Notes On Pop Culture: Metallica - What Happened?

  Note: In addition to Sketches of Chicago,  I'm write a bunch of new music essays and combining them with my old ones for a series of  Notes on Pop Culture to satisfy my appetite for deconstruction. This is the first of the new essays, in which I try to explain what happened to Metallica from about 1995-2005:

  METALLICA: What Happened?

 I am fairly sure that when Metallica wrote "Wherever I May Roam," they did not imagine it as a song about riding a ten speed bicycle down bike paths behind the LIttle League field on the way to a comic book shop. The song is about (or, anyway, from the point of view of) a drifter who roams from town to town - and a dead one, at that, though the listener doesn't find this out until the end of the song. But it was the song that played in my head like a movie theme as I rode my bike between the comic book shop, K-Mart, K's Merchandise, the tanning salon that was also a used book shop, and the one gas station in town that sold both Slim Jims and Jolt Cola. And it made me feel like those bike rides were epic journeys in which I rode with dust in my throat, adapting to the unknown, reigning off the beaten path.

    In 1993, I was new to Metallica. And to rock music in general, really. In first or second grade I'd been a fan of Def Leppard, Guns n Roses, Aerosmith, Motley Crue, and all of the other metal bands that featured regularly on the Top 10 at 9 (the nightly countdown on Q102), but I wasn't aware that there was any real difference between Tiffany and Lita Ford. I rarely knew the originals of the songs Weird Al was parodying. And in third grade, I thought New Kids On the Block were the coolest, baddest muthas in the world (but that's another essay).

    In sixth grade, while my friends were into Pearl Jam and Metallica (grunge and metal were still existing side by side, not in competition), I was into John Williams. I checked out record albums of movie soundtracks from the library and made my own movie-theme mix tape - "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Superman," the theme from Exodus, "The Entertainer," "Duellng Banjoes," and, a particular favorite, "Chariots of Fire."

   But in the summer of 1993, between sixth and seventh grade, while the flood waters were rising in Des Moines, a kid a few years older than me named Matt stayed with us for a week or so (maybe it was just a couple of days, but it was a few days of such epic importance to me that it seems longer). Down in my basement, he introduced me to Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains, Green Jelly, and Metallica's "Black Album."

     Actually, "introduced" isn't the right word. I'd HEARD Metallica at friends' houses and all, and I knew "Enter Sandman" through Weird Al's polka version. I was even familiar with Green Jelly via the "Three Little Pigs" video that I'd seen at my grandparent's house (I wasn't allowed to watch MTV at home). I had been a little afraid of heavy metal, though - this was the tail end of the "Satanic Panic" era when in was generally known that heavy metal singers were inserting hidden messages into their songs that would make you start killing people and breaking stuff.

    But there aren't that many things in the world quite as stressful as being 12 or 13, and I did find that banging one's head was a good way to shake the cobwebs out after a long school day. When I actually had a chance to listen closely to Metallica, I found that they were songs that I could identify with (in a way). All 13 year olds feel oppressed, and Metallica songs were generally about lashing out at oppressors.

    Matt made me a tape of The Black Album that I played to death throughout the summer between sixth and seventh grades, even though one day I pushed the wrong button when it was in my parents' stereo and ended up dubbing a few seconds of "A Whole New World' into the middle of "Of Wolf and Man" (even now when I play that song I expect to hear Peabo Bryson singing "tell me Princess, now when did you last…" in the middle of it).  By the beginning of 7th grade, I was something of a Metallica expert. I had acquired tapes of every album except "Garage Days Revisited," which was hard to find at the time. I believed that the chorus of "Enter Sandman" was something akin to renaissance poetry. I even read Johnny Got His Gun (because "One" was said to be based on it) and a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories (which explained a couple of early songs and prepared me for life as a grown-up geek). And, for the first time in my life, I found myself having a few political opinions (the main political lessons of metal songs in those days was that war sucked and free speech was good). It may not have been as "adult" as what I'd been listening to before, but, in many ways, Metallica was pushing me into adulthood.

