Pulling Teeth: In Search of a Quality Metallica Biography

By Ben HamiltonNovember 27, 2013

Pulling Teeth: In Search of a Quality Metallica Biography

Birth School Metallica Death by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood

IN THE EXCELLENT British documentary Mission to Lars journalist Kate Spicer pledges to take her brother Tom to meet his hero, Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s impish, Danish drummer. Tom has Fragile X syndrome, a severe form of autism, and he lives in a residential care home. His days are ruled by routine and familiarity, but Kate wants him to have an adventure. One of the few desires he has ever expressed is to, as he laconically repeats throughout the film, “meet Lars,” and so with some difficulty Tom, Kate and their younger brother, Will, follow Metallica’s tour across America, hoping to meet Lars backstage at one of their concerts.

The film is more about familial guilt than it is about Metallica, but it works as a companion piece to 2004’s Some Kind of Monster, the documentary that stripped away the action-figure heroism of rock stardom and showed us that being in the world’s most famous metal band could be hell. Not a grand, Miltonian, metal hell, but the worldly hell of an endless office meeting, led by a quartet of inadequate CEOs. By this point in their career, Metallica — post-Napster — had become utterly unlovable, and the album that came from the sessions documented in the film, St Anger, remains unloved by the fan base. Right now, somewhere on the internet, people are lamenting St Anger’s drum sound or guitar tuning. Metalheads never forget.

But can metalheads forgive? Mission to Lars, by approaching the band from a fan’s perspective, shows a rehabilitated Metallica; softer, kinder, tighter, and bigger. Ten years ago we may have wondered why anyone would travel to meet Lars Ulrich (who, by the way, comes across very well in the film). Now it makes sense. Simply through persevering, Metallica have become re-mythologised as a bulletproof touring machine, a reputation bolstered by this year’s concert film, Through the Never. They are ready, once again, to be adored.

Yet despite Metallica’s global popularity and influence, you’ll struggle to find a decent book with their name on the cover. They have been written about at length before, most recently in Mick Wall’s Enter Night and Joel McIver’s To Live Is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton, but these books are liner notes for obsessives rather than serious studies of a cultural force. The same is true of metal in general; it has never been granted the intellectual respect of other forms. Certain subgenres — particularly black metal — have lately gained a hip cultural cachet, but this is merely a vagary of fashion. To outsiders, metal is beneath consideration. Insiders, meanwhile, lack a distant, critical eye.

Birth School Metallica Death Vol. 1, at first appearance, seems as though it could clear some space for more sober discussion. Its title, a kind of catchphrase that has adorned t-shirts for decades, is perfectly ambiguous: does it suggest a positive lifestyle choice or submission? The Vol. 1 does a lot of work too. For the bookish it may bring to mind multi-volume biographies like those of Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King Jr. In the introduction the authors imply this is a two-part biography, the second part to be published next year (Vol. 1 ends in 1991, with Metallica on the cusp of world domination), but if Metallica keeps going who knows how many volumes there will be in the end. Twenty years from now will people have six leather-jacketed editions of the complete biography on their shelves? Lulu, their collaborative album with the recently departed Lou Reed, surely deserves a volume all to itself.

The authors, Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood, have long careers as music journalists, writing most notably for Kerrang! (as did the band’s other biographer, Mick Wall) a British magazine that used to set the conversation for rock and metal among teenagers. It taught me everything I needed to know about responsible drug use and mosh pit etiquette. I was already in the authors’ debt before I’d opened the book.

But goodwill only gets you so far. The truth is Birth School Metallica Death Vol. 1 does not live up to the promise of its title. In the United Kingdom it is published by Faber & Faber, which grants the book a misleading aura (Faber’s creative director, Lee Brackstone, is fanatical about pop music and wrote a public letter to Morrissey back when publishers were still vying for his autobiography). Fans who believe there is more to the band than split ends and flying v’s, that the music is communicating something more profound, won’t come away from this book justified. There are no surprises, no fresh angles. Worse, there isn’t an elegant sentence to be found in its 392 pages.

This is a problem because Metallica is more interesting — as a band and as individuals — than you might think. Their dynamic has always rested on the relationship between Ulrich and frontman James Hetfield. From the start it was Ulrich who carried the ambition. Raised by liberal, artistic parents in Denmark, he lived among creative adults — jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon was his godfather — and when he moved to the United States he was first surprised and then enraged that society would not bend to his will. He excelled at tennis (he was at one time “among the top ten junior players in Denmark”) but stopped when he realized how much more work it would take to pursue as a career — and how much it would distract him from alcohol and heavy metal.

