"You can't choose your circumstances," she said, "but you can choose how you react to them."
That's sort of paraphrasing, but she said it in response to my tirade about how the bad guys stay on top, God doesn't really help and wah wah wah I have to fix my van again. It's really changed my outlook, and lo and behold, there is a silver lining if you don't get pissy and forget to look for it. And as it turns out, I've got a goal to look work toward and tons of opportunities to make it happen.
If you view Some Kind of Monster, A Year in the Life of Metallica, and Cliff 'Em All in that order, and it's a little bit like watching the Star Wars saga in the order of episodes IV-VI and then III-I, focusing on Darth Vader, except if episodes I, II and III weren't frustratingly lame.
Read the following and that comparison will make more sense.*
Watching the Metallica docs in reverse order gives you the following portraits:
Some Kind of Monster: Metallica in 2002-03, when they've pissed off each other, pissed on their fans and saddled with the hassles of making their worst album. Worse, they unintentionally portray themselves as the sort of out-of-touch rockstars on which their collective 20-year-old selves would levy withering and palpably demoralizing contempt. By the time you watch Cliff 'Em All, you'll wish for the power to travel time for no other reason than to journey back to 1983, kidnap Cliff Burton and whisk him forward twenty years to whip Lars' ass while he's watching his Basquiat get auctioned for $3 million at Christie's. To wit: they have a "fan appreciation day," as if they are the fucking Oakland A's. Lars sells art while sipping champagne. James goes to rehab, and cuts their days short so for family time. I can’t necessarily fault him for this, and frankly, it is nice to see him come to grips with what is really important to himself. On the other hand, you kinda wish they’d just hung it up. I bought their “comeback” album, and while it’s pretty good, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary—in fact, what it inspired me to do is listen to Kill ‘Em All a lot more, and consider that …And Justice For All is a good album after all. So you see a band losing its way and sort of finding it, but not really. If that doesn’t sound tragic enough, SKOM also features plenty of shots of Bob Rock, their longtime (since the black album) Canadian producer and human diaperwipe/ballsucking music industry cliché. With his layered Jennifer-Aniston-bob, pirate earrings and mid-life crisis paunch, he looks like an old lesbian. But way worse than both of those elements are the therapy sessions. To the tune of $40K a month, the band talks about their feelings with a Cosby-sweater-wearing psychologist whose last name is Towle, which probably rhymes with "coal" but which I will forever pronounce like the thing you wipe your hands on after you use the toilet.** Hearing James Hetfield say he's "not comfortable" with something is like hearing a baby talk about the death of an ancient civilization. It's mind-boggling and amazing in a really unsettling way.
A Year in the Life of Metallica: Metallica in 1991-92, when they are recording their berzillion-selling self-titled album (if you are unfamiliar with this album--and how has your stay on the Moon been, by the way--it's the one with "Enter Sandman" on it, which you've probably heard as bumper music between turnovers at an NBA game) with--guess who--Bob Rock. Here, his hair is longer but just as lame (it's ponytailed, for starters) and his name-dropping is alternately astonishing (D.O.A! The Subhumans! How did that happen?!) and embarrassingly believable (Loverboy, Motley Crue). Metallica are at the top of their game and on the cusp of going from enviably rich and successful to rich and successful on a Croesian level. The second half (or tape, if you got this when it was released way back when on VHS) is the supporting tour, where they still seem to be all about the fans and all about hanging around in towels backstage after concerts, which is at least as weird and surprising as it sounds. But if you were a teenager in the early '90s, you'll probably remember exactly how you felt the first time you saw the video for "Unforgiven," or "Sad But True": that these guys were totally badass and didn't take shit from anyone, and that in a past life, James Hetfield might have slain Conan the Barbarian. In other words, this is Metallica at the height of their power. Say what you want about the Black Album, but they were totally at their peak. And then the next fourteen years with Bob Rock happened. With the exception of the videos for "Whiskey in the Jar" and* "St. Anger," I can't think of a single Metallica moment that was even on the same continent as awesome.** Year in the Life gives you a good indication of the kind of douchebag Lars would become a decade later. He holds up recording sessions with long showers. He whips around Hollywood in a Porsche. He pokes holes in his snare heads when he gets mad. In other words, he’s kind of a real prick. Way worse, but also way more interesting, is when the band hassle sJason Newsted, deceased bassist Cliff Burton’s replacement. In SKOM, he’s been fired/quit and is sorta bitter-but-not-really about it, and he kind of mentions how he was always picked on in the band, never welcome, blah blah blah. When you see the band throwing pies at him and making what appear to be good-naturedly snippy remarks, it’s obvious that there wasn’t a lot of good nature in them at all.
Metallica in 1981-84, when they had Dave Mustaine for a little while and Cliff Burton for a little while longer. Apart from a show in a smallish club opening for a band called Raven, there is little indication that even in their nascence, Metallica were ever a small band. Young band, sure, but never a small band. James and Kirk play flying Vs (until the Master of Puppets era, when Kirk switched to cheesy Jacksons and James to some kind of ESP modeled after Gibson Explorers), James has yet to sling his axe down by his knees, and you get a inkling about what the band would have become had Cliff survived their tragic bus accident in 1986. They’re confident, they have tour buses, but they’re not assholes. No one drives a Porsche. They seem to subsist on Coors Light and Grolsch and while they’re kinda sloppy, they’re lean and hungry to conquer the world. Dave Mustaine looks weird playing with them, and you’re glad he got booted. And Cliff Burton. Jesus God, he is amazing. When wanky bassists wax poetic about Victor Wooten, Stanley Clarke and Jaco, if they neglect to mention Cliff Burton, they’re betraying their ignorance. Watching him play in the band makes you think about the hole left with his untimely demise, and while Metallica might not have gotten to be the “biggest metal band in the world,” they would probably have remained one of the best. While Cliffemall is kind of a scrapbook with not enough Cliff Burton, it’s still a must see if you’ve seen SKOM, because you realize that James and Lars were not always a couple of dickweeds fractured by fame and haunted by the ghost of a great friend and amazing bassist.
I recently watched Get Thrashed, about the birth of thrash metal, and it has plenty more of the Metallica of eld, plus plenty of Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth. Oh, and a bunch of other bands that might not have been as good, but were at least as crazy. I remember some older dudes in high school who cut school on a Friday to go to an Exodus show in San Francisco, and the following Monday, they looked as if they had had a transcendental experience. Apparently, it really was that gnarly, and the documentary confirms what those guys were talking about.
* Maybe.**No, I don't pronounce "Towle" as "pants." Or "hair."
***Okay, I thought of one. Robert Trujillo is at least a better bass player and suitable replacement for Jason Newsted, and at best, he is a serviceable replacement for Cliff Burton.