   My friend Seth's and my bike rides started to be more than hunts for comic books, rare action figures, and beef jerky: we started hitting the Best Buy, CD Exchange and the Compact Disc Shoppe, a little independent store, looking for imported Metallica singles that contained demos and "unreleased" songs. The Compact Disc Shoppe had a glass case marked "imports" which actually contained bootlegs. I drooled over a Metallica in Buenos Aires 3 disc set, but at $75 it was far out of my price range (before CD burners made them easy to copy, bootleg concert CDs generally ran about 25-30 bucks per disc - I only ever bought a couple).

  Then, in the Spring of that year, a DJ came on the radio on KGGO (which I had heard play a Metallica song - "The Unforgiven" - exactly once) and said that Metallica was coming to the state fairgrounds with Danzig and Suicidal Tendencies.

   My parents, strangely, were not as excited as I was. They were away from home when the announcement was made, but hadn't even gotten out of the van when I burst into the garage to ask if I could go.

   "No," said my mother.

   I began to seethe with rage. "But no bands ever come here, and they are!" I said. "It's going to be at the fairgrounds, so it's not too far!"

   "Great!" said Mom. "An outdoor drunk fest!"

   I had been planning for this while I waited for them to get home (in between bouncing around and calling the radio station to make sure I'd heard right.

  "What if I bring my grades up to straight As?" I asked.

  They agreed to that deal, as long as I could find an adult chaperone and came up with the $21.50 + service charges for my ticket. They only agreed because they didn't think I could pull it off - they hadn't reckoned with the determination of a kid whose favorite band was coming to town.

  The next couple of months were a blur of extra credit assignments. I was always a smart kid, but not much of a student. My grades weren't much better than average, and I couldn't bring myself to care about school work as much as I cared about my own creative projects (which at the time consisted of writing short horror stories, making sketch comedy videos, and building display cases for Star Wars action figures). But that May, when it looked as though I wasn't going to be able to pull off an A in science, I felt - and said in these exact words - that my life was crashing down around me.

   I somehow pulled off the A and got to to go the show, along with Seth, Matt (who came in from Omaha for the show), and my older cousins Tad and Heather (who were our escorts).

   I had been to a couple of Billy Joel concerts before, both times in seats WAY in the back, and didn't really expect to get close enough to Metallica to see their goatees. But Seth and I wandered up through the crowd to what I estimated would have been about the 15th row, about 20 feet away from the mosh pit in front of the stage. Metallica opened with "Breadfan," and played "The God That Failed" and "Disposable Heroes," two of my favorites that I didn't expect to hear. After the show, we bought bootleg t-shirts with the names of the cities spelled wrong (we absolutely could not find a store in town that sold Metallica shirts at the time, believe it or not). Sixteen years and a couple of hundred concerts later, I still don't think I've ever had a better concert experience.

    That 1994 tour was just about the peak of Metallica's popularity. A couple of years later, they cut their hair and released a couple of albums that people didn't seem to like much, and metalheads spoke of them as a stepping stone for people who wanted to get into REAL metal (they had actually started doing that years ago, but I was oblivious). Five or six years later, after the whole Napster thing, Metallica was just about the most hated band in the world.

   What happened?

   Some blamed the haircuts - like Samson, they had lost their power when they cut their hair. Most agreed that Load and Reload, the two albums (recorded at the same time) they released in mid-late '90s were just "not heavy enough." Listening to them again tonight with close to 15 years of such complaints behind me, I'm surprised by how heavy they actually are.

    Part of the reason they seemed less heavy, really, was the subject matter of the songs. Metallica had never sung about fire breathing dragons or anything, but their songs tended to have, for lack of a better term, epic themes. Fantasy/horror elements. But in 1996, singing about soldiers fighting a battle, werewolves, and "the system" seemed sort of silly, and they were clearly afraid of becoming a parody of themselves ("Devil's Dance," their main attempt on these albums to do a traditional sort of metal topic, did, in fact, sound pretty dumb at the time). You could have still sung about Hebrew slaves in 1996, but it would had to be about the emotional turmoil of one of them, not about all of them fighting back against the Pharoah. On Load, Metallica's not fighting against some unnamed oppressor or speaking in the persona of a roving zombie or person trapped under ice. There were still singing angry songs, but they sounded more like they were singing about the guy who cut them off on the freeway. When they did try to put in a fantasy vibe, as they did on "Hero of the Day," it sounded like their hearts just weren't in it.

