“I thought you were a nice guy! You ain’t no nice guy!”
—Groupie to rock musician Larry Underwood, from Stephen King’s The Stand
Readers lacking any interest or involvement with Heavy Metal music are likely to pass over Mick Wall’s biography of Metallica, which is a shame. While Enter Night is not the tightest rock biography ever penned (more on this later), Wall’s comprehensive examination of Metallica offers not only the band’s history, but a history of Metal from the late ‘70s to the present. Older readers will recall the big hair bands, the birth of a novelty called MTV, and the habit of trading music on mixtapes, which were played on an archaic machine called a tape recorder. Younger readers will learn about life before MP3s and iPods. Everyone will gape at the photographs of an impossibly young Metallica, thick hair flying, decked out in—gasp—spandex.
That said, I’m assuming most readers drawn to this book will be Metallica fans with more than a passing knowledge of the group. Much of what veteran music journalist Wall offers up in Enter Night will not surprise such readers. The drugs, the booze, Cliff Burton, the problem known as Dave Mustaine, the booze, the Napster debacle, Jason Newsted’s angry departure, the booze, 2004’s raw documentary, Some Kind of Monster, the in-studio shrink, the booze, and finally, finally, rehab.
Musical biographies most often follow a straight timeline: early years, becoming a musician, fame, money, drugs, booze, women, a death, rehab, settlement into a contented middle age. All of this occurs in Enter Night, but the book is built around bassist Cliff Burton, who was killed in a 1986 bus accident. For readers unfamiliar with Burrton’s death, or how it robbed everyone of a gentle, gifted man who was only 26 years old, Wall offers a mournful education. For those of us who vividly recall the sickening photo of the tour bus, tipped on its side, Burton’s body crushed beneath it, Wall’s careful recounting is all the more painful.
The book opens with the accident, then backtracks to the band’s beginnings, working its way forward to the crash and its aftermath. There is Metallica with Cliff, then Metallica without. A quarter century later, hardcore Metallica fans still wonder what direction the band might have taken had their charismatic mentor lived. Many feel the band reached its apotheosis with 1986’s Master of Puppets, and that subsequent efforts represent a steady decline.
Enter Night has two serious flaws, both beyond Wall’s control. The first is the band itself. Anne Lamott, in her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, writes: “I once asked Ethan Canin to tell me the most valuable thing he knew about writing, and without hesitation, he said ‘Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.’”
Apart from guitarist Kirk Hammett, it’s impossible to call Metallica “likable”. While drummer Lars Ulrich’s drive and business acumen are admirable, little else about him is. Lead singer and guitarist James Hetfield ranks right up there with Jim Morrison in the “difficult-yet-complex personality” department. Throughout most the book, Hetfield is an angry, aloof, damaged man hiding behind a hostile facade, famously fueled by alcohol. When Hetfield finally goes into rehab, he emerges a changed person, striving to repair himself, to remain sober and face down his demons. His sincerity is winning.
As for the bassist, well, if Spinal Tap had drummers, Metallica has bassists. First was Ron McGovney, who left the band, but not before Dave Mustaine poured beer into his bass pickups. Then came Cliff Burton, rapidly replaced by Jason Newsted, a Metallica fan from Battle Creek, Michigan. Newsted was treated like shit by the rest of the band who, deeply in shock over Cliff’s death, were hardly prepared to audition replacements. Newsted was never granted full band status; instead, he endured treatment tantamount to hazing.
Strangely, Wall, who interviewed the band on countless occasions and knew Newsted personally, is no kinder to him, characterizing the bassist as a whiny, sulky young man who never quite gets it right. After years of second fiddle status, he left with the bitterness characterizing so many of the band’s interactions. Metallica’s current bassist, Rob Trujillo, came to the band with a serious musical pedigree and perhaps more importantly, a quiet confidence.
Then there’s Mustaine. What can Wall possibly say about this takeh meshuganeh (crazy person) that Mustaine hasn’t already broadcast from the rooftops? Kicked out of the band for his crazed antics and rampant alcoholism, Mustaine went on to found über-metal band Megadeth. To this day he remains bitterly angry about his treatment at this hands of his former bandmates.
