I had the ultimate privilege to experience something rare I have never experienced. I would have thought that after seeing the likes of Gary Clark Jr., Social Distortion, Mr. Warren Haynes, Van Morrison (who played both “Vanlose Stairway” and “St. Dominic’s Preview” on the same night) , and Bob Dylan (who sang “Lenny Bruce”), all within the last 3 months in the Bay Area, I would have been blown away. But that was no the case. On September 6th 2019, for the grand opening of San Francisco’s Chase Center, Metallica decided, to again, on their 20-year anniversary, join ranks with the SF Symphony. An avid Metallica fan growing up, spending part of my youth in the Berkeley, California region, and being mesmerized by “Ride The Lightning” later on – as a 17-year old High School student at Chapel Hill High School, this concert was the one I could not miss. I used to hang out with Southern heavy metal rockers in Chapel Hill back in 1990. We would frequent a great small, intimate music venue called Cat’s Cradle, over in adjacent Carrboro.
We even had our own little venue for garage bands in Chapel Hill off Franklin Street, and close to Hector’s, a Greek restaurant. I played there with my own High School garage band called RyeSox, consisting of an eclectic cast of characters, from Mike from the sticks of North Carolina, Mike Abernathy (someone I grew up with as a kid), and John McNeil, a skin head from the Bronx. I started the band after having experienced another garage band, albeit good, called Operation Ivy back in the Berkeley 924 Gilman scene. Their lead singer, Jesse Michaels, and I would frequent a punk rock hang out in Oakland called “The Ashtray,” and hang out in Art class with a teacher named Sally at Berkeley High School. Jesse and I would paint and listen to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” That is also when I also really started getting into jazz. Sally was like a mythical figure at Berkeley High, and her class was a creative respite for artists and free thinkers, kind of like a salon to hide out from getting completely bashed and throttled by oncoming thugs in the hallways and outside hallways (which was usually the case).
I traveled a lot in my youth because my Mom was a Professor of Medical and Cultural Anthropology with stints at different sites, so we were “academic brats,” and I literally fell on the steps of Chapel Hill High School in January, 1990 – thrown into a new, rural high school experience in a totally different part of the country – that seemed half a world away from the punk ska scene at Berkeley High. Back (South)East, the kids asked me if I was straight edge, and I started to observe the differences in the punk scenes, almost immediately. In Berkeley, we were really into the music and the moshing was secondary. In fact, in 1990 Berkeley was on fire: Isocracy, always dressed in black and barefooted Jeff Ott of Crimp Shrine (my personal favorite), and Op Ivy took the stage, to blow our minds away. I will never forget my first Op Ivy show. I was doing my best to skate on Telegraph Avenue one day in early 1989, when I saw a diminutive, bald kid with white t-shirt and black ska slacks. He talked funny, like a baritone drawl. At first, I didn’t really like him. He was kind of a freak. He had black sunglasses and a ska top hat. He told me his named was Lint (and now goes by his original Albany name, Tim Armstrong) and asked me if I would join him to see his band down at 924 Gilman Street Project.
When I first met him, Lint and I skated down to 924 Gilman. it was just 20 or 30 of us kids, mostly skaters, and something was happening that was unprecedented on that stage with Matt Freeman (bassist), Dave Mello (drummer), Jesse (singer), and Lint (guitar). In fact, Berkeley High was aflush with “Energy” cassette tapes in the Spring of 1989. Op Ivy was famous in Berkeley (little did I know anywhere else). I remember trying to get into their last show on May 28, 1989 at Gilman but it was too damned pack with kids from the neighboring East Bay suburbs like Pinole, and the like. I recently reunited with Lint two years ago when I saw him outside The Forum for a U2 show. I grabbed him, and said, “Man, I have been looking for you all over LA.” My guess is he now lives peacefully somewhere in Highland Park or Echo Park, still touring with Rancid (in fact I saw him play at Coachella a few years ago). “Good to see you, man. I’ll see you inside at the show.” Those are words I heard before, but only back in 1989 in the East Bay.
