James Hetfield: Iron Man
Originally published in Guitar World, November 2009
In his most revealing interview, James Hetfield opens up about Metallica, Dave Mustaine, his marriage and his troubled childhood… and shows why what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
There is a scene in the 2004 Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, where drummer Lars Ulrich petulantly voices his dissatisfaction with James Hetfield’s post-rehab approach to recording. Specifically, Ulrich is unhappy with the guitarist’s edict that all work on the group’s then-forthcoming album, St. Anger, must end at four in the afternoon so that the singer can spend time with his family. “I realize now that I barely knew you before,” Ulrich says. It’s a throwaway line, but one that resonates with Metallica fans. After all, since the band released its debut record, Kill ’Em All, in 1983, Hetfield had developed into the archetypal metal frontman, an intense, uncompromising performer of feral charisma. His free time was filled with loose women, hard drinking, southern rock and hunting. To his audience, he was a bulletproof icon of head-banging good times. They felt that they really knew this man. And they were entirely wrong.
Sitting on a plush purple couch in his office at the band’s California base of operations, the Hetfield of today punctuates his mild West Coast drawl with the occasional nervous laugh as he answers questions with the considered candor of a therapy veteran. As evidenced by the critical and commercial success of the band’s 2008 album, Death Magnetic, a Hetfield minus guns, booze and simmering “issues” has done nothing to blunt Metallica’s edge. As Metallica return stateside on the second leg of their world tour, Hetfield gives Ben Mitchell this candid interview, in which he proves that he is far from a self-pitying celebrity poster boy for clean living, even when discussing the more painful details of his remarkable history.
GUITAR WORLD What was your childhood like?
JAMES HETFIELD I grew up in suburban L.A., pretty middle-class. Our house was great. I could walk to every school I went to—elementary, middle school and high school, all right near by. Dad was a truck driver, owned a trucking company eventually. Mom was a stay-athome mom. She was an artist—she painted and she did some graphic design stuff. It’s funny: I remember being at home alone a lot. I had two older half-brothers and a younger sister. It was difficult in the house, definitely. I was just trying to put myself in my dad’s shoes—when he and my mom got married she had two teenage boys—and how difficult that must have been. I remember being a loner and seeing my sister get in trouble a lot. She was a very rebellious, loud type of child. I saw what the consequences were for her actions, so I went the other way. I was covert, and I got away with stuff—which didn’t serve me well.
GW You were raised in the Christian Science religion?
HETFIELD That was very interesting, yet very alienating for me as a kid. Now, being older, I can understand the religion a little bit more: the power of the mind allowing positive thinking to heal you, trying not to acknowledge the illness…things like that. But not going to doctors, basically ignoring all that medical intelligence…that didn’t make much sense to me. I think that now in my life they work well together: yes, there is the power of the mind, but there’s also knowledge that we’ve learned. Someone breaks his or her arm, you go get it set at least. That was not even allowed. I couldn’t go to health class as a kid—you’re learning about how your body functions, things like that. I wasn’t allowed to learn that. I would have to leave the classroom and go stand in the hallway or go to the principal’s office. It was more like a punishment. My parents were trying to make me better in a way by keeping me away from that stuff, but it was very much the opposite. My dad split when I was 13. At that point I just said to my mom, “I’m not going to Sunday school any more. Make me.” That was it.
GW What do you remember about the divorce?
HETFIELD It was very confusing for me, as a kid, to not know what was going on. It was kind of hidden. That’s a big character defect that I still carry—I think everyone’s hiding something from me. Dad took off, and for months and months we had no idea that he wasn’t coming back. My mom said he was on a business trip, and then she finally told the truth. I felt the fear of being the man of the house, too, and not knowing what to do, feeling like I didn’t learn enough from my dad, that he wasn’t there for me… All that stuff just started piling up. I felt a lot of hatred toward him. He didn’t even say goodbye. I have no idea, really, what was going on between the two of them. It could have been something completely horrible where he had to just leave or else. But they were both extremely religious, and to me that goes against divorce. Abandonment. So I had abandonment issues.
And then my mom passed away about three years after that. I attribute it to a lot of the discomfort with the divorce and the turmoil there. It was very traumatic.
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