It's true that I've come to consider the band long after their peak. To recap, I disavowed metal through much of the 1980's and 1990's, siding on the other side of the metal/ punk tribal division, rejecting crossover, and even not enjoying certain albums (now regarded as classics) by SNFU, DRI, Suicidal Tendencies, and Bad Brains because they were "too metal" for me. I was pretty stubborn about this, thinking that these things somehow mattered. Previously, around age 13 and 14, I'd had a brief period of metal worship, getting a key peek at certain artists at crucial moments in their career: I saw Mob Rules-era Black Sabbath, with Ronnie James Dio singing; I caught Priest on the Screaming for Vengeance tour, Maiden on Number of the Beast and Van Halen on the Diver Down tour, AKA "Lock Up Your Sheep." I saw a host of opening acts for these shows like Krokus and Fastway and Saxon and Kickaxe. I'm pretty sure I saw the Blue Oyster Cult twice. I even owned Anvil's first album when it had just come out. But around 1984 or so, with the rise of hair metal and a growing, angry tribal division between punks and headbangers out here in the suburbs, I disavowed pretty much all of that stuff except Motorhead, which seemed okay for punks to like, and the first three Blue Oyster Cult albums, and maybe Alice Cooper's not-so-metal album Killer, which comprised the entirety of my metal consumption from about 1985-2008, unless you count accidental exposure to System of a Down at the Fuji Rock Festival I attended. It's not that I listened to punk exclusively through those years - since I also went through periods of obsession with free jazz, avant-garde music, noise, dub, old-timey, and various varieties of indy rock and pop; but metal remained far from my door, as the music of the unwashed and unenlightened, music for stupid people with too much testosterone. It was only after falling in love with Bison BC - a band I only checked out because I knew of Masa Anzai from the Vancouver free jazz and noise scenes - and then plunging headlong into late-period Motorhead for my first Lemmy interview a few years ago that I began to wonder if I'd been missing out. Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen's documentaries helped a lot as well, serving as the perfect "noobie's guide" for someone who missed out on so many exciting and creative developments in the metal camp. I've since gone back and listened to Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, Sepultura and so forth for the first time, and discovered much that delights me (or at least has held my interest).
The thing about Metallica, though, is that they were the one band friends of mine tried to play me when I was still deep in my anti-metal phase; said friends were convinced, based on their own respect for the band, that I would like them, but I remained resistant. Hell, I even remember one of the guys in my high school trying to convince me to check them out. Metallica may still suffer from the judgments I imposed on them then, which were never a factor with bands like Slayer and Sepultura and so forth, because I was completely ignorant of their music until recently, couldn't tell "Roots Bloody Roots" from "Angel of Death." The "holy shit, this is actually pretty good" reaction I felt when hearing such songs for the first time was totally denied me with Metallica: I already had an opinion in place, blocking the way to the glories beyond. It might just be sheer prejudice and snobbery on my part, a judgment I somehow cannot quite update, but there it is; maybe I don't like Metallica because I am still in the grips of the past. Maybe it's all just me.
That's still not to say that there's not a good reason for my past dislike, however. What leftover anger I have with metalheads is there for cause. Back in the day, the headbangers were too stupid, violent, and reactionary to recognize a potential underclass ally in us punks, and too damn eager to have someone even further below them in the pecking order to beat up on, all the while considering themselves rebels. James Hetfield, whom I know not at all, seemed to me then, as a teen, like the sort of person who I came to hate and regard as an enemy - exactly the type who might have beat the shit out of punks in high school (or at least the one I went to); while he seems a decent (if somewhat, uh, controlling) man in the Some Kind of Monster doc, it's still all too easy to imagine him as a teenager, leaping out of a Camaro with his friends to pummel some kids with spiky hair walking peacefully along the sidewalk, calling them "faggots" as he hits them. (This may seem harsh - Hetfield may well have NEVER participated in any such actions - but the guys who did that sorta thing actually did LOOK kinda like the Hetfield you see in old photos, you know? The association isn't entirely accidental). I can easily insert a youthful version of him amongst the crowd of longhaired stoners smokin' up in a park by my high school, dressed in their long-sleeved Led Zep t-shirts and plaid fleeces, who pelted me with rocks one afternoon when I walked past with dyed hair and a fauxhawk, listening to The Exploited on my shitty little tapedeck. It wasn't just a matter of us punks being elitist snobs who thought we were better than everyone else: we were that, but we also regarded the headbangers as assholes for a reason. Out in suburbia, they were a far greater threat to us, and a far better servant of the status quo, than the cops, and there are prejudices in me against the headbanger-type as I knew them that persist to this day, regardless of how much things may have changed.
