The Untold story of James Hetfield

We all know James Hetfield the co-founder of Metallica but do we really know who he is and how his journey to success with the thrash metal band Metallica has come ?
There is many questions that we're going to answer in this article.
Who was James Hetfield as a kid ?
How did he pick interest in guitar and heavy metal ? What trials did he have to go though to achieve success ? 
You're going to have all your answer through reading this article. 
Fellow Metalheads, are you ready ? 
Here we go 🤘
james-hetfield

 

The childhood of James Hetfield

James Heltfield was born in Downey California in 1963 raised in a strict Christian family, later broken by divorce.

Back in time, James Hetfield was a very introverted person. Very little talkative, he took refuge in music and in playing guitar.

He was shy at such an extent he was pretty much affraid of everything.

Music was a way for him to speak. It was a roundabout way to speak to the world about him.

James Hetfield : « Music was the voice I didn’t have »

One day, a young man who was in a Jazz band and who was also in the same high school as James, was selling his guitar.

He had a 69SG, James came to him and asked him for the guitar, the seller wanted 200$ for the guitar.

The future member of Metallica came to his mom and beg her to buy the guitar. She accepted and that’s how James Hetfield had his first true guitar 🎸

Of course when you got a guitar, you got to join a band so James began to hang out with some kid at school who shared the love for music.

 

James Hetfield found kids at his grade that has a band called « Obsession » and every day after school they ended up in their house to play.

James Hetfield : « Black Sabbath was the band that let me up, so Heavy, so moving. I sank right into that, I can close mye yes and be in there. »

In high school James found himself a good friend which whom he was competing his guitar skill.

The dynamics competition forced him to progress as a bass player day after day.

Quiclky, the future co-founder of Metallica had to find new partner to play with as he wanted to grow as a bass player.

James Heltfield : « I wrote some songs they didn’t like them, they just wanted to play covers. Si , I decided that I have to play with other people. Right then I kinda knew I was on a quest. I wanted to get better.»

The summer time, James came back to high school to gear up starting playing football again. The problem was James had long hair and the coach said to him : « You have to get a haircut »

At that time Heltfield refuse to give up his long hair, all his idoles had long hair : Eddie Van Halen , Micheal Schenker, Ozzy Osbourne and the list goes on...

 

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Having a metalheads style and playing football wasn’t possible. This event was piviable in James life but at that time he didn’t knew it.

A question crossed James Heltfield’s mind that day : « Do I want to play football ? Or do I want to be up on stage with a mission, speaking through music ? »

You already which path did James choose.

The debut of James Hetfield as a young bassist looking for a Metal band

However this question had remained unanswered until after high school.

At this period of his life James was working at a sticker factory. While he was working at the factory, James was only thinking about Riff and lyrics.

At the lunchtime, he was in his car writting some riffs before he had to returned at work, and after the work he was showing the riffs he had been working on.

After he did his first gig, James said a sentence in his mind : « I think I want to quit my job. I want to start playing music. »

For James there was no other option.

James Heltfield grew up listening guitar players 🎸 one of his biggest influence was obviously Tonny Iommi, who was the most common influence of all the metal guitar players. 

Black Sabath was in genereal the most common inspiration for every Metalheads kids at that time since they created what we called "Heavy Metal".

James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich : a meeting bound by fate

 As I said earlier James Heltfield was born in USA California in 1963.

The same year, on the other side of the globe, Lars Ulrich was born.

He was the son of a professional Danish tennis player 🎾 At the age of 16, he move out to Los Angeles with his family.

After spending some time in the USA, Lars started to lose interest in tennis and found himself anoterh hobby : Drums 🥁For a time, he followed his father’s footstep through out his childhood.

At the end of year 1979 began the NWOBHM era, many young american people were in awe of the British Heavy Metal scene.

They were inspired to create their own Heavy Metal scene.

Lars Ulrich :« It was the attitude. The attitude came from Motorhead. »

James Heltfiel and Lars Ulrich met in Los Angeles in 1981, brought together by fate and the musician wanted ads in the local paper.

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James Heltfield : « Under the Heavy Metal section they were two guys, only me and him »

Dave Mustaine« He’s not a good drummer, he really isn’t. Every good drummer will tell you he’s not. »

What Lars may have lacked musicly 🎵 he more than made up for with his personnal connection in the Heavy Metal scene.

