On Friday, June 23, 1989, Metallica and crew attended a public screening of Tim Burton’s Batman at the local cineplex in my hometown of Waukesha, Wisc. I was 16 years old, quite excited to see Batman, and totally unaware that we were in the presence of future metal legends.
There was one seat left in the theater when the movie started, and it was next to me. Ten minutes in, drummer Lars Ulrich strolled down the aisle and filled that seat. (If you’ve seen the documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, then you know that Lars tends to show up late to things.)
The band was having a night off from the Damaged Justice tour behind their fourth LP, And Justice For All. Like the rest of America that Friday night, Metallica wanted to see Batman. I like to imagine that James Hetfield was watching the movie thinking, “Okay, the next step is to write an album that gets us the whole movie theater to ourselves. We’ll put a snake on the cover.”
During the movie, Lars radiated confidence and fire, shouting randomly at characters on the screen. I was frightened of the man, yet part of me was longing to become him. I’ll remember those 80 minutes forever.
When Metallica play Minneapolis this Saturday night, I’d love to trade the sign on the top of U.S. Bank Stadium with a sign reading “Minneapolis Institute of Art.” It’s the same reason I’ve always wanted to switch the sign on Valleyfair with the one over the Minneapolis Public Library.
By removing the context of things, we remove the judgment — and as General Kurtz told us in Apocalypse Now, “It’s judgment that defeats us.” Any music critic would be out of their minds to ignore the first three Metallica albums, yet “high art” culture is still afraid to embrace it.
Any classical music fan who enjoys the explosive darkness of Dmitri Shostakovich would most certainly hear a parallel in Master of Puppets. Metal is such a deep part of our world music culture, but for the most part, it is not received as a true art. Is it too loud? Too fast? Dare I say, too METAL?! It takes a tremendous amount of skill to bring loud, fast, and evil to fruition in music. Look at the blood on your fingers after you attempt a guitar solo riddled with 32nd notes. There’s a reason it’s called shredding.
I guess it’s the same reason horror movies don’t get nominated for Academy Awards. We keep fear at bay, and rightfully so. It’s scary. But metal is a catharsis. It forages through bleakness for a glint of fear’s meaning. With that glint, we can begin to deconstruct fear so to face it. Metal releases, like a steam valve, the fight-or-flight impulses backlogged in our parasympathetic nervous systems. The same fear that is elemental in our survival and evolution is embedded in the pathos of Metallica narratives. Or Slayer narratives. Or Sabbath narratives. (Megadeth too!)
That old cineplex where I once asked Lars Ulrich to kindly remove his feet from the seat back is torn down now. A lot has changed in our brave new 21st-century world. Over decades, the Metallica franchise has evolved to be praised and ridiculed by critics and fans in a lot of the same ways that the Batman franchise has.
Thankfully, millions of people worldwide aren’t too snotty to ride roller coasters, watch monster movies, or see sold-out concerts in space-age football stadiums. I couldn’t afford to see Metallica when I was a kid, and I still can’t afford to see them this weekend. But my wish is that somewhere in that crowd of 75,000 stands a Vivaldi fan — and when the band launches into “Call of Ktulu,” he or she raises a devil horned fist pump and says “Hey, this sounds a little bit like concerto No. 4 from The Four Seasons!”
Metallica still rock, and nothing else matters.