By Steve Grad
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of the print edition of Autograph magazine.
The first time I met Metallica was in December 1991, in my hometown, Chicago. It was the first of their three night sold-out gig at the Rosemont Horizon. They were staying at the Ritz Carlton, so my brother and I waited in the bottom lobby to catch the boys as they left for the show. First came Kirk Hammett, then Jason Newsted, Lars Ulrich, and finally, James Hetfield. They chatted with us and signed whatever we had. I was hooked.
I brought more stuff back the next night and met them again.
I’ve met the band more than 50 times since and seen them live 25 times. My collection features more than 140 group-signed pieces of the band, including all of their studio albums, photos, tour-signed pieces, tickets and musical equipment.
No modern band has more passionate and loyal fans. It’s their music. Raw, uncontrollable fury; crashing, lumbering chords; insanely fast-paced drumming; mighty guitar riffs.
Stephen Dalton said it best in his Uncut review back in 2008: “Like all the best heavy rock albums, it suspends your disbelief, demands your attention and connects directly with your inner adolescent.”
The Journey of the Four Horsemen
2009 was a good year to be a Metallica fan. In February, Death Magnetic picked up four Grammy nominations and won Best Recording Package. My Apocalypse won for Best Metal Performance and producer Rick Rubin scored the Producer of the Year Grammy.
On April 4, 2009, Metallica was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How did they get there? You can chart their path through the untold thousands of autographs they’ve signed for fans, from their headbanger beginnings to superstar status.
In the words of lead singer James Hetfield, “What don’t kill ya make ya more strong.” That verse from “Broken, Beat & Scarred” sums up the life and times of one of rock’s top selling acts. The history of the band is comprised of four periods, and their autographs and signing patterns tell the story of their lives as they went from unknowns to the fourth highest selling music artists of all time.
Stage 1 (1981-1983)
Drummer Lars Ulrich and singer/guitarist James Hetfield formed Metallica in 1981, after Hetfield replied to an ad in the Los Angeles Recycler. Ulrich, a former tennis player, had set his sights on following his father into the pro ranks until the band Diamond Head changed him forever. After listening to their debut album in 1980 and touring with them for three weeks in 1981, Ulrich had a vision. With his introduction to Hetfield, the backbone of Metallica was formed.
From 1981 to 1983, Metallica consisted of Ulrich, Hetfield, Hetfield’s friend Ron McGovney on bass, and Dave Mustaine (now of Megadeth) on lead guitar. They recorded a single and a few wildly popular demo tapes.
I know of only two group signed pieces from this period. While writing this article I made contact with a European collector who sent me scans of several flyers from shows in 1982, and lo and behold, there was the original lineup: Hetfield, Ulrich, McGovney and Mustaine.
As Metallica evolved they gained confidence and realized they were getting good at making music. They replaced McGovney with the more experienced bassist Cliff Burton in 1982, who insisted that they relocate their headquarters from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The band had a new bassist and a new direction.
While recording their first album, Kill ’Em All, in New York, they realized that Mustaine wasn’t a good fit and replaced him with Kirk Hammett.
Stage 2 (1983-1986)
Metallica churned out three chart topping albums over the next four years; Kill ’Em All in 1983, Ride the Lightning in ’84 and Master of Puppets in ’86.
The earliest autographs from this period can be traced back to 1983, when the band hit the road to promote Kill ’Em All. They reached out to as many fans as they could, resulting in a nice selection of signed items. The signatures of the “Four Horsemen” are at their best and rawest form. This is the period I love!
They all signed sloppily. Burton was the worst—his signature was often scribbled and barely legible. Hetfield was fairly neat for a while in 1983, but the more he signed the worse he got. Signed copies of Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lightning aren’t rare, but they are hard to find.
The band rode a wave of popularity with Kill ‘Em All and the groundswell they hoped for was gaining momentum. Their fans wanted more autographs, so the Metal Militia was formed. The first 100 members to sign up and send back the postcard and five dollars got, among other things, a signed 8×10 of the band.
After the success of their first album, it didn’t take them long to write another. Ride the Lightning was released less than a year later and the band toured heavily to support it.
They held a lot of signings on the tour, setting up a promotional table where they signed after most shows, or appearing before shows at a local record store.
Metallica’s popularity continued to soar, especially in Europe, where they were well received and toured for long stretches from 1984 through 1986. Many of the group-signed pieces are from Europe. In March of 1986, they released their third studio album, Master of Puppets. It was the band’s first gold album, considered their greatest by many fans. It was Cliff Burton’s last album.
Weeks after its release, they hit the road with Ozzy Osbourne, touring with him until August 3. On September 10 in Cardiff, Wales, Metallica started their Damage Inc. World Tour through Europe. Just 13 shows into it, an accident changed the band forever.
After a show in Stockholm, Sweden, their tour bus hit a patch of black ice and flipped over. Burton was thrown from the bus and crushed beneath its weight. His death on September 27 marked the end of Metallica’s second stage, and the darkest period in their history.