Lars had a friend who was producing compilation album featuring local metal bands.

Brian Slagel from Metal blade record : « Lars called me up and said : Hey if I put together a band can I be on your compilation ? I said yeah absolutly, no problem »

James Hetlfield : « Lars had really a spot on the record but no band ! So, my kind of will and maybe greediness to get going in this thing said Ok we hook up. »

The co-founder of Metallica met Dave Mustaine and Cliff Burton

The band had a spot reserved on a upcomming albulm. Soon they had a second guitarist, Dave Mustaine.

In 1981, Metallica’s frenetic two guitars sound was a direct assault on LA softcore Glam Rock scene.

Dave Mustaine : « We weren’t doing what they were doing. They were playing pretty much chicken music as wanted the girls and all we wanted to do was to rull the world. »

Metallica met with an apethetic response in the LA clubs, which only serve a few of their agressive play.

James Heltfield : « That develloped our styles. We were up on stage, we wanted attention. We’re going to play louder, we’re going to play faster ! »

In the winner of 1981, a benefit from Metal Mania magazine brought the band to San Francisco. The city was a hotspot for the New Heavy Metal movement.

 

In the crowd of those Bay area fans where Metallica played, was Kirk Hammet.

Kirk Hammet : « I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The most original, heavyest, fastest thing I have ever seen in my life. »

By the time Metallica returned to Los Angeles, tension between the band was builded. Dave Mustaine drinking was getting out of hand.

James Hetfield : « They were always some clash, between Ron and Dave. Ron couldn’t hang, he didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. »

Ron was soon out, and Metallica was in the market for new bassist 🎸

Metallica band members was looking for a new bassist by going as spectator in underground metal scene, where local bands were performing.

One night they met the path of a band called Trama and a certain bassist named Cliff Burton.

Scott Ian from Anthrax « His headbangs at stage... Nobody banged like him, it was insane ! »

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Gif from : https://gfycat.com/fr/discover/cliff-burton-gifs

After six mouth of recording, Cliff was going to join the band but one condition was required. If has to agree to move with Metallica from LA to go to Nothern California.

James Heltfield : « LA wasn’t treating us very well at all. »

Metallica moved to San Francisco in the spring on 1983 and rented a small house at El Cerrito. This was a hard time for the band but they have found a home for their unique brand of metal.

With Lars Ulrich circulating Metallica’s seven sound demo « No life ‘till leather », the band became a underground sensation.

The band had already a growing and large audience before they actually really have a record out.

Metallica’s demo has reached up to Johny Z. Marshall Zazula who run a music fleemarket in New Jersey called Rock n’Roll heaven

It was the east coast capital of the growing metal mouvement.

Johny Z. Marshall Zazula : « They were the first band that make America look good. »

Johny Z. offered to manage Metallica and to secure them a recording deal.

Shortly after this event Dave Mustaine was fired from Metallica.

The official reasons of this decision was Dave Mustaine issue with alcohol and his violent behavior. 

In fact the whole band had issue with alcohol so Metallica's member might have kicked Dave Mustaine for reason related to internal and personnal conflict.

 No sooner that Dave Mustaine had boarded a bus, that Kirk Hammet arrived in New York to auditione the band.

James Hetfield : « The first song we played was Seek and Destroy and Kirk pulled out his solo, I knew it was going to be alright » 

After that they went to the studio and recorded « Kill em’All »

The international metal underground was waiting for Metallica’s first albulm « Kill em’All ». The album encounter a huge sucess and was sold over 300 000 times.

The band toured up in Europe and America for morst of 1983, supporting the album.

They lived, breathed and slept Metal and their fans did the same.

In 1984, the american metal scene found a champion in Metallica.

When the band second album « Ride the lightning was picked up by Electral Records, it quicky went gold.»

On the road Metallica’s love of Alcohol became a thing and made talk about it. The press did not hesitate to call them « Alcoholica »

However their assumed consumtion of Alcohol does not hold back Metallica in it’s meteoric rise. During the sring of 1986, Metallica realeased it’s third album « Master of Puppets » and sold a million copies without the benefice of a radio single or music videos.

Metallica toured for six mounth with Ozzy Osbourne.

