. "What's the matter? You must be consulted by the Doctors!" We'd all sit down, do some shots and fix everybody up. I guess I just had a little too much of my own medicine. I got too well [laughs].
It's been a while since we've had a real band drinking session. You just missed it. It was two or three days ago. There was a poker session on the plane, we were doing shots and listening to the first Iron Maiden CD. We hadn't heard that in a long time; it brought back a lot of memories. We started getting out of control, wrestling, messing the plane up a little. Then we landed, and it got really bad. Shit was broken. The pilots were standing there going, "God, what happened to the nice professional young men who are paying us?"
Last year in Britain's 'New Musical Express,' you described rap music as "extra-black" and said that it was "all me me me and my name in this song." How about elaborating on that?
They say a lot of "I'm this, I'm doin' this, you gotta do this with me." It's not my cup of tea. Some of the stuff, like Body Count, our fans like it because there's aggression there. I love that part of it. But the "Cop Killer" thing, kill whitey – I mean, what the fuck? I don't dig it.
Some of it makes me think that they just want shock value. They want people to pay attention. It reminds me of some of the death metal, the Slayer thing with Satan and tear-your-baby-up. Like going out and shooting cops. Hopefully, no one's going to go out and do either.
People like it, it's fine. Whatever blows your skirt up, as my dad would say. It just don't blow mine up.
You've also taken a lot of flak for "Don't Tread on Me," which was criticized for being a flag-waving prowar song, especially since you had written so vividly about the horrors of war in "One." Where do you really stand?
We never labeled ourselves as an antiwar band. Anti-this or pro-anything. We got called a political band around . . . And Justice for All, and it really scared us, because that's not what we want to write about forever. We've got other things to think about. "Don't Tread on Me" was quotes from military people back in the Revolutionary War. I didn't come up with too much of the shit on my own. It's about a flag, a snake and a symbol. There's nothing wrong with being proud of where you're from. There's some patriotism in there, yeah.
How would you describe yourself politically? One of your managers described you as a libertarian.
I don't know what the isms are. I don't really fit into any political party. I'm pretty conservative on a lot of things. This new tax thing doesn't make sense to me. I don't know what the goal is. The middle-class people really suffer for it. But I believe abortion should be a choice. All these people complaining about taking a life where it starts – there are loads of unwanted children in the world already. I wonder if some of these anti-abortionists would adopt some of them.
There are too many people on the fucking planet. I love nature. I love the wilderness, and there is not much more of it left. It makes me hate people. Animals, they don't lie to each other. There is an innocence within them. And they're getting fucked.
Are you a loner?
Sometimes. Sometimes I hate being alone. I'm pretty confident in myself most of the time. But like everyone, there's times when I need a second opinion on whether the brain cells are working or not.
Who do you go to for a second opinion?
There's someone on the road, one of the tour managers. He is real people. I don't know if he's taken any kind of sociology or psychology courses to understand people's minds and how they work, but I'm really bad at first impressions and he can snap into things right away. He knows me pretty well. I also have a girlfriend who is very easy to talk to. But sometimes I just need another guy's opinion.
Everyone needs that. No matter who it is. And on the road, you just can't talk to anybody. The road crew is like As the World Turns, the Metallica soap opera. When someone finds out a little something, it gets blown up into this huge thing. "Did you hear what happened to so-and-so?" The crew is bored. They show no mercy. But in a way you can't blame them. They need things to occupy their time.
I try to look inward most of the time. Go with my gut feelings. But sometimes I need that reassurance. Everyone questions their sanity, me probably more than others. Because this lifestyle is not normal. There is no doubt about that.
If Metallica stopped tomorrow, what would you do?
I'd go home. I'd write material. [Pauses] There's no doubt Metallica will be around, probably longer than it should be [laughs]. We like doing it. When the desire is there, you can't stop. Bands like Blue Öyster Cult, Kiss – why the fuck are they still playing? Because they like to play. And why the hell not? "Well, they should have given up on this album, in their heyday." Fuck you. This is about music. It's not about popularity. So as long as we wanna be together and write material together, we'll be together.
I don't know what we're gonna do if we're not together. It's a scary thought. It's family.
But what if the fight went out of you? You're almost thirty, making more money than you ever dreamed of. What is there left to be pissed off about? The kids don't want to hear you singing about what a great time you're having.
"The couch is comfortable, yeah." Nobody wants to hear that, and they're not gonna. There's always gonna be stuff that bothers us. And we'll write about it. It may not cater to a sixteen-year-old kid. I'm not going to write "Bang your head against the stage" forever. Our fans are growing up with us. These lyrics are not directed just at the young male of America anymore. It's what I'm feeling now. What I feel tomorrow could be a lot different.
Then again, anyone who says, "Well, you better be pissed or you ain't gonna write a good album" – that right there pisses me off.
This story is from the April 15th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.