Friday, July 2, 2010

Book Review: James Hetfield : The Wolf at Metallica’s Door by Mark Eglinton

“Author Mark Eglinton has complied an exhaustive array of exclusive and first-hand interviews from key players in Hetfield’s story, and in doing so has constructed the definitive biography on Metallica’s frontman.”

When I first heard of this book I couldn’t control myself. I was more than excited to finally share head space in the psyche of one James Alan Hetfield the man who changed my life some 25 years ago when I first heard the ‘Ride the Lightning’ record. Since that time, I myself have become quite the rock-n-roll reader, devouring the printed word in magazine and book form in ridiculous amounts. When I added my own personal opinion I received the ability to hold a conversation about music with some of the best in the business. So with that being said, there’s quite a bit I already know about the man and maybe that’s the problem?

At first glance one might think ‘The Wolf at Metallica’s Door is yet another telling of the “you couldn’t dream this stuff up” story of Metallica. Well, it’s not supposed to be, it’s intent as the title describes is a book focusing on James Hetfield. Singer/songwriter/lyricist and co-founder of the 100,000,000 selling act and the impact his life has had on the World and those who occupy it. It’s a brilliant idea and a more worthy subject may or may not exist, but the point being, I couldn’t wait to dig in. 

There have been numerous unauthorized books on Metallica over the years. There’s been some good, some bad and then some that aren’t even worth mentioning. Their existence is the result of the die-hard fan wanting and needing to know more about the subject(s) at hand but due to several factors, wide spread appeal is nearly impossible. Impossible because there are many who, unless the book is written with the artist/band’s consent will always seem unbelievable, fabricated and thus unimportant. 

I know it’s not fair to compare the two, but last year the Metallica world was treated to one of the finest books related to the band in Joel McIver’s ‘To Live Is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton which by all accounts is also unauthorized. However to all who have read it, there’s no shadow of doubt the quality exceeds and over powers any such classification. I was hoping for a similar feeling once I ordered Eglinton’s book.

Things get off to a rocky start with the inclusion of a foreword by Testament’s Chuck Billy. Chuck Billy? Of all the people in James’ world to pen a foreword to the “definitive” book on his life it’s Chuck Billy? You’d think the author would get someone who has some actual experience or experiences  (sorry but  seeing Spastik Children or being at a stadium for an impromptu gig doesn't cut it) with Hetfield to kick things off. Chuck’s references are not the kind that set the tone for something as important as this and it comes across rather baffling. 

The book’s best moments are the first few pre-Metallica chapters. There’s some good stuff in there on James’ formative years that aren’t that too widely known and the cast of interviewees from that time are about as helpful as can be. Early Hetfield friends like Dave Marrs and fellow musician Hugh Tanner’s contribution is probably the best in the early part of the book as they take the reader back to the initial rough and raw early days of Hetfield’s future dreams. 

Former bassist Ron McGovney also connects the dots in a few places more clearly than in the published interviews he’s done over the last decade. Often overlooked McGovney’s participation in the foundation of Metallica should never be downplayed. His photos are also a really important inclusion to this book. 

What derails everything is once Metallica starts. Even though the book was supposed to avoid the trap of being a Met biography I’m sorry to say this is pretty much what it is. Instead of telling the story primarily from the Hetfield point of view, which it tries, you get the same old stories and identical time lines you can find in ANY Metallica related book. Sure there might be more of a Hetfield heavy twist to a lot of the material, as well there should be, but at the end of the day it feels as if we’re left with yet another band biography. 

Even worse, the author jumps on his high horse (as we all like to do) to pick apart what HE likes and dislikes about the Metallica catalog. What songs worked, what songs didn’t, what they looked like and the horrors of the rivet-headed fan listening to ‘Load’ for the first time. This was the same thing that, IMO dragged down McIver’s other Metallica book ‘And Justice For All: The Truth about Metallica’ so to say the least, I was really put off by having to go through it again here. 

Part of the problem with unauthorized books is the sources available to speak to you. Anyone really, really in Hetfield’s circle, the ones that truly know him would ever open up, let alone speak to the author. Those people with incredible insight to the man and the way he operates through life cannot chime in to help the story along. This is where the intent of the book and the realities of the project collide. You’ll get a Rex (Down) Brown to offer up anecdotes but without divulging what people really want to know and I understand there’s a reason for that. 

Arizona Metal historian Eric Braverman goes above and beyond, especially with his specialty being the Jason Newsted years but even so, you get the feeling there’s some reservation there and rightly so. People that haven’t spoken to or seen James Hetfield in 20 years? There are a few of them here and their inclusion is important, but their views are purely speculation and if we’re talking “definitive” it’s got to be deeper than that. 

I think what’s really missing from this book is the human element of James Hetfield. While there’s an awful lot of the book that simply reiterates the same things we’re told and shown in the ‘Some Kind of Monster’ film it all just skims the surface of Hetfield. A huge part of the Hetfield story, as we all know is his transformation which was brought on by his rehab stint in 2001. I think it would’ve been beneficial to the reader if the author explored the “hidden” Hetfield. Not just the drinking/non drinking James, but the total turnaround he experienced through his recovery. Anthrax drummer/rock star Charlie Benante comes pretty close to revealing this side but again, he knows better than to say too much.

While it’s touched upon in some of the Newsted/Hetfield conflicts, they’re addressed as control issues with James. Again, something clearly discussed in the ‘S.K.O.M.’ film. The control issues are a major part of the story, but his attitude and demeanor throughout the years isn’t even approached. Let’s face it, for a good number of years James Hetfield was a drunk dick. There are plenty of stories of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Hetfield yet at over 200 pages he comes across as almost saintly. 

I just think had some of this been covered the real core of James Hetfield would surface and ‘The Wolf at Metallica’s Door’ would’ve been a better book because of it. I know controlling people and situations totally make someone a dick, but the strength at which he operated raised the stakes a whole hell of a lot. The modern day Hetfield seems to walk the Earth as a balanced force. A dedicated family man, a dedicated band mate and a dedicated student of life and those in his inner circle regardless of their assets, are far richer because of it. 

Bottom line, while not a complete loss ‘The Wolf at Metallica’s Door’ is far from definitive but can be a wealth of information to some or just another book on the world’s biggest Heavy Metal band for others. That choice, as always is up to you.