Ozzy Osbourne « They really gave me a run for my money. They were really hard to follow. »

On tour Metallica indulge a classic rock n’ roll excess.

But Metallica’s wild ride will soon come crash into a hold.

On september 27th 1986, the band was travelling by bus on the road between Stockholm and Copenhagen.

The tragic death of Cliff Burton and the meeting with Jason Newsted

Earlier that night a friendly dispute between Kirk and Cliff over sleeping arangements concluded with a drawn card.

Kirk Hammet «  The first card that Cliff picked was the Ace of Spades and he looked at me and said I want your bunk, and I said fine take my bunk. »

« Later on, that night around 5 or 6 in the morning, I heard a skinning, i heard a vibration and then... this motion. I thought we were going of a cliff.. »

« I have heard everyone screaming except for Cliff and I thought oh my god something’s wrong ».

Early Saturday morning september 27th 1986, on the road Cliff Burton died.

With an hour new of Cliff death reach Metallica’s fan in America.

Lars, James and Kirk returned to San Fransisco to attain the funeral of their friend and band member.

With the added pressure of a Japanese tour schedule to begin within a mounth, the band auditioned 40 perspective bassist in San Fransisco.

During the audition, their gaze fell on Jason Newsted. They then decided to make him the new bassist they needed.

With the spectrum of Cliff Burton death hanging over the band, they embarqued for Japan in the fall of 1987.

But for Metallica and their new bass player, their transition was a hard one.

Still mourning the loss of Cliff Burton, Metallica found an outlet for their anger and rage in the recording studio.

Their album « And Justice for All » was a progressive violent album that pronounce the death of the american dream and found the favour of Heavy Metal fans.

In October of 1990, Metallica enter the studio to record their fith album with producer Bob Rock.

Bob Rock : « I was very surprised to see how powerfull they were. »

The recording process took over 10 month and cost over a million dollar.

The creative période of the conception of the album was filled with tension and frustration.

But by surviving the creative turbulence, Metallica emerge a stronger better band. In august of 1991 they released their self titled fith album.

The controversy of the cover, renforce strenghtens the « no rules but Metallica’s rules ethics ». Black sleeve, black logo, no explanation.

The « Black album » entered Billboard at n°1 and went double platinium in less than two weeks. It went on selling 18 millions of copies worldwide.

This success helped draw a mainstram audience, for the greater good of the Heavy Metal music.

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Metallica toured relentensly for the next two and a half years, playing more than 300 dates worldwide.

James Heltfield : « Since day one, that’s how we got our fan base, we got to love playing live. And touring was our thing. »

The band stopped in Moscow to perform before a crowd of half a million Russian Rock n’Roll fan.

James Heltfield : « The energy we got from them was so amazing »

But during the concert the enthousiasm of the crowd clashes with Russian military authorities.

This clash started from a incomprehension of the autorities concerning the concert. The Russian military began to beat all the russian Metallica’s fans.

James Heltfield : « They don’t undersantd what a release is that a show. They don’t know waht’s going on here. »

During the show Metallica was unaware of the Mayhem. When the music stoped, Metallica was shocked to learn about the brutality that raged while they played.

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James Hetfield's on stage accident

In the spring of 1992 the summer tour was planned featuring Metallica with Gun n’ Roses. The tour was played with cancelation and last minutes changes due to the recuring throat problem of Gun n’Roses ‘s singer Axel Rose.

Then on August 1992, the two bands were performing at Montreal olympic stadium, when a doule doses of desaster stroke...

A terrible pyrotechnique indicent took place that night during the concert. The stage was epuipped of spectacular jet of flamme at more thant 1200°C coming from under the stage.

While James Heltfield was playing his part of the single « Fade to black » on stage, he was a little confused on where he should be on stage.

And suddenly : « The power guy doesn’t see me. I walked back out there and a big column flame goes right up under me. »

 « I am burned all my arm. My hand completly down to the bone, side of my face, hair gone and part of my back. »

James Heltfield « This is pain I’ve never felt in my whole life and it won’t go way. I am freaking at this point you know »

James had sustained second and third degree burn to his left hand and both arms. He had steped in a twelve foot high, 1 200 degrees towerflame and survived. 

