February 25, 2016 / Theology
Why Bonhoeffer would have loved Mad Max.
May 29, 2012
One of the classic yet banal arguments that inevitably arises between bored record store clerks is the question of who is the greatest rock band ever. One clerk will of course say the Beatles. The clerk who says this has passed through her rebellious phase, has integrated herself into a vast realm of authority that includes consumers and critics, and has made an informed decision. The record store clerk who is still angry with his parents will counter that the Rolling Stones are, in fact, the greatest rock band of all time. The record store clerk who is too high to care about arguing will secretly think Led Zeppelin, and this clerk is the second-most sensible person there. Then, without fail, a weird record store clerk will claim that the honor of greatest rock band ever belongs to the Who or perhaps even the Clash. This is the record store clerk who voted for Ralph Nader. It’s a formulaic conversation and nothing we haven’t seen varied and recapitulated in countless John Cusack movies. But one thing is certain: all of the candidates will be British. This is simply a harsh truth about rock and roll. The United Kingdom produces great bands and the United States produces great solo artists—Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Chuck Berry, Lady Gaga.
Of course, there are nevertheless great American rock bands. And the matter of determining the greatest American band is more fun once those pesky UK bands are removed from the mix. So who is the greatest American rock band ever? Some will say Nirvana, but the music historians may feel strange with this answer—it’s almost as if Nirvana’s lack of longevity disqualifies them. Some might say Creedence Clearwater Revival (and I would agree with them), but perhaps CCR’s emphasis on the single rather than the album should disqualify them from serious contention. Nine times out of ten, I will play CCR’s greatest hits on my record player before I will listen to their album Cosmo’s Factory. Something feels wrong about calling a greatest hits band the best—it’s like calling ABBA important.
No one ever suggests Metallica, a band that has sold over 93 million records during the span of a thirty-year career. Metallica essentially invented the genre of thrash metal. They have critically acclaimed albums and insanely adoring fans. Why are Metallica not the greatest American band of all time? I suggest that no one ever considers Metallica to be the greatest American rock and roll band of all time because, as much as people buy Metallica tickets and albums, no one actually likes Metallica. The religious right doesn’t like Metallica because they sing evil songs about the apocalypse and “The God That Failed.” Liberals don’t like Metallica because they aren’t bourgeois enough, despite being millionaires. Metallica fans don’t even like Metallica because they were sued by the band for downloading their music during the Napster legal debacle of 2000.
In fact, it seems that the only people who like Metallica are those who listen to the band with hipster irony. It was with one foot through this ironic door that I first delved into the music and culture of Metallica and found that everyone has a valid reason to dislike the metal gods—Metallica might hate their own fans; they are too meat-headed to be considered bourgeois, despite being millionaires; and they might even have been evil at one point, although not for the reasons that everyone assumes.
Sometimes, it takes a documentary for people to begin to understand a band. I know people who have changed their perceptions of groups like Wilco or the Band by watching documentaries. This happened for me as I sat down one night to watch the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. This is how I began to understand not only the music of Metallica but the people behind the band as well.
Some Kind of Monster was intended to be a documentary about the making of Metallica’s eighth album, St. Anger, which it is. However, everyone knows it as the movie about Metallica going to therapy, because this is by far the most interesting thing that has ever happened to Metallica and it is quite possibly the most interesting thing that has ever happened to a rock band on video.
After the departure of bassist Jason Newsted from the band in 2001, Metallica’s management company felt that the end was nigh for the band, and so they hired therapist Phil Towle to intercede and save the relationship between the remaining three band members. The result, on film, is a narrative of brokenness, relationship, and redemption. Twenty years ago, no rock critic would have ever believed that a person could write a sentence like that about a Metallica documentary.
The God That Failed
There are perhaps two reasonable things that Metallica singer James Hetfield has done in his life: going to rehab and rejecting Christianity. Hetfield was raised in the controversial Church of Christ, Scientist. His father, who was very involved in the church, walked out on his family without an explanation when Hetfield was a young boy. When he was a teenager, his mother died of cancer, refusing any medical treatment due to her religious beliefs. This was the inspiration for the 1991 song “The God That Failed.” In it Hetfield sings, “I see faith in your eyes / Never you hear the discouraging lies.”
