My Week With Metallica - Part 2
Who's saying what
At the end of 2010, Metallica's drummer Lars Ulrich called my phone. He'd read a review I'd written of the band, found my number and wanted to talk.
Here is the second and final part of our feature on what happened next.
By Marcus Teague
We'd started the night at—delightfully—the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, a large, rusted red building artfully sunk into the dirt next to the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. I'd been granted a guest spot for tonight's End of the World Magnetic tour party (even though there are two shows to go) and so had invited along the photographer for my Metallica review, Tim, for Friday night drinks of a different nature.
After arriving unfashionably early to suck down free booze, waltz through the art exhibits and graze on oysters and sushi laying atop a hulking slab of ice, we mingle with the slowly growing Metallica crew. Rob strikes us as a gentle giant, a bit wary of strangers but entirely comfortable answering their stupidly specific questions. ("Oh the Suicidal Tendencies tour here with Alice in Chains? Man that was a fun tour. I was in St. Kilda with Mike Starr late one night and...*insert story*...and he was in hospital for two weeks!") He also tells us how happy he is to have played the Cliff Burton-penned instrumental ‘Orion’ last night. That he feels it was—and is—important to him. [Cliff Burton is the band's legendary original bassist, who was killed in a bus accident in 1986, aged 24. He remains something of a spiritual talisman for the band and their fans.]
Elsewhere, Stage manager Alan Doyle spills the beans ("Those coffins above the stage? Rubbish") and the hulking, aforementioned Thomas Robb, (who it turns out, is a complete gentleman), backs up Doyle's claim that, despite working on some of the worlds biggest tours (from Motley Crue to Taylor Swift), the Metallica experience is one of a kind. And “the best”. Each of them impart the convincing wisdom that they're not completely looking forward to winding this thing up.
Later in the party I tap James Hetfield on the shoulder and ask him about his feelings regarding the end of the tour. Conflicted, he says. Looking forward to being home and seeing his kids but also aware that it signifies the beginning of a new cycle. "I've got eight hundred and something riffs in my iTunes" he says. "And that's about it. But I'm excited". (I mention this number to Lars later on and he laughs: "Yeah that may be. [But] by the time we dwindle it down it's enough for about three songs!") I like James. It's plainly evident that he doesn't suffer fools; he chooses his words as carefully as he takes on yours. Which ups the ante, meaning you need to select the right ones to engage; a mental spar made all the more difficult at this point in time by the see-saw of sobriety that hangs now (and somehwat infamously) in his favour. We touch on other things and he talks candidly, surprisingly so. I'll hear later on when pressing for more interview time that James considered this "our chat" - which seemed disappointing initially. But in hindsight, I realise the trade-off was immense.
Three fuzzy hours later the Metallica drummer is staring at me accusingly, looking for a moments peace. Earlier he was praising me, saying how portions of my original review had shone a light on aspects of the band that struck him as genuinely insightful, and thus was now interrogating me as to my perspective on writing. It's a test, I think. I tell him that anyone can count the number of fireballs in a show, but to detail the experience from a once-removed individuals perspective, (hopefully) goes some way in allowing readers the opportunity to inhabit those emotions rather than just read about them. This seems to strike him as worthwhile. He tells me he'll write the introduction to my book, if I ever do one. Lars seems to have an uncanny ability to deflect attention on to the other, to connect people. To collate details and make them personally significant. To arrange things. All of which inevitably returns attention to him tenfold. It's the perfect talent for a band mastermind; that it's a default for Lars also makes him hugely likeable.
Soon nearly everyone has left, even Tim. Steffan and I try to convince Lars to go out and meet up with the portion of the crew that have gone to Cherry Bar. Baroness arrive, the iPod is being over-programmed amongst the clutter of oyster shells and empty Champagne bottles, and Lars is staring at me, deciding whether or not to—as he says in interviews—still flex the ability to "throw down". "Cherry?" he taunts. "OK". We walk out the door and into the idling black limo cab.
Tragically hungover in the Melbourne heat, I arrive at the hotel lobby entrance on Saturday afternoon just in time to miss traveling with the band to the venue. Again. The same fans from the last two days are here again also, lurking on the other side of the driveway like some rebel battalion; gazing suspiciously across no-man's land while plotting their next move. Attack. Retreat. Reassemble. Attack. Repeat.
