Assessing Metallica After 30 Years and Four Nights at the Fillmore

Text messages like the one I got from a friend before the third Metallica show last week — "You are dead to me" — were exactly the reason I decided to go to all four of the Bay Area metal band's 30th anniversary concerts at the Fillmore. Spending some 12 hours with Metallica in San Francisco's best rock venue might be an Elysium for its fans, but most people I know would rather hang out for a day with Michelle Bachmann, or a dental drill. Going to all four shows would be crazy, torturous, character-tarnishing, and possibly dangerous. "I can't believe you're doing it," I kept hearing, as if I might walk out onto Geary Boulevard on Sunday morning 20 years older, wearing a goatee, and ride off on a Harley with some leather-clad metal vixen. (Or, worse, appreciate St. Anger.)

Whatever — I enjoy Metallica, or at least I used to. Somehow I needed to understand how the teen who listened to Master of Puppets for two years straight grew up to be an adult who sings along to Taylor Swift. And I wanted to know whether the Bay Area's biggest rock export in three decades still matters, if this Napster-hating, Lou Reed-collaborating, shrink-visiting foursome has anything important left to give to the world.

Let's think about how we got here: Metallica helped innovate a style of American metal that stripped image, sex, swing, and emotional honesty away, bowing only to the insatiable gods of riff and tempo. Intimacy and humanity were replaced by dark fantasy and sheer brutality, leading to terrible lyrics and magnificent temples of power chords. Metallica's stoic demeanor finally began to crack on 1991's self-titled "Black Album," which distilled the band's songwriting into something approaching pop accessibility and came with one acoustic ballad. By now, the boys were no longer young: Having drifted into heavy metal largely out of adolescent insecurity, fear, and introversion, they found themselves rather awkward adult millionaires. So on its next albums, Metallica tried to put some of the feeling back, to the abhorrence of many. Thrash metal has little room for the full range of human emotions, so for the genre's biggest band to put out Load — or to make a documentary about its members' personal struggles — was akin to Bill O'Reilly joining the Communist party. You never saw Slayer make a touchy-feely record.

But Metallica has just turned 30, and last week at the Fillmore, it was clear that these guys are quite different from the people who moved into that two-bedroom house in El Cerrito. For one thing, they smile. A lot. Singer James Hetfield is still a tough guy, but he can now verbalize positive emotion (at least toward fans) and make jokes (which are cute, if not funny). Watching him banter with Lars Ulrich, Metallica's other founding member, was like watching an old married couple: Their bickering was practiced, continuous, and mostly affectionate.

Success has hard-boiled the egos of these musicians to the point where their grip on reality is tenuous, especially when speaking to a room full of adherents. On Wednesday, Ulrich may have warned the fans against booing guest Lou Reed, who made the loathed Lulu with Metallica earlier this year, but his threat to play the entire album felt like the only reason he was obeyed. Similarly, Hetfield seemed on Saturday to think that St. Anger, the band's worst record, is due for reconsideration. Even the fanatics in the room didn't cheer much to that.

You can learn a lot about the remaining appeal of Metallica from its fans: They are mostly males between the ages of 30 and 50; like their heroes, few have long hair anymore. They growl, bellow, and flash devil horns sooner than smile. They don't seem like the kind of people who go to therapy. For these people, Metallica is therapy — "Seek and Destroy," a kind of fantasy theme song; "Master of Puppets," enveloping in its musical complexity; "Creeping Death," a chance to shout "die" and play awesome air guitar. Performed at huge volume with incredible precision, these songs reach heights of majesty, potency, and sublimity. For Metallica fans, that overwhelming power is an essential tool for tamping down the uncomfortable realities of everyday life. Like a muscle car or a violent videogame, the music is a demonstration of strength that cannot be diluted or drowned out. It is intimidating. It is scary. It is sometimes mean. Instead of letting fans express their difficult feelings, or come to grips with the weak parts we all have inside — which is what a lot of pop and rock music does — Metallica works mostly to deny them.

Even as it's softened somewhat with age, the band has never developed full emotional fluency, and it probably never will. Its most vulnerable notion basically amounts to "The world sucks, I am alone here, what do I do?" Somewhere between "Nothing Else Matters" and "Bleeding Me," this became the default worldview. And whether that's interesting to casual listeners isn't very important: Metallica mostly cultivates the affections of the converted, offering tickets to last week's shows for $6 each to fan club members only. The diehards came from all over the world to be there, so perhaps it's not surprising that the band members showed only disdain or indifference for the views of people outside the calcified Metallica cult. After four nights of trial membership, I solved the riddle of my own capricious fandom: Metallica worked great for pummeling away the sharp corners of adolescence, but it's not how I want to live as an adult.

