Metallica’s Dirty Thirty

Lars Ulrich on raising kids, Lou Reed, and the good life in the Bay

East Bay hard-rock legends Metallica will play four nights of special thirtieth anniversary shows at The Fillmore on December 5, 7, 9, and 10, in what will surely be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for metal fans from the East Bay and around the world. Winner of nine Grammy Awards, with five consecutive Billboard number-one albums, the thirty-year-old band plans to feature some special guests and surprises this week in the relatively tiny venue, and has taken it back to 1981 with ticket prices of $6 per show. The band offered tickets to fan club members only, and they’ve sold out.

“It’s insane. Thirty years, man,” said drummer Lars Ulrich, on the phone from his home in Marin County. “We’re in a celebratory mood. It’s also slightly overwhelming and a little daunting …. It’s not so much like a proper rock show. We’re trying to make it inclusive and fun. We’re definitely going to keep things very loose.”

The iconic four-piece started with an ad in a Los Angeles music rag from a seventeen-year-old Denmark-born tennis player seeking metalheads with which to jam. LA native James Hetfield answered the call, as did another LA denizen, Dave Mustaine. But it was Castro Valley-raised Cliff Burton that would draw the band to the Bay Area.

“[Burton] just said there was no way he was moving south so we had to come up here,” Ulrich said. “We’d been playing shows in the city — The Stone, Mabuhay Gardens — in the fall of 1982, so when we finally came up here in January of 1983, there was no place we’d rather be. The music scene in the Bay Area was much more edgy, much more open than what was going on in LA.” They ended up in the East Bay suburb of El Cerrito, in the rental home of recording engineer Mark Whittaker. “He invited us to Carlson Street in El Cerrito. Mustaine moved in with Cliff Burton’s grandma. Then we converted that garage in the house into a studio and we wrote the rest of Kill ‘Em All and then we wrote Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets.”

By 1985, Metallica was playing Oakland’s Day on the Green Festival to sixty thousand people. “It went very quickly,” Ulrich said. “When we played the Day on the Green the first time, I think, James got a little loose in the dressing room, and I think he was summoned to Bill Graham’s office for a lecture about rock and roll behavior and all this type of stuff.” By that point we had already fallen in love with the Bay Area and had surrendered to the Bay Area mentality, to the openness, to the culture, the social elements and the geographical elements, the water and the light and the fucking bars, and whatever else you had. We were sold.”

January 1983’s Kill ‘Em All would go triple platinum, 1984’s Ride the Lighting quintuple platinum, and 1986’s Master of Puppets an absurd septuple platinum, but it only got more intense: By that point Mustaine had been booted for Kirk Hammett, and they lost Burton in a bus accident, so Jason Newsted took over bass duties. …And Justice for All (1988) went eight times platinum; 1991’s self-titled Metallica fifteen times platinum. Load, from 1996, didn’t chart as well, and neither did Reload in 1997 or S&M in 1999. By the band’s twentieth anniversary in 2001, success had taken its toll. “Listen to me, ten years ago right now would be the only time in this band’s career when I was actually unsure of its future, and I was at peace with it. If it wasn’t going to play out, I was going to be okay,” Ulrich said.

Dysfunctional and struggling with addictions, Metallica hit bottom in the early 2000s. That period was documented in the 2004 film Some Kind of Monster. “There wasn’t a lot to celebrate at that point, but obviously that’s a safe distance away and we’ve all not only survived that but we’ve managed to become a better band, and so there’s lots to celebrate ten years later,” Ulrich said.

Newsted left and Robert Trujillo took over. The band battled back from a poorly received St. Anger in 2003 to create Death Magnetic in 2008. Produced by Rick Rubin, it went triple platinum amidst an overall depression in CD sales. The band’s copious world touring hit a historic note with a string of “Big Four” metal shows with Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth this year. As a testament to its comfortable cruising altitude, Metallica even made a weird, chart-bombing, critically loathed side project called Lulu with Lou Reed, a longtime master provocateur.

Now the band is recording again with Rubin and planning another record. But the musicians all have quasi-normal lives now. As incongruent as it sounds, they’re all suburban dads in addition to being rock titans. At age 47, Ulrich has a wife and three kids, as does neighbor Hetfield, and Hammett and Trujillo have four more. “I think we have 37 kids,” Ulrich said.

The band doesn’t tour more than two weeks at a time, and child-rearing is way more work than touring, he said. “Flying around, getting a chance to read the paper, hanging out, meeting the fans, playing rock shows, going to nice dinners, and having a nice glass of wine with my friends — chill time. Being at home with my wife, taking care of three kids, the 6:45 a.m. grind through, what is it now, 9:55 p.m.? I don’t like to use the word ‘work,’ but that’s the hardest thing to decompress from.”

It’s a delirious, delightful life and Ulrich marvels at it as much as an outsider might. “Monday morning I fly to New York and I go do a party at a fancy Chelsea gallery for a Lou Reed record, and then four hours later I get back on that same plane and then fly to Abu Dhabi and play a rock ‘n’ roll show, and two days later I’m in India, and four days later I’m in the North Bay trick-or-treating with my kids, and a week later I’m flying around Western Europe playing TV shows with Lou Reed, and a week later I’m back here. I mean, it’s a total mindfuck, the whole thing. It’s just amazing how much keeps happening and how many awesome opportunities for creative shenanigans there are.”

Global citizens, Metallica has no intention of pulling up its roots, though. Ulrich made that abundantly clear. “The hometown fans treat us with love and respect, and a sense of pride and sense of accomplishment, and also a sense that we’re one of them, that we’re in in this together,” he said. “We fly the flag for San Francisco and the Bay Area all over the world and talk about how awesome it is here, and how it’s helped fuel and helped establish who we are, and how the Bay Area is part of our identity.”


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