#167: Metallica, "Master of Puppets" (1986)

167 Master of Puppets.jpg

It was, like, a week after we first brought him home? Maybe a few days. My wife was upstairstaking a shower, opening diaper boxes, something. I was on the living room couch; I cradled him on my left arm, and tapped at my work laptop with my right. There were some things I wanted him to hear.

Fourteen months on, it’s hard to know what he likes to hear. Often, we conflate “enjoys” with “sleeps during”by that measure, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is a winner, and so is Willie Nelson’s general catalog. About six months in, I created a Spotify playlist and loaded it with boppy Motown, golden age rap (Biz Markie, “Da Set” by 69 Boyz), and current chart pop. My wifewho’s with him more often, and therefore should actually be the one who wants her child to hear music she can toleratehas been smarter. Her playlist is mostly folksy singalongs (“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “The Crawdad Song”) and cuts from musicals. If he’s vocalizing (“aaaaaaa”) instead of snoozing, she figures she’s got a winner, and she’ll call up the song’s Radio station and add similar tunes.

When I was a child, I listened as a child. That is to say, I listened through my parents’ ears: Ray Boltz and Amy Grant when I was running errands with my mom, Handel’s Water Music and Pachelbel’s Canon during family dinners, The White Album (and little else) when my dad took me to buy baseball cards. For years, when anyone had a birthday, my parents would crank the Beatles’ “Birthday” on the hi-fi and we’d all dance.

The Master of Puppets sessions were not Metallica’s first in Copenhagen, of course. The year before, they’d spent about two months tracking Ride the Lightning with Flemming Rasmussen: drummer Lars Ulrich had dug his work with Rainbow. They started hashing out the follow-up back in California—according to band lore, the day after they watched Live Aid. (They had recorded the concert broadcast so they could catch Status Quo and Zeppelin.) They were hoping to record their follow-up in the States, but the California studios were shitty; they might have settled for North America, but Geddy Lee was unavailable. So they hauled ass back to Denmark.

My love was mediated from the start. The first record I bought with my own money was Take Me to Your Leader by Newsboys, a Christian pop/rock band from Australia, whose title track frequently dispersed my youth group after our Sunday night gatherings. I was 13 when we joined the church, having just moved to Texas, with one more year of homeschooling to go. I might have been 13 when I bought the album at a store for Christian teachers; my mom was getting supplies, and I noticed their cassette rack.

Denmark was fine for recording, but as a cultural milieu, it sucked for a bunch of Cali weirdos in their early 20s. Ulrich was a Danish native, but he was holed up in the studio with Rasmussen, employing whatever production wisdom he had gleaned from Joe Satriani. Someone told lead guitarist Kirk Hammett about a decent beach, so he took bassist Cliff Burton to check it out. “[W]e went there,” he told Rolling Stone, “but it was so cold and there was absolutely no wave action or anything. Cliff and I were just bundled up on this weird beach in Copenhagen saying, ‘God, this place is driving us crazy!’”

Last year, a Danish graffiti fan named Disk published a collection of works he shot over three decades. He’d started taking pictures in 1985, when he was 13; it’s entirely possible he might have crossed paths with the American heshers, him holding a camera, them holding dreams of decent waves. Vice Denmark published a pic he took that year. Titled “Crime,” it’s a fine piece, considering: 3-D bracketed with arrows, and a nauseating fill that alternates between light blue and pink. In case you hadn’t noticed it, someone (the artist?) added a guy to the right. He’s got a shit-eating triangular grin and an afro; his infernally bent arm terminates in a pointing finger. As a capper, the piece is overlaid with three white starbursts, andincorporated in the worka fourth, broken star figure.

There’s so much I listen tomaybe all of it?because others loved it first, and because they loved it, it sustained my love. I got my first job at 16, working at a Chick-fil-A on a night crew stacked with friends from youth group. My first work memories are of listening to “Are You That Somebody?” and “Intergalactic” on the kitchen radio while washing mugs. One of my first Texas friends got hired on soon after; he was just as involved at church as I was, but he enjoyed a freedom that I hadn’t tried to exercise. Every shift, he’d bring a mess of CDs in from his car, in an empty waffle-fry box that he’d use until the bottom rotted from sitting on damp flour and chicken strip marinade.

His work taste tended toward hard rock, something I hadn’t really bothered with. Whenever he pulled a kitchen shift, we’d listen to Oleander, Rage Against the Machine, Nickelback, and Metallica. One night, he brought in a stack of cassettes so he could record a live performance of the S&M album off the radio. Even then, I thought the music was overblown, but he was in love, so I was too. He used to host people to watch Sonny Chiba or American Ninja movies; we filmed action scenes at the restaurant after closing; a bunch of us used to spend every New Year’s Eve at his mom’s ranch house, shooting off fireworks and smoking Marlboro Reds some relatives left after a wedding. It seems possible, now, that I had a crush on him.