    The metal world had changed, too. Metallica was a band who wore jeans and t-shirts when your average metal band was wearing spandex, eyeliner, and a whole lot of hairspray. Buy by 1996, practically every band was wearing jeans. Grunge didn't put metal out of business overnight (I don't recall any complaints about them touring with Alice in Chains in 1994), but it was slowly making metal seem like yesterday's music. Wearing designer suits and having a stage show (setting a roadie on fire and pretending it was an accident closed every show on the 96-97 tour) were now going against the grain just as much as wearing jeans and NOT having a theatrical bent were in 1986.

    But the biggest problem was that Metallica had grown up and sort of painted themselves into a corner. By putting the word "metal" in their band's name, they restricted themselves to the kind of music and style that they were into when they were 17. Meanwhile, James Hetfield, the singer, was into country music. Kirk, the guitarist, was studying jazz. And Lars, the drummer, was an Oasis nut.

   And, of course, they weren't a bunch of blue collar guys anymore. They had more money than your average deity, and could not effectively fake the vibe of being a bunch of metalheads who went on tour when they got time off from their jobs down at the gas station. They may have sung about epic themes before, but they had always seemed like normal guys. They weren't anything like blue collar by 1996, and they had to be afraid that they would have looked ridiculous pretending they were (Springsteen was doing it, but it was NOT cool like Springsteen in 1996).

    So here they were: a bunch of rich grownups who needed to put out a new album. Their "band who wears jeans" image no longer made them stand out, the genre they'd effectively conquered was spoken of as "dead," and to continue doing the same old thing risked turning them into a nostalgia act or a parody of themselves. But they couldn't NOT be a metal band with a name like Metallica, and, five a handful of great albums behind them, they had a lot to live up to.

    Looking back at Load, and Reload, it seems like they're trying out every idea they can think of, hoping that ONE of these songs will show people how they can fit into a world where metal was considered passe without "betraying their roots." Something that will let them find a "new sound" that doesn't clash with the old one too much.

    And, honestly, they did a pretty good job. Load and Reload are enjoyable albums, especially if you don't try to listen to them all at once. And they were commercially viable - moreso than a straight metal album would have been. This was, of course, part of why people started to hate them - being more popular in the mainstream meant that more cheerleaders, preps, and other people we didn't like would be fighting us for space at Metallica concerts. That's always hard to deal with (see also "On Green Day" in this series). All you have to do to be called a "sell out" is put out an album popular with people your earlier fans don't get along with.

    By the far the best song on Load and Reload, looking back, is "The Memory Remains," a song about a faded star living on memories and "nowhere crowds" crying "nowhere cheers of honor." Bringing in Marianne Faithful to sing in the faded star's character was a stroke of genius and a risk that paid off - Faithful had been a pop singer in the 1960s, then spent much of the 70s as a washed up junkie before re-emerging with a new, weathered voice and grown-up material that announced her as an artistic force (at the same time as her ex, Mick Jagger, was settling in to life as a nostalgia act, turning his band, once a group of dangerous badasses, into a party band, unable to get a solo career going and playing to crowds that may have been huge, but were composed mainly of people who had never heard Beggar's Banquet (hey, just about every great band from the 1960s had a rough time of it in the '80s).

   The character in the song is supposed to be a woman - one not unlike (and possibly exactly like) Gloria Swanson's character from Sunset Boulevard. But with two specific uses of the term "Fade to Black," the title of a Metallica song that that became a concert chestnut, Hetfield gives the secret away: he's singing about himself.

 Hearing "The Memory Remains," I imagine Hetfield lying in bed with nightmares of becoming a nostalgia act or parody of himself, like the character in the song, unable to reinvent himself as Faithful had. Just listening to the nowhere crowds cry the nowhere tears of honor. In a world where it was safe to say he'd peaked, he had to be having nightmares about where he could go from there. "Insane" was one of the obvious possible destinations (and, judging by Some Kind of Monster, his fears were hardly unfounded).

