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.