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Metallica: we sacrificed Jason to save ourselves

Metallica in 1992
(Image credit: Midori Tsukagoshi/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

Metallica were in a fraught place at the turn of the millennium. Plummeting from youth to middle age in a perpetual state of hard-ass causticity, it was around this time that the band’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, hand-delivered a list of 317,377 internet users who had illegally traded Metallica MP3s via popular file-share website Napster – unintentionally waging war against their own fanbase as a result. 

They were also variously trying to raise families, face down addictions and deal with unresolved control and abandonment issues from their childhoods, all while working in an industry where Peter Pan Syndrome was not so much the exception as the norm.

Having taken the band to the very brink of extinction, it was just such a set of circumstances that caused Metallica’s James Hetfield to drive out the band’s former bass player Jason Newsted (14 years in the job but, according to drummer Lars Ulrich, “never really fully accepted as a member”). 

"Jason was overlooked," Ulrich told us in 2003. "And the ironic thing is that the model for what would have been the perfect Metallica in Jason’s mind is the one that exists now. That is kind of ironic. It’s also a little sad, because Jason’s a good guy and he put a lot of effort into the band for many years, and in retrospect he was never really fully accepted into the band. Then when he tried to go elsewhere to satisfy his creative needs, he was told – well, barked at – that he couldn’t."

Newsted, increasingly frustrated with his ongoing status as little more than a marginalised, non-collaborative sideman, was aching to find creative solace elsewhere. The trouble was that Hetfield was having none of it. “That would be called control issues,” said Ulrich. “James has his vision of the perfect family, and it’s almost kind of mafia-style: you’re part of the family, and if you step outside of the family you’re betraying the family, and you’ll get ostracised. And that is at the heart of a lot of the stuff that we’ve tried to work through in the last couple of years.”

"Jason was caught in no man’s land. So in a way he sacrificed himself – or had to be sacrificed – in order for us to be able to move to the place we’re at now. So it’s ironic, and really sad. For me, it’s amazing that it lasted for 14 years, that Jason stuck it out for that long.”

Newsted finally left the band in January 2001. It was a decision that, surprisingly, proved to have pivotal repercussions for Metallica’s surviving members, especially Hetfield.

“When we started playing music after Jason leaving, the music was not all it could have been,” Hetfield told us. “We started to write, and then as we were going deeper into ourselves, and exploring why it was that Jason left – what it meant to us, and all of that – it started stirring up a lot of emotions and a lot of stuff about how we could better ourselves as individuals. So I made the decision to go into rehab.”

“I think that there’s a thread from James Hetfield treating Jason like that, and realising his mistakes and going into rehab,” Ulrich agreed. “Not necessarily an obvious, direct correlation, but there is definitely a link in there somewhere. In some sub-conscious way, something happened.”

While it was clearly essential for Hetfield to retreat into an indefinite rehab-bound hiatus following Newsted’s eventual resignation, it left Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich in a destabilising state of thumb-twiddling limbo, unsure of when, or even if, Metallica’s creative hub was going to return. Ulrich latterly admitted that during the three difficult years that followed he harboured suspicions that “maybe the ride was over”, while Hammett was seriously considering his options.

“Lars, [producer] Bob Rock and I had continued getting together for meetings just to keep the faith, keep the momentum going and just keep in touch,” Hammett told us.

“Because everything was falling apart around us, but we felt that if we held strong and held it together at least we had each other."

“It’s like James had a problem processing a lot of the thoughts and feelings he had, and Jason leaving was one of the feelings he had trouble processing. It’s been a huge learning experience, and something that Jason set in motion for all of us. 

"He was the sacrificial lamb for our spiritual and mental growth as well as our creative growth, and it just sucks. It’s medieval.”

This is an edited version of an interview which originally appeared in Classic Rock issue 56