Metallica Week – Day 1: Metallica: An Apolgia, or, Thoughts On the Philosophy of Middle Finger Amplification

To celebrate the upcoming release of our 108th 33 1/3 on  METALLICA, we’re pleased to bring you the very first installment of Metallica week by author DAVID MASCIOTRA

Note: Many 33 1/3 books are impressionistic memoirs in which the authors write at great length about their own personal connection to their subject matter. My book is journalistic, and I offer no real personal information. For those curious, here is a quick glimpse into my own emotional evolution with Metallica’s music.

Recently at an open bar party, after about the 43rd drink, a friend of mine commented, with curiosity, that it seemed “odd” I would write a book about Bruce Springsteen, another book about John Mellencamp, and now write a book about Metallica.

Music, like all art, should maintain its cross-genre openness and free roaming fluidity. I would not want to live in a world, or own a record collection, that doesn’t make room for Scarecrow and Ride The Lightning. Music, as emotional engineer, closes the electrical loop between the heart and the head—the intellect and intuition. Given that music, better than nearly anything else, communicates directly with the individual’s primal and visceral experience of life, a multiplicity of musicality seems necessary for the acquiescence of the consolation, entertainment, and enlightenment art provides. Sitting in a quiet bar on a Saturday night, while experimenting with the sexual and romantic chemistry of a successful date, likely calls for a different soundtrack and mood enhancer than what poets of rage, such as Metallica and Slayer, can provide.

The aural magic fit for casting a spell on such a quiet, Saturday night is probably jazz. If the volume begins to rise to the level of party, or in the moments that the world calls for revolt against its intrinsic and imposed injustices, heavy metal is better than anything. As Norman Mailer once said, “Never play Tuesday morning’s music on Friday night.” Life has variety, and so should our music.

Jazz and heavy metal, however, are the two genres most hospitable to purists. George Grella Jr., in his upcoming 33 1/3 on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, will likely address the charge that Miles Davis “sold out” by incorporating electric elements of funk, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and avant garde into his music. In my 33 1/3, I spend a great deal of time on the accusation—slanderous and specious—that Metallica prostituted themselves when they traveled from thrash metal to hard rock on their self-titled record, otherwise known as “The Black Album.”

Due to my articulation of an argument not only defending, but celebrating Metallica’s musical evolution, I am prepared for many metal purists to question my credentials, citing the same bibliography my mutually inebriated friend classified as “odd.”

Another friend of mine, Jason Pettus, runs the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Whenever he publishes a book, he posts an “apologia” to his website, explaining his decision to select and sponsor that book for official release. In that spirit, but without apology, here is my statement on why I wrote all three of my books on music, and why Heartland Rock and Heavy Metal are not as divergent as our radio dials would have us believe.

When I was thirteen, most of my closest friends loved Metallica. “Master of Puppets,” “Creeping Death,” and “Enter Sandman” routinely invaded the atmosphere from the speakers when I spent time in my friends’ bedrooms and basements. Although I did not dislike the music, it did not speak to my spirit, as young and immature as it was, because I wanted something that sounded happier. I did not like anything I heard on pop radio, and soon found myself gravitating toward the wild imagination of Springsteen songs like “Born to Run,” and the relatable small town stories and anthems of Mellencamp. The dramatic and romantic experiences Springsteen described on his early records were the ones I wanted to have as I entered adulthood, and the colorful characters of provincial America Mellencamp delineated in song were the ones I met on a daily basis, feared becoming, or wanted to become.

The narrow commercialism and materialism of America’s consumer culture renders most cultural conversations empty of substance, and full of frivolity. More than mainstream formats will acknowledge, people often gather a sense of meaning and source of purpose from music. If they do not find meaning directly in the notes, they can just as often use music as a fuel, and tool, in their endless search for meaning. (At the risk of seeming self-congratulatory, this is one reason why the 33 1/3 series, and other books like it, are important instruments of subtle subversion.)

Music as meaning, and source of identification, is an old story, and I found my meaning in the hopeful and faithful songs of Springsteen’s “runaway American dream.” He explained that his music attempted to “measure the distance between American ideals and reality,” but even at his saddest, his songs swing with spiritual optimism. Justice will somehow prevail, and as he puts it, “faith will be rewarded.” After all, he said that his ambition was to create rock ‘n’ roll with “blues verses and gospel choruses.” Springsteen, raised Catholic and currently lapsed, never seems to lose his belief in an order that will set it all right, even if he no longer associates that belief with any organized, doctrinal system.