The second problem is one that dogs too many rock biographies: nobody proofread the damned thing. For the record, my copy of Enter Night, complete with a friendly note from Wall, is not an uncorrected proof. Yet it’s rife with spelling and grammar mishaps, making for a sometimes plodding reading experience.
Worse are the factual errors. Much of the book is set in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. De Anza High School is “De Anaza” high school. We’re told Kirk Hammett is born in El Sobrante, a San Francisco suburb a good 25 miles outside the city, only to read on the next page Hammett is “from San Francisco”. This is like identifying somebody from New Jersey as a New Yorker.
One of the more egregious errors is a reference to “Bob Seeger”, whose name is spelled correctly on the next page. While Wall had no control over this, St. Martin’s Press certainly did. Encountering so many errors made me wonder what else the book got wrong, but Wall’s encyclopedic knowledge of metal is indisputable. For readers unfamiliar with California geography, my advice is to ignore that part and focus what Wall has to say about the music.
And Wall has a lot to say.His is not the objective observer’s stance. Instead, he inserts himself into the narrative in italicized asides. Many of these moments are spent with the band, most often Lars. There are allusions to heavy drug use and watching a young, unsure metal band move from outsider status to the dire (to hear Wall tell it) sphere of “classic rock”. While the backstage views of Lars high on smack or chattily defecating with the door open are enlightening, most striking are the recent interviews, in the aughts, where Lars is so wealthy, and so busy, that he lies to Wall who, if not quite a friend, is certainly a friendly acquaintance, about his availability and the sorts of demands placed on his time (i.e., collecting art so precious it requires special storage.). Wall realizes Ulrich has entered the elite sanctum of the fabulously wealthy, leaving him behind.
More interesting is Wall’s commentary on Metallica’s music (he clearly falls into the it’s all downhill after Master camp) as well as his commentary on other musicians. Speaking about Rob Halford’s coming out, a tremendously courageous act in the world of macho metal, Wall is dismissive at best:
“...he appeared (on MTV) in his new Nineties guise of make-up, black fingernail polish and a flurry of black feather boas. None of this inflamed the grunge generation, who merely tittered.”
Um, the grunge generation was in thrall to a guy who was out loud and proud in his support of homosexuals, with a proclivity toward wearing dresses onstage before blowing his brains out. As for Halford, whom I’ve had the great good fortune of seeing live twice, the man is a fantastic musician with a mesmerizing stage presence. Further, he got a lot of people who hated and feared homosexuals to reconsider their position.
Wall is also down on Iron Maiden, despite having written an authorized biography of the band. More than once he remarks on their capitulation to market forces, becoming more “mainstream”. (Horrors!) Of lead singer Bruce Dickinson’s two solo records, Wall writes “Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson also read the runes and left the band for a solo career, recording two self-consciously ‘different’ albums, neither of which was a hit, and soon found himself back playing clubs—neither fish nor fowl in the post-grunge era.” Dickinson has several solo albums to his credit, and it’s unclear which two Wall is referring to.
Back to Metallica. Wall discusses the Napster mess and its attendant fallout faithfully. Then there’s Some Kind of Monster, a documentary of Metallica’s recording St. Anger. Though well-received by critics, the movie is excruciating to watch: therapist Phil Towle is hired to “coach” the band, a process they allow to be filmed. How much Towle helped the band is something only they know. Viewers can only squirm.
In the predictable trajectory of rock bands, the members of Metallica have settled down into steady lives with wives and children. So has Wall, now married with three children of his own. The band is insistent about continuing to make music. Meanwhile, on 11 August 2011, Dave Mustaine spoke to the guitar website All Axcess about starting a Metal “Metallica/Megadeth Supergroup” sans Kirk Hammett. ( “Dave Mustaine Talks Metallica/Megadeth Supergroup”) . According to Mustaine, James Hetfield refused. But Mustaine, who turns 50 in September, said he plans to “keep hammering him. It’s on my bucket list.”
Some things never change.