Primal Thrash Therapy? Lessons from the Life of Metallica's James Hetfield

by James A. Cosby

18 November 2013

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Some Kind of Monster

Director: Bruce Sinofsky
Cast: Joe Berlinger, Dan Braun
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Director: Justin Hunt
Cast: James Hetfield, Johnny Tapia

Rock ‘n’ roll has epitomized angry, youthful rebellion since its first amplified roar. Rebel extraordinaire John Lydon, formerly front man “Johnny Rotten” of the Sex Pistols, once sang in his post-punk career, “Anger is an energy,” and anger has indeed fueled some of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest moments. The punk and heavy metal genres, in particular, have been prime outlets for rage and often for some of societies’ most disenfranchised members.

Perhaps no act has been more successful at putting rage to music than thrash metal superstars, Metallica. In fact, the personal and professional trajectory of group singer, songwriter/lyricist, and guitarist, James Hetfield, offers a rather fascinating glimpse into a world of rock, rage and catharsis. From an odd and tragic childhood, to life as an underground metalhead, and on to wild success and a surprisingly mature adulthood, Hetfield has apparently managed to deal with and manage a mountain of rage quite well. Indeed, that life, along with Metallica’s early catalogue, in particular, may provide some serious life lessons for anyone, metalhead or not.

From 2001 to 2003, Metallica members’ day-to-day lives were the subject of the documentary, Some Kind of Monster (2004). The film was originally meant to be a promotional, behind-the-scenes look at the band recording their latest album and little more than a heavy metal infomercial. Instead, Some Kind of Monster became a deeply-personal meditation on group therapy and addiction recovery, and one of the most critically-acclaimed documentaries of the year.

Years of constant touring, alcohol abuse, creative differences, and egos had finally caught up with the foursome. While the cameras rolled, the group fell apart. Bass player Jason Newsted left the group for good and Hetfield left the studio to check into rehab for many months, leaving Metallica at only two active members for nearly a year.

When Hetfield did finally come back, the group hired a “performance-enhancing coach”, i.e., a high-paid group therapist, usually used in the corporate world but also with some big-selling rock acts. The intention was for the therapist to facilitate a new, more mature level of communication between the band members—which would hopefully lead directly to happier band members—and maybe also another multi-platinum-selling album. This from the heavy metal genre that gave us the Devil’s horn hand sign and metal-icon Ozzy Osbourne, was known to have bit, on separate occasions, the head off of both a dove and a bat (in Osbourne’s defense, he thought the bat was fake).

Metallica began their career at the onset of the ‘80s, far off the radar, deep in the metal underground as pioneers of the then-fringe thrash metal scene, first briefly in L.A. and then in San Francisco. The group’s music was so extreme—at times almost frightening, even—that they garnered no radio play, whatsoever, throughout the release of their first four albums. During those years, the band was largely unknown to the masses and their image was otherwise clouded by long-standing heavy metal stereotypes of being crude, possibly satanic, and maybe sociopathic. In other words, this did not appear to be a crew that would be open to the touchy-feely world of leather couches and Carl Jung.

A crazy thing happened with the whole therapy thing, though: it worked. As the filming continued, the band regrouped with a new bassist, and each member emerges visibly and personally for the better. Some communication barriers fell for the first time in the group’s 20-plus years. Hetfield, in particular, is seen clearly transforming as he embraces a clean and sober lifestyle:

I can feel myself kind of protecting myself from some depression or something, just wanting to isolate and I don’t want to do that. I want to feel the sadness; I mean I didn’t feel depressed, I felt sad. That’s what I knew it was something different than just me and my old stuff… (Berlinger, J., Sinofsky, B., 2003)

Hetfield has since seemed to continue to settle in as a sober family man. Shortly after the film’s release in 2004, Hetfield was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air—perhaps the last place Metallica fans first introduced to him on the debut album, Kill ‘em All, would ever expect to find him. Yet, there Hetfield was, openly discussing everything from deep childhood traumas and abandonment, to his adult career, to therapy, and all with a bracing clarity and maturity (”...the amount of love you give, to me, equated to the amount of hurt when they left”). (Gross, 2004) Those public radio regulars maybe expecting the oral decapitation of a live bird had to be more than a bit surprised.

