The Upbringing and Evolution of Metallica’s James Hetfield
In Se7en, Kevin Spacey's "John Doe" famously promises Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman's detectives, "What I've done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed ... forever." Same applies to Metallica, for better or worse. The thrash icons unveiled their double-album return to form Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct late last year, so what better time for a comprehensive biography on co-founder James Hetfield? Mark Eglinton's So Let It Be Written: The Biography of James Hetfield promises to construct the definitive account of the guitarist / vocalist, focusing on his inimitable presence and songwriting acumen. But today we go back to the very beginning: the frontman's pre-Metallica garage days in southern California. CLRVYNT is happy to unveil the introduction and first chapter to Eglinton's opus below. Pick up the book through Lesser Gods.
“James Hetfield is an unsung virtuoso. His guitar and vocal sound, along with his song ideas, have enabled Metallica to go from being classified alongside Motörhead and Venom, to being aligned with Bruce Springsteen and U2.”
Those are the words of Alex Skolnick — guitarist in the thrash metal band Testament and a member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Skolnick is a virtuoso himself, and an astute commentator on the world of rock music. Hetfield and Metallica went from the underground to thrash metal’s top tier in 1986, and had even greater impact later in their career.
However, if you’d asked me in 1986 whether I expected to write about the life and career of James Hetfield, the answer would have been no. When I met that distinctly guarded guy that year after a show at the Edinburgh Playhouse in Scotland, I never imagined he would become a rock icon alongside Bono and Springsteen.
A lot has changed in 30 years, and the result is this: the first definitive biography of James Hetfield, frontman of Metallica, by far the biggest heavy rock band of the modern era.
September 12, 1986: Metallica, along with New York thrashers Anthrax, were playing on their Damage, Inc., Tour to open-mouthed metal audiences throughout Europe. This tour changed the fabric of heavy music, with far more emphasis placed on speed and downright aggression thereafter. By this time in their career, Metallica had acquired a knack for complex song structures, and this combination of intelligence and ferocity was a killer mix.
However, this was no normal tour. Hetfield had broken his left wrist in a skateboarding accident. The result was a plaster cast, which ruled out guitar-playing for much of the tour.
Fortunately, John Marshall — guitar technician for Kirk Hammett, Metallica’s other guitarist — filled in on rhythm guitar duties from somewhere in the wings while the band raged onstage. Hetfield was limited to singing. Later in the tour, and despite his initial reluctance, Marshall joined the band onstage, which must have been a surreal experience given the frenzied atmosphere at these seminal shows.
Hetfield’s now legendary ability as a rhythm guitarist of almost inhuman precision was the one thing we didn’t witness that night. However, his barked vocals and intimidating stage presence left a lasting impression.
After the show, Hetfield and the late Cliff Burton, Metallica’s bass player at the time, wandered into a bar down the street from the venue, where a few of us were drinking and discussing the gig. Through a haze of time and alcohol, I vaguely recall a brief chat ensuing between the two of them. Burton was the more forthcoming of the two. Hetfield was somewhat distant. That didn’t matter, though, as meeting members of the band after such a life-changing show was a huge bonus.
Our paths had crossed; though, to them, it must have been just another forgettable encounter with fans.
The raw, evolving Metallica of 1986 were a very different band from the monster they would become. Their commercial zenith was still five years away. Similarly, the band members have grown over time, impacted by their huge commercial success and its accompanying public scrutiny. From day one, though, the driving force behind Metallica has been the axis of Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. Their personal relationship has often been strained, which isn’t surprising given their wildly different backgrounds. However, for the majority of Metallica’s career — particularly prior to 1992 — no one could question the aural results, and Hetfield’s role was significant.
James Hetfield is a guitarist of otherworldly ability, a frontman of gargantuan stature and a much-underrated lyricist and songwriter. But he is more than just a great and influential musician. Hetfield is a more sensitive and thoughtful person than his public persona has suggested. Many are familiar with the hirsute, hard-drinking man of hunting and hot rods, but that’s not all he is. This book tries to understand, demystify and humanize a rock legend who, for most of his career, has remained impenetrable.