James has invited the local chapter of the Californian Hot Rod club to attend this evening's show, evidently on the proviso that they bring along their machines. Thus a row of gleaming (if a little rickety up close) hot rod cars sit outside the back entrance to the stadium. While the sun goes down, Hetfield wanders between them and their coiffured, cuff-panted greaser owners, inspecting our quaint local approximation of American culture. In keeping with the occasion he's also wearing a pork-pie hat, blue jeans with cuffs (though still with the ever present black bandana hanging from the back pocket) and a white 'My Brothers Keeper' tee, gifted to him by surfer bad boy Koby Abberton.
Inside the crew area, someone's erected a large sign outside the management office that details events occurred around the world whilst Metallica have been on tour. The kind of signposts that throw the enormity of the tour period in sharp relief. BP Oil Spill. Spain wins the World Cup. Release of iPhone 4. NZ Earthquake. Ronnie James Dio (RIP). In amongst the global events there's a handful of personal footnotes. Tori's engagement to opening act drummer reads one. Josh has baby. Katie starts kindergarten. It's a reminder of how ho-hum human life has a way of meshing with the theatre of all this. While you're finally shrieking "MASTER! MASTER!" in your hometown, someone very nearby is Skyping home to tell their family how their day was.
It's 40 minutes from showtime and I'm in the tuning room. James is yet to show up. Lars yells out 'Marcus, you play guitar right? Do you know 'The Outlaw Torn'?' To my crushing dismay, I do not. Finally James arrives and they begin working on the ending to 'The God That Failed'. Not having played it since 2006, the band recently resurrected the Black album cut for a once-off at the Brisbane show in October, where they fiddled with an alternate ending. Lars is keen to end it the same way as they did then, so Mike brings up a perfectly mixed version of that exact recording about 15 seconds after being asked. The band listen through the PA, playing along a little before returning to face each other and running through it. It's a profound luxury having such a set up as this. The ability to recall, essentially every musical thought—whether in concert, in rehearsal or on record—at the push of a button/dude. It could almost make you mechanical. And then Lars laughingly voices a universal rehearsal room thought: "Can I ask a question? It sounds better in the house than in here right?".
It does. The show tonight is amazing; for reasons beyond Metallica's control. Standing down on the floor looking up, the arena hums with energy; a cauldron of humans rippling as one fleshy, pink beast, roaring in concert around the band from the get go. The band can telll. While Hetfield's nightly exhortations of 'Can you feel it?' *cue roar* sometimes seem perfunctory, tonight's comes as an attempt to genuinely pull focus. To harness the hysterics seething around them here and send it back into the maelstrom. After the first batch of songs I run through the pit side of stage, dodging a teeming row of punching hands and swinging hair to position myself at James and Rob's end of the stage. The band reach the end of 'The God That Failed' and stop on a dime, just like they talked about earlier in rehearsal - Lars cracks a knowing smile at Hammett. James steps off stage at the end of the main step and fist bumps me on the way to high-fiving fans in the front row. I wonder if it’s an apology of sorts.
After the show, when the band are whisked away for a dinner with management and the crew disperses elsewhere, I wander alone into the early Sunday morning netherworld. Not wanting to see friends, go to the same bars...but not ready to go home. I drink up the back of the smallest place I know is open and make notes. Try and not let the duality of this version of reality set in. There's a random tweet on my phone: "#metallica totally skull f**ked me last night. I WANNA DO IT AGAIN'. Crude. Perceptive.
It's Sunday, the last day of the Melbourne shows and thus the very last of the tour. Once again there's a swarm of fans waiting outside the hotel lobby. I ask one if the band has come out yet. "No" he says, narrowing his eyes. "But we've seen their cars". I ask one reasonable man, with flames on his sunglasses and an enormous goatee, why he's waiting here. "I don't know really. I've never done this for any other band", he searches. "I'm not one of those guys. I just love them". The kid next to us suddenly bolts at speed and I turn to see Rob emerging to sign a round of autographs. The fans circle. The careful unraveling of posters. The hopeful crates of CDs. The slow but incremental erosion of Rob's personal space.
Over at the lobby Thom is waiting for a ride to the venue and together we look across the driveway discussing these fans that wait outside hotels the world over. He tells me that one of the rules he has for them is that no-one is allowed to take a photo of a band member signing a guitar. The reason, he says, is that it can then be used as proof of authenticity when an eBay seller is trying to hock it. I have not considered these things before.Continued next page: "It's going to be a free for all I can feel it"; "hotpants"; "respect the purity of the approach"; "there's no other band".