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

by James A. Cosby

18 November 2013


Rock, Rage and Catharsis

The second album, Ride the Lightning (1984), broke new ground with some of the most complex compositions the genre has seen, before or since, even including a slow song (!) and an instrumental. That slow song, “Fade to Black,” is a chilling but moving account of the suicidal state:

Life, it seems, will fade away
Drifting further every day
Getting lost within myself
Nothing matters, no one else

The song closes with what could appear to be a completed suicide, for which Metallica took some heat in the press:

No one but me can save myself, but it’s too late
Now I can’t think, think why I should even try
Yesterday seems as though it never existed
Death greets me warm, now I will just say goodbye, Goodbye

To be fair, in the years since, Hetfield has acknowledged putting out “some negative, cynical stuff.” (Gross, 2004) Still, and especially in the context of that album, “Fade to Black” is clearly not an endorsement of suicide. The song captures dark and stunningly real feelings, yet when Hetfield sings the last line, there is no feeling of relief. What is captured is the horrible and bleak reality and finality of the act—it’s not a joke.

Further, the track that follows “Fade to Black,” “Escape,” and like much of Metallica’s catalogue, is an anthem of survival completely at odds with a philosophy of quitting. Despite how “Fade to Black” ends, the lyrics in “Escape” sound precisely as if they are coming from someone that has thankfully survived the ordeal of “Fade to Black”:

No one cares, but I’m so much stronger
I’ll fight until the end
To escape from the true false world
Undamaged destiny

Much of the rest of Ride the Lightning focuses on themes of death as well as war, e.g., “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Fight Fire With Fire,” yet the narration always exposes the tragedies of war and, in the latter, the mind-numbing insanity of the US-USSR nuclear face-off, as expressed through a face-melting barrage of vocals, guitars and pummeling, double bass kick drum.

Of particular note is live favorite, “Creeping Death.” Without knowing the backstory, the violent imagery Hetfield sings about could be any other gratuitously violent heavy metal story. Here there is a major twist, however. “Creeping Death” was inspired by the band’s viewing of the film The Ten Commandments and the Biblical tale of the plagues bestowed upon the Egyptians. That is, here the extreme violence is taken right out of the Bible:

So let it be written
So let it be done
I’m sent here by the chosen one
So let it be written
So let it be done
To kill the first born pharaoh’s son
I’m creeping death

Metallica thus turns the relationship of heavy metal and religion on its head.

It has been said that no music is created in a vacuum, and James Hetfield is no exception. Hetfield was born 3 August 1963, in the L.A. suburb of Downey, California, born to a truck driver father, Virgil, and a former light opera singing mother, Cynthia, and living with two older half-brothers and a younger sister. Both of Hetfield’s parents were devout Christian Scientists, a denomination marked by a rejection of medical care and instead a sole reliance on direct healing from God for physical maladies.

Metallica’s mega-hit, “Enter Sandman” illustrates how real childhood nightmares can feel.

Hetfield’s father was particularly fervent and a Sunday school teacher, teaching classes that James was required to attend. Hetfield describes his early home life as a “pressure cooker” of religious doctrine and the family as uncommunicative and generally very dysfunctional. The religious mindset in the Hetfield home was, as Hetfield recalled, a severe “‘us vs. them’ mentality,” leaving him feeling “very alienated from the outside world and my family.” As to the Christian Science stance on medicine, Hetfield “didn’t believe it or understand it,” recalling:

We had these little testimonials, and there was a little girl that had had her arm broken. She stood up and said, ‘I broke my arm but now, look, it’s all better. But it was just, like, mangled. Now that I think about it, it’s pretty disturbing. (Gross, 2004)

When Hetfield was 13 and without warning, Virgil Hetfield abandoned the family, leaving just a note and without addressing James. Cynthia Hetfield had been a lifelong homemaker and artist with no work history and the family was shaken and struggled badly, personally and financially.

Shortly thereafter, Cynthia developed cancer, at first keeping it a secret from the family, and then denying all medical aid, throughout. James Hetfield was left to look on as his mother withered away, with no breadwinner, no able parent, and no medical assistance forthcoming. Three years later, in 1979 and when Hetfield was sixteen, Cynthia died. Per Christian Science tenets, there was no grieving process: it was seen as God’s will and thus there was nothing to grieve. Hetfield dove further into his music, as well as into petty crime, drugs and alcohol. (Wall, 2010).

In later interviews, Hetfield recalled “bottling up” his rage, as if in a “cocoon,” and masking his abandonment:

I was fearful of it. I was afraid that no one can relate to it. Uh, ya know, already feeling like an outsider that if I told people this they would just…lock me up, or
something. (Gross, 2004)

Later, the 1986 tour bus accident and death of talented bass player and close friend, Cliff Burton, was another enormous loss.

