May 17, 2022

The Boys Are Back In Town…

I sit in a packed plane on the second leg of my flight from San Francisco to Santiago, Chile, where, in a few days, Metallica will play a show outside the US for the first time since August 25, 2019, in Mannheim, Germany.

It would be the overstatement of understatements to say that a lot has changed since then.

When I flew home from Frankfurt the morning after Mannheim, it was with little fanfare or rigamarole. A simple check-in, go through security, in my seat, and try to sleep. I remember thinking about how mind-blowing WorldWired had been as a tour, and I remember pondering the fact that the “world” in that tour name was such a vital and integral part of all Metallica was.

We obviously know that the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out much as far as global activity. Everything stopped, including touring. And things that continued to happen did so with strict Covid protocols, which required masks and tests and masks again. It is fair to say that touring was a difficult activity to picture in such circumstances…

As I watch the Gary Oldman-led TV show Slow Horses on my iPad, I wear an N95 mask. The person next to me doesn’t for most of the flight, their mouth hanging open like a pitcher plant (I nearly tossed a few pretzels down there). The packed plane is scattered with mask wearers versus non. There is no official mandate to wear a mask anymore on planes, so things already feel scattered. This notwithstanding, it is both weird and wonderful to be back across a border (in this case, the Chilean one first), showing passports and hearing a different language all over. There is doubtless positivity to being back at the real game of global touring. Yet, things clearly are not the same in this pandemic. (Are we post-pandemic yet? Not quite, but sort of-ish?) Mandates might be lifting in some places, but people are still trying to figure out what the ground rules should be on the international road. The vast majority of live acts subscribe to the “caution” model, which requests masks at all times when around others, including the band, and testing every three days (albeit this has been relaxed to the rapid antigen model).

Unthinkable in 2019, these days, you must supply vaccine information with passport and visa requirements and can be selected at airports randomly for a PCR test. A member of one of our parties did get pulled for testing (in addition to the rapid tests we administer regularly).

Having landed in the early morning, we recharge and head down to the venue – Club Hípico – the next night. With the gig having been switched from one of the local stadiums to this horse racing track, there is some mystery as to what to expect from the venue. Suddenly, the slight alien awkward weirdness melts away as the giant M & A of the WorldWired stadium stage come into view. Slowly but surely, you see the crew. The band straps up and plugs in, reminding you that the world might be a tumble-dryer of fucked up crazy, but Metallica will always be Metallica throughout it. Despite the temporary “festival-feel” of Club Hípico, a comprehensive set-up has come together fast. No beats were missed.

For their part, the guys are in high spirits. James strolls the stage puffing a cigar, a big smile on his face. Lars looks comfortable. Rob and Kirk both feel relaxed enough. Hellos are exchanged, and light chat follows. My instinct is to try to interview them about how it feels to be here right now, but the truth is we all know the answer. All four are delighted to be back doing what they do, and any further analysis in this moment seems redundant.

The next day sees the band again at the venue to rehearse, except nothing happens on the stage, which is currently getting hammered by rain. Instead, they use the tuning room as a respite from the torrential downpours which force their way through points of the tent infrastructure to leave dressing room chief, Foster, with a “welcome back” nightmare jolt as she pulls the team together to repair the breaches in time for the big day.

Show day one in Chile, and the touring muscles edge another step closer to tone and full strength. It is impossible to wake up any day in 2022 and not consider Covid. That goes for you as well as me. Of course, we get on with our lives, but the scars run deep and often remain unacknowledged until a situation forces it. Mask on. Mask off? Mask up. Eat with your mask down and trust that the virus will respectfully stay away? So I take one of our tests anyway, just to make sure I am not the one who brings unknown Covid to the camp. I will also continue to take one of my self-tests before interacting with any band member.

We arrive at the Club Hípico racetrack for the gig. There is a skip in Lars’ step.

The first meet and greet in two years goes surprisingly well, given the mask and vaccination requirements. Everyone had to take a rapid test the same day before being allowed to proceed, and in these times, it is fair to say that no one was sure how things would go or even feel.

“That was fun. It was like riding a bike!” beams Lars, “They still love us!” He says it with a grin, yet maybe there’s a hint of relief. “I don’t take anything for granted,” he continues, and he certainly doesn’t.

There will be several meetings with Lars central to them in the next few days, and his engine doesn’t stop revving. It is a comfortable space, one he knows better than anyone, one he feels more comfortable in than probably anyone. As he makes his way around backstage, a meet and greet here, a spot of food there, some signed stuff in the mix, and a couple of brief chats with Dan Braun and Eric Johnson, he looks both comfortable and cheerful.

