Behind the Black Curtain
On a live recording from 1997, James Hetfield crouches at the microphone and tells the audience, “I’ll give you a fucking heavy ass song, man.” For twenty years and more than 90 million records sold, Metallica has been delivering their brand of sturm and drang to the world. However, this is a group that largely avoids the limelight off stage. Even though at one time they had the richest record deal ever, they aren’t featured on VH1’s The Fabulous Life. There was a Behind the Music but even that focused primarily on official band activities. No discussions of bling-bling. No tales of yachts and no homemade porn movies. Just 20 years of warfaces and music made for stomping. So What! The Good, The Mad, and The Ugly: The Official Metallica Illustrated Chronicle, provides a fully refracted vivisection of these hidden heroes.
In late 1993, the Metallica fan club established the magazine So What! in order to communicate with their rabid fan base. Vocalist Hetfield says they wanted to “break the myth that a fan club can’t be more than something that demands $25 from eager fans and they get sent a merchandising flyer once a year. We want something that goes beyond just information. A deep and honest look into us as humans the fun pain we go through.” This text is a collection of articles from that magazine spanning a decade. Some of the items were written by Chirazi and many articles were written by the band members themselves. Unvarnished, revealing, annoying, inspiring, and illuminating, the voices of Metallica in this book reach far beyond Hetfield’s usual growl on his vocal recordings.
First of all, So What! is attractively and professionally designed and presented. Too many books that are compilations of fan club materials tend to come off looking like a high school yearbook, So What! presents the attitude of Metallica without looking silly. With more than 1,000 exclusive photos, early advertising flyers, childhood snapshots, handwritten lyrics and set lists, and band doodles, the book could easily serve as a coffee table art book for those obsessed fans. Certainly there are the obligatory concert photos of any rock god: head thrown back, foot on the monitor, finger pointed towards the audience. But in addition to these standard photos, there are plenty of art compositions from noted photographer Anton Corbijn. The Corbijn photos are interesting moments in time for the band. Newly shorn, controversially short hair, they stand in San Francisco streets. Hetfield looks like the Marlboro Man in blue jeans, cowboy boots and hat. Guitarist Kirk Hammett is a Puerto Rican pimp, with spectator shoes and pachuco pants. Drummer Lars Ulrich poses as typical rock royalty with black leather pants and white T-shirt while bassist Jason Newstead foreshadows things to come by appearing the most normal of the bunch, the most straight ahead, tennis shoes and Ramones leather jacket.
Metallica is a band notorious for their aversion to any image or fashion. With their all-black stage clothes, for years, the main concession to appearance was Hetfield’s demand that a kitty litter bin of local dirt be placed backstage so he could dirty up his boots before stomping on-stage. And yet, the photos in So What! are revealing. As the band cuts their hair, stops wearing Misfits T-shirts, and begins dressing in their own style, the growth of these four individuals becomes noticeable.
The changes reflected in the photos of the band are all present in the articles and writings. The book begins with an article written by Chirazi in 1984. It introduces the history of the band, including the exile of original members Ron McGovney and Dave Mustaine. It’s interesting to note that at this early stage in their career, the biggest controversy in the article is the band’s refusal to accept the designation of being a thrash metal band. Ulrich reveals a bit of his personality that fans and critics will get to know well over the next two decades when he says “If you were to call us the original, the first thrash metal band, then maybe you’d have some justification.”
With the exception of this early article, and some memorial recollections of deceased bassist Cliff Burton, the bulk of the book’s material starts with the early to mid-‘90s. Coming off their eponymous album (also known as The Black Album), Metallica was one of the biggest bands in the world. And the cracks were already beginning to show. All of what is revealed in So What! isn’t pretty or admirable. Hetfield and Ulrich’s white-knuckled control of the band is legendary and there are several interviews where they proudly talk about the progress they’ve made and how they’ve changed. Twenty-five pages later, a completed record, and another interview sounds that same refrain. The discussion of control and whether the members can be allowed to be individual people seems to be a chronic disease with this band and the reader wonders if they’ll ever get it.
Although interviews at the end of the book (and much of the recent documentary Some Kind of Monster) would seem to suggest they’ve finally learned their lesson, it didn’t come soon enough to save the relationship with bassist Newstead. But the hopeful point is that they do keep revisiting those wounds and at least try to grow instead of, like so many rock bands, just ignoring the problem with booze and silicone women. In a similar manner, Hetfield’s hiatus from the band and his time in rehabilitation are also laid bare in an unflinchingly honest display that reveals a workman like dedication to the grim task at hand.
So What! is probably not for the faint of heart. It is so exhaustive, so detailed, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine a non-music (or even non-Metallica) willing to sift through Hetfield’s hand-drawn doodles and or Hammett’s discussions of surfing. The book is admirably presented and is certainly interesting so general music fans might possibly find it interesting while Metallica denizens will find if invaluable. It’s a testament to the work of editor Chirazi that the main complaints about the book are really criticisms of the personalities depicted.
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