Book review: “Enter Night, A Biography of Metallica”

I had never heard of author/music critic Mick Wall until I stumbled across Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica last week, but Wall certainly knows his way around much of the hard rock and heavy metal world.

In addition to writing for various metal mags and publications like the London Times, Wall has penned bios of Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Bono and Guns N Roses.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Wall’s stuff, because Enter Night is an intelligent, thorough, high-quality work — filled with both sharp insights and cutting anecdotes, while not lacking on the lets-look-at-the-car-wreck sleaze that made rock bios like “Hammer of the Gods” so much damn fun.

Wall has interviewed Metallica members James Hetfield and Lar Ulrich numerous times over the years. Wall has also spent a good amount of time with Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton (much less with Jason Newsted, but more on that later). Wall also interviewed other prominent figures in Metallica’s history, like Dave Mustaine, Rob Trujillo, Ron McGovney, Jonny and Marsha Zazula, Brian Slagel, Bob Rock, Flemming Rasmussen and members of Armored Saint, Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and other bands, tour managers and insiders.

All of that access did not turn Wall into a sycophant; indeed Wall is unafraid to slaughter Metallica sacred cows like “… And Justice For All” and “Death Magnetic. Wall also doesn’t gloss over unpleasant band history… especially when it comes to the decisions Hetfield, Ulrich and Hammett made after Cliff Burton’s death in September, 1986, and how they marginalized Newsted for years after Newsted was hired as Burton’s replacement.

Wall has an encyclopedic knowledge of the NWOBHM bands that young Lars Ulrich idolized so much as a teen with a rock dream.  Wall extensively interviewed Ulrich’s friends and associates, showing Ulrich as a man with the ambition to make his band (which didn’t even exist until “Mettallica” was offered a chance to play a song on the first “Metal Massacre” album) the biggest band in the world.

As a drummer, Ulrich was often so bad that Hetfield would spit on him at gigs, Wall writes … but without Ulrich’s drive, Metallica would never have achieved one-tenth of the success the band eventually reached.

Hetfield gets equally close scrutiny. Wall’s portrait of Hetfield’s childhood (with an absent father and a mother whose Christian Science beliefs led her to forsake treatment for cancer and die while Hetfield was a teen) goes a long way toward explaining the anger Hetfield displayed in his music — and the shell he kept erected around himself for much of his life.

To reach the top, Ulrich and Hetfield made some controversial (some would say callous) decisions. The firing of long-time friend McGovney for Burton made sense musically, of course. But Wall doesn’t downplay the fact that Hetfield and Ulrich (and Mustaine as well) screwed over McGovney — partying and causing chaos while Ron paid the bills — before tossing him unceremoniously out of the band.

Later, Hetfield, Ulrich and Burton would do the same thing with Mustaine — who, Wall writes, competed with Ulrich and Hetfield for leadership of the band — and upstaged the shy Hetfield onstage. Hammett was both a more intricate player (but not an innovator like Mustaine, Wall writes) and someone who would follow Hetfield and Ulrich’s leadership, Wall writes. The decision to basically dump managers Jon and Marsha Z was also a somewhat cold one (the band had actually lived for a time with the Z family while recording “Kill Em All,” and Jon Z put himself into serious financial hock to make that record)… but the move to new management did help the band find the larger audience it was seeking.

Hammett doesn’t get much attention compared to Hetfield and Ulrich. But Wall does spend quite a bit of time on Cliff Burton — who Wall describes as both the most musically adventurous member of the band and the most grounded.

As Wall writes, Burton was practically an idol to James, Lars and Kirk; he was the man who would never “sell out” his integrity and beliefs. He was the most musically trained (Burton had studied classical music and was a fan of Bach) — and also introduced the band to a variety of influences, from Skynyrd to Kate Bush and The Misfits. Some of Burton’s musical influences would continue to be felt long after his death.

If Cliff wasn’t the leader of the band, he was the person Ulrich and Hetfield had to convince before major decisions were made.  According to Wall, the impact of Burton’s death in a bus accident on the band cannot  be overstated.

Burton was killed when the band’s bus slid off the road and overturned during the “Master of Puppets” tour in Sweden on Sept. 27, 1986. The accident threatened to sideline the band at a time when “Master” was receiving raves and a mass audience beckoned. The band’s management, Q Prime, urged the band to stay on the road, and Hetfield, Ulrich and Hammett made the decision to find a permanent replacement for Burton, rather than just hiring a stand-in for the tour.  Nine weeks after Burton’s funeral, the band was touring Japan with new bassist Jason Newsted.

Wall isn’t particularly sympathetic to Newsted; Wall is part of the “cult of Cliff” himself, and tends to idolize Burton while dismissing Newsted’s skills as a bassist. It’s not necessarily fair — but Wall writes Hetfield, Ulrich and Hammett did much the same thing. The rest of the band looked down on Newsted as almost a groupie — someone who had  jettisoned his old band, Flotsam and Jetsam (where Newsted was the primary songwriter and businessman) to grab a secondary position in Metallica. It was a choice, Wall writes, that Newsted lived to regret. Rob Trujillo, however, is depicted by Wall as someone who isn’t awestruck by his new superstar band mates and as someone who is more than capable of holding his own on stage.

Wall’s assessments of the albums are spot on; he rightly praises “Master of Puppets,” “Ride the Lightning” and the “Black” album, while noting the revolutionary impact of “Kill Em All” and the incredibly alive (and fun) sound of “Garage Days Re-Revisited.” It may be against conventional wisdom, but Wall’s right in that “Load” had a lot of terrific songs (he’s also correct in saying “Reload” is mostly dreck). Further, Wall is also right when he says “… And Justice For All” is a cold, sterile album that is almost unlistenable, except for “One.” Wall doesn’t care much for “Death Magnetic,” but a lot of old-school fans weren’t impressed and Wall definitely is an “old school” fan.

I came away from Enter Night with a greater appreciation of Metallica — the band that almost never existed and nearly ripped itself apart after Burton’s death. I don’t know if the band likes it, but Wall’s account is, ultimately, exceedingly fair and entertaining. I was surprised at how little about Metallica I actually knew.

Highly recommended.

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