Love In The Time of Metallica

The documentary was Some Kind of Monster and the audience reaction was alternations between nonplussed silence and nervous titters of disbelief.

There were two truly “angry” bands of my teen years that I clucked with. Two that carried me through thick and thin in the thick of it: Nirvana and Metallica. While Nirvana was more angst than anger, it was arguably the freshest sound of rebellion to come out of the factory of echoes that is American entertainment in quite some time. Unique even. Timeless? Dunno, but in the here and now we have at least Courtney Love as a constant nagging reminder of what once was.

Sometimes on the weekends, I listened to Minor Threat and Enya. If you tell anyone I listened to Enya, I’ll flatly deny it and then kick your ass after school, you tank-top wearing tribal tattooed poser.

Where Nirvana and specifically the frontman Kurt Cobain were openly vulnerable and always on the defensive, Metallica and frontman James Hetfield were a ball of rage, a wall of sound and seemingly always on the offensive. Oft dubbed “Alcoholica”, for their love of the sauce, Metallica flaunted, encouraged and openly abused one of the oldest of excesses. In the public eye, Kurt Cobain displayed his substance use and abuse with little or no bravado. The years caught up with both the bands. For one, it just caught up faster and harder than any music they ever played. For Metallica, the trick has been to survive the playing catch-up.

In Some Kind of Monster, we follow James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich as they embark into what will become the “St. Anger” album, in the wake of Jason “Newkid” Newsted’s departure from the band. We witness forcively eccentric recording sessions in a Presidio military bunker devolve into arguments over symantics. We hear from Jason Newsted and the project that is Echobrain (Newsted has since departed from the band). Newsted eerily looks like his new band members’ dad, or possibly a visiting “hip” uncle or something. It gets downright surreal when Metallica hires a “band therapist”. More likely, their management company has assigned this group therapist to the stars.

Reluctantly at first, the band begins to fall into a workable mode with the therapist and begin to confront issues. Fuckin’ A Metallica style!!! No… no, not really. Again, interaction devolves into debates over who’s what and “what do you mean when you say that” kinds of banter. Just as it starts getting tedious, James Hetfield up and disappears. Roughly a year and a handful of phone calls later, James Hetfield emerges from rehab as a spectacled and seemingly more emotionally sensitive individual. While he was away, the therapy continued. At one point, we’re treated to an awkward encounter, with the therapist mediating, with Lars Ulrich and former guitarist and Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine. Let the healing begin. A teary Lars listens on as a disdainful Mustaine lays out the pain that has been the last couple decades; how he felt hated by metalheads for no longer being in Metallica and how Megadeth felt like a Number 2 position.

At one point, an audibly raw Dave Mustaine refers to Lars as his “Danish little buddy”. Something like that.

The game of emotional Twister(TM) continues overly long. Right before the St. Anger tour footage kicks in in the hindquarters of the film, dialogue becomes an outright orgy of feeling as a recently let loose Hetfield lays down his new vibe of interpersonal connection and need for clearly defined boundaries. He sees his own shame matrix for what it is and asks the others to kindly not enable a negative reservoir of letdown to build up.

He goes on a while about how no one should do anything after he’s left the studio for the day. In a seemingly unrelated scene, Lars’ personal assistant is visibly pleased when the drummer puts up some of his personal artwork for auction – Lars makes several million, which he promptly donates all of to a trust fund for himself.

There’s little else to be said. I could never be happy by Cobain or anyone else killing themselves, but Nirvana’s talent will forever be set within the framework of their three major albums. Metallica has gone on through phases, genres and stages of life. And unlike Madonna’s audience, Metallica’s is intolerant of any change from that youthfully angry and openly alpha male Metallica of the Cold War. The one that loudly demanded we ride the lightning, the one that couldn’t believe the price we pay, the one that told us that it is indeed for us that the bell does toll. And yes, even that the shortest straw has been pulled for us. The one that… well, you get the idea. That Metallica has been transformed into a “positively aggressive” juggernaut of good feeling. Look forward to crowd surfing at Metallica concerts being referred to as “hardcore trust falls”.

The days of creeping death are gone and if “Some Kind of Monster” is any indication, for good. But then, what did you expect? Metallica may be self-styled shambling elder metal gods of The Unnamed Feeling, but they aren’t above entropy. Things and people get older, breaks down, wear down, and have even been known to die. It’s how things are.

But not everything dies. Some things are reborn. Some things grow. Sometimes for the better, but not in ways we’ll ever see. Many fans may not be able to appreciate the musical outcome of this strangely mesmerizing personal process of healing within Metallica, but on a human level, I understand the need to at least try to fix those busted up parts of one’s own existence. At what cost? Some things have no price value. Even the public eye is fleeting. I would argue that the impact that any one of these musicians has in their respective families’ lives bears more on their legacy and value as a human being than in the lives of any number of their fans.