CHAPTER 1: JAMIE
People debate whether human beings’ traits are determined by genetics or by our upbringing and environment. While elements of both are true, stress and family upheaval in childhood have significant effects.
As far as environments go, Downey, California, is as neutral and unremarkable as many of the other towns in the area. With a history that dates back to the Spanish colonial times of the early 1770s, the city is located at the confluence of several major highways. It’s approximately 13 miles southeast of the bright lights and perceived opportunity of downtown Los Angeles.
The oldest surviving McDonald’s is located on Downey’s Lakewood Boulevard, and has been there since 1953. It says a lot about the city’s heritage that a fast food restaurant is one of its few landmarks. In addition, Taco Bell opened their first-ever restaurant in Downey in 1962.
James Alan Hetfield was born on August 3, 1963. In terms of music, this was a momentous year for Downey, not just because a future rock icon was born. That same year, singing siblings the Carpenters, who were still teenagers, moved to Downey from their native Connecticut.
James Hetfield’s mother, Cynthia — a light-opera singer — had been married prior to meeting James’s father, Virgil. Cynthia was, as James once described her, “a Berkeley Mom,” and was apparently open to loud music and long hair. Virgil was a truck driver, with a small distribution operation of his own. Cynthia undertook the bulk of the childcare in the early days, as Virgil would often be away from home on extended business trips. Although widely regarded as a kind man, he was — in contrast to his laid-back wife — considerably more reserved and conservative.
James had two half-brothers, Chris and Dave, who were 11 and 12 years older, as well as an older sister, Deandra. They grew up in a loving environment that encouraged creativity.
One feature that bound the Hetfields together was the Church of Christian Science. In Christian Science, the focus of worship and belief is God. Founded in 1866 by Mary Baker Eddy — who had endured chronic childhood illness — the belief system maintains that the power of healing is available to all of us, and that we need to refer to Biblical scriptures for the answers. The church considers the universe and humanity to be of a spiritual nature, as opposed to being material entities. The suggestion is that, due to the “absolute purity” and perfection of God, He could not have created sin, disease and death — and therefore they do not exist.
James reflected on his religious upbringing in an interview with Playboy in 2001: “I was raised a Christian Scientist, which is a strange religion. The main rule is: God will fix everything — your body is just a shell, you don’t need doctors. It was alienating and hard to understand.” This restrictive approach to medicine would have a dramatic impact on the Hetfield family and on James himself during his adolescence.
James was close to his half-brothers. David in particular was a big influence. Chris had left the home already. Even at a very early age, James was steered in a musical direction, mainly by his mother, who encouraged him down that familiar route of piano lessons. Hetfield started at the age of nine and continued for almost two years. He showed a lot of promise, but by his own admission, it wasn’t fulfilling playing classical tunes. That wasn’t the music that kids in California were hearing on the radio.
It wasn’t wasted time, though. In recent years, James has acknowledged the importance of his early exposure to a two-handed instrument, even if the results weren’t exactly what he was looking for. He admitted that the cookies that were offered, presumably as an incentive at the end of each session, were a big draw as well.
Before long, Hetfield’s young head was being turned by David’s drum kit — and the louder and rockier options it offered. David regularly played drums in a band called the Bitter End. Armed with a new and burning desire to play guitar, it was a matter of when — not if — his younger sibling would ultimately head in the same direction.
A lot of James’ favorite bands were the heavier acts of the time, like Black Sabbath, ZZ Top and KISS. However, if there was one band that fueled his desire to rock out, it was Aerosmith.
Aerosmith were a blues-influenced, swaggering rock band with a heavy sound derived from the likes of the Rolling Stones. They liked to party and were a pretty debauched outfit during the 1970s. Despite living on the edge somewhat, they propped themselves up on stage long enough to do live shows in the Downey area. James attended his first Aerosmith concert at the L.A. Forum in 1978.
In Joe Perry, Aerosmith had a cool guitarist that caught James’ eye, and he could see himself mirroring that image.
