Loaded Questions

Word behind the scenes at Lollapalooza '96 was that the reason the traveling festival was playing a shorter list of "B" cities and odd venues far off the beaten path was that Metallica was saving the prime stops for its own tour. "So fucking what?" Hetfield snorts in response, flashing a brief glimpse of the grizzly before delivering a calmer explanation.

"I got presented the idea that Lollapalooza was gonna be different this time," he says. "It wasn't gonna degrade itself playing the amphitheaters because it was starting to turn into something wrong. The idea was to make it more of a traveling event, where people actually had to get into their car and go somewhere instead of just walking down the street. That was the interesting part for me, but it did backfire on us a little bit. Our fans don't really give a shit about traveling out to some field in the middle of nowhere. But it was just another challenge for us to do what we're not supposed to."

Whatever the motivations of Hammett and Ulrich, Hetfield maintains that his driving goal is still to "fuck shit up," even if that means tearing down the conventions of the genre he loves. Part of metal's original appeal was that it offered a liberating freedom from the rigid order of his family's religion, he says. Then, as Metallica became the biggest metal band in the world, he started to feel trapped by the sound he helped define. "That was kind of ridiculous," he says. "More and more I'm discovering there are no rules in music, especially with the last record."

Yet with the change, with the alienation of the cult, has come a broader audience -- the "mainstream" rock fans commingling with the hardcore purists. And Hetfield finds the new mix of fans at the band's shows inspiring. "I think nowadays it's not so difficult for some guy in his leather jacket and long hair to stand next to some guy with green hair and a pierced face who's standing next to the guy with his tie on who just came from work," he says. "They all understand why they're there, and it's for the music."

But the debate is about whether the music is Metallica at its best. Veteran fans say, "No way," but plenty of new listeners and critics who discovered the group with ... And Justice for All seem to like it just fine. Load, however, is often just so underwhelming and too damn slow; its "new directions" come off like half-hearted detours or pointless frills piled on a previously streamlined sound. The prospect of a sequel with more of the same instead of an album that actually breaks new ground while maintaining the old drive isn't promising.

But I'm not ready to write off Hetfield just yet. I'm compelled to ask if he can really tell any more if Metallica is just going through the motions like so many other dinosaur rockers, or whether it's still in this game for the right -- that is, wrong -- reasons. "I definitely used to wonder why certain bands went on and on," Hetfield says. "It could be Blue Oyster Cult, say, and you see 'em in some little club now, and it's like, 'What the fuck are you guys doin'?' But it looks like they love what they're doing, so who am I to say stop? If you love what you're doing, then who else can say anything different, really?

"As far as my music goes, if I don't wanna hear what I've just played, I'd probably say it's about time to quit. When there isn't any drive to explore or even play together, then it's really time to quit and maybe go on and do your own thing. But I think it's still a scary thought for us that Metallica might end one day."

Here Hetfield pauses and poses a question not unlike the one his alienated fans are asking. "It's like having a family," he says. "How do you tell your family that they suck?

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