“Feel like you’re back on a proper tour again?” I ask. Chuckling and a smile. “Let’s give it a few more days…”

But take it from me, he’s happy to be back on what constitutes a “tour-like run.” I think, more than anyone, Lars has found the pandemic and its various interruptions the hardest to deal with in the Metallica sense. The band’s energy and dynamic live presence is a form of oxygen for him. Not having been able to control at least the live music flow has, in my opinion, been a profoundly uncomfortable reality for him. Trust me, he has been more than busy, as this is the band which doesn’t sleep even during pandemics. Still, THIS – the dressing room, the food room, the meet and greets, the tuning room, the rituals, the idiosyncrasies which make a show night his – are genuinely what I believe he cannot peacefully do without. I am not sure he would agree with my rather resolute pronouncement, and no doubt he’ll call me once he’s read this if he thinks I’m full of shit, but I know I’m right.

Kirk, too, enjoyed the meet and greet, telling me that since Covid, he has found a new appreciation for people and life in general. He seems genuinely cheerful, what with the new EP, Portals (released via the band’s own Blackened Recordings), allowing further expression of his enormous range of creativity. (Think about that for a moment and tell me you could’ve seen this scenario being A-OK 20 years ago.)

Rob is, as ever, locked in on playing the tightest shows possible, his appetite and work rate as prodigious as ever when it comes to preparing. He, too, is enjoying the feel of unfurling wings, with his guesting on Ozzy Osbourne’s forthcoming new album and some other great projects that will necessitate us sitting and talking for So What! down the line here. He has been enthusiastically telling me about the size of his creative appetite and excitement recently. Rob chose to take the pandemic times and use them to drive him further and deeper into exciting creative spaces and places.

Metallica likes to win. It is a vital component at the core of everything the band does. Covid has been a challenge for all, but for Metallica, it has been a series of situations that have seen them want a victory. And they wanted to make damn sure that they had wins throughout South America, that they smashed the doors, hearts, and minds of a public largely starved of any entertainment with not just “a gig,” but a gig that was among the very best they’d done in these parts, with a set unlike the sets done before.

As the band waits behind the stage, Ennio Morricone announcing their imminence, James starts lightly bouncing on the spot, screams a few “OOOHHHHH YEEEAAAAAAHS,” and then roars “wow, YEAH!” as the crescendo out front hits a peak and their communal energy surges behind the screens and mainlines his veins. He ingests that energy, and it fuels possibly the purest connection yet between James Hetfield and you. I believe he is closer than ever to himself on and off the stage, that the two are as close to one as a performer can ever be with themselves. It’s a question I will ask him in the coming months. But let me just say, he is as healthy as I’ve seen him in all senses. He’s working as efficiently at maintaining that health as I’ve seen. What is also physical and real is the connection James, Lars, Kirk, and Rob have when within the magic quadrant of the stage. In the chilly Santiago air, the click is both electric and instant. What is clear is that even though we are all getting older, these songs most decidedly are not. When this quartet delivers these songs live, their immortality is underscored tenfold. Twenty years ago, I had first started to wonder what it would be like to watch a band on the doorstep of 60 play “Creeping Death” live (if, indeed, they even would). The answer? Pretty fucking cool and… ageless. It is just a number if the intent remains true, which it has, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Meanwhile, out front, it is clear why we are here. Why this still matters. Why this band is an anchor and salve for so many twisted, wrung-out, and manic souls in these pandemic times. The music. The full iconic force of “Whiplash,” unadulterated, unaltered, untouched, and unapologetic, opens the show. Tens of thousands of Chileans explode into a seething mass of limbs. The horrors, trials, and tribulations of the past two-plus years were lost in the furor of writhing flesh; their frustrations were spent in glorious witness to the band that never lets them down.

As the band leaves the stage, we’re waiting in our van backstage for the police escort away from the venue as soon as the last picks and sticks have been thrown. With the familiar whirl of police sirens around us, it feels like we’re on tour once again.

The next day, in Buenos Aires, Tony DiCioccio (one of the big guys) has put together a dinner for the band party. It ends up being another moment where everyone relaxed yet further into “tour mode.” Communal meals like this, with people moving around the tables, saying hello, and catching up, have a way of easing everyone back into the social side of being on the road. It’s always important to have that chemistry. Still, again, Covid and its tentacles of protocol rendered such things off the table for most of the past two years. Look, even visiting your Granny was off the table for most of us, so again, being back out in the wild requires familiarizing with both each other and just being social generally. It’s a smart move, an important one which might not be immediately recognized as such but is.