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Karl Stein
Karl Stein

This is a "Bay Area" band that played for everyone and anyone down in LA last Feb. at the Big 4 concert. Also, it wasn't too long ago that Tom Petty also played four nights at the Fillmore for anyone and everyone.The Pope has been to the Bay Area more times than these posers. El Cerrito? EL CERRITO??? Please...they bailed for NYC asap and never looked back.Don't let the door hit you on the way out, dudes.


You, sir, are a retard.

I attended Metallica's Bangalore concert in India on Oct 30th, and believe me when I tell you there were grown men over 50 and kids well under 30 - both groups incidentally, outside the age limit you prescribe for a Metallica fan - who broke down in tears listening to "Nothing else matters" and "Fade to Black". They had waited a long, LONG time to listen to their favorite band live in their country, and they were not disappointed.

There were 3 generations there - those who, like me grew up listening to MOP and RTL, those who could relate more to Justice and the Black Album, and kids who knew the lyrics to every single song from Load onwards (something even I, and die-hard Metallica fan didn't).

You have no idea about the band's impact and influence globally.

Here, read this article below about a young Muslim girl in traditional Hijab who traveled down to Bangalore all the way from Kashmir, India, to listen Metallica that evening.

Maybe then, you'll get a clue, you ungrateful, smug, self-satisfied poser:

Maxime Boyer
Maxime Boyer

Music is no simple thing. Complex. Differs for each and everyone of us.

I discovered a new genre in "Lulu" and now I'm seeking a lot more of that type of music, cause I don't feel like singing along all the time.

I listen to all kind of music, and life is all about having an "open mind" and discovering new things.

Some genre will never reach out to us, and some other times it will.

I don't see Metallica the way you are expressing it in your text. I think that when you look at the lyrics and the genre (heavy metal/hard rock/blues), you get that "Oh, they are pissed off at this; they hate that, fuck the world" but no. It's deeper than that. Of course, some of their songs are pretty straight foward.. like "in your face" attitude.

When you take time to read the lyrics for every song, and the pleasure that I cherrish the most is when I get to find articles about the artists talking about some of those songs - their meaning. Man this is great. You get the whole picture after that.

I'm glad now that they are coming back with heavier songs, fast riffs, and they can focus on it because they have a fan base, and most of these fans will show up to buy their albums and concert tickets.

Lastly, I had to sit for 2hrs rght next to my wife and watch Nick Carter's concert in Montreal @ the Metropolis. And I must say that I was impressed by how well Nick Carter can dance, play the guitar and sing at the same time. (I had to do this if I wanted to get feed for the rest of the week. I'm a smart husband.) But that's another story..


What horrible writing- you spent four nights/12 hours at the shows and made only a handful of basic uninteresting observations about the event ("they smiled"). What about all the speical guests other than Reed that were there? What about setting/describing the mood? The emotion? The energy? The songs they played which they haven't played in 15+ years, The sounds? The smells? I waited outside the Fillmore for hours trying to get in, so frustrating they wasted space all four nights on you thinking you are an actual journalist. What a douche. To quote your hack writng I say to you, Ian will, "never developed full emotional [writing] fluency, and it probably never will."

Rochelle Thorne
Rochelle Thorne

Apparently you haven't listened to "The Day that Never Comes" off of their latest album if you think they have no emotional complexity. Apparently you have done limited research if you think their fans remain "mostly males" between the age of 30-50. And while I too sing along to many different types of music (from Neon Trees to Frank Sinatra, from The Black Eyed Peas to Bullet for My Valentine) Metallica alone provide the best sort of therapy... not just fantasy and meanness but the permission to be angry at the world when you have to put on a happy face, that you are not alone in your rage, that others out there shake their metal-loving fists along with you. But apparently your teenage self only dabbled in Metalliworld and found it not your cup of tea, not a lasting love affair. I just turned 39 and have been in love with Metallica for 23 years now and though I was not chosen from the fan club to buy tix to the show, I was there in spirit, celebrating the Masters of Metal, and loving the free downloads fan club members got of their new songs. Just a Bullet Away is my new favorite song. I am raising the next wave of metal fans and debating getting my son a guitar so he can live out his rock star fantasy by playing along to James and Kirk. So while you may have been only slightly moved by their performances and basically missed the point, those of us out here who still like our music heavy and loud will continue to follow the boys for years to come!


Continue singing to Taylor Swift....u suck!


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