"You have to feel it," Lou Reed says with a hard look at Metallica singer-guitarist James Hetfield. "You have to believe it."
Reed, Hetfield and the rest of Metallica – drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo – are sitting in the band's studio in Marin County, north of San Francisco, talking about "The View," one of the tracks on their unlikely new album, Lulu, due out November 1st. The 10 songs are Reed's – harrowing examinations of sexual taboo and moral peril originally composed for a new Berlin production of works by the German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind. But Lulu is a true collaboration: Metallica wrote new riffs and arrangements and recorded almost everything, including vocals, live with Reed in this studio.
Today, in the third week of sessions, Reed is going over Hetfield's background part in "The View," a howling response to the cold-blooded obsession in Reed's chantlike singing. Hetfield returns the New York rocker's steely gaze with his own thoughtful intensity. "Lou says, 'You gotta mean it,'" Hetfield reflects later, during a meal break. "Give me a clue. What do you want me to mean? And these lines don't rhyme. There's five syllables in this, two in there." Hetfield then notes that he and Reed, who virtually invented avant-rock in the Sixties with the Velvet Underground, have a lot in common, "in that we are aliens on this planet. 'Nobody is listening. I don't fit in.' It's unbelievable to hear his voice reciting these lyrics. You're captured, man."
Metallica's instrumental track for "The View," cut that day in the same room where they made 2003's St. Anger, is an irregular stomp with a thrash-speed finish. Hetfield overdubs some new roars, then Hammett puts down a white-noise-blues break, not quite a solo but perfectly furious. The result – like the blinding propulsion of "Mistress Dread" and the violent swerves in crunch and rhythm in "Pumping Blood" – is a new kind of doom in metal, a brutal realism propelled by arena brawn. Reed listens to a playback with no expression on his face until the last power chord. "I feel refreshed by this," he says with a grin. "It was awfully good."
"They're as powerful as you can get," Reed says of Metallica out in the studio lounge. "The drums are no joke, and Hetfield is like that." Reed pounds a hand on his heart. "Then you have lyrics that are high-octane. It's so easy, because we're not trying to change anyone."
"It wasn't 'This is my shit, do as you're told,'" Ulrich confirms. "Lou understood we were going to give him something nobody else would." Co-produced by Reed, Metallica, engineer Greg Fidelman and Reed's longtime collaborator Hal Willner, Lulu "is almost like two languages," Ulrich says. "We have m-e-t-a-l in our name. But we can go fucking anywhere and do anything."
Despite the age difference – Reed is 69; Metallica are all in their late forties – and Reed's reputation as a hard case, there is a comfort and mutual admiration in the room between takes. At one point, Hetfield draws a creepy female figure on a sketch pad and hands it to Reed. "This is for you," Hetfield says with a growling chuckle. "This is 'Mistress Dread.'" Reed laughs gratefully. When Hetfield strums an acoustic guitar, humming a melody, Reed looks up sharply. "Is that a song?" he asks. "I'd keep that."
"Lou and us – we're kindred souls," Hammett says. "We both have a clear vision of what you should sound like and say. Also, he has an edge that totally fits. He speaks our language, slightly sarcastic and blunt, like another pea in the pod."
Reed and Metallica first played together in 2009, when the band backed him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's anniversary shows at Madison Square Garden. Reed immediately suggested they record together. The initial plan was new versions of some of his older songs. But just before the first sessions this spring, Reed proposed a crack at his Lulu score. Ulrich recalls listening with Hetfield to Reed's original "otherworldly" tapes, featuring spare guitar and long drones on cello and an electronic instrument, the Continuum, played by Reed and Sarth Calhoun, a member of Reed's band. (Calhoun also appears on Lulu.)
"He was defensive, ready to roll his eyes," Ulrich says of Hetfield's initial response. "Then you could see this weight lifted off his shoulders. He felt a connection. He had not expected that." One Reed line sung by Hetfield in "Cheat on Me" – "Why do I cheat on myself?/Well I got nobody else" – could have come from 1991's Metallica.
Hammett, whose father died in April, remembers when Reed recorded his vocal for Lulu's closing elegy, "Junior Dad." "I was on the verge of tears," the guitarist says. "I couldn't stay in the room. Ten seconds later, James comes into the kitchen, sobbing. Lou took down the guitar players in Metallica in one fell swoop. After that, anything Lou wanted, he had me. I'd play it."
"Wherever I go, they're still with me," Reed says with gravelly delight. "This whole thing has been the way it should be, in my mind." It's not over. Reed and Metallica are talking about promoting Lulu with some live shows. And Lulu has already had an effect on the writing for Metallica's next album. Instead of starting with riffs, "James is talking about bringing lyrics in first," Ulrich says. "What happens if the music is inspired by that?"
On the phone, a few days after Lulu is mastered, Ulrich describes listening to the album on a late-night car ride. "I was overwhelmed," he confesses. "I also felt, 'This is really unique.'" How unique? He laughs. "This makes... And Justice for All sound like the first Ramones album."
This is from the October 13, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.