Metallica’s early songs often focused on severe emotional oppression, loss of control and alienation, such as in “Trapped Under Ice” (1984) and “Sanitarium” (1986). Hetfield addressed the impact of his alienating home life in “Harvester of Sorrow” (1989), from the album ...And Justice for All:

My life suffocates
Planting seeds of hate
I’ve loved, turned to hate
Trapped far beyond my fate

On the blistering “Dyer’s Eve,” from the same album, Hetfield gets more to the point:

Dear Mother
Dear Father
What is this hell you have put me through?
Day in day out live my life through you
Pushed onto me what’s wrong or right
Hidden from this thing that they call life

Yet, Hetfield was still years away from outside help in the form of rehab and therapy. In “Shortest Straw,” Hetfield asks and answers his own question:

Do you trust what I trust?
Me, myself and I.

Metallica stayed true to themselves and a certain integrity has been key. As Hetfield sang on “Damage, Inc.”, from 1986’s Master of Puppets: “Following our instincts not a trend/Go against the grain until the end.” The group has had a fan support and momentum that snowballed from day one. They have toured as extensively as anyone in the business. The New York Times once referred to the group not as a cult band, but as a “subculture.” (Ratliff, 2008). As the line goes in the song “Battery”: “Pounding out aggression/turns into obsession,” and Metallica’s music became a sort of obsession for millions. What was once a group that couldn’t sniff radio-play brought the underground to the masses.

It was not until Metallica’s fifth album, 1991’s untitled release known as the “Black Album,” that they finally blew up on the pop charts and around the globe. They even produced one of the better love songs (!!!) of the decade, “Nothing Else Matters.” Their mega-hit, “Enter Sandman” illustrates how real childhood nightmares can feel; as the video for the song demonstrates, the little kid as an innocent and not someone to be victimized. The demon or what represents the immense fear is a hideous, disfigured old man.

The group remains vital today, even if they haven’t equaled their commercial and artistic run of the ‘80s and early-‘90s when they redefined heavy metal and, in some ways, popular music, itself. There have been a couple of somewhat questionable career moves (i.e., taking on a cleaner image and sound; publicly taking on the Napster file-sharing service), but, all told, Metallica has stayed true to themselves, sold over 100 million albums, and are one of the highest grossing touring bands ever. In 2009, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So, to get back to the real question of this essay: Has all of this thrashing about and thousands of performances been cathartic—and maybe even good mental health? In the ‘70s, Dr. Arthur Janov pioneered primal rage therapy, based in the notion that people carry around repressed anger and frustration and that the simple solution is… to let it out. Dr. Janov’s most famous patient was former-Beatle John Lennon, who was a big proponent of the treatment in the aftermath of the Beatles’ break-up. Lennon, in fact, followed up his work with Janov with the excellent, scream-therapy-inspired solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970). The single, “Mother,” in particular, was Lennon’s mom-and-dad catharsis song:

Mama don’t gooooooooh!
Daddy come home!

The ‘80s new wavers Tears For Fears, too, had a similarly inspired 1985 album and the hit, “Shout”: “Let it all out, these are the things I can do without…”

Getting angry over nothing is understood to be a sign of deep immaturity. To unload long, deeply-repressed rage, lugged around since childhood, and in a way that does not bring harm to oneself or others, is a different story. If you can put it all to music, then you might have something special.

Nowadays, Hetfield expresses a lot of peace with his folks: “I put a lot of blame on my parents… they did the best they could.” But he is also clear-headed enough to know he doesn’t need to make excuses for them, either: “... I love him [Hetfield’s father] but… ‘Dude, you screwed us over… ’” Hetfield acknowledged that despite making an effort, he was never able to have anything but a superficial relationship with his unavailable father before he passed. Nonetheless, through therapy, primal thrash therapy?, AA, coaches, whatever, Hetfield seems to have found his way. Today, Hetfield can see a “gift” in the pain and he certainly knows that “wounds are good fodder for lyrics.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Berlinger, J., Sinofsky, B. (co-Producers & co-Directors)(2004). Some Kind of Monster. U.S.: Paramount Pictures.
Erlewine, S.T., “Metallica Biography”, Allmusic. Retrieved from:
Gross, T. “Metallica Guitarist and Vocalist James Hetfield Hetfield,” Fresh Air, 11/9/2004. Retrieved from:
Hunt, J. (Producer and Director)(2011). Absent. U.S.: Time & Tide Productions, Inc. Interview clip retrieved from:
jhs, “James Hetfield: ‘Fame and Fortune Doesn’t Fill The Hole That A Father Leaves.’” Rockville Music Magazine. Retrieved from:
N.A. “MusiCares MAP Fund Benefit Set,” March 9, 2006.Retreived from:
Ratliff, Ben, “Metallica looks back to the future,” The New York Times, Monday, September 1, 2008. Retrieved from:
Wall, M. (2010). Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica 36-42. St. Martin’s Press.

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