Parents just didn’t understand Metallica in the late eighties and early nineties. While songs like “Creeping Death” and “The Four Horsemen” relied heavily on disturbing biblical imagery, it was “The God That Failed” that people interpreted as evidence of Metallica’s seething evil. Never mind the fact that a large portion of the Old Testament questions God’s motives and laments God’s actions, the culture of that era was not exactly friendly to doubters. It did not matter that Hetfield was being honest and autobiographical about the harm he had experienced in the church.
Things are different now; there is an emerging voice within Christianity that recognizes the nuances of doubt, evil, and everything in between. Theologians and philosophers now appreciate Hetfield as a powerful post-Christian voice, someone versed in the culture and language of Christianity yet willing to hold the religion accountable for its own evil. Late twentieth-century Christianity might have critiqued Metallica as evil, and Metallica might have said the same for Christianity, but from a theologically relational perspective of evil, they were both messed up.
There’s an Evil Feeling in Our Brains
Part of the problem with calling Metallica evil is that the label appeals to platitudes. Our definitions of evil tend to be subjective and insubstantial, kind of like our demarcations of greatness in the bands that we love. In our daily lives we often assume positions on evil that mirror Justice Potter Stewart’s view on pornography—we may not know how to define evil (or porn, in Justice Stewart’s case) but we sure do know it when we see it. The problem with this is that our criteria for defining evil is so subjective and indistinct that evil comes to signify any act that strikes us as outside our own norms, any idea that seems dark. Thus, we can probably all agree that the Holocaust was an act of evil, but depending on our sensitivities, we may differ on the works of Stephen King.
Furthermore, we confuse evil with pathology. As I write this article, the top story on the Huffington Post tells about the recent mass murders in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik with a simple headline: “Evil.” And yet one of the key questions in Breivik’s trial will be the matter of his sanity—does Breivik suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, is he an extreme narcissist, or is he truly and indisputably evil? If we consider the underlying psychological ramifications of our language and speak in terms of pathology, we can perhaps begin to address the nuance of Breivik, Hitler, King, and Metallica in the same paragraph.
Another word we throw around a lot in conversations about evil is the word sin. The New Testament scholar Marcus Borg describes sin as pathological pride, hubris, or “puffing oneself up to inordinate size—attempting to become godlike.”1 Borg goes on to describe this in terms of narcissism, that very personality disorder that may afflict Breivik:
Early in the process from infancy into childhood and adulthood, we become aware of the self-world distinction—that the self and the world are separate. This is the birth of self-awareness. All of us experience this. The natural result (meaning virtually inevitable, and perhaps completely so) is self-concern. The world is not only separate from us, but not completely reliable, even dangerous. And so we become focused on the self and its well-being.2
This is true, yet it gets worse. Another result of the narcissist mechanism is that as a defense against the anxiety of the self-world distinction, the narcissist begins to view the Other as an extension of the Self. Thus, in the ultimately sinful mode (perhaps evil), we require all of those around us to serve us and to be perfect as extensions of our grandiose selves.
This is how the narcissistically enmeshed Metallica members operated for over two decades. Metallica’s music was simply dark, not evil, but the relationships that formed the band were even darker in that they shared a dynamic of pathological pride. The first inkling of this in the documentary is found in the way that the band’s relationship ended with Newsted. Hetfield confronted Newsted with an ultimatum—he told Newsted that he couldn’t be a member of Metallica if he continued to devote time to his side project, Echobrain. When made to choose, Newsted left Metallica.
Drummer Lars Ulrich and Hetfield speak about Newsted in Some Kind of Monster as if he had done something incomprehensible. Even as they are “growing” emotionally with the help of therapist Towle, they talk about making Newsted sorry he left the band. Not only do they not comprehend that Newsted could no longer want to be in Metallica, but they also fail to comprehend that he might not want to follow their commands in order to be in relationship with them. They cannot accept him in his alterity.