Fans in the U.S. had many opportunities to get the band’s signatures in person, but fans in Europe were not as lucky. Burton had just 16 days to sign before he died, and material from this tour is extremely rare. The band continued to drink heavily, and depending on when you met them, their autographs could be quite nice or carelessly signed.
Stage 3 (1986 to 2001)
Metallica needed a new bassist who knew their music. In stepped Jason Newsted, from the band Flotsam and Jetsam. Less than two months after Cliff was killed, Newsted was touring with Metallica. This marks the band’s third stage, and from late 1986 until January 2001, Metallica remained the same: Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett and Newsted. They released four studio albums, 1988’s And Justice for All, 1991’s Metallica, Load in 1996 and Re-Load in 1997. Continuing with their fan friendly tradition, the boys were generous signers.
Their autographs in this era started to change dramatically. Taking a page from his love of skating, Hetfield gave himself, Ulrich and Newsted new first names. Instead of signing a very sloppy “James Hetfield,” he signed only his new first name, Jaymz. Best I can tell, this change happened around 1987, and to this day he no longer signs his last name.
Ulrich changed his signature ever so slightly, from running his first and last name together in a straight line to signing only Larz. Jason Newsted became Jasyn, but didn’t always sign that way. Early examples show him signing his full name, but after being on the road and signing for fans all over the world that quickly changed. For much of his Metallica career, Newsted signed just his first name, “Jas (on)” usually leaving the last two letters out and putting a loop after the s. He experimented around 1992, signing J Newsted, but quickly reverted to signing just his first name.
Hammett was a different story. Formerly signing a full-letter signature, Kirk Hammett, he switched around 1989 to a simple combination of his first and last name, Ktt.
As Metallica became one of the top rock acts ever, demand for their signatures grew. With the success of eBay in the mid-to-late 1990s, it became much harder to get autographs in person.
Celebrities, musicians and sports stars have complained for decades about their signatures being sold. But on eBay they could see their signatures being peddled—and many didn’t like it. By 1998-99 Hetfield was making a serious effort to curtail his in-person signing. With the new century, the number of Metallica autographs offered online exploded, and their in-person signing was seriously restricted. Hetfield especially became leery of signing at hotels or in public.
Stage 4 (2001-2009)
January 2001 found Metallica shopping for another new bass player. After years of abusing his body and mind and the frustration of limited musical freedom, Newsted left the band. At the same time Hetfield entering rehab, and the band almost dissolved.
But Metallica managed to stay together and brought on their fourth bass man, Robert Trujillo.
Hetfield’s autograph changed again, going from Jaymz to JH—simple, usually followed by a date. The other members’ autographs have remained about the same, with Trujillo signing his first name, Robert.
Metallica In Person
If you want to meet the band in person, your best bet is to join Metallica’s fan club, the MetClub. The membership offers chances to register for meet and greets with the boys. I planned to see the Death Magnetic World Tour six times, so I had six cracks. One of them paid huge. I received an email: Congratulations!! You are the lucky winner of something every Met Club member covets—the meet and greet pass!
I was floored. I never win anything! Some fan sites described Metallica meet and greets, and I was optimistic that the entire band would attend. I bought a guitar, a piece that I would have a tough time getting signed at a hotel given the band’s disinclination to sign “equipment,” as James calls it.
On December 18, 2008, there I was at The Forum in Los Angeles with nine other club members and 10 radio station winners. We were corralled and taken deep into the bowels of the Forum where they lined us up single file in a cold hallway. For two hours before the show, each band member walked down the line, greeting every fan, signing two items apiece and posing for a photo. I left with a guitar and a massive 20×30 photo signed by all four.
As friendly as Metallica is at the meet and greets, keep your distance when they play in their home town. Each member has their own attitude about it, but they enjoy their privacy and I’ve learned through the years that they would rather not be bothered on their turf.
Buying autographs is a tricky situation. Like any other popular music act, celebrity, sports star or politician, Metallica autographs are frequently forged.
What warning signs do you look for? Whether buying from dealers or collectors, be wary of Metallica signed guitars, drum heads and pick guards. The band rarely signs these items in person, especially Hetfield. Guitars are flashy, three-dimensional and they have been a non-stop target of forgers for years.
Be suspicious of sellers offering quantities of signed photos of the band, especially group photos. Why? You may be able to get the signature of Ulrich, Trujillo, Hetfield or Hammett singly, but getting them as a group is very tough. During their 2008-09 Death Magnetic U.S. tour, autograph chasers rarely got Hetfield to sign. He told most collectors (me included) “too many pros,” referring to people waiting at the hotel.
Educate yourself before you buy Metallica autographs. Study the signatures in this article and refer to it whenever you’re shopping for Metallica. Find out who the reputable dealers and authenticators are. There are many, but many more are unscrupulous. Be on the lookout for ‘galleries’ with a never-ending supply of autographs that most autograph dealers rarely if ever have. Top rock stars don’t sign much, and as for the galleries—if it seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true 99.9 percent of the time.
Metallica is a super band, one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll acts of all time. Their music helped turn a generation of Led Zeppelin-wanting rockers into headbangers, thirsting for more. Thanks to their great music and the collectability of their autographs, I’ll always be a Metallica junkie.