James is in great spirits. The energy from those first few days in Chile – the excitement and nervous anticipation – shifted into the yeeeeeahh-zone by the power of that Santiago show. Generally speaking, he will always bring his day back to a point of equilibrium. Whatever is going on, he works hard for it. He keeps things simple and focused before shows these days. Space. Peace. Quiet. A cigar. What he will speak of from the stage in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on the last date of this South American run: anxieties, fears, and doubts… these things have been passengers in his psyche for so long now. You surely know this. You’ve read his lyrics; you’ve empathized with him. What, from my perspective, has shifted now is that James is more comfortable being publicly uncomfortable, sharing vulnerabilities which we frankly all have in varying degrees. He also now taps into a well of ever-evolving gratitude, which is why, in many ways, he seems so much stronger, in my opinion. Never forget your continuing role in helping with that path.

The show is again at a local equestrian stronghold, this time the Campo Argentino de Polo in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires. Unlike Santiago’s Club Hípico, Campo Argentino de Polo is edged directly by urban life. Several apartment tower blocks loom over the backstage area, which offer those residents a free gig.

The meet and greet happens again and is as loose and affable as a masked gathering can be. As the clock ticks down to show number two, the guys put themselves through their paces with a good ol’ tuning room session, working out the rust and questions, getting the blood flowing, and warming up for another “final” to be played.

As the intro begins, I walk out along the barrier, and Buenos Aires is raging! Fists and grins wave themselves at me in equal measure, blood raw expressions of pure joy and release, so true and intense that I am momentarily stunned by my own reaction. Goosebumps and an internal energy surge fueled by the roar when Metallica steps out, like the Boeing factory testing every goddamn engine in the plant on HIGH! As the smiles and hands thrust themselves into the night air, I am both delighted and comforted to see that the proportion of people holding up cellphones to record or shoot is minimal. Buenos Aires is in the moment, and it shows.

Over the years, for millions, Metallica has always represented a form of empathy and hope, from the band and its music to the families and micro-villages thriving at shows and beyond as internationally-bonded communities. That all got ramped up to another level over the last two years. More than ever, Metallica is an escape, a salvation. And if you think I’m just some waffling asshole scribbling adjectives for kicks, take a good long look at the faces you see in crowd photos taken by Jeff Yeager, Brett Murray, and me in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. Those aren’t fakers; they aren’t phoning it in. I don’t know their stories, but I’d suggest theirs are probably similar tales of struggle and survival in varying degrees to mine and yours. Their energy, joy, escape, and passion tell you how important Metallica is right now.

I had returned home before the Brazilian dates, but if ever you wanted an endorsement of what I’ve said from the fans themselves, look no further than Joice Figueiró, who was 39 weeks pregnant when she attended the Curitiba show at Estádio Couto Pereira. With medical advice that it was okay to go and having been placed in an area allowing easy access to medical facilities should Mini Figueiró decide to arrive, Joice wasn’t going to miss the show. Two years waiting. Not a chance she was going to skip it. So there she was, rocking out when suddenly her water broke, and Mini Figueiró began his arrival during “Enter Sandman.” Think about that! A new life born AT a Metallica gig. Incredible.

Will Metallica end the war? No. Will they crush inflation? No. Lower the price of gas? No. But what they will do, what Metallica will deliver in oodles and spades, is a respite and escape from the shit and ugliness, from the increasing pressures of today’s world. They’ll leave you with deep, deep memories to fortify you through the challenges to come. They’ll remind you that whatever happens, this band doesn’t stop for anything because it isn’t wired to know how to. I think that sort of glorious, emotional intangible is priceless, even more so right now.

And Metallica will remind you that they genuinely need you just like you need them. They also sincerely need each other. Each member has an individual reason and receives a unique fulfillment from Metallica. Their collective chemistry when together creates yet another indispensable element to the equation. I am not sure James, Lars, Kirk, and Rob could articulate that need or are even fully aware of it. Still, it exists, and it is why I know Metallica will always need to exist. That’s not me taking them for granted; that’s me telling you, after 38 years of knowing them, that this is simply how it is.

Flying home from Buenos Aires after the first overseas tour dates I’ve witnessed since 2019, it is comforting to know that on and offstage, Metallica 2022 is a beautiful circle of true global synergy that, in the end, not even a pandemic could defeat.

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