James was fortunate that David was in college — training to be a public accountant — which meant that he was often away studying. His considerable record collection — which included not only hard rock bands, but also a load of old rock ‘n’ roll 45s — was at the mercy of young James. He took full advantage by making his brother’s vinyl collection his bedrock of influence.
It didn’t go unnoticed by David, and as part of the documentary Some Kind of Monster, James sheepishly admitted: “I’d always leave the turntable on and he’d know. I’d come home and get busted because the turntable was still on.” David always seemed to know what his younger brother was up to, as James admitted when describing getting caught: “‘Jamie, were you playing my records?’ He called me Jamie when I was a kid.”
Another guy in the Downey scene was Ron McGovney, who played a major and often undervalued role in the band we now know as Metallica. McGovney felt that he and James were kindred spirits. Ron recalled how they got together: “We met at East Middle School in Downey at the age of about 11. We both went to different elementary schools, so we didn’t know each other before then. I really lived in Norwalk, the next city over, but my parents got me into Downey schools, which they thought were better.”
In McGovney, James had a like-minded friend. Their musical tastes weren’t aligned, although that gradually changed. McGovney explained: “Neither of us was in any social or sports group. We were the outcasts, you might say. He used to make fun of my Elvis sticker I had on my folder, and I made fun of the Aerosmith sticker he had on his.” McGovney added, “He is the one who really got me into listening to hard rock and metal. Before that, I listened to stuff like the Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac and, of course, Elvis Presley.”
It’s worth noting McGovney’s mention of sports. Due to his family’s religious beliefs, James shied away from participating in physically active sports for fear of getting hurt. Children often relish the bonding experience found in team sports. Its absence likely contributed to James’s quiet demeanor, and he relied on his growing interest in music instead.
James was beginning to ask questions about his family’s religious beliefs. As part of the Playboy interview in 2001, he suggested that he found it difficult to understand the health implications of his religious upbringing: “My dad taught Sunday school — he was into it. It was pretty much forced upon me. We had these little testimonials, and there was a girl that had her arm broken. She stood up and said, ‘I broke my arm, but now, look, it’s all better.’ But it was just, like, mangled. Now that I think about it, it was pretty disturbing.”
Unfortunately, a life-changing roadblock was looming large. His parents’ divorce in 1976 shook the family unit to the core. Hetfield explained to Playboy: “Dad went on a “business trip’ ... for more than a few years, you know? I was beginning junior high. It was hidden that he was gone. Finally, my mom said, ‘Dad is not coming back.’ And that was pretty difficult.”
Daily life was tense in the household at times. While Cynthia worked hard to balance home and a career — with inevitable pressure to be at home — James and his sister argued frequently. This escalated to one occasion when James burned his sister with hot oil, which he later admitted was a step too far.
The absence of a father figure at home did not help. What wasn’t yet apparent was that Cynthia was suffering from cancer. Given her religious beliefs, this was not going to be an easy battle. As if there weren’t enough challenges for the family, money — or the lack of it — became a pressing issue. James had to bring in some income for the household, and he got a job.
As an aspiring rock star in his own mind, regular work wasn’t something he was particularly keen on. To make matters worse, his mother insisted that nobody would hire him unless he cut his hair. This, according to James, wasn’t happening anytime soon. “Well, long hair’s part of music, mom. Y’know, if I’ve got short hair I can’t rock, you know. There’s no way,” Hetfield later admitted.
Long hair intact, James saw music as his chosen escape. James actively sought to join — or, ideally, form — a band. In addition to McGovney, a fellow student named Dave Marrs had similar taste in late-1970s rock. It was inevitable that they gravitated toward each other.
“Ron and I were actually friends first, and we all knew James, but he was never into our little clique of friends that we had,” Marrs told the author. “Then, in 10th grade, I had him in a biology class, and I had my KISS T-shirt on and he had his Aerosmith shirt on, and we just became really good friends. Everything kind of clicked from there.”
