James Hetfield: “Fame and Fortune Doesn’t Fill The Hole That A Father Leaves”
James Hetfield: “Fame and Fortune Doesn’t Fill The Hole That A Father Leaves.”
A RMM Feature by jhs on Hetfield and Hunt’s Absent Screening Q and A
additional reporting and research by sms
James Hetfield values honesty. He speaks it. He lives his life by it.
Tonight, he is using his honesty to help others face many of the life lessons he has struggled to learn the hard way.
As the lights rise inside the San Rafael Theater, Hetfield smiles as he and filmmaker Justin Hunt make their way to the stage. A crowd of 300 applaud as the two men prepare to host an engaging question and answer session.
ABSENT, the documentary film that shines a revealing spotlight on the Father Wound left by absent and emotionally unavailable fathers, has just finished its one-night-only showing in Hetfield’s home of Marin County.
Last year Hetfield became attached to the documentary when Metallica’s management forwarded the request from director Justin Hunt for James’ participation. Three months later, Hunt’s email lead the documentarian to capture the most candid, personal, and insightful interview ever recorded of Metallica’s beloved frontman.
Hetfield, whose father Virgil abandoned him at 13, strips away any remnants of his rock star persona to speak truthfully about the lasting emotional damage his father’s leaving caused on his life.
Further adding to Hetfield’s personal challenges, at the age of 16 the future Icon of Metal lost his mother to cancer.
“I felt like a freak,” says Hetfield in a previous media interview while referring to his upbringing in the Christian Science religion. “We didn’t talk about anything health related. Nothing.”
Christian Science relies heavily on the belief of God’s healing power. Medical attention, doctors visits, and education of the body is not allowed. The body is a vessel, a mere mortal coil, and only serves the purpose to retain the soul.
Under the doctrine of Christian Science, God will heal you if you are meant to be healed. If not, then your death is pre-ordained by The Higher Power. Funerals and the grieving process are ignored. There is no reason for mourning under the blanket of Christian Science because your loved one’s soul lives on with the Lord.
When Hetfield’s mother dies, no funeral is held to help release James’ grief. His father, also a follower of Christian Science, is no longer a presence in James’ life. This resulted in Hetfield being alone at 16, and entrusted into the care of his older half-brother.
The despair from watching his mother slowly succumb to (at the time) an undisclosed terminal illness, and the anger from his father walking out on his family, fuels Hetfield’s teenage drinking and drives his need to excel in music.
As Hetfield and Hunt take their seats center stage, the applause die down. ABSENT’S emotionally charged message has the filmmaker’s desired effect: to open the door for dialog about the painful scars which remain by failed fathers, and the hope to bring strong fathers back into the family unit.
After a few brief words of thanks from Justin Hunt, the floor is opened for questions and no one wastes a sliver of time. Hands instantly shoot into the air.
Moderating the session is California Film Institutes’ Richard Peterson, who begins the session with the first question directed towards Justin Hunt, asking how [Hetfield and Hunt] connected to work on the project.
Justin explains it was through the help of a dear high school friend who was living in the Bay area. She, and her husband, assisted Hunt by getting his email to Metallica’s management.
Richard: James, it’s not the first time seeing the film is it?
James: No. I saw it once at home, by myself, and it was pretty moving. And then, (jokingly) I forced my wife to watch it. (Audience laughter) No, but she wanted to see it and it was great watching it with her.
It was really great sitting and watching it in a movie theater. It hit me even harder in here, especially the picture of my mom. It was tough. . . and my wife’s there holding my hand, squeezing it.
When Justin contacted me about this, our management gets hundreds of requests for things to involve us in. When they find out we are off tour there are all these extra [requests] that come in, and want to involve [us] in things. Maybe ten percent of the stuff makes it through the filter and we actually see the email. This was one that made total sense and I dove right into it.
At first, it was a question of do you want to narrate the film, or even be in it. Then, it was what should we do? I think with the interview, I guess [Justin] kind of chose to go with that. He thought it was powerful enough to put in the movie.
I really love that [ABSENT] wasn’t centered around Metallica, and all of that stuff. It was [me as] just another person in there telling my story.
Justin: Well, I think the angle James really brings to it, that was important to me, kind of parallels the stories of the prostitutes, in the sense that when you start at the end, you go backwards.
That is how I edited that piece [in the film]. You start with this one woman and you end with the massed grave in Albuquerque. If you kind of dissect that and go backwards, you see how if a father having made a good choice, and been engaged in his daughter’s life, she wouldn’t have become a prostitute. Thus, she wouldn’t have been in that situation and been one of the girls that was found in the grave.
It’s the same thing with James, but on a positive sense where he had a Father Wound. [James] got into music, became a part of this band, he formed this band and has touched millions of people because of it. It just goes to show the impact and how [the Father Wound] can be used for the good or for the bad.