Once I got my work laptop booted, I started picking out songs. I was going off a Spotify playlist I had called “back to the garage” when I thought I was actually going to sort all the shit we had in there, months before a baby was even a subject of discussion. I started off light. Dokken’s “I Can’t See You” didn’t bother him, so I decided to practice some dad jokes: Autopsy’s “Torn From the Womb,” Immolation’s “Father, You’re Not a Father.” He just blinked. I cued up the shortest Puppets track without an intro (“Leper Messiah”), but my wife came downstairs, and that was it. There was no spell to break, really. He was just a little blinking squish, vibrating with life but also the most fragile thing we had ever encountered.

Master of Puppets was Metallica’s treatise on control. The controlling force could be mental illness:  “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is a resigned elegy for the first half, and a summoning of strength in the second, as the narrator contemplates a possible, ultimate escape. It could be state-sanctioned violence: the way guitarist/singer James Hetfield growls “back to the front” on the beyond-jaundiced “Disposable Heroes” carries the most authority of anything here. Control could even beas it has been to untold men throughout the centuriesa cloak that lets you pass through walls: the ponderous, Old-World acoustic intro of “Battery” is almost a joke: a grenade tossed from the tank. Hetfield rips off gleeful iambic trimeters, galloping atop his breakneck thrash riff like one of his beloved Horsemen. He is Bo Jackson on a juggernaut cart; he is a New Year’s bottle rocket headed straight for Jeremy’s face.

I got to college, and I guess I was free. The dorm I was in freshman year had a T1 line, and I downloaded every recommended track Allmusic threw at me. Many nights, I’d walk to my friends’ apartment across the campus golf course, stone sober with a Wilco CD in the player, or maybe a mix with Okkervil River and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I had forsaken metal. My old friend and co-workerthe closest thing to a hesher in my lifeenrolled at a Christian school in the Southeast. I’d shoot pool at Poets and groan when someone chose “Master of Puppets” on the jukebox. The fuck are you doing, playing an eight-minute song at a bar, I’d think, pumping my heel at Lars’s crashes in the chorus. I’d usually end up picking the poppiest thing in the jukebox, which was “Groove Is in the Heart.”

To a man, each member of Metallica was brought to the harder shit by a family member. Kirk was a horror freak until he started raiding his brother’s record collection. Cliff grew up practicing the piano, but his brother Scott died at 16, and he declared, in way of dedication, that he’d become the greatest bassist. James played piano, toohis mom sang operabut his brother David was a drummer, and when David was in college, James was free to raid his Sabbath collection. Even Lars, an only child, caught the bug after his father (a professional tennis player and polymath) got him a ticket to see Deep Purple in Copenhagen. Lars moved to the States for the sake of his budding tennis career, but metal won out, as it does.

I was my parents’ first child; my brother followed soon after, and I was perpetually checking his notes. I bought two Semisonic records because he’d caught “Closing Time” on the radio and thought it was worth mentioning. (I bailed on buying the single because it had a cover of a song I didn’t know called “Erotic City,” and I was in a Borders with my dad.) He became our friend group’s prophet of ska and reggae, due in part to the Supertones, a Christian third-wave act who opened one album with a brass-boosted nick of the “Creeping Death” riff.

It’s so much work to summon and corral these memories. My recall isn’t great. Maybe that’s why so many of my high-school purchases were poppy CD singles like Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me” or “Ms. Jackson” by OutKast; why I’ve been assembling massive playlists from the 1960s studded with the oldies hits I remember from three-hour car rides to see our grandparents in Kissimmee. My son could be soothed to sleep, once upon a time; since I can’t remember the full lyrics to more than a handful of songs, I would improvise these fake doo-wop progressions, tangles of aaas and daas and doos until he finally fell asleep. My wife told me he had responded to “Friends in Low Places,” so I spent a few weeks rocking him to a best-guess hash of all three verses. He’s over all that; now it’s shushes and screams and silence. What music comes is for me; I’ll move to the bedroom and pull out my phone, auditioning playlist cuts in the dark, waiting to hear whether bedtime took.

Puppets was every bit the triumph the band wished; they moved to the vanguard of thrash metal, and Ozzy inked them as openers for the American portion of his Ultimate Sin Tour. When that concluded, the band headlined a series of European dates. It was on the way to Copenhagenagain!that their bus flipped, crushing Cliff. Dumb shit like that, you can’t control. But your record’s shifting units that Death Angel could only dream of, so you keep going. You created something, you gotta keep it alive.

I got back to metal. I used to joke that I needed to seek out the harshest shit possible so my kids couldn’t pull rank. Brutality’s its own reward, though. So I’ll call up some d-beat or grindcore or funeral doomjust for me, and usually on a stranger’s recommendation. In the last couple years, my favorite branch has been atmospheric black metal. Synthbeds stretching like spiral arms, while underneath, the rest of the band howls about their insignificance. Existential wonder punctuated with full-body tantrums: I can’t imagine a better soundtrack for a baby.

—Brad Shoup