Hetfield, McGovney and Marrs ran in the same circles — largely based on their love of music — and this bond lasted for several years. The group spent time doing the kinds of things kids do, including hanging around the local miniature golf course, where there were video games and a bowling alley, where the trio played pool. It was nothing out of the ordinary. It was regular teenage life in suburban California.
Rock music was high in the pecking order for these like-minded teenagers. While James spent most of his time thinking about how to join a band, he wasn’t without talent in other departments. “I would say he was a pretty [normal] student, generally,” McGovney recalled. “Practicing guitar took up a lot of his time! Even then, it was obvious that music was the way forward. But he did excel at art classes, though, and could probably have made a career out of that.”
That early artistic talent proved useful in future years. Hetfield’s ability to create an image — whether visually for an album cover or lyrically for a song — had intrinsic value in his future bands, most notably Metallica.
As much as James wanted to form a band — and as desperately as he aspired to be the driving force behind it — the outfit that offered James his first chance to rock, called Obsession, was the brainchild of a couple of brothers named Ron and Rich Veloz.
Marrs recalled: “I was real good friends with the Veloz brothers, and they had something going on with their band. They had another friend with them called Jim Arnold as well. They said, ‘We need another guitar player,’ and that’s how James ended up joining Obsession.”
Arnold told the author about the first time he went 'round to James’s house: “The thing I remember most is that he had a life-sized silhouette on his bedroom wall. From what I remember, it was Steve Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and I think he said his mother had painted it for him. It was very cool!”
Obsession consisted of Hetfield on guitar, Ron Veloz on bass, Rich Veloz on drums and Arnold on lead guitar. Every band needs a kick-ass road crew, so McGovney and Marrs were drafted. Marrs admitted that their role was overstated: “We were more like friends than actually roadies, really.”
The Veloz boys’ garage became the venue for rehearsals, with Marrs and McGovney staffing a crude control panel to give the place some basic lighting effects. Marrs recalled: “They just played, like, backyard parties back then. They were just, like, your average garage band. They did UFO covers, and I think they did ‘Communication Breakdown,’ good songs like that. I remember that the Veloz brothers [had] some traffic lights or something, and they hooked them up into the garage, and we’d go up there and play with the lights. We were 15-year-old kids, and we didn’t know what we were actually doing up there, we definitely didn’t. It was a good time back then, though.”
Arnold lived down the street at the time, and he, too, has fond memories of Obsession’s early garage days: “We built a wall inside that garage and soundproofed one half of it using old cardboard and carpet. James only lived a few miles from there, and he would use his mom’s car to drive over, or we would go and pick him up. We spent a lot of time in that garage; it was our party and practice place.”
Although no recordings of the band exist, it is safe to say that the Hetfield of Obsession and the one we know now were poles apart. His voice at the time had little of the full-bore bellow that he would develop in the late 1980s and none of the harmony that would bleed into Metallica’s work in the 1990s. His guitar-playing — an act of unstoppable brutality in later years — was reputedly just passable in those formative days. He was, after all, still a teenager.
As an adolescent, James’ musical tastes were pretty diverse. Like most teenagers discovering the buzz of concerts, the group of friends would take in any gig they could, relying on rides from their patient parents to venues in the wider L.A. area.
Marrs recalled one in particular: “I actually remember going to a Blondie concert with James back then. It was in the Greek Theatre, which is in L.A., and I can remember his mom taking us there, and then my mom came to pick us up. It was just weird to see Blondie and stuff with James, and now you have to consider that they’re both in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”
Obsession’s days were numbered from the start. There wasn’t much variety in the generic covers that the band played. The fact that they couldn’t decide who would sing didn’t help either. James traded vocal duties with Arnold and Ron Veloz.
After about 18 months, Hetfield and Arnold left Obsession to form a new project with Jim’s brother Chris, named Syrinx. That band played covers of songs by the influential prog-rock three-piece Rush.
