We meet at the corner of 51st and Lex, my friend with a mix of scotch and Acai Berry Punch in a plastic bottle, me with a Coors Light “Tall” in a brown bag. We’re old school (semi-closeted) metal heads, and we blend with the rest of the NYC working world. My wife bought the tickets to The Big Four – Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer –but didn’t want to go with me. Luckily one of my closest friends, the (seemingly) mild-mannered COO of a hedge fund, was thrilled to go.
As we go down the escalator at 59th Street to swap from the 6 to the 4 train, the crowd demographic takes a dramatic shift to Metal-Town: black T-Shirts everywhere, guys with long hair that hasn’t been regularly seen since “Headbanger’s Ball.” The Bronx-bound regulars looked confused. “Who are all these fired up white-boys, and where are they going in my neighborhood at 4 pm on a Wednesday?” Approaching Yankee Stadium we see riot police in combat gear (hard hats, M-16’s, knee pads, etc). I think they’re taking the danger in this crowd a little too seriously. It’s 4:15 and Anthrax’s set is already rolling at full-strength, echoing through the halls that Jeter built.
Anthrax is the first metal band I got into- jumping onto the train in 1987 with “Among the Living.” Their “front-man” of sorts is Scott Ian- who (like me) grew up in Bayside, Queens. Anthrax was easy for me (and others) to get into as they mixed in tongue in cheek humor (I am the Man, or the Judge Dredd of comic-book fame themed “I am the Law”) that made the metal go down with a spoonful of sugar and as a bonus provided lots of insults along the way which could be directed at others. As with every other metal band they had dark themes (most notably “In my World” as well that appealed to angst ridden 10-15 year olds who feel alienated by their problems (which I discovered later most of us shared) Anyhow, Anthrax’s drummer Charlie Benante (responsible for the fastest drum beat ever recorded with “Caught in a Mosh”) is the most talented in the group, though Scott and Charlie have spent the most time in the group (Scott for all 30 years, Charlie for 28) The result of this is driving guitar rhythms behind Charlie’s pumping drums. On disc it’s great. Unfortunately, in a live setting there was an imbalance, Charlie’s phenomenal drum playing and Scott’s rhythm guitar drowned out the vocals. Maybe Joey Belladonna’s voice has faded over the last 30 years, but it felt a like an instrumental set. They played nine songs including “Madhouse,” “Caught in a Mosh,” “Indians,” and “Antisocial” and closed with “I am the Law,” but it would be tough for any who weren’t serious Anthrax fans to identify several of the tracks. “Indians” was probably the highlight, with half Native American Belladona in a head-dress. In the band’s defense, the stadium acoustics and sunny weekday afternoon setting may have made it a tough to rip out hard metal.
Next was Megadeth, i.e. “Dave Mustaine, and whoever the hell he has playing with him this time.” The quick back-story for metal neophytes: Mustaine was the original guitarist in Metallica, but was too dark and destructive and drank too much for his bandmates, so Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield woke him up and handed him a bus ticket, effectively kicking him out. Mustaine, 22 at the time, was licking his wounds and jamming in his apartment when he met his 18-year-old neighbor Dave Ellefson. Mustaine basically said “F-ck Metallica, I’m going to make an even better band”, and Ellefson went with whatever his much more talented and older neighbor had to say. Mustaine is an extremely talented guitarist. Since Megadeth is his band he’s also the lead vocalist, but he’s not as good of a vocalist, despite his unique snarling sound.
Dave has enough talent to go around so Megadeth is definitely a force to be reckoned with. On Wednesday, they opened with (“Trust,” the hard-driving “Hangar 18,” and “She-Wolf,”) and closed with a power set that includes three of the best metal songs of all time – : “Sweating Bullets,” “Symphony of Destruction,” “Peace Sells,” and “Holy Wars… the Punishment Due.” Dave’s voice was clear, his guitar was as incredible as ever – and they really started to fire up the crowd. Most of us were belting out the lyrics to the final four songs as loud as we could manage. Dave Mustaine is definitely worthy of being a headliner and carrying his own show, but the hour-long set did its job and primed us for the evening.
Around 6:30 pm Slayer began their set with “Disciple.” Admittedly, I was never the biggest Slayer fan. They always seemed a little too “fantasy-hard,” trying to be so “heavy” that it wasn’t even believable. Raining Blood? Dead Skin Mask? Mandatory Suicide? My friend and I were among the few that were not Slayer mega-fans, but we saw why they had such a loyal following. These guys could play. They were hard, but not distorted, uncreative/repetitive hard. I found myself enjoying songs I had never heard before so much that I asked the guy next to me (when he briefly stopped head-banging between songs) which album should I get first (Answer: Seasons in the Abyss). They closed out their 15-song set with “Raining Blood,” “Black Magic,” and “Angel of Death.” Who knows, maybe in a few months I’ll be a legit Slayer fan?