Borg’s talk of hubris is not far off from Sigmund Freud’s idea of the narcissist, especially in regard to how the terms might be applied to Metallica at the beginning of the film. The Freudian narcissist’s libido is only invested in his own ego, thereby cutting off any actual relationship and resulting in “megalomania.”3 To Freud, the narcissist cannot see the Other as an authentic person, only as an extension of the Ego, with no boundaries in between. The narcissist thus experiences the Other as a tool for his own use. The neo-Freudian Heinz Kohut later expanded Freud’s concept of narcissism, explaining that the narcissist essentially uses the Other to repair a depleted ego. To Kohut, the narcissist can see the Other but cannot see boundaries between the two egos, allowing the narcissist to consume the idealized image of the Other into his own grandiose fantasy, which often oscillates between the idealization and devaluation of one giant blur of ego and thereby creates some kind of monster.4
In the most recognized scene of Some Kind of Monster, Ulrich tells Hetfield that he is finally seeing who Hetfield is. This is because, for twenty years, Ulrich and Hetfield only saw each other as part of themselves. Ulrich could not handle it when Hetfield left the studio for months to enter rehab for alcohol addiction. Hetfield acted on behalf of himself and his family, risking disintegration of the narcissistic shell surrounding Metallica. He recognized Metallica as Other than himself, letting his bandmates know that he would return only after his obligation to his health and family was fulfilled. Ulrich panicked because this enmeshment was all either of them had ever known. In fact, the ego boundary confusion of Metallica is the defining characteristic of their music—Hetfield and Ulrich played just as they existed, in perfect unison.
Hetfield returned from rehab a different person. He spoke openly and honestly about his emotions. He was no longer too fragile to rely on Metallica for his ego strength; he left the studio early every day; he set boundaries for himself and what Metallica could require of him. Chuck Klosterman interviewed Hetfield in June 2004 and said that he “was a completely evolved person: affable, nonconfrontational, and willing (almost wanting) to chat about his feelings.”5
The drama that emerges in Some Kind of Monster is one that no longer centers on Hetfield’s ego, but instead pits his new capacity for bound-yet-separateness against Ulrich’s toddler-like narcissism and therapist Towle’s grandiose fantasy. Indeed, the therapist’s fantasy is, undeniably, the strangest part of Some Kind of Monster. It is painful to watch the sweater-clad, middle-aged rock and roll therapist sit in on sessions with the band, discussing his “vision” not for their emotional development but for their music careers. He even submits lyrics to one of the new demos. In the beginning of the documentary, Ulrich, Hetfield, and guitarist Kirk Hammett are almost dependent on Towle—they cannot start their days in the studio without first having group therapy. By the end of the film, they are discussing the best way to let him go.
The result is an awkward conversation in which Hetfield informs Towle his days are numbered and Towle defensively tells Hetfield that he does not think the band is ready to fly on its own. Here, Towle becomes an example of how our turn away from the difference and alterity in the Other stems from our own disillusions and failures, our own difference. One gets the feeling that Towle, much like Metallica’s sulky producer Bob Rock, was disappointed he didn’t get asked to join the band and that he experienced a narcissistic injury when terminated.
The third act of this drama plays like the Parable of the Prodigal Son in reverse. Hetfield, the surly, impenetrable curmudgeon leaves the Metallica family to go to rehab, returns, and shows grace to his deceived elder. The pupil becomes the teacher. In regard to Towle, Hetfield comments to Klosterman, “Phil has issues, too. Every therapist has issues. We’re all just people. We’ve all got some brokenness inside us.”6
It’s a different sentiment than their album Kill ‘Em All, but the tension of brokenness and the unfairness of life are really what Metallica have always represented. “The God that Failed” is about a failed system more than it is about an inept deity. The transformation that Hetfield went through did not change what he stood for; it changed how he processed what he stood for. After finishing the record St. Anger, Hetfield stood in front of Folsom prison and introduced a Metallica set with a heartwarming speech to the inmates, saying that the only difference between him and the inmates was the saving grace of music. This is gratitude. Hetfield used to banter from the stage about how cool it was to get drunk and violent. But even that drunk and violent twentysomething stood for something, or against something.
