Among the extras gathered around Metallica for this afternoon’s video shoot, there’s an abundance of Fu Manchu facial hair, indelible ink almost literally up the wazoo, and the kind of off-the-charts testosterone you’d expect from guys who might just as soon kill you as look at you. In other words, except for the orange jumpsuits identifying them as medium-security San Quentin inmates, pretty much your standard metal audience.
We’re in the west yard of California’s most legendary prison, where Metallica are running through their forthcoming single, ”St. Anger,” for your proverbial captive audience. Singer James Hetfield is used to being the most intimidating dude in a room, but these felons, unfazed by his trademark grimace, are getting right in his face. At least the band can feel confident that any actual stage rushing is unlikely: A warning on the wall directly over the drum kit reads ”Notice – No Warning Shots Fired in This Unit.” Two guards keep watch in the tower right above the sign, and those aren’t Vari-Lites strapped over their shoulders.
”He never gets respect/St. Anger ‘round my neck,” Hetfield bellows. The assembled are completely down with that. Riffs pile upon multiple riffs, and the onslaught kicks into what seems like quadruple-time, only getting more furious as…wait…good God! THERE’S ALREADY BEEN A DISMEMBERMENT IN THE MOSH PIT! Nope. False alarm. It’s just an inmate gleefully waving his artificial leg, which may be the only untattooed limb in the joint.
What’s a nice band like Metallica – a group that’s sold 80 million-plus records worldwide – doing in a place like this? Trying to make a video where they look badass by association, you might assume, though they insist that’s not their intent. Perhaps this setting just represents how far the famously Napster-phobic group had to go to recruit the only extras incapable of uploading the yet-unreleased tune to Kazaa. Or maybe it’s Metallica’s way of ”giving back to the community,” since band HQ is just a hop, skip, and ankle-chain-wearing jump away in nearby San Rafael.
The real reasons are a bit more philosophical: The single, a teaser for the new album of the same name, espouses the gospel of healthy venting as anger management…”or else it comes out sideways, as it did for a lot of these guys,” says Hetfield, 39, back in his trailer. These inmates have ”hurt who knows how many people. It’s a lot of misspent anger, and most of that anger’s covering up fear. For me, having grown up as an angry kid, there’s some emotion in this, thinking maybe if it wasn’t for music, I could be in here – or dead, even.
”Anger is just an emotion – and for me, growing up, a denied emotion. That was not allowed in the house, or pain either,” Hetfield goes on. ”The denial of feelings really messed me up, and I wasn’t coming to terms with what my body would do when you’d get certain feelings. People associate anger with violence, but it’s a feeling that’s neither good nor bad till you act on it.” He chuckles. ”It’s definitely gotten a bad rap over the years.”
Metallica’s four members discuss the fury-fueled themes of ”St. Anger” as if they were just discovering the title emotion for the first time. Which is a surprise, given that this IS a band whose first album cover pictured a bloody hammer. And yet, fairly recently, unexpressed resentments nearly put a cap on the group’s 22-year career. ”A year and a half ago,” says drummer Lars Ulrich, 39, ”for the first time in Metallica’s career, I didn’t know what was going on. And I like to consider myself the guy who knows what time it is. It got to the point where I was prepping myself for the end of this ride.”
The band’s nearly perfect storm of bad karma started gathering in 2000 when Metallica filed suit against a then-thriving Napster, alienating millions of fans who believed free MP3s were their God-given right, at a time when most other musicians were laying low, cravenly kissing up to the download crowd, or just whistling through the graveyard. Ulrich, who typically acts as band spokesman and found himself on the front line here, calls the ensuing backlash ”the worst six months of my f—in’ life.”
”I’ve become very good at compartmentalizing it, as they say in psychotherapy,” Ulrich says. ”It was a bit of a mindf—, going from being somewhat respected to the most hated guy in rock & roll. I definitely got blindsided. It’s the famous scene in a movie where the guy leads an attack and then turns around and there’s nobody with him.” Now that the music biz has entered something resembling death throes, Metallica’s once-vilified position has been largely vindicated, but they’re a little too burnt to say ”I told you so.” ”I don’t claim any kind of victory,” Ulrich says. ”I’m proud we stood up for something and had the guts to stick it through, but it was a really lonely time.”
It got lonelier when Jason Newsted, their bassist of 14 years, jumped ship in early 2001. The group had already hired an enhancement coach, Phil Towle, to ”reconnect us and salvage the situation with Jason,” says Hetfield, ”but it was maybe a year too late.” Hetfield takes some of the blame, since he wouldn’t allow Newsted to do any side projects even during their long time off; he now chalks that up to a control-freak aspect of his personality described in rather frightening terms in ”St. Anger”’s jolting kicker, ”All Within My Hands.” ”Just from my sense of abandonment in my family, I needed this family to stay together, no matter what the cost, not realizing that the stronger I held on, the more things want to get away,” Hetfield says. ”This could be a completely simple idea for people, that they maybe learned when they were 8 when their puppy ran away and then came back. I didn’t get it until recently, so it’s very profound for me.”
Still, bottom had yet to be hit. They’d recorded about 30 new songs with producer Bob Rock sitting in on bass, but after Newsted’s exit their counselor was still having trouble making inroads. ”We couldn’t even talk to each other,” Hetfield recalls. ”A lot of grievances had been stuffed down. And when you’re going through that kind of stuff and feeling some anxiety, you tend to latch on to your addiction a little bit. That started to get bad for me, and it affected my family. So to really attack this thing, James Hetfield-style, I had to go away somewhere, not just deal with therapy.”