As Hunt and Hetfield settle in for the Q and A, the first question from an audience member comes nervously with humor asking if it’s okay to call his rock idol by his first name. His joke hits the mark as the audience erupts into laughter.
James: (smiling) Yes, that is what my parent’s called me.
As the audience joins Hetfield in more laughter, the young man continues his question: How did the loss of James’ mother compare to the abandonment loss he felt from his father?
James: My father made a decision. He chose to leave and that hurts. That hurts more. You know, watching my mother wither away because of the rules of the “religion” was extremely difficult, and not being able to step up. Not even being able to say anything about it. The family was, you know, I hear from other families, (in a hushed voice) “we didn’t really talk about sex … or things like that..” [In my family] we didn’t talk about practically anything around health. [Watching] my mother just becoming so thin.
But the Father Wound of him leaving, and not saying good-bye, and showing up, like maybe a year later, in his sports car of some sort. [I think] he had a Sting Ray, saying, “Hey, come on lets go spend some money.” Meanwhile, [my mother, sister, and I] are living in poverty. It hurt a lot.
Justin Hunt nods in agreement to Hetfield’s answer as Richard Peterson moderates the next question from a single mother. She wonders what [advice] James will impart on his teenagers and if James felt he missed receiving [that advice] from his parents?
James: I have teenagers? (laughter) Almost. I would instill [in] them to be themselves. To speak honestly. To go with what feels right, and to ask us some questions. “What did you do? Do you know anything about that?” And if I don’t, I will tell them I don’t know. Maybe we can find out together [or] we can ask someone who does know.
That was a big wall with my father. I would ask him [a] question and he’d just, “Oh, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And it just sounded like blah, blah, blah. He didn’t know [the answer]. But, he couldn’t tell me that he did not know. It’s okay to not know. . . it’s also even better to find out together.
Justin to James: You have wonderful kids, by the way.
James to Justin: Thank you. It’s her fault, by the way. (James indicating his wife, Francesca, as the audience responds with laughter.)
As the audience settles from Hetfield’s playful acknowledgment towards his wife’s dedication to their children, a Metallica fan asks James if his statement from an old issue of the band’s fan club magazine still rings true: is your father still your hero and does he remain the big influence on your life, as previously stated?
James: Hmmm, that is great. The strength [of my father] that I talk about [in the So What issue] I see it now as fear. . . I’ll see myself crack down on my boy that way, as well. Bring down the hammer, and it’s not okay. It doesn’t help one bit. So that’s the strength.
There’s some good parts to that [kind of strength], there is also very, “this is the wrong message to teach him.” There’s much better ways to show him strength and standing up. . . like some of the people in the movie were saying, “stand up and protect your sisters. Stand up for your family. Show some assertiveness.”
Taking the anger and using it in a certain way instead of taking it out on your family, because it is so easy. They are there. They’re the ones you love and they will always love you, (jokingly adds) maybe, so you can take it out on them and they’ll always still be there, and that’s not right.
questions respectful to the topic at hand, and including filmmaker Hunt.
A woman from the middle of the theater took the somber moment to use her question to include Hunt in the session. While in line, a high school counselor shared his hope of learning ways to help his students cope with their own father issues. He wasn’t in line to see Hetfield, rather there to learn from the film’s content to give aid to his students: Are their plans to get ABSENT into high schools and show it to kids?
Justin: I have plans to get it into every hand. Every household we can get it into. Every high school, every church, every prison we can get it into. (Hetfield nods in agreement.)
A single father is selected by Richard for the next question. With a trembling voice, he starts by telling James how inspirational he has found his efforts to mesh together Hetfield’s family with his Metallica family, and jokes about his own struggles as a father by juggling taking a daughter to ballet, horseback riding, and still finding time to go to Metallica shows. He asks if by not having a father, did it help drive James to be a better father to his children?
James: That’s a good question. I was so scared to be a dad. I was waiting for the right lightening bolt to hit me with all the instructions, and all the sudden I knew how to do it, and what I was going to do. “Okay, this is going to be great. This is going to be easy.”
[My kids] have taught me more than I would have ever been able to teach them. They have taught me how to be the dad [and what] they need. I see what they need and, you know, the kids are pretty smart and manipulative. They can get what they need. But, I was a kid once as well and you can see the parts which are good for them, not so good for them, age appropriateness, all of that. And yes, you can ride your horse, go to ballet with your daughter, and show up at the Metallica concert anytime.
As time slips away, Richard Peterson encourage the attendees to ask more concise questions in an attempt to take as many queries as possible. Richard selects another young man who inquires if Hetfield ever looks back on the hard times in his life and feels they have help him get to where he is now.
