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Metallica: From Metal to Main Street

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There are basically two kinds of Metallica fans: the kids who are in it just for the throb and the kids for whom the throb is a way of flipping the bird at – among other things – school, their parents, their jobs and authority in general. For the latter kids, songs like "Battery,'' "Seek and Destroy'' and "Harvester of Sorrow'' are the sound of their own rage, impotent or otherwise, rebounding back at them with Mach 10 force.

On September 28th, a week after the Paris gig, the band played for what is arguably the ultimate Metallica audience: an airfield full of young Russians superstarved for the throb and high on revolt. The free show, a Monsters of Rock package headlined by AC/DC and held at the huge Tushino Airfield, outside Moscow, was produced by the Time Warner corporation (which filmed the proceedings for future video release) and ostensibly presented by Russian authorities as a thank-you to the young people who played a crucial role in defeating the August 19th coup attempt. Crowd estimates ranged from 150,000 to nearly half a million, but the real show, according to Ulrich, took place the night before the concert.

After checking into their hotel and having a few warm-up beers in the bar, some members of Metallica's entourage, including Ulrich and Hammett, hired a couple of taxis and hit the town. They checked out the changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb at two in the morning and then headed over to the site near the Russian White House where three people were killed by soldiers at the height of the crisis during a dramatic standoff between the military and an impromptu army of Moscow citizens.

"There were these guys there in mourning,'' recalls Ulrich, recovering from jet lag back in his San Francisco home two days after the concert. "They had built a tent city in this square where the kids got killed. We were asking questions about what went on. They took us on walks around the square, showing us where the barricades were and where the kids were killed. They were saying they were really freaking because they think the whole thing is gonna happen again, only ten times worse.

"It really put a lot of shit in perspective,'' Ulrich continues. "You have this rock-star trip, going into a hotel and complaining that your room isn't as big as the next guy's. You put it next to this and you realize it's about life and death.''

And in its own way, about rock & roll. As soon as Ulrich and Hammett showed up in the square, the Russians ran off and got some guitars. "We said, 'Why don't you play us a song?' '' says Ulrich. "Lo and behold, one of the guys started singing a Scorpions song.'' Ulrich laughs. "Man, you talk about Metallica, Bon Jovi and Guns n' Roses, but let me tell you, the Scorpions in Russia are ten times bigger than all those other bands put together.''

Yet Ulrich was impressed, and humbled, by the fact that for these young people the music was a genuine source of strength, not just a leisure product. His night in the tent city also put Metallica's success in a much more sobering perspective. "It was weird because here we were Number One all over the rest of the world,'' he says. "And sitting in the square, it didn't mean dick whether we sold 2 million records in America the first week or not. We talked to those kids and they want freedom. They have the same wants and desires as our fans anywhere else. And it wasn't about whether we were Number One or Number 1000.

"I remember one kid in the hotel,'' Ulrich continues. "I was walking into the lobby, some kid had snuck in, and he just stood there in front of me, crying. 'You don't know what it means to me for you to come here.' I stood there, watching him break down in front of me.

"I don't even know how to express how it made me feel. These kids were so appreciative of the fact that we were coming there, and it was very heavy to think that maybe our music gave them a little something to grasp on to.''

This story is from the November 14th, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

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