The origin of the name was obvious: “Temple of Syrinx” from Rush’s seminal concept record, 2112. This band was short-lived. Luckily, there was a more durable band around the corner, which had a big impact on James’ career. “James was very cool and fun to be around,” Arnold confirmed, “but more importantly, he introduced us to a lot of cool music that was not mainstream at the time: Scorpions, Rush, Iron Maiden and bands like that. Back then, we had never heard of such bands.”
Lurking in the background was a far bigger issue. For a long while, James’ mother, Cynthia, had hidden her failing health from her children. Before too long, she needed hospital attention, but she declined conventional medical treatment.
Cynthia passed away in 1979. James was in the 11th grade, and he moved to nearby Brea to live with his half-brother David, who had recently gotten married. Although James rarely discussed the constraints of his religious upbringing, such upheaval must have taken an emotional toll. He felt that he lacked control over his personal circumstances, and this became a key part of his life, manifesting itself in numerous forms.
Marrs recalled that Cynthia’s passing came as a complete shock: “We were outside between classes and James said, ‘Well, I’m going to have to move to Brea,’ and we said, ‘Why are you going to do that?’ and James told us, ‘My mom just passed away.’ We never knew she was sick, we never knew anything. You have to remember, I was always with him and his mother — spending nights at his house and stuff like that — so it was pretty hard. He moved to live with his [half-brother]. I kept in real good contact with him, though, even though he was living further away. As a matter of fact, we used to go over there quite a bit.”
Arnold also kept in touch with James: “We would talk on the phone, and he’d stay at my parents’ house at the weekends. I knew he was breaking off to form a new band and writing music.”
While Arnold continued to be a friend, he wasn’t convinced that James’ musical career was going anywhere: “He would tell me of songs he was writing and that he was going to form a ‘heavy metal’ band. Back then, heavy metal was not very popular. At the time, I didn’t think he would go anywhere with it, but boy was I wrong!”
Living in Brea — 15 miles east of Downey — meant that James attended Brea Olinda High School. Brea is another quiet suburban town, with a population of only 35,000. It was a change of pace from the much bigger and grittier Downey.
After losing his mother, moving in with David and going to a new school, James was going through a difficult period. In terms of his musical aspirations, though, moving to Brea worked out well. Before long, a kid named Jim Mulligan appeared on the scene, and he was a drummer on a mission.
Hetfield and Mulligan had a lot in common, including a shared passion for music — although Mulligan’s tastes were considerably more academic. Regardless of any stylistic disagreement, they were soon playing songs during their lunch breaks, creating the kind of noise that sent other kids into hiding. All except for a guy named Hugh Tanner, who totally “got” what they were all about.
At that time, punk rock was the flavor of the day at Brea Olinda High School. Long hair was not. Tanner was a junior and Hetfield was a senior, but the two had some things in common. They were both starting at a new school, they both had long hair and they were in the same English class. Interestingly, Tanner has never publicly discussed his relationship with Hetfield — or his involvement with the band that would become Metallica — until now. He explained, “My involvement with James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich and Metallica has been something speculated on for some time, but is something I have shared only with close family.
“It was not until the Internet brought forth 1980s interviews from Ron McGovney and [Metallica’s first guitarist] Dave Mustaine that a few people began to ask me if I was that Hugh Tanner. To some I would say yes, and to others I would say no.”
Tanner said “yes” for the first time in 30 years and agreed to be interviewed for this book. He easily remembered the stories and the associated events: “The [local people] I was jamming with liked my playing, but did not like that I showed up to this jam session with an ugly Gibson ES-335! It was much like Ted Nugent’s Birdland guitar, but had a cutaway at the top. For whatever reason, I could wail on that guitar, but it looked like I was a set musician for Billy Ray Cyrus. Fortunately, I did have a knock-off Flying V at home. I was not keen on it because it was maroon. I took the pieces to the school wood shop to sand it down and refinish it. James ended up helping me to refinish the guitar in gloss-white, which we did in my garage. We got overspray all over my dad’s new Mercedes, though.”
Hetfield and Tanner quickly bonded and became lasting friends. Tanner was aware of James’ difficult family circumstances, and he recognized the potential problems: “Starting a new school is pretty intimidating to begin with, but when you don’t really fit in ... things can be tough.”