Ulrich’s dreams were always ahead of his abilities. “Lars is a good drummer,” says Flemming Rasmussen, one of the band’s early producers “but he’s not a good timekeeper.” Relentlessly ingratiating, he’s the kind of person who quickly establishes himself among strangers, even when his worst characteristics are on show. When he was still a teenager he flew to England to see his favorite band, Diamond Head, and ended up staying with them for a week.

At his first jam session with Hetfield — one of the most pernickety rhythm guitarists in rock — he failed to make a good impression: “Opening his eyes, [Hetfield] would see the young drummer’s cymbals or snare drum tumble to the floor beneath his wildly enthusiastic flailing.” It would have been the last time they saw each other, had Ulrich not given Hetfield the chance to play on the Metal Massacre compilation record that launched their career.

Hetfield had no choice but to accept. He was born in Downey, California, to Christian Scientist parents. His father was an alcoholic who would leave home for long stretches and his mother died in 1980 after declining treatment for an undiagnosed illness. Like Ulrich, Hetfield put music above everything else. When told he should cut his long hair in order to join the school’s football team he refused, even though he was “nurturing pipe dreams of a starting position with the Oakland Raiders.” But if Ulrich was led to music by an excess of energy and sociability, Hetfield was driven by his own ferocious interiority. You can see it even now when he’s onstage. His leonine eyes, sloping inwards, give nothing away.

Beside these two whirlwinds, the other members of the band can seem like session musicians. In the early days, Kirk Hammett, Metallica’s ever-suffering lead guitarist, would turn up to the studio just to put down his solo tracks and then leave while Ulrich and Hetfield hammered out the rest. Hammett is rarely mentioned in the book as an agent of events, but we can imagine him standing on the side-lines whenever an argument breaks out between Lars and James, breathing a quiet “dude” when the raised voices become screams. Cliff Burton, the band’s bassist for their first three albums, has been deified by fans ever since he died in a tour bus accident in 1986. But Brannigan and Winwood provide a useful counter-balance to claims that Burton was the real maestro of those early, prodigious records. His knowledge of classical music may have helped push the band in a more experimental direction, but he wasn’t always willing to put in the time. Like Hammett, he had a habit of leaving the studio as soon as his parts were done. “Given the group dynamic of the time,” write the authors, “it is inconceivable that either Hetfield or Ulrich would have abandoned their post in this fashion.” His personality was at odds with the rest of the band. There are small examples of his contrasting character throughout: while staying at the home of their early benefactors, Johnny and Marsha Zazula, the band showed their appreciation by drinking the special occasion champagne and vomiting on the floor, but Burton “would help put Rikki Lee [the couple’s daughter] to bed in the evening, and would often read the child a bedtime story.” This is a sweet, humane detail in a book that could do with a few more.

It’s always been the Lars and James show, but their fractious relationship can be seen among the hours and hours of film already dedicated to the band. A biography will have to claw through the fabric of what we already know. Birth School Metallica Death Vol. 1 does not succeed on this level, nor does it succeed as a book for a more general audience. As much as the metal band namedropping appeals to the part of me that is still 17, it is hard to imagine a non-metalhead making much sense of casual references to Cirith Ungol or Angel Witch, or the “international prominence” of Behemoth and Armored Saint. Perhaps it is naïve to think such a book can have a readership beyond its fan base (after all, the fan base is big enough to ensure commercial success) but biographies of, say, Duke Ellington or Bach can be satisfying experiences for the uninitiated, even if it’s necessary to look up every piece on YouTube as you go along. Reading the book I kept thinking the ideal Metallica biography would be written by someone with little passion for metal in particular, but with a general panoramic interest in the wider musical culture.