North Carolina in 1990 was great, too, but it was different. Fugazi from up in D.C. with their famous $5 shows were popular, and hard rock bands like Ian MacKaye’s Minor Threat were also huge. But after my Ryseox debut (with all of 20-30 people in attendance, much like that first Op Ivy show back in Berkeley), and getting my chin split open while dancing in a circular mosh pit, I started to find a different scene. Two of the punks I used to hang out with (Tal from Israel and the Alex from Boston), got into a bad fist fight in a parking lot off of Franklin Street, and so I had had enough of the violent East Coast punk rock bullshit. I was more into the music and the Gilman scene, and found the punk scene in NC to be more about moshing and hurting each other than the fucking music.
So, from a crazy ska bald head, I grew my hair out full length, died it jet black, and grew out a beard to match. I looked like a homicidal maniac with a van down by the river, but I didn’t care. I started my first job at a bakery off Franklin Street called “My Favorite Muffin,” and one of the cooks in the kitchen, Ray from Puerto Rico, got me really into metal. I will never forget it. The owner of the establishment was a racist prick named James from New York, and he always called Ray, “Ray Lambada.” We would cook and clean, and crank the tunes: Black Sabbath, Metallica, Sound Garden, Bad Brains, GN’R, and Iron Maiden blared through the bakery. Then more characters joined the scene after work: we had Chris, a big time Southern rocker who got me into Skynyrd and deep southern rock history, Shep, a tweaker with long blonde hair, Rebecca Cerese from Brooklyn (more into the 60’s scene like The Stones, Van, and Dylan), and Matt from rural North Carolina, an African-American, dating Rebecca, who loved Metal more than all of us, combined.
That is when I really got into “Appetite” from GN’R and “Ride the Lightening” by Metallica. In fact, I will never forget the first time I heard “Appetite” on an old Southern road outside of Chapel Hill city limits. Slash and Axl blew the fucking roof off that record! Slash’s rhythm guitar and shredding with Axl’s high-pitched soaring, almost angelic, voice, took me to a different world completely.
But it was in Metallica’s solace that I really became intrigued. After digging into their history, I found some of it personal. Cliff Burton (bassist) was a Bay Area boy from Castro Valley High and having met James Hetfield (lead singer) and Lars Ulrich (drummer) at The Whiskey in LA in 1982, Cliff convinced them to move up to El Cerrito, and join Kirk Hammett (guitarist). Kirk joined them in Rochester for the first time to record Metal Up Your Ass in May 1983 and never looked back. Unfortunately, on September 26, 1986, Cliff was killed in Europe when the tour bus hit a patch of black ice on the road.
In High School I really got into the Greeks – Aeschylus, Euripides (my personal favorite), The Iliad, and The Odyssey unlocked my imagination of grandeness and world domination (and the latter is one of the reasons I decided to attend UCLA later in life). Metallica made me feel the same emotion as when I read the Greeks. I could not get enough of Cliff’s passionate bass, Lars’ instrumentality (and really his complexity), Kirk’s ontological riffs, and James’ utter ego that took metal and threw it down life’s throat. I think more than any political theorist, I framed my political consciousness through Black Sabbath and Metallica, among others.
Make his fight on the hill in the early day
Constant chill deep inside
Shouting gun, on they run through the endless grey
On the fight, for they are right, yes, by who’s to say?
For a hill men would kill, why? They do not know
Stiffened wounds test there their pride
Men of five, still alive through the raging glow
Gone insane from the pain that they surely know
For whom the bell tolls
Time marches on
For whom the bell tolls
Take a look to the sky just before you die
It is the last time you will
Blackened roar massive roar fills the crumbling sky
Shattered goal fills his soul with a ruthless cry
Stranger now, are his eyes, to this mystery
He hears the silence so loud
Crack of dawn, all is gone except the will to be
Now they see what will be, blinded eyes to see
Gen’rals gathered in their masses,
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction,
Sorcerer of death’s construction
In the fields the bodies burning,
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind,
Poisoning their brainwashed minds
Oh Lord yeah
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role for the poor, yeah
On my 17th birthday, December 26th, 1990, when I had subsequently returned to the Bay Area from North Carolina to complete High School at a private art school in Berkeley called Maybeck, one of my best friends, my Dad, and I decided to frequent Chez Panisse for a late dinner. It was around 9:00 p.m. when we were loitering in the upstairs café and, all the sudden, unbeknownst to us, 5 people dressed entirely in black walked in. There was an air of mystery around them. I remember when Paul, the perennial maître d’ at Chez, sat them down ahead of us, even though we had a reservation and had been waiting for a while. “Paul, why did you sit them down first, man?” No answer.