   Elsewhere on the two discs, we have "Ronnie," a really cool murder ballad. "Cure" covers ground that they've covered before thematically (as does "Where the Wild Things Are,"), but at least it does so fairly well. "Ain't My Bitch," "Fuel," and "Attitude" are good hard rock songs, if not exactly metal songs, per se. "Low Man's Lyric" practically creates a new genre of music all on its own. There's a great 60 minute album somewhere in these 160 minutes of music.

 But then there's the crap. And there's a lot of it - the result of throwing whatever idea they had at the wall, putting out whatever stuck, and then a few of the things that didn't. Putting out "Mama Said," a straight-up country song, was a gutsy move, but Hetfield sings it like he just doesn't really have the nerve. "King Nothing" was everyone's favorite at the time, because it was heavy, but surely they could have come up with something more original than "Careful what you wish, you just might get it." And so many songs with the same "not quite metal" tempo that just run into each other and and never QUITE take off.

    Around the time of these albums, they started playing the odd acoustic show, with an acoustic set in their concerts. And they didn't take the easy way and play the ballads - they were doing acoustic versions of "The Four Horsemen" and ""Creeping Death." It took nerve, and it sounded good - and sounded, more than anything else they did at the time, like they'd found a new way to be themselves.

   But outside of a few songs at a time or the odd special gig, they couldn't have dreamt of pursuing such a change to their sound. I remember the concert I saw on that tour in 1998 in Atlanta, where I was living by then.  The crowd roared when they played "Motorbreath" acoustically. Not all of us were roaring with approval.

   "You guys sound good!" Hetflield told the crowd.

   "You don't!" some hick near me shouted back.

    Some other hick promptly shouted for "Freebyrd," the traditional Southern response to seeing an acoustic guitar.

   The acoustic sets didn't remain a part of the set for long. I wish they'd stayed longer.

   Five years later, when bad rap metal ruled the world, they released Saint Anger after a period of in-fighting, the loss of a bassist, and a whole lot of therapy. On that record, they sound like a band desperate to be contemporary, not a throwback, even if it means they have to suck. Among the riffs and vocal lines are several great ideas, but none that really get fleshed out into proper songs. Sure, we were all glad that they were "heavy" again, but part of what I loved about them in the first place was that their songs were really cool. These songs just sounded like a mess of half-formed ideas.

    But somewhere in the course of touring to promote that record, they seemed to get their bearings and to get comfortable with themselves as a metal band again.

    On Death Magnetic, their most recent album,  God is in his heaven, Metallica is singing about death and chasing after evil-doers, and all is right with the world. "All Nightmare Long," sounds like it could be the soundtrack for a bike ride through the bike paths behind the Little League fields while taking the scenic route to the comic book shop (it certainly livened up a drive to the cupcake shop tonight). It doesn't break any new ground or cover any topic Metallica hasn't already done or anything, but it gives me hope that Metallica is still enjoying what they do, and that they could still find new things to try in the future. They sound comfortable with being who they are for the first time in years.

   So, should I be happy that they've learned to live with being the most popular heavy metal band of all time, or disappointed that they settled for it rather than trying to break new ground? Happy, I guess. People still want to hear the new songs in concert, after all, so it's not like they've become a nostalgia act - something very few bands can say after close to thirty years - and they've avoided becoming a parody of themselves about as well as a metal band can.

   And I don't really wish to end with a commercial, but remember how finding live Metallica recordings took a lot of work and ended up with me simply drooling over bootleg CDs I couldn't possibly afford? Yesterday, I downloaded a Live Metallica app for my iphone for 99 cents. It lets me stream a soundboard of all of their most recent shows, as well as most shows from the last several years, for free (with the option to buy shows for 10 bucks). Shows from before 2003 can be downloaded for free. If the reason Metallica went after Napster was because they imagined doing something like this one day, then all is forgiven.

   Now, if only they'd put up a recording of Des Moines '94....


Scotti Cohn said...

Great essay, Adam. I really loved it. My son played Metallica songs a lot in our house back in the day, and I discovered I actually liked a lot of their work. I especially liked Nothing Else Matters and figured out how to play it on the piano, which naturally impressed my son (something any parent loves to do, as you know by now...)

G.P. Ching said...

I love Metallica but my children don't appreciate the beauty and make me turn it down. Great essay!

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013