Books on metal are rarely eloquent, so singling out bad sentences feels, in this case, especially brutal. But, then again, some of you might appreciate the warning: “On the rare occasions that the new kids on the block were not running wild through the streets of San Francisco,” the authors write, “back in El Cerrito the ‘Metallica Mansion’ drew faces from the scene into which its tenants had recently parachuted, like filings to a magnet.” This is violently bad; that last little flick of a simile is a kick to the ribs. Elsewhere a weird, almost mock-Victorian tone creeps in. Here are the authors on Metallica losing out at the Grammy Awards: “Yet Metallica took defeat with the kind of grace befitting men who have been snubbed by a body the opinion of which they respected not at all.” And on one of the band’s favorite haunts: “Tommy’s was an establishment popular with Metallica: not only did its quiet corners permit discreet misdemeanours, but its menu featured soul food selections that were both affordable and flavoursome, and pumps and fridges filled with beers of a variety sufficient to satiate the most discerning palates.” The writers want to avoid plain language, but always swerve too wide: merchandise sellers, for example, rather than simply selling shirts for money, are “exchanging soft clothing for hard currency.” A poisoned chalice becomes “a chalice brimming with a liquid of the highest toxicity.”

Almost every page is heavy with elaborate, contorted phrases, and some of the critical judgments, when you can pick them out, are suspicious. Brannigan and Winwood describe the lyrics to “Battery,” one of the band’s outright thrash numbers, as “powerful and poetic” before quoting this: “Smashing through the boundaries, lunacy has found me, cannot stop the battery.” Effective, maybe, but “powerful and poetic”? We are told that the “rarely spoken truth” about the somber, unique Kill ‘Em All bass solo “Anaesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” is that “an innovative bass solo is not as interesting as a good song.” The point they are making is not as good — nor as rare — as they think it is. A late chapter on the recording of …And Justice for All (Metallica’s most fascinating early album) is better, more pared down and efficient, although my interest in the material may have momentarily overpowered its bombastic style.

Some of the quotes from the band and other people involved with the band’s machinery are original and taken from first-hand reporting by the authors — but most aren’t. The chapter on the making of “The Black Album” is basically a retelling of the Classic Albums documentary that aired in 2001. Many quotes are taken from old magazines and messily spread about the place, mostly with no reference to the date and source of the quote in the body of the text, so the reader has to check the references at the back of the book to discover whether something was said to the authors in 2010 or to an underground fanzine in 1984. To add to the confusion, the narrative occasionally switches to present tense reportage (“The chairman and chief executive officer of Metal Blade Records is on his hands and knees in a storage cupboard at his company’s headquarters…”) for no discernible reason, expect perhaps to say, “we left the office and did some footwork once in a while.”

A question hasn’t stopped crossing my mind since I cut my hair and took to wearing buttoned shirts, and Birth School Metallica Death Vol. 1 has only underlined its importance: is it reasonable and appropriate for intelligent adults to listen to metal? Let’s be impolite. Go to a rock gig, look at the grown men with long hair and horned fists growling “METAAALLICAAAAAAAAA” (it doesn’t matter what band you’re seeing, they will be there). Many years ago these people were role models, images of the Übermensch I so desired to be. Now I think: what the hell is wrong with them? They work boring IT jobs, they bake banana bread, they go to christenings — they’re no less mundane than the rest of us. Yet something is keeping them down. They haven’t changed their shirt or cut their hair in a decade. Heavy Metal Parking Lot is being unconsciously re-enacted in a thousand clubs and venues every night, and a book like Birth School Metallica Death Vol. 1, by going no deeper than magazine-level analysis, does nothing to challenge this.

Of course what really matters is the music itself. Perhaps we should be grateful that metal hasn’t been hijacked by the mainstream or, much worse, the academy (a nightmare scenario: “Grindcore and the Weeping Male: Gender semiotics in the music of Agoraphobic Nosebleed”). Primal and transcendent, raw and burnished, it’s the music that asserts its own reason for being. And it still gets to me, somehow, after all this time. In fact I’m wary of people who don’t respond to Metallica’s “Battery” or Megadeth’s “Hangar 18” or, because the metal in my blood longs for the arcane, Meshuggah’s immortal “I.” The vast, strange, deep back catalogue of metal in all its variations is an epic expression of catharsis, unmatched by any other music I’ve heard. Will it always be chronicled by the incompetent? We have no reason to expect otherwise. Heavy Metal Parking Lot may remain the enduring artifact of metal culture, but if you really want to understand why people fall into this noise and never come out again, simply listen to it — and stay the hell away from books.


Ben Hamilton is a freelance book critic from England.

LARB Contributor

Ben Hamilton is a freelance book critic from England. He has written for numerous online and print publications, including The Millions, Bookslut, the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times and The Spectator.


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