Live at San Quentin

Live at San Quentin

I noticed him standing there, shirtless, back to me, heavily tattooed. He was a skinhead, as in no hair. He wore a huge, immovable grin and black wrap sunglasses. One of the guards told me he was a ‘lifer (in jail for life, no chance of parole). The initials ‘FTW’ were tattooed onto the nape of neck. ‘Fuck The World’. I doubted he was prone to outbursts of immovable grinning, or any displays of happiness come to think of it. Of course this man was excited that Metallica was here, but more than anything I sensed he was enjoying an all-too-rare feeling of being proud. Proud that they’d offered to do a show for the inmates. Proud that they’d donated $10,000 towards the San Quentin Giants baseball field, about 400 ft opposite the makeshift stage in the main exercise yard. But more than anything, I sensed that he was proud they’d volunteered to offer a little bit of relief from an endless stretch of time, and by doing so, to recognize that so many of these prisoners are human beings too.

No-one had imagined that this, the unorthadox but undeniably first show of the forthcoming tour for ‘St Anger’ (as well as Robert Trujillo’s full live debut) would be at San Quentin Prison. And what would become alarmingly recurrent throughout the show was the sheer uniqueness of this situation, the reality that for everything Metallica have experienced in their career, moments like this are reminders that whatever your experience, however many albums you’ve sold, wherever you might have visited, there’s always something, or somewhere new to go.

As I took in the slowly milling crowd before the show (inmates wandered this main exercise yard, site of the gig itself, largely untouched, yet just as it seemed you were in the middle of some inmates without a guard, two of them would suddenly just appear) I realized a) how fortunate I am and b) how much I sometimes take Metallica for granted. This feeling was heightened when a guard told me that the audience was comprised of approximately 50% lifers, who, along with other members of the population that had elected to do their time quietly and constructively as possible, witnessed a set stuffed with old favorites such as ‘Creeping Death’, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’. ‘Master Of Puppets’ and ‘Battery’. For them, this was the sort of rarity that none of us can relate to, and I found myself coming back to that thought many, many times as I tapped my foot and remembered tens of dozens of Metallica shows worldwide. For them this was it. There won’t be another chance to see Metallica live again…

Considering this was Robert Trujillo’s first full live performance, and considering how little time the band have had to rehearse, this was a fine performance. Loud, taut and far more often than not, very,very tight. I thought it really started to take off with ‘Master Of Puppets’, whilst the guys felt it happening from ‘Seek And Destroy’ on. The audience? Some, those in front of the tressel tables set up as a barricade, were whooping and hollering, throwing ‘metal’ horns to the wind, baring their tattoos for the assembled news cameras and perhaps enjoying a memory or two of shows from the old days before San Quentin was home. That was a major reminder for the whole afternoon…that whilst we all got to go home, the audience lived there.

Before the show started, James addressed the inmates much like sponsors discuss matters of emotion and rehabilitation when in treatment. “…’St. Anger’ was a patron saint I made up for myself as I have struggled with anger issues all my life,” he said to the silent onlookers, “I never knew how to get it out in a healthy way.” He then spoke of how many of the inmates had doubtless had ‘a lotta misspent anger and some are paying higher consequences’ whilst also sharing his fear that he might have been an inmate were it not for music whilst offering thanks for what music has given him. But his most poignant sentiment, the one which so many people fail to see on a daily basis, came when he addressed the issue of prisoners also being human beings. “I was guilty of compartmentalizing before,” he said, “perhaps not wanting to see the souls in here. But there are lots of souls here… and I’m not afraid to say that I love you guys.” After having at one point stopped to breathe before declaring that he was a little nervous, he concluded by saying, “everyone is born good and we are very proud to be in your house playing music for you.”

After a presentation from the Head of the Men’s Electory Committee at San Quentin, inmate Marvin Munch (quote: “I feel you on that anger thing…people really appreciate you performing…when you leave here, let people know we have souls too!”) and a certificate from the San Quentin Vietnam Veteran inmates who helped with the gear for both yesterday’s video shoot and today’s show, the band punched into ‘Creeping Death’.

As I already mentioned, Robert Trujillo is a perfect fit both aurally and visually, and the man will not put foot or fingers wrong if this performance is anything to judge by. The tuned-down ‘Seek…’ was a real rumbler, but what started to become reality in this strangest of settings, was how lyrics shifted meaning because of the surroundings. Kirk mentioned noticing it during ‘Creeping Death’ but I really noticed it during the razor rendition of ‘Master Of Puppets’, James barking the words ‘master master, where are the dreams that I’ve been after?’ and instantly switching the meaning from drugs to (in many cases) this audience’s life situation.

By the time ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Battery’ closed the set, the inmates were loose and happy, hooting, hollering, whooping and yelling, a banner stating METALLICA RULES THE WORLD flapping in the breeze, whilst the band were in full swing, tight, taut and mean. Indeed, for a moment it could’ve been the front row at any show stuffed full of rabid Metalliheads, sweaty tattooed torsos and a flock of arms pumping the air. But a quick glint of the razor wire, or the endless fencing, or the manned lookout towers were an instant reminder that these guys were prisoners,first and Metallifans after that.

As if to cap off the bizarre observations, beyond them in the far right and left-hand corners of the yard were two intense games of basketball and baseball, with the participants of each comfortably ignoring a gig that had fans lining the hill outside the prison walls trying to look in. You see this Metallica show, however unique and however good, came during the players’ weekly 4 hour sporting time allotment. And as a guard explained to me, nothing messes with that time and nothing can drag the men away from their chosen sports, not even Metallica.

Afterwards there was a great deal of relief that everything had gone so well, and a generally huge ‘stoked’ vibe about Robert’s firs gig, a performance where he proved beyond belief that spiritually Metallica’s always been his home. And before heading out there was time for the guys, their loved ones and a few of us to take a tour of the execution chamber, yet another wholly sad and humbling experience to remind us all how Metallica’s performance today will have come as such an enormous chink of light to so many.

And as we shuffled off into the night air, as the band headed back to HQ to pick up bags and take the jet down to LA for the ICON event, it was impossible not to think about the fact that many of today’s audience will likely never leave, never wear different clothes and never have the luxury of choices we take for granted…

Oh, here’s that set-list as it ran…

  • Creeping Death
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Seek and Destroy
  • Fade To Black
  • Fuel
  • Sad But True
  • Master Of Puppets
  • One
  • Enter Sandman
  • Battery

Steffan Chirazi, Editor So What! Magazine