James Hetfield’s Childhood: Metallica Star’s First 72 Seasons
Metallica’s 11th album, 72 Seasons, arrives on April 14. Frontman James Hetfield revealed that the LP’s title and theme revolve around an individual’s formative years. "Seventy-two seasons. The first 18 years of our lives that form our true or false selves,” he explained in a statement. In anticipation of the album, UCR looks back at the respective childhoods of Metallica’s current and former members.
James Alan Hetfield was born in Downey, Calif., to a truck-driving, World War II veteran father and an opera-singing mother who had a knack for visual arts. The future Metallica frontman grew up a young outdoorsman like his dad, who loved hiking, hunting and fishing.
He was also prone to music and drawing like his mother, although he was less interested in the classical piano lessons she signed him up for than the records available at the store where he bought sheet music. His first 7-inch was Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."
“My dad was always one of these ‘Cut your hair!’ kind of guys. My mom was more open to things,” Hetfield recalled years later. His parents were devout Christian scientists, which the young rocker struggled with. “It felt lonely,” he told The New Yorker. “I didn’t get it. I thought something was wrong with me.” Hetfield felt alienated at home and in church and was embarrassed when his religion excepted him from health and physical education classes at school. But he found solace in music, teaching himself drums on his older stepbrother's kit or raiding his brother's record collection. One particular album - with a dark, haunting cover and the sound of rain when the needle first hit it - was instrumental in Hetfield's future.
"This was more than just music — a powerful, loud, heavy sound," Hetfield remembered years later while inducting Black Sabbath into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. "Music was a way to speak, simple as that. Music was the voice I didn’t have."
Hetfield was 13 and in church camp when his father left the family, without as much as a note for his children, leaving their mother to tell the kids their father was on a business trip. The aspiring rocker kept busy with music and football, although when his coach told him he needed to cut his hair, Hetfield left the team. He learned how to play guitar on an instrument he picked up at a garage sale, before upgrading to a used SG Gibson his mother helped him buy.
He applied his drums and piano chops to the instrument, recalling, “I wanted to play drums on guitar. ... I wanted a really percussive sound, one that really reacts quickly and is punchy but also if you hang on a chord, it’s going to fill the room.” Hetfield also immersed himself in the hard rock of Aerosmith ("The real coolness of Joe Perry, especially") and Van Halen ("It oozes of youth and rebellion"). His mother supported his pursuits enough to drive him to see Blondie at the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park.
Hetfield's mother died of cancer when he was 16. She refused medical help, per her religion. “We watched her wither to nothing,” the singer remembered.
He moved in with his half-brother in La Brea and threw himself into music, performing in bands with names like Obsessions, Syrinx, Phantom Lord and Leather Charm. “I couldn’t write a lyric to save my life,” the frontman later admitted, and song titles like "Hades Ladies" and "Handsome Ransom" indicate as much. But Hetfield wasn't content to play covers and set off to write some music.
“I wanted it to be freedom from school, from work, from the typical music that we were hearing,” he recalled to NPR. “It was a way to get away from my screwed-up family.” Hetfield roomed with bassist Ron McGovney at his bandmate’s parents’ home. “There was the cheerleaders, the jocks, the marching band people ... you ended up with the laggers hanging around without any real social group, and that included James and I,” McGovney recalled of his high school experience. The boys joined guitarist Hugh Tanner and drummer Jim Mulligan in the group Leather Charm. The band broke up in 1981, but not before Tanner brought Hetfield to meet a drummer who had placed an ad in Los Angeles classified newspaper The Recycler: “Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with. Influences: Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden. Ask for Lars."
Not much came of the group's initial jam session, with both Hetfield and Tanner remembering Lars Ulrich was barely able to keep his kit together. "Hetfield was the shyest person I’d ever seen in my life," Ulrich recalled in the book Birth School Metallica Death. "He could barely utter the word 'hello' and he certainly couldn’t make eye contact." But the drummer saw something in the shy boy and pursued a follow-up.
Hetfield graduated high school in June 1981 and turned 18 that summer. He worked jobs as a janitor and in a sticker factory, where he wrote down song ideas during his lunch break and sang riff ideas into a small recorder he carried around. An older co-worker encouraged Hetfield to work his way up at the factory, but the musician had other ideas. On his high school yearbook page, he wrote, “Play music, get rich.” His personal quote was “Long Live Rock.”