By Noha El-Khatib
The lights dimmed, and before the first chime of “Ecstasy of Gold” even started, men, women, and children couldn’t hold back their screams, and in some cases, tears. The quartet that spent decades thrilling us and pissing us off was finally taking the stage in Abu Dhabi, making this their first ever performance in the Middle East. William, my photographer, was several feet away from James’s moist forehead, taking pictures of the intro track transitioning into “Creeping Death” while I was in the fan pit a few rows behind him, regressing back to the 15 year old me that first heard these songs on my big sister’s cassette tapes on a compound in Saudi Arabia.
A big concern I had about this concert was shared by many other fans I spoke to: Will we have to sit through any tracks from St Anger? Did I just get my hopes up to reconnect with 15 year old me who fell in love with S&M, Master of Puppets, The Black Album, …And Justice for All, Reload, et al.? Or, was I more likely to reconnect with the disenchanted me of 2002 (see Metallica’s first album after Jason Newsted quit)? If the latter was the case, I might seriously be forever and irreconcilably “over” Metallica. I’d always loved this band, even when they sued their Napster-using fans, even when they replaced beloved band members, even when they produced St Anger. I would always realize that I was one of those fans, the ones who always had faith. I also always believed that what they had already accomplished was enough for them to retain my respect, and that despite the metal suicide that might have been a byproduct of sobriety and domestication, they have pretty much earned the dispensation to do whatever the fuck they want.
A grown up me stood in the crowd on that day, witness to Metallica’s first concert in the Middle East after 30 years, with that sense of adolescent entitlement rejuvenating in me, because I wanted to meet the band, damnit! My press pass, unfortunately, did not allow me the privilege of going backstage.
So just to add salt to a boiling wound, one of my friends introduces me to a very serene Salim Khalaf, 30, another fan standing near me. Not long into our conversation Salim tells me about his invitation backstage to meet the band thanks to his Metclub.com membership (why didn’t I think of that??), and I didn’t even hold back my jealousy when I expressed my pseudo-hatred towards him.
Similar to Salim, but more publicly supported, is Basel Anabtawi’s story. Basel, 27, began carrying out an online campaign with his friends to help him finally meet the band in person after about 15 years of fandom. When Basel’s campaign was supported on Facebook by over a thousand people, one of the event’s sponsors, Du, took notice, and reached out to Basel by offering him one of their exclusive backstage passes. Basel’s lifelong dream came true. “Hamburgers for everyone!” he posted. “He’s going to be telling this story for the rest of his life,” a friend said.
As Metallica began to walk on to the stage, giant high definition screens showed the crowd of 30,000 that their beloved band was here. But it wasn’t until I could see the word “exit” written in Arabic in the background of the footage that it was clear this video was coming from right in front of me. It was then that it really started to sink in: METALLICA WAS HERE!
“Creeping Death” was followed with “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Fuel”, after which James stopped, as if to look into the eyes of the crowd and say hello. “Thank you for waiting,” said the frontman politely to the star struck creature the crowd had morphed into at the Yas Island Arena in Abu Dhabi. “We’re here to play our heavy music for our Metallica family.” Angry and death-obsessed lyrics aside, James is a really grateful celebrity. James Hetfield, a 48 year old California native, had to escape his musical duties in 2001 to face his alcohol addiction, and comes to us in the UAE, fuelled, fired, and still inexorably desired. An added satisfaction for his Middle Eastern audience was that his excitement and gratitude towards us came from a clean and sober James. He wasn’t intoxicated and distracted; he was genuinely loving this Abu Dhabi monster.
“I hope you like the old stuff,” he then said coyly as he pulled his guitar back into place and led the show into “Ride the Lightning,” the titular track of their 1984 studio album. The songs that followed were more delicious old stuff: “Fade To Black,” “The Memory Remains,” “Sanitarium,” “Sad But True,” “One,” “Master of Puppets,” “Nothing Else Matters,” and “Enter Sandman.” After “Enter Sandman,” as is their routine, they left the stage and returned for an encore, and in this one James announced that he wanted to pay tribute to the band that got them started, Diamondhead, with “Am I Evil?” followed by “Motorbreath.” As the latter track ended, they said goodnight once more, and started to take off their instruments and exit the stage. “You need more, don’t you? You don’t want it, you need it,” James declared. He was right, we did. And, the generous guy he is, he gave us what we needed. And we needed the early stuff, the tenacious thrash energy of Kill ‘Em All. “SEEK AND DESTROY!” James triumphantly declared, and the guitars started blaring. After it finished, he let the silence hang, the crowd scream, and then, played the song again. “SEEK AND DESTROY!” we echoed, and nothing could have felt better. It was an oldschool Metallica fan’s dream setlist come true.
Kirk Hammett’s on stage presence the whole night, as ever, was cool and confident, concealing how sensitive and dweeby he is off-stage. Take the instrument away from this 47-year old lead guitarist and he is the kind of dork who, when trying to crack a joke, leaves those around him blinking, waiting for the punch line. Kirk with his guitar, on the other hand, makes the ladies melt like they would do anything to steal his attention away from his instrument. He also looks the youngest of the bunch.
On drums is the ever-loved and loathed Lars Ulrich. At 47, he and James are the only two original members of the band. He is arguably the reason for their slipping reputation, but that could in recent news also be attributed to their collaboration with Lou Read on Lulu.
In the band’s 2004 documentary, Some Kind of Monster, we see the band working painfully and forcefully on St. Anger and auditioning for a new bassist. Rob Trujillo, also 47, was the winner. Rob’s caveman-like long hair and ape-like stature gave us the feeling that Rob will protect these men with his giant muscles and roaring bass lines. The man is a beast, and wields his bass like a barbarian wields his axe. James, Lars, and Kirk left the stage at one point to give Rob his own moment to shine and play a bass solo, to which the audience chanted HEY after HEY at a steady beat in encouragement.
This was not just a Metallica concert. This was a Metallica concert in the Middle East. Paraphrasing James’ stage banter from the concert: “People keep telling us, you HAVE to play there! The fans love you there. They love the real metal. They like their rock to be hard. It’s a special experience, and we’re so glad we can finally be here with you, Abu Dhabi.”
It’s true. Long after most parts of the world will hang up their black clothes and move on with their lives, Metallica and Megadeth t-shirts will always be worn in this part of the world. Metal is about anger and rebellion, but it is also one of the most uniform of all sub-cultures. So many complete strangers showed up at the arena, all with the same black clothes, t-shirts, devil horns and punk sneer, even if they were carrying different flags, representing different lands. Something about Metal, and the music of Metallica especially, is so incredibly important to the people here. There was a different level of excitement. This wasn’t just a popular band, it was a group of men who were important to the lives of each and every person in the crowd. There was something about Metallica that brought out a feeling in most of these fans at young ages that they never quite let go of. To say that people were waiting in line for this event is to say that the rebels in the Arab spring were being kind of aggressive in wanting their dictators to step down. People would have done anything for this. And we were all in it together. James was right, we needed this. Especially now. Especially in the middle of our Spring, our time of rebellion, our time to stand together, and stand up against those that have oppressed us and work towards a new better future.