 His future with the band was uncertain at best. Meanwhile back at Olympic stadium, a tensed corwd was waiting for Gun n’Roses to perform.

At that moment Gun n’Roses could have been the hero of the day by playing their music and entertaining the crowd with a good show.

But Axel Roses feeling that his voice was weakened, threw away hi smic and walked out stage because the singer of Gun n’Roses didn’t want to be outdone.

At this moment all hail broke. The public attitude has degenerated, they went outside, turning over police cars, fighting the police, burning and destroying everything.

Released from the hospital the day after the Montreal riot, James Heltfield began a painfull ritual of 90 minutes therapy sessions.

Weeks will pass before he could make a fist.

« This is going to take a lot more to stop Metallica. »

James was still able to sing. Metallica took a another bass player John Marshall, to replace James inablility to play bass.

Metalllica’s co founder was very motivated to heal himself as quick as possible. He wanted to play.

They took it as a challenge. Metallica toured relentessly for the next two and half years, playing more than two hundreds date world wide.

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Obviously Metallcia are known for touring with increadible stamina.

After two and half years of non stop touring, in the summer of 1994, Metallica agreed to take a long, indefinite break.

Metallica took a break

During this break each member of Metallica devoted themself to their own project, their own hobbies.

Kurt studdied film and asian art at San Fransisco state, Lars pursue scuba diving, Jason created new music project and James Heltfield pursue his own hobbies : hunting, snowboarding and motorcycling.

When they reunited a year later in 1995, they were stronger than before. In the studio there was a sense of revalorisation and a new spirit of collaboration.

Jason Newsted left Metallica in january 2001.

Jason Newsted : « It wasn’t easy to walk from them ».

The official reason Jason Newsted gave for his departure from Metallica it  was impossible for him to play a more creative role in the band.

And the Metallica were spending to much time to fight against napster and not enough time making new music.

Another reason was that he needed to recover from neck and back injuries he sustained from headbanging.

« Watch a couple videos from the 90’s it’s not hard to figure out how I damaged myself. » He couldn’t perform as the performer people knew it as and doing intensive touring could have been dangerous for him.»

However in 2013, he revised is position regarding his departure from Metallica. Apparently his dedication for the management of the band « Echo Brain » wasn’t a good thing as a band member of Metallica espcially from James Heltfield point of view.

During his fourteen years in the band he performed over a thousand gig and toured around the world multiple times.

Metallica's return and presence at the hall of fame

 After three years of production and despite the new disintegration of the band, St Anger is finally released in 2003.

Although it occupies the first place of sales in the US and the title track wins a grammy, the album receive harsh criticism.

 

One of the main reason : the album contain no guitar solo from Kirk Hammet.

The band got down to the process of promoting the album. They found the perfect location for the « St Anger » music video : St Quentin prison.

Both James Heltfield and Metallica had return from a long recovery period and they were now ready to return on stage.

The next two years saw Metallica doing what the love best : playing live on tour.

Metallica spend two years of touring and a year break, writing songs for a new album.

Then another choc for Metallica fans. In 2006 Metallica annouce that after fifteen years in the chair, Bob Rock will not be producing their next album.

Instead it will be legendary producer : Rick Rubin.

James : « Rick Rubin and us trying to catch the essence, the simplicity, the skeleton of Metallica. »

Death Magnetic was released in 2008 with an exellent reception from the public, opening at n°1 at many countries around the world.

Metallica became the first band in history to have five consecutive album debut at n°1 on the billboard chart.

Death Magnetic have some of their best writing and has some James’s best and most releving lyrics. It’s a great old school Metallica sounding metal album. Totally uncompromising.

Today after nearly three decades together, Metallica shows no signs of slowing down. With Death Magnectic they have reestablish themself as the greatest force in Heavy Metal and the Roxk n’Roll establishment finally agree too.

In recognition of his enormous contribution to the sucess of the band, Metallica included Jason Newsted in the induction ceremony.

Metallica had smash opened the door of hall of fame, previously locked to every rock bands. Their journey ahead surely take them from ambassadors to games. Their power and influence reign suprem.

Hey mate ! This is it for today's article, we hope you enjoy reading it. You can also check 🧐 our vintage bands t-shirt if you're interest in authentic and rare heavy metal t-shirts.