James: Absolutely. This is, kind of, the path I was put on by a higher power, of sorts. Through the struggle there is a story to tell. Like I said in the movie, relating to the struggle is more powerful than getting a bunch of answers on how to deal with a problem.
Relating to the struggle.
I think this movie, getting it to high schools, getting it to as many places as possible is important. It’s a universal thread. It might not hit everyone as powerful as it does, say me, or some other one who grew up without a father, but there’s people out there, and I was certainly one of them up to ten years ago, not even knowing that’s why [I was behaving this way].
Why am I doing these things? Why am I saying, “I’ll never do that,” and I’m doing it? I couldn’t put words to it. I couldn’t put a feeling to it, and just watching this movie, I mean, there is some potent stuff in that movie, and it is really allowed me to breathe better knowing I’m not alone. So the more people that see it, I think it’s going to give them some freedom.
Richard quickly moves to the next hand in a sea of many. Another young man starts by kidding with Hetfield, commenting he didn’t quite know what to expect from James’ involvement in a serious film about absent fathers.
Hetfield: (teasing back) It’s going to be awesome, dude.
After the audience’s laughter dies down, the young man continues his statement by divulging his own struggles with being a dad and that he enjoyed the film being centered around the struggles fathers can face.
Hetfield: Thank you, and kudos to you being a dad! Because it’s not easy. Truly, is not easy. There are days when I just think, “do I really wanna be here?” (laughing) I just want to run! And that’s okay to feel that. It’s totally fine. Talk to your spouse about that feeling or whoever is helping you, and even your kids ’cause they will be parents one day. It’s okay to feel like you gotta bolt. Get “you” time. That’s a part of the strength that people talk about.
As Richard selects the next person, a woman stands to ask of Hetfield how he creates fun with his children, as a way to better connect with them.
Hetfield: (leans forward, smiling) I tell you, kids plus water. It’s almost like the less they have the more fun, the more creative they can become, and they start working together with things. You know, buying them the hot new toy it certainly doesn’t satisfy. That’s getting thrown into that hole that they think they need to fill. The filling it is with family and enjoying those times together. But, yeah, going to the water has always been [good]. Swimming.”
Justin: I think if you want to create fun with your children then you just give them you. That’s all they need. It’s so misconstrued how providing certain things, buying certain things, that’s not it. It’s just giving them you. That’s all they need, and the fun will happen if you just give them that.
After a round of applauds, Richard repeats the question from a man wanting to know since James has reached the pinnacle of rock and roll, did he still need his father to validate his success, and if he did get validation, did it give James what he needed from his father.
James: It was tough because I would say, yes, he did, but it didn’t feel real because of all the stuff [abandoning the family] that had happened before that. It was around the Black album time, just before that, the Justice For All period, late 80′s, that [my dad] showed up.
There’s always that, “oh, he showed up because we’re famous” part that just never felt authentic. Never did. When I would go and visit him in the “house” that I bought [for my father], he would be asking me to sign things for people that he knew. It just felt so un-fatherlike.
Hetfield’s revelation about his father taking advantage of his son’s celebrity heavily impacts the crowd. Quietly, a question comes from the back, asking if being sober makes it more difficult for James to be a father.
James: Well, I would say, yes and no. With the alcohol I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know if it was better or not. [Life] was just a big haze. That was all my childhood was. Other people talking about, “I remember when I first rode my bike, and this and that.” I don’t remember any of that stuff, and it’s so sad. I’m tired of not remembering things. I want to be present. I want to be there, and I want to remember things.
Yes. It is difficult. It’s also great in that the extremes show up. This is me trying to be a normal person [without] the crutches.
Justin Hunt agrees with Hetfield’s comment as a women earnestly seeks James’ advice: How does one point out, or engage, without sounding too preachy, [a way] to nudge a failing father in the right direction?
James: That’s a great question. Really, the only natural and [non-evasive] way you can teach something [is] by example. My life, they can maybe see, “his life is better and I want that.” So, it has to be within, but nudges certainly help.
Justin: I think the thing that is cool, is that because of his level of popularity, and because of his music, people have [James] under a microscope and can see [his] story.
As far as my film is concerned. . . it does [help] open up dialog, and that is when you have an opportunity to approach someone and say, “you know, man, I watched coolest film the other day” and that is how you start the dialog.
James: And it is really ironic, the last thing a father wants to hear is, “you are not being a good father.” [That] opens the wound even further. It’s a catch 22, almost. Needing to discover themselves is pretty key.
Justin: That’s why it’s so cool that James is here because he’s become [a positive male role model] for a lot of people. On the [film's] website there’s some really touching letters to fathers. . . and a lot of them talk about how James filled that void in their lives through his music.
Don’t give up hope [that your children can't find] a positive male role model. That it can’t happen. Whether it’s a teacher, or whether it’s an uncle, it can happen.
