A New Life For The Monsters Of Rock

On the day in September 2001 that James Hetfield was released from rehab for alcohol abuse, the Metallica singer spoke on the phone with drummer Lars Ulrich, who'd helped him launch the band 20 years before. The conversation did not go well. "The guys--they had no idea," says Hetfield, 39. "They figure you go away, you come back out, you're fixed. Like we'll meet up and jam the next day. Sorry, but it's a lot harder than that." Ulrich wanted to get the band together for a meeting, but Hetfield said no. Then the singer told his best friend not to call anymore; the next communication, he said, would come from him. So Ulrich waited. And waited. Months went by. "I can tell you," Ulrich recalls, "that I certainly started numbing myself--I think that's the best way to put it--to the potential outcome that the band was not going to continue." Hetfield finally called on Dec. 26: Ulrich's 37th birthday.

Metallica fans will be delighted that the band's forthcoming CD, "St. Anger"--the first new material from the quartet in six years--is loud, brutal, relentless and unlistenable to almost anyone but Metallica fans. The guys in the band, meanwhile, are just delighted that it exists. Hetfield's three months out of commission topped off a grim few years that would've crushed a less resilient group. In 2000 Ulrich waged a disastrous battle with the Web site Napster, during which he released the names of 300,000 Metallica fans (many now ex-fans) who'd used the site to download the band's music. Then in January 2001 bassist Jason Newsted--who'd joined Metallica after a 1986 tour-bus crash killed original member Cliff Burton--quit the band, seething about the miserable atmosphere.

For a decade Metallica had been exploding out of the headbanger niche market with platinum-selling albums "... And Justice For All" (1988), "Metallica" (1991) and "Load" (1996), and all the while pounding so much vodka they earned the nickname "Alcoholica." By the time Hetfield sought help, he says, "I had turned into raw hamburger." When he finally rejoined Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett at their San Francisco studio, his band mates barely recognized him. "He was a lot more pleasant to be around," Ulrich says, laughing. "He doesn't use 'James Hetfield, singer, Metallica' as a front anymore. He doesn't use it as a way to intimidate people."

For the next three months, they did nothing but talk. "Reintroducing ourselves," as Ulrich puts it. After a long search, they hired a new bassist, Robert Trujillo of the thrash band Suicidal Tendencies, and got back to work in May 2002. Right away, Hetfield surprised his pals by asking for help writing lyrics on the new CD--a task he had always ferociously reserved for himself. The band set just one rule for the recording sessions: no one could work on anything alone.

Appropriately, almost all the songs on "St. Anger" are about the loss and reassertion of control. "Feeling my world shake/ like an earthquake," Hetfield howls on the title track; later he warns, "It's my world/ you can't have it." The singer may finally have his private world in order, but the outside world is another matter--especially since he's about to resume the very thing that got him into trouble in the first place: touring with the guys. "They're gonna want to go out and party," he says. "Well, what the hell do I do? I mean, can I say to them, 'Hey, can't we just go to a movie?' "

A New Life For The Monsters Of Rock | News