In 2003, Metallica performed in the prison yard at San Quentin. Frontman James Hetfield was uncharacteristically introspective at the mic: “If I didn’t have music in my life it’s quite possible I’d be in here or, not even here, be dead. I’d much rather be alive. Everyone is born good. Everyone’s got the same size soul. So we’re very proud to be in your house and play some music for you.”
Six years later, Metallica played in front of 50,000 people at Foro Sol stadium in Mexico City. Their pride in being in someone else’s house to play some music was as heartfelt there as it was at San Quentin, as can be seen on the DVD Orgullo, Pasion, Y Gloria. But this time Hetfield is anything but introspective. He begins the show by screaming “Mexico!” and then uses his limited Spanish at every opportunity (the crowd responds by singing the songs word-for-word in English). There’s a way-too-early bass solo (second song) by Robert Trujillo that seems to have been placed there just so Hetfield can joyfully announce “Now welcome my friend Roberto!”
At a pre-show press conference, Trujillo takes a tattered piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolds it and reads slowly in Spanish “I am so happy to be here to play for you, in the country where my mother was born.” The spirit of that message is pushed relentlessly from the stage by all four band members throughout the night. The crowd, the band, and the stadium itself constantly seem to be humming from some internal amplifier. Back and forth the energy goes. Like the repetition in lovemaking, it never grows old.
Finally, Metallica can’t play any longer but they can’t seem to leave. They’re trapped inside the energy wave they’ve helped to create. They take center stage holding a Mexican flag, mugging for the cameras. The stadium gets louder. Then each band member says goodbye in Spanish. The noise drops a decibel or two and they take that as the cue to make their escape.
The show itself is transcendent—the band delivers a twenty-five year panorama of well-written songs with supreme skill. They are roaring but under control, precise but never rote. Yet the DVD, directed by Wayne Isham, is more than a concert documentary.
Orgullo, Pasion, Y Gloria conveys the oppressiveness of the Mexican state apparatus as a force that pushes the fans toward Metallica for release. And those fans are allowed to display their “Pride, Passion, and Glory.” They talk about where they come from and why they love Metallica. They perform Metallica songs. They show their love for each other. Nothing is translated and there are no sub-titles. Hetfield beams as he observes the long line of stalls selling bootleg Metallica gear. “Isn’t this great?” he says without a hint of sarcasm. The effect is to make you feel that–instead of watching a Metallica show that just happens to be taking place in Mexico–you are actually visiting Mexico and have somehow stumbled across a Metallica show.
Metallica’s fervent embrace of the people of Mexico becomes a political act simply because it’s in direct contradiction to the politics of the United States government. Metallica, a political band? Well, yes. Nearly thirty years ago they released the anti-death penalty song “Ride the Lightning.” A few years later they came out with “The Shortest Straw,” a song about blacklisting based on reading Naming Names, a book by Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation. In 1992, Metallica took the anti-censorship warriors from Rock Out Censorship with them on tour. In 1996, they provided musical and moral support for the film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which detailed how three young men in Arkansas were railroaded to prison simply because they wore black clothes and liked heavy metal. Two of them were given life sentences. Damien Echols was given the death penalty. When the West Memphis Three were finally set free this summer, Echols told the press he would be dead without the impact of Paradise Lost. Without Metallica’s involvement, it’s unlikely the film would have been able to accomplish that. Unfortunately, Metallica was also political when it opposed file-sharing by its fans. Political is political, even when it masquerades as business.
Metallica seems “non-political” partly because of the stereotypes heavy metal is saddled with. Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of Rock Critics, wrote: “The closer you look the more stupid and delusory it seems. Metal isn’t basic, it cultivates a pseudovirtuosity that negates content. The dreams it promulgates are usually foolish and often destructive.” Christgau may be full of shit, but he speaks for millions. The confusion increases because in our conventional way of thinking about music, “political” usually isn’t a word that applies one way or another to everyone, it’s a genre. Sometimes, it seems as if condescending and attacking metal as a genre is a business all its own—a highly political business, given who listens to (and often makes) metal.
Political bands are thought of as those which stand up and say, “Hey, we’re political!” That’s what happened on July 30 when 60,000 fans gathered at the Coliseum in Los Angeles for the L.A. Rising festival featuring Rage Against the Machine, Lauryn Hill, Rise Against, Immortal Technique, and El Gran Silencio. By all accounts it was a great show and one that was beautifully eclectic, but it wasn’t one that provided a satisfying definition of “political.” So let’s define political as “a desire to change the world.” Most musicians and all genres fit under that tent. It’s an inclusive extension of James Hetfield’s mantra “Everybody has the same size soul.”
Today, everywhere we turn we run into walls. Not just the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but the walls between the homeless and the houses, between the sick and the medicine, between the students and the schools. We have to dismantle those walls if we are to thrive or even just survive.