The main event was Metallica, who came on around 8:30. The sun had just set and Yankee Stadium was packed when “The Ecstasy of Gold,” (a.k.a. the song from the final graveyard showdown in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) came on over the PA. This is Metallica’s typical “We’re coming on soon, so get amped up” tune. The crowd was electric: you could feel the buzz of anticipation (and many Bud Lights) in the air. Kirk Hammett came out to tune up his guitar, then the band joined him and ripped out “Creeping Death,” far better live than on an album, and brought the evening to a different level. Next they went with “For Whom the Bell Tolls”- one of my favorite songs of all time, which is also true for several Metallica tunes that night. The execution was pefect, and nobody’s sound dominated the mix. Lars’ drums were pounding, James voice was as powerful as ever, Kirk’s guitar was driving and the “new guy” Rob Trujilo was solid (he’s been with them 8 years, but as an old school fan I still prefer Cliff Burton or at least Jason Newsted, who were present for the writing and recording of the band’s best stuff.
For the next two hours, these guys put on the best concert I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of shows). Music expresses gut-emotion and metal does it louder and harder. Most metal bands suck so they get harder by turning the volume up, repetetive riffs, guitar distortion, and lots of cleaning up in the studio. Not these guys. They were “Loud” and “Clear.”
A quick tangent on why Metallica is awesome. Their songs are well written and powerful. They don’t talk about fantasy horror figures of zombies, death angels and serial-killer type lyrics that come off so disingenuous that you almost chuckle as the heavily tattooed singer belts out the garbage. Their subject matter is the demon inside us all, or the horrors of death or war. They don’t wear masks or make-up. They don’t have gimmicky nicknames. James doesn’t sing in a fake super-deep death-metal voice. They don’t cover themselves with over-the-top tattoos (“This one is of a skull/demon/zombie- but what it really means is I’m a real bad-ass. Now please hand me my eye-liner.”) Metallica is the real deal. People can smell a phony, and will listen to some of the over the top crap for fun, but the for the vast majority of metal fans- Metallica is their favorite (even if they complain that somehow these guys were supposed to remain long-haired angry 25 year olds- despite all of us growing up 20-25 years since we discovered the band). Their music has motivated me to fight back from setbacks, motivated me to work harder at my career and athletics. Their best albums were released from ’83 to ’93- but 18 years later- their music is still likely the most played in weight rooms and locker rooms around the country. It’s not because they are guitar-wielding demons, but because they were the best at saying: “I know things are often hard, I know sometimes it hurts, but I bet you got a little more left in the tank, don’t’cha?” They are the patron saints of re-directing setbacks with a driving urge to secure redemption or revenge. If you’re knocked on your butt and your choices include A) sitting there, pointing fingers and crying/mourning or B) Getting up, ignoring all pain or shame, and forcing yourself back in there with as much intensity as possible, Metallica votes for B). Life will always have its setbacks and responding to those setbacks with sadness makes us feel more helpless about our circumstances than responding with anger, even self-directed anger. For testosterone-fueled maniacs like me, nobody delivers it better. In the game of harder, faster, stronger, these guys are the hardest, fastest, and strongest, yet remain genuine. They get closest to the flame without burning up.
Anyhow, back to the concert. Metallica played four songs from Ride the Lightning (“Creeping Death,” “Bell Tolls,” “Ride the Lightning,” and “Fade to Black”). In between they played the newer Fuel, accompanied by intense flame-spewing pipes that warmed our faces from 100 feet away. They played two new songs from Death Magnetic (“Cyanide” and “All Nightmare Long”)- which left out the majority of the 30-40-something crowd, but it was inspiring to see the next generation of Metallica fans on the Jumbotron belting out the lyrics-. They then shifted back to “Sad But True” (autobiographical for many of us in the audience) then four songs from Puppets (“Master of Puppets,” “Orion,” and “Sanitarium”) with perhaps their most powerful song (and one that took them to a higher level of popularity when it was released in 1987)- the war-themed “ONE.”
Then the whole place goes dark and quiet except for the chants and whistles of the audience. Kirk’s guitar starts playing the slower chords that then explode into “Blackened” (the first song on …And Justice for All) and a bit of a tribute to former bassist Cliff Burton who died when their tour bus flipped over in Sweden while touring for the Master of Puppets. They slow it down a bit with their lone ballad (“Nothing Else Matters”), then wrap up with the fitting-for-Yankee- Stadium “Enter Sandman” (The stage is set up right around where Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has ran out to the mound hundreds of times to let opposing team’s batters know that he’s about to dominate them. For the encore, they came back out with Anthrax to play “Overkill,” (I was a bit disappointed they didn’t bring out Mustaine for one of his songs like “Four Horseman”). Anthrax then left and they brought out the first song from Master of Puppets, the incredibly fast “Battery,” then turned on all the house lights for a metal sing-a-long to the 1983 classic “Seek and Destroy.”
Again, the show was incredible, powerful, and precise. The songs brought up many memories, and I’m sure they did for most of the other 40,000+ fans. I woke up the next day with no voice, sore arms, and a sore neck- but it was worth it.
Kevin Lillis is a real estate and food and beverage executive for Manhattan’s largest boutique hotel company and the main broadcaster for the Friday Night Fights boxing series. He’s also secretly an avid metal-head