Mellencamp seems to oscillate between faith and despair—hope and angst. His music is much more melancholic than Springsteen’s, and often in the same songs, he will provide reason for joy and reason for regret. The songs of John Mellencamp officiate the marital ceremony between depression and ecstasy. One is not possible, or livable, without the other. Just as one individual can experience happiness in the morning, and go to bed with a pillow soaked in tears, history simultaneously progresses and regresses. As Mellencamp eloquently puts it, we forever live “between a laugh and a tear.” Through it all, however, he seems invested in the search for meaning. If unlike Springsteen, he isn’t certain, or even confident, about the result, he does seem to have hope in the process.

My appreciation for harder and heavier music, beginning and always returning to Metallica, but also inclusive of Black Sabbath, Black Label Society, Motorhead, Megadeth, and many other bands, runs directly parallel with my loss of faith in the search for meaning. Instead, like the music of Metallica, I now take comfort only in the making of meaning through rebellion against absurdity.

The body of my book is full of direct insights from Metallica and Bob Rock on the making of The Black Album—their ideas, influences, memories, and experiences. The introduction and conclusion, however, are both heavily reliant on the wisdom of Albert Camus. Camus defined rebellion as the “violent denunciation of hypocrisy,” and advised that the honest soul has no choice but accept the absurdity of the world, and rather than embrace illusions that deny absurdity, live in constant revolt against it. The revolt is the Sisyphean struggle of having to constantly roll the rock up the hill, after it continually falls to the hill’s feet.

Metallica’s lyrical subject matter is rarely pleasant—teenage suicide, crib death, wartime combat deaths and injuries—and it is through their confrontation with the tragedies and atrocities of life and history that they count the ways the rock rolls back to the bottom of the hill. They answer back with the pavement poetry of aggression, rebellion, and subversion. When Hetfield leads the audience through a chant of “we don’t give a shit,” he’s directing their middle fingers toward illegitimate authority—the parties of church or state who attempt to impose meaning, and thereby, demand hypocrisy.

Kirk Hammett told me that Metallica’s music represents freedom; the ability to live a life “without being dictated to.” Well, as another songwriter once put it, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Without worry of losing membership in a dogmatic club demanding adherence to doctrine in order to find the false comfort of meaning, people are able to live freely.

All of this is philosophically and politically interesting, but none of it amounts to shit if the music isn’t good.

Metallica is the harder and heavier, American Led Zeppelin—the apotheosis of high volume, rock ‘n’ roll energy plugged into a heavy metal circuit of defiance, deviance, aggression, and animalistic power. The brute and blunt force of the music, wrapped inside a steel glove of sonic structure, acts as counterpunch to an absurd world, and all the people and principalities within it who make the lack of intrinsic meaning clear as a coffin.

The beautiful brutality of the music is the amplification of the middle finger. Rather than searching for the heart in a heartless world, Metallica attempts to obliterate the heartlessness through the volatility, velocity, and intensity of their revolt —music hard and heavy enough to defeat the silence at the end of the search for meaning.

When I was thirteen, and watching my friends headbang in the basement, I thought meaning was somewhere out there. After observing the defeats and disappointments of an individual life and a cultural history, along with the triumphs and victories, I’ve learned that it is only internal.

As we all prepare for our ultimate fate—“twisting and turning through the never,” as the Metallica song puts it—the only hope for redemption we have is the refusal of dictation. Otherwise, we become the “unforgiven.”

James Hetfield told me that as he ages, he grows less angry. I find that as I get older, I get angrier, but it is a quiet anger: anger against absurdity, anger against injustice, and anger against dictation. That anger is an unquenchable thirst. It is an anger that is both welcome and assuaged by heavy music. As Jason Newsted told, “heavy equals happy.” Heavy is happy, because heavy through its sonic attack and violent denunciation of hypocrisy, has no time for bullshit.

In all of my writing, I’ve never felt happier than when I was writing this book.

So, to all my friends from my early teen years—You were right. I was wrong.

– David Masciotra



















1 thought on “Metallica Week – Day 1: Metallica: An Apolgia, or, Thoughts On the Philosophy of Middle Finger Amplification”

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