Despite James’s bereavement and upheaval, he dealt with his situation extremely well. Tanner recalled: “Interestingly, James was grounded, likeable, funny and very polite to my parents. He did not talk much about his family loss, and all I really knew was that he was living with his [half-brother] and [his] wife.”
Tanner’s mother recognized that things were hard for James, and she even brought up the possibility of James and his sister coming to live with them. She felt that it might take some pressure off David, who was still settling into his married life. That thoughtful suggestion was never made to James, though, and things remained as they were.
In their classes, Hetfield and Tanner focused more on drawing pictures of stage sets and writing song titles than on the lessons being taught. Tanner remembered that English classes were particularly “productive.”
“We spent time drawing pictures of Iron Maiden’s ‘Eddie,’ as well as thinking about lyrics and songs,” Tanner recalled. What might have seemed insignificant back then was that, amid such humble and innocent surroundings, Hetfield was creating the foundations of some songs that appeared on Metallica’s debut album, Kill ’Em All. Hetfield conceived seminal songs like “Metal Militia,” “Seek and Destroy” and “Motorbreath,” while Tanner provided enthusiastic support.
American bands were no longer hitting the spot for Hetfield and Tanner. Aerosmith were not heavy enough, and KISS were “bubblegum,” in Tanner’s words. Their heads turned towards faster bands coming out of the U.K., like Judas Priest, Motörhead and Iron Maiden. Tanner recalled: “Van Halen’s ‘life is a party’ attitude was fun, but it did not completely satisfy the pent-up adrenaline of a high school boy who didn’t know why, but just wanted to break something.”
Outside of school hours, James often went over to Tanner’s house to practice. Tanner vividly recalled, “James would come over and we would spend time trading riffs, playing solos and experimenting with turning riffs into actual songs.” When teaming up with Marrs and McGovney, James and Tanner dipped their toes into the flamboyant 1980s L.A. music scene, which was populated by myriad glam / hair metal bands. Ratt, Snow and DuBrow (which later became Quiet Riot) were the better known acts. There were regular shows at the legendary Whisky on Sunset Strip and the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard.
It was an exciting time in L.A., with legendary acts like Mötley Crüe waiting in the wings. Tanner recalled, “We all used to go up to L.A. to see the up-and-comers on the club circuit. The four of us had a blast!”
It was an important time in and out of the classroom, and the school was the lyrical inspiration of some seminal early Metallica songs. Tanner’s bedroom was likewise important, as he confirmed: “My old room was the birthplace of riff inspirations for these songs. Not just that, there were others which may have been lost or got morphed into other ideas.”
This key period was significant for the direction of Hetfield and his future bands. The quality of the recorded material was, by Tanner’s own admission, “very, very poor.” It was mostly documented on an old TEAC reel-to-reel his father had brought back from his time as a spy pilot in Vietnam. Nevertheless, it documented the band’s musical output and represented a fascinating ground zero for some of the most important tracks in metal history.
Tanner remembered Hetfield having a great sense of humor: “I was experimenting with my first whammy bar, and one time it made a noise like a walrus farting. James came to a dead stop and said, ‘What the hell was that?’ We laughed hysterically.” James had a lot of qualities that made his stoic determination to be a rock star much more likely. Tanner summed him up best: “Guard down ... funny ... laid-back, but serious ... cool, but never lazy ... focused, but not overly intense.”
Despite all these worthy attributes, Hetfield was not particularly scholarly or technical in a musical sense. This is surprising given the amazingly disciplined technician he became. Tanner did recognize a rare quality in his friend, though, and James soon put it into practice with remarkable effect. “What I viewed as his greatest gift,” suggested Tanner, “was tying riffs together into a sensible kick-ass song.”