This might all be totally unfair to Hetfield, of course, that I lump him in with the 'bangers. I don't know the guy at all, after all. All the same, at least some of his values are revealed in the Berlinger/ Sinofsky documentary, and they don't endear the man to me very much. Nevermind the constant bickering and general dysfunction on display in the film - which takes you past a certain eye-rolling contempt for the band to a place of surprising sympathy, as their troubles mount; the segment that disturbs me is actually when he's seen happily showing off photos of his vacation, hunting bears in Russia, early in the film. While I can have some respect for a certain variety of hunters - people who hunt for food, who are sincere outdoorspeople, who are deep in the lore and craft of it - the idea of rich people going out and bagging a bear for the fun of it, because they can, is kind of incomprehensible and vaguely revolting: buying the experience of killing an animal, for its own sake, seems only a few steps above buying the experience of killing a human being. Like, there could be a Headbanger Hostel movie with James Hetfield on the poster in a leather smock, holding a power drill, and it would make perfect sense (it's actually not a bad idea for a horror movie...).
But you know, I don't think I like Glenn Danzig much as a person, either, from what I've seen, and I still listen to his music, so that really can't be the whole of it, can it? And it's not that I was that keen on Napster; I have quite a bit of sympathy for the anti-file sharing camp, actually (mostly thanks to long conversations about it with Gerry Hannah, in fact). It's sure not that I have rancor for Metallica's "Bob Rock sellout" phase, either; I'm much more pissed off about certain bad Payolas songs than anything Bob Rock did with Metallica, and in fact, I like some of their Rock-era pop songs (such as their rather fresh and engaging version of "Whiskey in the Jar") more than a lot of what I've heard them do on those of their so-called classic albums that I've made myself listen to (Master of Puppets and And Justice For All, neither of which much moved me; yes, folks, I have never yet sat down to Kill'Em All or Ride the Lightning in completion, since I figure if I don't like THESE two albums, why would I like THOSE two?).
Is it, then, that the band's lyrics really don't interest me - that I associate them with a reactionary, conservative, war-obsessed streak in our culture, all too masculine, all too violent, all too unenlightened? That even their best songs, while obviously technically deft, all sort of sound kinda identical? (That would make it hard for me to explain my fondness for several other bands that the same might be said about, actually; it's not like there's a lot of variety on display on your average Cattle Decapitation album). Is it that there's something curiously flat and grim and greyly unilateral about their music, a lack of joy, play, fire, or variety that makes it quite confusing to me why they're so successful? Or do I simply resent like hell anyone who can become rich and massively popular making what I regard as status quo music, while bands I revere and respect (like Swans, playing the far smaller Venue on September 6th) are at best cult tastes, playing far smaller shows, drawing far less attention? I mean, the artist formerly known as Doc Dart of hardcore favourites the Crucifucks - a truly subversive band, compared to Metallica - is living in a boarded-up house outside Lansing, feeding raccoons; Lars Ulrich, on the other hand, owns at least one massive Basquiat painting, proudly on display above his sofa, and God knows what else. Where is the justice in that? Yet I actually like Doc Dart's voice a LOT more than I like James Hetfield's - and for those of you who only know Dart's insane screeching, check out his later pop songs (like this one) for a surprising treat...
Ach, I don't really know, you know? It actually troubles me a bit that I can't get into Metallica, that I can't even understand what other people get out of their music. There aren't many bands I don't like that I've sat down to listen to repeatedly in the hopes I will someday figure it out, you know? It's not like I keep returning to classic Bon Jovi hoping the plank will fall from my eyes. Hell, there's lots of rock and pop out there that I have no trouble understanding, without being in the slightest interested or feeling like I might be missing out. I don't feel disturbed by my total lack of interest in Nickelback, or Lady Gaga, or any of a billion acts; I think I get why people like them, I think I understand the pleasures to be had, and I'm simply unmoved. Yet it actually bugs me that I don't respond to Metallica, like it may actually be a shortcoming of MINE, and not that band's, that's getting in the way. And it's just weird, too, insofar as I've become quite a metal fan lately. I listen to Slayer and Sepultura (and Mayhem and Cannibal Corpse and Cradle of Filth and Arkona and Melechesh and Lair of the Minotaur and Burning Witch and Morbid Angel and Amon Amarth and...), and in all cases I think "yes." I listen to Anthrax and Megadeth and think, "okay, interesting, even if I don't much care." Then I try Metallica and I go, "no, sorry, I DO NOT LIKE THIS MUSIC. I really don't." And then I wonder if there's something wrong with me, if some irrationality or incapacity on my part is blocking my access to a truly great rock band, which people keep assuring me Metallica is.
Hell, I'm willing to work on it. Since it only costs $5, I'm going to go see the band live tomorrow night to see if finally I will get it. I will report my reaction, as time allows, in the comments section below. I would either like to like Metallica, or at least know decisively why I don't, and the chance to see them live and settle the matter once and for all is simply too compelling to pass up. Either I emerge from tomorrow's concert a Metallica fan, or I emerge feeling like I have put the matter to rest and never need listen to them again.
Or else some thuggish metal fan like the ones I went to high school with reads this, takes umbrage, and beats the shit out of me, in which case I may not emerge at all. You never know, at a metal show... There are still an awful lot of stupid, violent people out there...