And Justice for All
On August 19, 2011, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin were released from an Arkansas prison where they served seventeen years for murders they did not commit. These men, known as the West Memphis Three, were wrongly convicted of the 1993 ritualistic murders of three young boys. They were suspects partly due to coerced confessions and shoddy police work. However, it also became a factor that the men, who were troubled teens at the time, struggled with their own illnesses, pathologies, disabilities, and disciplinary problems, and they listened to heavy metal music, including Metallica. The prosecution brought an occult expert who testified that the slayings were satanic, making the connection between the cultic nature of the murders and the dark nature of the suspects’ clothing and musical preferences.
In 1996, more than a decade before the boys were released, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky completed filming on Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, a documentary about the West Memphis Three. Metallica donated their music to the film’s directors, who would later make Some Kind of Monster. One of the songs in the soundtrack is the title track from the 1988 record . . . And Justice For All. In that song, Hetfield sings, “Lady Justice has been raped, truth assassin” and later asks, “Just what is truth? I cannot tell.” The song was almost prophetic. The West Memphis Three trials consisted of contradicting testimonies and incompetent detective work. The disadvantages of the accused were manipulated to construct a truth narrative that would convict innocent boys whose aesthetics fit what the Bible Belt public of Arkansas already wanted to believe.
Many Christian critics have denounced Metallica as evil nihilists but this dismissal suggests that Christian critics haven’t bothered to listen to the band. If “. . . And Justice For All” is any indication, Metallica were not apathetic; they were simply deconstructionists. Hetfield, even as a young, alcoholic meathead, recognized that court and church systems had configured morality in a way that promoted evil, and it made him angry. These lyrics attempt to challenge and deconstruct the truth narrative of morality that was the status quo in the eighties and early nineties. Unfortunately for Hetfield, his family, and his relationships, the deconstruction of his own narrative and his own narcissistic pathology did not begin until he was forty. But this fact is fortunate for us as Metallica consumers and viewers of Some Kind of Monster.
According to the twentieth-century conservative Christian framework, Metallica were evil because they stood in opposition to God and to the system. Theologically, however, it is the narcissism that permeated the Metallica monster for twenty years that is most interesting and most evil. But the evolved Hetfield reframes all of this, not in terms of evil but in terms of universal brokenness. And perhaps redemption—by the end of the film Hetfield and Ulrich seem to be getting along. Metallica’s capacity for better personal collaboration has even led them join with Lou Reed, the legend who fronted the Velvet Underground, another candidate for greatest American rock band ever. The result is the bizarre Lulu, an unsettling mixture of Reed’s spoken word and Metallica metal.
But here we find an inevitable conundrum for any great rock and roll band, British or American: musical longevity seems to result in better people who make music that is less edgy. While Lulu shows promise, the most disappointing aspect of Some Kind of Monsteris that it captures a great personal drama but fails to capture the making of a decent record. If you stick around long enough, it seems, you may outlast your naysayers, run your monsters away, and find your dark well of inspiration all soaked up by the peace and harmony of selflessness. And yet a theology of Metallica suggests that to stand alone is evil, but to stand against something, to square ones shoulders against those systems that lead the sick to early graves or the poor to unwarranted imprisonment, results in actual relationship, mutual collaboration, and justice for all. Nevertheless, it remains true that Metallica were better back when they were evil.
1. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How They Can Be Restored (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011), 148.
3. Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1966), 415.
4. Kohut, The Restoration of The Self (Madison, CT: International University Press, 1977), 185.
5. Klosterman, IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (New York, NY: Scribners, 2006), 112.
6. Quoted in Klosterman, IV, 112.
John Totten is an editor for The Other Journal. He has a master of arts in counseling psychology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.