We sat down upstairs by the entrance. Suddenly, a dude with black locks, effeminate looking, and Latino looking, walked by me. I grabbed him and uttered “Dude, are you fucking Kirk Hammett?” He nodded in agreement. “Hey man! It’s my birthday, can you sign my menu!” I asked. He was with a couple of women, and was super laid back, cool. “Yeah man. We just need to powder our noses in the bathroom and will be back.” The women giggled. They scurried away, and he indeed came back and singed my Menu. Kirk said: “Dude, it’s Lar’s birthday today too, man. We are about to join him in SF after dinner to party.” “No way!” I replied. Kirk sat down with his guests. My Dad and friend had no clue what was going on.
All the sudden, our waitress shows up with a big bottle of red wine. “We didn’t order that” I said. “No, this is from the gentleman over at that table over there.” Kirk nodded at me and threw his hand up as the evening’s conductor, as he and the guests broke into a Happy Birthday chant extemporaneously. He called us over, and my taciturn, grave Dad, who preferred Gregorian Chant Music, sat down next to Kirk, and asked more questions than Barbara Walters, while my friend and I hung out for a bit, and got to know the guests. Man, that was Metallica. Always warm, with arms and palms open, to invite humanity in all of its forms, to the table (part of this is because Lars is originally from Gentofte, Denmark, and SF was home to the UN on April 25th, 1945, before it moved to NYC, so the philosophy of the band is extremely international). And to a 17-year old fan on his birthday in Berkeley, nothing could be more fulfilling or downright cool.
In September 2019, Metallica decided to play two shows with the San Francisco Symphony on the 20th Anniversary of S & M an abbreviation of Symphony and Metallica), in front of 18,000 fans, with Michael Tilson Thomas as music director. Originally, however, S & M was just 3,500 people with conductor Michael Kamen conducting back then the Berkeley Community Theater.
At the September, 2019 shows the interaction between Metallica and the classic musicians was mind numbing: Holy Shit, we all thought, they really are pulling this off “Master of Trumpets” “One,” “Wherever I May Roam”, “All Within My Hands,” “The Unforgiven III”, “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth”), and the soothing “Nothing Else Matters.”
I think for me the most emotional part of the evening was the Festschrift for Cliff Burton. I have a feeling that got to James Hetfield too, who played beautifully the entire evening.
The crowd and I swayed back and forth, our minds acutely aware of the symphony and Metallica bringing us nothing but pure joy, and humanitarian relief though music. Lars, as he usually does, ended the show on his international music. “Metallica, San Francisco, you are all part of our world. I see flags from our friends in Germany, Poland, Panama, Mexico, Brazil…. l! We love you and we are you and we are you!”
California, Open Mind for a Different View.
Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony set list:
“The Ecstasy of Gold” (San Francisco Symphony)
“The Call of Ktulu”
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“The Day That Never Comes”
“The Memory Remains”
“Moth Into Flame”
“The Outlaw Torn”
“No Leaf Clover”
“Halo on Fire”
“Scythian Suite, Op.20 , Second Movement” (San Francisco Symphony)
“Iron Foundry” (San Francisco Symphony with Metallica)
“The Unforgiven III” (James Hetfield solo with the San Francisco Symphony)
“All Within My Hands”
“(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”
“Wherever I May Roam”
“Master of Puppets”
“Nothing Else Matters”