Metallica’s music was so extreme—at times almost frightening, even—that they garnered no radio play, whatsoever, throughout the release of their first four albums.

In that and interviews since, Hetfield has freely discussed undergoing lots of therapy and his “recovery” (Note: The term “recovery” sometimes includes involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), though given AA’s stated principle of anonymity, program members avoid publicly identifying themselves as members). Hetfield showed up in the 2005 documentary, Absent, giving his take on the impact of an absent father in his life: “Fame and fortune doesn’t fill the hole that a father leaves.” (jhs, 2011) He was also recognized for his contributions to MusiCares MAP, a non-profit organization that assists musicians with addiction issues. (

From their beginning in the early ‘80s, Metallica had filled a certain role and void. At that time, the first wave of heavy metal bands were either broken up (Osbourne left Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy each folded after the alcohol-related deaths of band members), or the sound was beginning to feel dated and/or more plodding than heavy. Out of England came a more aggressive and technically complex “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (NWOBHM), lead by Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and the ultra-fast, down-and-dirty, Motorhead.

Visually and lyrically, the general theme was black leather, studs and often a medieval-fantasy-themed world. Ronnie James Dio, for example, conducted swordfights onstage, while Iron Maiden told the story of The Charge of the Light Brigade in their song, “The Trooper” (“You take my life but I’ll take yours too/You fire your musket but I’ll run you through”). Vocally, singers like Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford possessed operatic vocal range and air-raid siren power that fit the epic themes. The NWOBHM certainly had an audience and some level of critical respect, but the Dungeons & Dragons and often cartoonish imagery prevented greater acceptance and respect.

At the same time in the US, the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles filled up with bands aping the flamboyant hard rock band, Van Halen, yet generally with less talent, self-awareness, or ambition. The so-called hair metal or glam rock scene was best known for colorful bandanas and spandex, and heavily hair-sprayed, bleach-blonde hair—and, with some notable exceptions, less so for its often weak takes on boogie- and glam-rock.

These groups took full advantage of then-booming MTV and a video-driven music industry. Hair metal has taken a lot of abuse for its blatant form-over-substance approach. Music writer Chuck Klosterman wrote that hair metal was “for kids too dumb to know what they were mad about.” A bit harsh, perhaps, but hair metal’s legacy indeed seems to be as the genre that officially made it not, ultimately, about the music. Yes, a lot of musicians first got into music specifically to meet girls. However, usually the desire for musical integrity weighs out over the lust factor, even if just barely.

Hair metal instead mostly seemed to be about having the prettiest look to attract groupies and to place a catchy power ballad into rotation on MTV. Forget what’s “blowin’ in the wind” or “kicking out jams”; as genre-leaders Poison sang, hair metal wanted “Nothing but a good time.” The genre had some moments, but it was too often hollow and disposable.

Thrash metal then was the marriage of the fast and edgy, early hardcore punk of bands like Black Flag, The Misfits and Fugazi, and the epic but complex sound of the NWOBHM. Fellow thrash metal luminaries, Slayer, broke the same year as Metallica and in some respects have rivaled Metallica in the thrash community. Musically, Slayer is similarly chaotic and violent-sounding, yet also cohesive and performing with a high level of musicianship.

Image by © Motxuel. See more of his work at

Image by © Motxuel. See more of his work at

Lyrically, the two bands diverge quite a lot. On the one hand, Slayer’s songs can be seen as compelling explorations of the dark corners of humanity that one may otherwise pretend do not exist. Yet the line as to where personal exploration ends and just sheer nastiness and nihilism begins is often blurred or even non-existent. Songs like “Dead Skin Mask” and “Angel of Death,” as examples, are humorless, first-person descriptions of deranged, real-life mass murderers: Nazi physician, Joseph Mengele, and serial killer, Ed Gein, respectively. In “Dead Skin Mask,” Slayer singer Tom Araya is joined by the vulnerable, child-like voice of one of Gein’s doomed victims:

Dance with the dead in my dreams [Mr. Gein, it’s not any fun anymore,]
Listen to their hollowed screams [I don’t want to play anymore Mr. Gein]
The dead have taken my soul [Mr. Gein? lemme out of here Mr. Gein]
Temptation’s lost all control [lemme out, lemmmmeee oouuuuuuttt!!]

