Once again, we present Rock-Critically Correct, a feature in which the most recent issues of Rolling Stone, Blender, Vibe, and Spin are given a once-over by a writer who’s contributed to many of those magazines, as well as a few others! In this installment, he looks at the new issue of Rolling Stone:
The Oct. 2 Rolling Stone is the first issue of the mag to be produced and published after Sarah Palin was nominated as Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States. Your Correspondent had long predicted that the recording artists on the cover of this particular issue would be front and center: he even thought that the band’s frontman would go all feral thereupon, and so he does.
But YC also thought that, since Palin went from being perceived as an intellectual lightweight with family complications to the GOP’s killer app in less than a week, editor/publisher Jann Wenner might decree that his favorite historian Sean Wilentz and his Hunter S Thompson manqué Matt Taibbi should tag team on a cover package detailing her perfidy, and that the likes of Robert Grossman should craft a caricature along the lines of the dunce-capped GWB that graced RS in 2006. As it is, Taibbi pens “Mad Dog Palin,” a jeremiad that pretty much toes the hysterical, frightened liberal line on Palin that predated Charlie Gibson’s interview a week and a half ago.
However, Metallica was guaranteed to have the best-selling album in the country this past week, and so there they stand. Any number of guitar bands can see their latest record become the best-selling album in the country in its first week, but Nickelback, Slipknot and other butt-rock exponents, for instance, cannot count on a Rolling Stone cover during such a time.
But Metallica’s approved narrative—an underground phenomenon in the 1980s that saw the mainstream come to them immediately prior to the release of Nevermind—is irresistible to RS. The band belongs to a select fraternity of post-Springsteen artists whose best-known recordings can credibly be played on “classic rock” radio stations: said status is also given to U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, and Guns N’ Roses. These acts get an RS cover upon the release of a new album, no questions asked—in the case of the last two bands cited, a 14-year-old death and a 15-year-old crippling dysfunction each compensate more than adequately for a lack of product not extracted from the bottom of a barrel.
(YC should mention here that he wrote the Metallica entry for the most recent Rolling Stone Record Guide; interested readers can see therein that YC likes the ‘90s iteration of Metallica more than the average metal devotee.)
Enter RS Senior Writer David Fricke, a man millionaire rock musicians know well, a man who can be entrusted to proclaim that the band’s new album, Death Magnetic, is “a stunning combination of jigsaw guitar composition and live-rhythm-track assault,” a man who could be perhaps unkindly described as the George Lincoln Rockwell/Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest of rockism. Fricke wrote RS’ first Metallica cover story in 1989; in “Louder, Faster, Stronger,” he lauds the band the same way he has in four subsequent profiles and four interviews, and for every veteran rock band with a new album to flog he follows around for a week or so.
Fricke’s method? At the three shows he attends in Europe, Fricke writes that “Metallica play exactly like the band that made “(…And) Justice (For All) and 1986’s Master Of Puppets… Metallica have gone back to their most intense, complicated records of inspiration.”
It doesn’t matter that 2003’s St. Anger was greeted with identical hosannas. In Fricke’s belief system, any occasion that finds a classic band releasing and touring behind a new record is always a call back to the glory days, a time when rock music was epic and giants walked the earth and so on. At the particular moment when Metallica, the Rolling Stones, U2, Springsteen, or any other rock band reputed to have “stood the test of time” releases an album, the floodgates open, the nymphs return, and all the mediocrity and inauthenticity of modern life is washed away by “real rock.”
Fricke repeats the process each time a classic band releases a record. This kind of pronouncement is good business for Rolling Stone and the artists with which the mag is invested, and Fricke is its point-man as such. He’s a fan with enviable access more than he is a critic. YC doesn’t recall ever reading Fricke speaking ill of an artist.
Of course, Rick Rubin, the first call guy for every artist seeking “brand-refreshment” drops in to corroborate Fricke’s view of the album he produced: he says Death Magnetic “feels like the Metallica I grew up with.” Fricke also reports that James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich nearly came to blows in the aftermath of a show in St. Petersburg exceeding four minutes over the two-hour limit that Hetfield demands. If YC were in Fricke’s shoes, he might speculate that this kind of overzealous insistence on exacting routine is typical of folks immersed in rehab, in which Hetfield is famously involved.
Similarly, Fricke’s narrative refers often to Some Kind of Monster, the 2004 documentary regarding the creation on St. Anger. This film brought the world the spectacle of these men communicating in tortured therap-ese, as well as guitar solos described by Ulrich as “stock,” Ulrich’s awesomely elfin dad, Dave Mustaine weeping like a little girl, and (YC’s favorite) Philip Towle, a performance coach hired to improve the band’s working relationship but better known for a collection of the world’s most hideous sweaters. The band is keen to impress on Fricke that the discord that consumed them at the time has passed.
YC knows many people who care not a whit for Metallica, but who enjoy this movie tremendously. This suggests that Q-Prime, the management leviathan that has long represented the band, decided that the film would re-brand the band as sympathetic, damaged dudes—not greedy cocksuckers who hate their fans. This appears to have worked, since Fricke does not mention Metallica’s role eight years ago in l’affaire Napster. And by showing Hetfield and Ulrich to be poor little rich boys, far removed from their proletarian posture of the 1980s, the film intends to effectively preempt any honest reportage of the band. Which isn’t to say that Fricke would ever, y’know, attempt such a thing. It’s enough for him and Rolling Stone that Metallica is flying the flag for proper rock music.