James Hetfield Biography

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Birth Name: James Hetfield
Born: 08/03/1963
Birth Place: Downey, California, USA

Born James Alan Hetfield on Aug. 3, 1963 in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, CA, he was the son of truck driver Virgil Hetfield and his wife, Cynthia, a light opera singer. Hetfield and his siblings - two older half-brothers from his mother's first marriage and a younger sister - were raised as Christian Scientists, a religion that he would come to reject in his teenage years after his mother succumbed to cancer in 1979. At an early age, he found solace in music, learning the piano at nine before moving to drums. But after discovering Aerosmith and other hard rock idols of the Seventies like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Hetfield adopted the guitar as his primary instrument. He began playing in a string of minor garage bands, including Phantom Lord, Obsession and Leather Charm, before answering a want ad placed by drummer Lars Ulrich, who was seeking other musicians interested in heavy metal. Ulrich would introduce Hetfield to the U.K.'s potent New Wave of Heavy Metal movement, which included such formidable acts as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Motorhead. Their stripped-down, high-volume sound had a profound impact on what would become Metallica, which initially formed in 1983 with Hetfield and Ulrich joined by bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Dave Mustaine, who later went on to fame with his own group, Megadeth. The group's ferocious drive and aggressive lyrical content stood in direct contrast to the pop-friendly sounds of Los Angeles-based glam-metal acts like Mötley Crüe, Poison and Cinderella.

Hetfield would be largely responsible for the group's sound as lead vocalist and main songwriter on all of their albums, as well as rhythm and occasional lead guitarist. After shedding Mustaine over alcohol-related issues, Metallica enlisted Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett to record their debut album, Kill 'Em All (1983). It immediately established the band as a major new force in the metal underground, which supported each subsequent release with increasing fervor throughout the 1980s. High-profile opening slots for Ozzy Osbourne and the Monsters of Rock Festival spread their fanbase across the globe, which helped Metallica to break into the Top 40 on Billboard 200 with their third album, Master of Puppets (1988). But with this newfound fame also came the band's biggest hurdle: the death of Cliff Burton in a 1986 tour bus accident in Sweden. Bassist Jason Newsted was eventually recruited as a replacement, but the band suffered a second setback when Hetfield broke his wrist in a skateboarding mishap, forcing them to miss a "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) appearance. But Metallica rebounded with their fourth album, And Justice for All (1988), which became their first Top 10 album as well as their first to receive a Grammy nomination. Its runaway success paved the way for Metallica to assume the mantle of one of the leading metal acts in the world, a status underscored by a string of successful albums, including their self-titled 1991 release, which became their first album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard before selling over 15 million copies on the strength of singles like "Enter Sandman" and "Nothing Else Matters." It was eventually named the best-selling album of the Nielsen SoundScan era, which began in 1991. The following year, Hetfield was severely injured by stage pyrotechnics, which left him with second and third degree burns on his face and arms.

After a 1993 tour and subsequent hiatus, Metallica released the controversial Load (1996), which saw the group move away from their testosterone-driven image to adopt a more alternative rock sound and look. The decision had a polarizing effect on the band's fanbase, which split into two camps: diehards who refused to accept any version of Metallica beyond their thrash-heavy And Justice for All identity, and fans who appreciated their sonic experiments. Hetfield and Metallica paid tribute to both sides of the coin with an album of punk and metal covers called Garage, Inc. in 1998 before collaborating with conductor Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on S&M the following year. But as the band weathered the peaks and valleys of their newfound placement at the top of the music business, they also came under fire from a variety of external and internal sources. Hetfield and Ulrich were pilloried by the press and fans for initiating legal action in 2000 against the file-sharing site Napster, which had offered Metallica's entire catalog for free to downloaders. The following year, Jason Newsted left the band during recording sessions for the next album over conflicts with Hetfield in regard to the bassist's side project. Relations between Hetfield and Ulrich also collapsed during the sessions, which led to the guitarist departing the group to enter rehabilitation for alcohol abuse and other substance-related issues. Upon his return, Hetfield and the rest of the group entered into group therapy sessions to repair the emotional fallout from his departure.

These and other moments were filmed by documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for "Some Kind of Monster" (2004), a harrowing look at Metallica's near-collapse and eventual return to the stage with new bassist Robert Trujillo. St. Anger (2003), the album forged from these contentious sessions, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, as did their follow-up, Death Magnetic (2008). In interviews that followed the release of St. Anger, Hetfield was sanguine about his struggles with addiction and anger, as well as the challenges of devoting equal time to his wife Francesca and their three children, and to his music career. He credited his wife with helping him to deal with these issues in a more mature manner, which he applied to reconciliations with both Newsted, who was invited to perform with Metallica at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, and Mustaine, who performed with his band Megadeth as part of "The Big Four," a package tour also featuring Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer in 2011. That same year, Hetfield and Metallica collaborated with rock legend Lou Reed on the concept album Lulu, which received some of the most scathing reviews since Load. In 2012, the band announced that they would curate a new music festival, Orion Music + More, which debuted in Atlantic City that year, as well as their own independent label, Blackened Records, which would release all of their future albums.

By Paul Gaita