Pressed for time, Richard moderates the next question for a gentleman wanting to know if being a successful rock star validates James, making him feel worthy, since his father didn’t.
James: The fame and fortune doesn’t fill the hole that a father leaves, or a mother, or anyone important in your life. At the end of the day relationships are what matters, and the stuff is just stuff. [The stuff] it breaks down. You can’t take it with you. It’s as simple as that. Nothing replaces [that bond]. No matter how poor a family is, if they’ve got a strong family bond and rely on each other, that’s a rich family.
Justin to James: Can I ask you a question? Would you say that’s kind of a cause and effect type thing. That maybe that’s why you worked so hard to be successful at music? Was to maybe get that?
James: To get validation?
Justin: Yeah, to fill the gap?
James: Well, I just think there was the drive. It’s possible. I mean, there’s lots of . . . well, there is people who will say other things. Getting the tattoos, getting the this, getting the that, there is always something that can be pinned on [seeking validation]. Part of it is character. Part of it is that. That makes up me. But, there was something. Some drive that came from somewhere [wanting] to be the best at what I can be.
A woman asks James while he is on the road touring, how does he make sure to stay available for his children.
James: Right. Very great question. I recall, I’d like to start by saying, 20 years ago, being on the road before having kids, looking at some of the road crew trying to contact [their] family on the rotary phone from Finland and can’t get through. . . I was just like, “whatever.” [Now] my heart goes out to them because they were trying their best to connect.
Nowadays, “hey, what time do you want to Face Time?” There are so many ways to connect with the family these days. Yeah, that’s looking at a dad on a little phone but being at home, I mean, we have scheduled our touring, now everyone in the band is a father so two weeks on, two weeks off is what we do. Nothing is going to make us stray from that ’cause it is very important. There is a very clear priority list and family’s at the top.
As the audience claps, clearly approving of Metallica’s devotion to their families, a young man wants to know since many people featured in ABSENT appear stuck in their Father Wounds, how did James grow out of his, and by learning to love his family what has his sober life been like in the past decade?
James: I’m certainly not cured and I don’t know “how to love.” I’m learning. Everyday is a learning process. Acceptance is a big part of that. Accepting, “I don’t want to be here right now,” but I’m going to be because I know it’s for the greater good.
That’s tough. That’s a tough one. I’m still working on all those things. But, without clarity, with all the other crutches I had, it wouldn’t be possible to even have awareness about it.
I’d go through with a fog, and maybe, get introduced to my kids when they’re 30 and say, “Hey, remember me?” That’s a horrible, horrible thought. I had a wonderful wife who basically kicked my ass when I was not showing up. She has helped me greatly to become a father, and show up.
I’d say one of the greatest gifts that I’d got was, maybe, five years into sobriety, getting a Father’s Day card from her saying that [she is] really proud of [me] showing up for [our] kids.
Hetfield’s touching recollection about his wife lingers as the last question of the night lightens the mood: By being in his children’s lives, has that been a kind of therapy for him?
James: There are parts when it’s therapy. There are parts when I need therapy. (Laughter from Hetfield, Hunt, and the audience). But, yes, absolutely. There’s extremes, and I live in an extreme world.
Going from having a father who was very strict, very religious, a minster in the church, and blah, blah, blah. Then, wanting to be the softest, greatest, cuddly dad. (Mass laughter from the audience.)That’s not good either! So, never say never on the strictness. It’s not real. I have to see both [sides] and find out where the middle is and get there.
The Q and A session closes with thunderous applause as Hetfield and Hunt take a moment to embrace. They rise from their seats, smiling, with Hetfield’s words still reverberating through the air.
James Hetfield, frontman to the world’s most successful metal band, who values honesty above all else, freely gave forty-seven minutes of his life to a modest gathering of people. Hetfield, by choosing to use his celebrity to focus attention on a humble documentary, has lent credence to the purpose of ABSENT: reclaiming fatherhood one man at a time.
As the audience stands, Justin Hunt makes a brief announcement he will stay behind if anyone would like to come down. Hetfield, spontaneously, decides to do the same.
An impromptu meet and greet, something all Metallica fans are familiar with, takes place at the base of the stage. Fans, excitedly and respectfully, line up eager to have their moment with Hetfield and Hunt.
An hour and a half later, both rock star and filmmaker remain, tending to the final remnants of the crowd.
Smiles are exchanged, photographs are taken, and autographs are signed.
Hetfield and Hunt refuse to leave until the last person is seen. Together, they ensure everyone’s chance to speak their mind, share their input, and shake the hand of James Hetfield, who at this moment is not a rock star. Instead, he is merely a proud father of three, doing his part, telling his truth in an attempt to inspire others to become the good father he has spent the last decade striving to be.