An informal jamming group soon became the first band assembled by Hetfield. The group was called Phantom Lord — which Metallica fans will recognize as the title of a song on Kill ’Em All. Phantom Lord was short-lived, with Mulligan on drums, Tanner on guitar and Hetfield on guitar and vocals. Marrs recalled what Phantom Lord were about: “They would do just covers of different things like Iron Maiden, etc. They had a song called ‘Handsome Ransom’ back then, and a riff similar to the one from ‘No Remorse’ came out of that. Mulligan was a really good drummer, mind you.”
Mulligan might have been too cerebral for a full-bore rock band. He wasn’t into the aggressive, heavy nature of Tanner and Hetfield’s material, and both Tanner and Hetfield noticed. “Jim was a great guy, solid drummer and did not rock the boat, but I did not sense the right chemistry,” Tanner said. “Jim and I had jammed with Scott Bell from the band Joker, and we nailed side one of Rush’s 2112, but Jim was just too intellectual for metal. It didn’t fit, and James knew it, too.”
There wasn’t a set bassist, although several players went in and out. This embryonic outfit only lasted a few months, until James graduated from high school and moved back to Downey. Upon moving, Hetfield sent Tanner a note saying that, while he wasn’t thrilled with some aspects of school life, he had enjoyed playing music together. Hetfield suggested that one day they might be in a stadium-crushing rock band.
In the portion of the yearbook where seniors provide their memories of school and plans for the future, Hetfield wrote:
Likes: heavy metal rock, water skiing, going to concerts
Dislikes: disco, punk
Quotes: “Long Live Rock”
Plans: Play music get rich
The move back to Downey coincided with some good fortune. McGovney’s parents had three properties in the area that were earmarked by the government to be torn down in order to make way for the 105 Freeway. They let their son and James live in one of them rent-free until it was demolished. There was a garage space that was begging to be turned into a rehearsal studio.
While neither was skilled in DIY handiwork, they turned the garage into a custom-made band area. McGovney recalled, “We fixed the garage up into a kind of studio, and James and I insulated, painted it and put down a red carpet!”
It’s unclear when Phantom Lord ceased to be. The edges of Phantom Lord and the next band, Leather Charm, are blurred. McGovney said: “I am quite confused about how things went down. I remember Phantom Lord was really just Hugh and James. Then Leather Charm got together. However, I have my high school yearbook signed by James saying that he ‘hopes the Charm will happen.’ So, maybe Phantom Lord was actually still when we were in high school.”
Regardless of the exact timing, Phantom Lord soon morphed into the more glam-sounding Leather Charm. This was the last stop for the train that led to Metallica, and was a stop where people disembarked.
The living arrangement allowed James to focus on music in a custom-made space. He didn’t have to worry about getting a “real” job and paying rent, which was quite a luxury for a teenager.
James’ father visited the house occasionally, as McGovney recalled: “I met his father, Virgil, when he came over to my house that James shared with me. He was very nice to me. He actually knew my parents through the trucking business that they were all involved with.”
Despite still being a rudimentary cover band, Leather Charm was a significant step forward from Phantom Lord, and certainly from Obsession. Leather Charm began working on a few original tunes. Hetfield wrote songs that contained elements of what would become “Hit the Lights,” which appeared on Kill ’Em All.
Wanting to be seen as a more commanding frontman, Hetfield seemed to take control of his musical destiny. He also encouraged McGovney to come along for the ride, helping him to learn bass.
The noise that came out of that insulated garage did not sound like a polished rock band. McGovney was improving at the bass under Hetfield’s instruction, but he described the music as “some really terrible stuff.”
Tanner recalled that his parents would only let him continue with the band if his grades at school were okay. “They weren’t!” he admitted.
Tanner backed out of a career playing music, which allowed James to take on full leadership. Although Tanner didn’t completely disappear from Hetfield’s life, his musical involvement with him ended here. “I still cannot explain the tug I had calling me to step aside, versus throwing up a thunderous middle finger and pushing forward,” Tanner said. “But the ship sailed and I chose to stay on land.”
Meanwhile, across the city in Newport Beach, a gawky Danish kid with a taste for the so-called “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (NWOBHM) was planning his own future. The crossing of paths that followed would dramatically impact the lives and careers of both him and James Hetfield.