Surely some artistic merit can be found in there somewhere and, in all seriousness, Slayer is not actually promoting or condoning any of these acts—any more than a horror or splatter-core film director, is. But still.

Slayer also regularly crossed into pseudo-Satanic themes, something fellow thrashers Metallica, and the other most prominent of thrash metal bands, Anthrax and Megadeth, all consciously avoided (contrary to prevalent stereotypes). In “Altar of Sacrifice,” Araya sings:

Altar of sacrifice, curse of the damned
Confronting the evil you dread
Coalesce into one your shadow and soul
Soon you will meet the undead
Enter to the realm of Satan!

In short, Slayer effectively launched the death metal genre, which continues to be popular today and generally continues to deal with themes of gratuitous and graphic violence, pseudo-Satanism, etc. Vocally, death metal is often characterized by a guttural, growling and sometimes literally demonic-sounding style that has been described as, for lack of a better term, a cookie monster-style, for the Sesame Street character.

Metallica generally stood above the rest of the thrash metal scene from the beginning, both in their songwriting abilities and the musical talent of Hetfield on rhythm guitar, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, Hetfield’s band co-founder and drummer, Lars Ulrich, and original bass player Cliff Burton. As internet music reference guide puts it, Metallica “[C]hanged the rules for all heavy metal bands.” (Erlewine, n.d.) So fresh was Metallica’s take on metal that they were virtually a genre unto their own.

The band blasted their rage and energy through huge, intricate compositions, with no wasted energy and little-to-no posturing. As fast, wild, and loud as they were, the four remained cohesive and stop-on-a-dime tight. Hetfield sang, barked and snarled through his lyrics; grunts and quasi-growls punctuated lines. But Hetfield sang for his own personal and human perspective, and in a way that was as direct as the music. Metallica’s live shows were, and remain, particularly devastating.

Visually and lyrically, Metallica, like their name, spurned anything that would otherwise detract from the music itself. They were in essence, and partially by design, the antithesis of hair metal. Onstage, the band wore what they wore offstage: jeans, t-shirts, jean or leather jackets, and long hair sans hairspray or bleach. If nothing else, Metallica was grounded in reality.

More to the point, the NWOBHM generally played and sang from a place of fantasy and of imagined power to confront life obstacles and personal demons, not unlike a big game of D&D. Certainly finding any form of inner strength and self-affirmation is an achievement, but to be grounded in the realities of one’s actual life and find empowerment seems more powerful by at least a couple of orders of magnitude. If only life’s problems could simply be vanquished with a brutal blow of a sword.

In essence, the Slayer/death metal approach seems to actually give a voice to the demons, i.e., to the serial killer, the mad Nazi scientist, etc. Psychotherapy 101 would seem to suggest that finding a voice means to find one’s true self in order to confront one’s demons—not to empower the demons themselves. In Slayer’s brand of metal, the narrator has no repercussions at all. Worse, the plight of the very real victims is of no concern.

Metallica’s debut album, Kill ‘em All, had remnants of the fantasy (“Phantom Lord”) and captured the menace of heavy metal, as reflected in the album title. Generally, though, most song topics were more personal and from a first-person perspective and, again, grounded in the real-world. The songs “Hit the Lights” and “Whiplash!”, for example, simply describe the thrill of a thrash metal show from both fan and band perspectives. “Seek and Destroy” perfectly captures the mindset of the angry, adolescent male looking to vent his rage somewhere, and hoping someone else will “start up a fight” so he will have a good excuse to vent their rage on someone that is actually asking for it.

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