When Metallica debuted its new album at a massive free listening party at New York's Madison Square Garden last August, Hetfield made a point of sneaking out into the audience during "Nothing Else Matters.'' "I had to run out there and see what they thought,'' he says sheepishly, "if they were killing themselves or killing each other. Or falling asleep.''
He was surprised to discover they were doing anything but. "They were really attentive,'' Hetfield says with undisguised delight. "They were really listening to what it said.''
Metallica has written ballads of a sort before – dark, melancholy songs punctuated with explosive passages of firebomb guitar, such as "One'' and "Fade to Black,'' Hetfield's chilling examination of the heart-sinking hopelessness that leads to suicide. And Hetfield, who writes all of the lyrics, has never been shy about drawing on personal history to make a point. Both "Dyers Eve,'' on Justice, and "The God That Failed,'' on Metallica, are rooted in his rocky adolescent experiences as the doubting son of strict Christian Science parents.
But "Nothing Else Matters'' is unlike anything Hetfield ever wrote before or anything that Metallica would have dared record. It is a candid admission of romantic affection and staunch fidelity, delivered with a soulful earnestness that is a far cry from Hetfield's usual attack-dog posture. It is, in short, a love song, and when Ulrich first heard it on one of Hetfield's demo tapes back in May of last year, he was duly impressed. Unlike many fans and reviewers who were taken aback by the final version on Metallica, however, Ulrich was not surprised.
"Nothing he does really surprises me,'' Ulrich says. "I think a lot of people are surprised by it because of who he is as a person, because he keeps everything so guarded inside. But I know a lot of that shit lingers in there. I just know it's a question of whenever he feels right about admitting it.''
For Hetfield it was originally a matter of admitting it to himself. "That song was just me and my guitar on the road,'' he says. "It came together somewhere in Canada, I think. I just sat in my room working on this thing. It was a personal thing. I played it for myself. But I played it for Lars, and he listened and said, 'Man, that's pretty cool.' And I thought, 'Yeah, it is.'
"People have their own interpretations of love,'' Hetfield continues. "For some, love is sleeping with a sheep. For others, it's just being with somebody. Love to me is being able to depend on someone else, especially being on the road. You can really lose yourself out here. Then you go home and you realize, 'Yeah, here's my base. Here's where I start, and here's where it ends.'
"It's a song that's not safe,'' Hetfield argues. "It takes some nerve to do. We're not supposed to do something like that. Then you turn around and go, 'Well, who said we couldn't? We're running the show here.' ''
Given Hetfield's long-standing reputation even among his band mates for being stubborn and intimidating, "Nothing Else Matters'' is a rare admission of emotional vulnerability. As one of the first songs put up for inclusion on Metallica, it also suggested to Hetfield and Ulrich – the band's main songwriters – a way out of the aggro-protest dead end they'd reached with . . . And Justice for All.
"We went through our CNN years, as we call it, where me and James would sit on the couch and watch CNN and go, `Yeah, we can write a song about this new political turmoil,' '' Ulrich says. "The political thing has been played out. Some of the things on the last album were things that pissed me off. I'd read about the blacklisting thing, we'd get a title, 'The Shortest Straw,' and a song would come out of that.
"This time, the songs are the result of what's been lingering in James,'' Ulrich continues. "You can look around for things that make you mad and you write about them. This time, it's a matter of looking within, at the experiences you've been through.''
Ironically, the song on Metallica that has caused the biggest ruckus is the extremely topical and contentious "Don't Tread on Me.'' Critics who praised Hetfield for his unflinching psychological portrayal of the horribly maimed war veteran in "One'' have turned around and nailed him for the alleged feel-good Yankee patriotism and crass post-gulf-war flag-waving of "Don't Tread on Me.''
The band has been baffled by the reaction. "We got people calling us jingoistic – that was definitely a word we had to look up,'' Hammett says, laughing. Hetfield actually wrote the song in August 1990, before the invasion of Kuwait, and the flag at issue is not the Stars and Stripes but the coiled-snake banner with the legend DON'T TREAD ON ME carried by Culpeper's Minutemen of Virginia during the revolutionary war. A replica of the flag was hung in the studios for the length of the Metallica sessions, and the snake itself appears on the album cover.
Frankly, if Hetfield is guilty of anything, it's woefully bad timing and a muddied point of view. He contends that "Don't Tread on Me'' is really a reaction to what he now feels was the overzealous anti-American tone of Justice.
"Like, 'Oh, what a bunch of complainers,' '' Hetfield says. "This is the other side of that. America is a fucking good place. I definitely think that. And that feeling came about from touring a lot. You find out what you like about certain places and you find out why you live in America, even with all the bad fucked-up shit. It's still the most happening place to hang out.
"People have hated us for worse things,'' Hetfield adds with a bored shrug. "If they don't like Metallica because of one thing I said in one song, then they're really fucked.''
Ulrich cautions against taking any of this too seriously. This is, after all, a band that is better known in some heavy-metal circles for its drinking prowess than its profundity and that, at one point in its career, proudly went by the nickname Alcoholica.
"There's always been this thing with us and the social-consciousness thing, how serious we are,'' Ulrich says. "That's great, but there are other sides to this band. I can crawl around in hotel corridors naked at four in the morning with the best of them. We don't end up like that every day, but we still get really out there.
"The other day in Italy,'' Ulrich continues, "there were these two guys just drilling into this whole thing about 'One' and antiwar, making a statement of peace for the kids. 'You guys care so much.' I was telling James about this afterward. We were laughing. 'Why do people make such a big deal about it?' And James turns around and goes, 'All it is, is a fucking song about a guy who steps on a land mine.' ''
Ulrich doubles over with laughter. "That,'' he says, "kind of sums the whole thing up.''
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