Metallica and a Marine: A Lifelong Musical Journey

Written by Sean Rooney

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Editor’s Note: The following is an editorial from United States Marine Corp veteran, Sean Rooney. Rooney, a friend of the site, really wanted to put his love of Metallica and how it impacted his, particularly during his tenure in the Iraq War. We’re very proud to run this piece.

It’s Iraq; you’re a 20-year-old United States Marine on a two-day convoy from Kuwait to Fallujah, the heart of the battle. You’ve got your M16 pointed out the passenger window literally learning what the true meaning of “riding shotgun” really is. Your eyes are scratchy and red, caked with sand and lack of sleep. You think you see something, then you don’t, and suddenly the sun goes down and Metallica’s “The Thing That Should Not Be” plays over and over in your mind.

My Metallica journey began long before I ever wore a uniform and continues to the present day. This band’s music plays deeper than any metalhead will admit. You see, that term “metalhead” has lost the majority of its meaning and positive influence in its present context. I’ll attempt to explain myself through the “Eyes of the Beholder.” Forgive me; I couldn’t resist the song title.

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I was 12 years old and I already had a vast range of musical knowledge from my father. There was Black Sabbath (there was always Sabbath), Pink Floyd, The Cars, The Steve Miller Band, CCR, Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac, disco, The Black Album and of course, Dr. Dre. Yes, he had eclectic tastes. My dad had these huge woofers and sub-woofer speakers in our basement. Every day, when most men his age would turn on the T.V. and watch the game, my dad would zone out with his tunes and the whole neighborhood joined in on this ritual (much to their chagrin I would imagine).

As an only child I naturally became influenced by him – you do what your father does and it’s fate I suppose. I knew all the stops and breaks and pauses in the melodies of every song by these previously mentioned artists. The way Geezer Butler’s bass lines painted a canvas for Bill Ward’s drums in Black Sabbath, or the way Ozzy’s voice shattered through the speakers and splintered every emotion with stinging accuracy. The concept of listening to an album and absorbing its deeply rooted message was not lost on me. I began to hear music in large chunks of beautiful sound rather than chopped radio bytes. Music was so much more than a product or hobby of mine, it was all I really had some nights. You see this same loud music listening father was also an alcoholic and remains one until today. It’s obvious to me now as I sit here at 31 years of age that he was masking in some deep-rooted pains with a musical catharsis. Perhaps that is the definition of a metalhead?

Enter Adam – my childhood pal who introduced me to Metallica. We grew up in a small town in the smallest county in New York State – Rockland – and we both shared rough family lives and broken homes, which made our musical bond all the more relevant and strong. You see; Adam was a California boy at heart since he was born there. The rural town where we grew up didn’t represent him. So one day I went into his attic, (yeah, he lived in the attic, how cool is that?) and stumbled upon a pile of CD’s and cassette tapes with a Metallica logo that I’d never seen before (the original logo of course). Looking back, it was like this band sent Adam on a mission to deliver the gift of metal from California to New York. This was twelve-years in the making.

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I popped Master of Puppets into the stereo and pressed play. The initial acoustic guitar strum in “Battery” changed my life during this very moment. I realize how intense this sounds yet it’s so true. You have to understand that music was all I had. I was often scared to go home out of fear of what I would find. The only solace was in my room as I tried to be as quiet as possible with my headphones and disappear. As I listened to “Master of Puppets,” I opened the album’s inner sleeve and read the names of the song titles and lyrics. I just sat there in amazement as I observed the artwork (something we don’t do anymore do we?). It’s hard to explain; once “Master of Puppets” transitioned into “The Thing That Should Not Be,” my mind began to wander as if my chemistry was changing in that very moment. You see; I barely understood the core meaning of “metal.” I wasn’t trying to fit into any mold. It was 1996 and Metallica’s “hey day” had arguably passed – I’ll argue against this stereotype till I die. This sound was a reawakening – it was special. I felt like the album was created for me and me alone. I’ll never forget that day as it began the metal renaissance in my life. Of course, there was a natural desire to obtain all their music but it wasn’t as simple as tapping some buttons on your cell phone in 1996. Adam eventually bought Ride The Lightning and …And Justice For All (my favorite ‘Tallica record) and we continued down a rewarding journey of appreciating this band’s music. The sense of community that most metalheads thrive in – we found non-existent in our town and it was this disconnection, which ironically made us feel whole.

Adam and I once sat in our middle school library and pretended to read so we could talk about Metallica and chicks…dorks I know. We checked out some random books and it didn’t really mater until I noticed a large protrusion in the binding of this library book. I turned the page and I found an old cassette of …And Justice For All just sitting there. It was fate – I was blown away and hooked by this miracle. It made things even more personal and furthered my confidence that this music was meant for me.

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As my father’s addiction and home situations grew worse, Adam and I took over music duties in my Grandmother’s basement. We wanted to play our music like a band without instruments. We suddenly had hundreds of my father’s CD’s and a few additions of our own. Those woofers never handled Cliff Burton bass lines and James Hetfield guitar chugs quite well (I think we blew a head once, oops). We learned all of Metallica’s songs and we deciphered the lyrical meanings as any fan would. I remember a part in “To Live Is To Die” that I can only describe as a “wall of sound” type of climax. I would take my skateboard to the top of a hill with my headphones blaring and I’d begin to roll down once this part began. I’d even close my eyes sometimes, throw my hands up in the air, and finally feel ALIVE! (Yes, Mr. Hetfield, I know how it feels to be alive, thanks for asking!)

Enter Metallica’s 1996 LP Load; I didn’t know too many metalheads in my town. The ones I knew weren’t into Metallica like Adam or myself. They thought Metallica’s train had passed; meanwhile, we were hanging out on the train tracks and letting the music run us the fuck over. The first time I heard Load, I dug the guitar tone so much and it was all I could think about. I thought the album sleeve was the coolest, I dug Kirk’s flame tattoos and the picture of them wearing suits on the back cover was badass (Screw you, VH1 Behind The Music). This record sounded like a metal band jamming in the garage after a long night of thrash and reflection. I fell in love with this album’s emotional innocence and it’s another revolutionary moment in Metallica’s career. It was odd to turn on MTV back then and witness the death of grunge and hip-hop almost simultaneously.

All the kids wearing black t-shirts kept telling me that I needed to listen to Death (R.I.P. Chuck), Slayer, and Children of Bodom. Meanwhile, I was rocking out to “Bleeding Me” (a masterpiece mind you) alone in my room with my own thoughts. I certainly fell in love with those bands but I was nowhere near finished with my passion for Metallica’s catalog. The irony of being “metalhead” – it usually involves a community of like-minded listeners. However, this sense of community wasn’t viable in our small town. We didn’t want to follow the trends, we craved something different and “nothing else mattered” (Sorry, Metallica song titles keep creeping in).

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After a little more family strife, I ended up moving to North Carolina when Re-load came out. Honestly, I remember arguing with this death metal guy over whether or not “Devil’s Dance” was metal. I eventually won this argument – he came back to school the next day and told me how much he enjoyed the song after he gave it a second chance. Living in the country – I thought I knew what rural was in New York, yet this wide-open space did something to further the isolation I was almost striving for at this point. I was seeking out the artistic space in sounds. The distance from everything in my town matched the groundbreaking tones in Metallica songs like “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and helped me absorb the strength in the band’s message. It was what I held onto when nobody was home.

I remember waking up after a night of my parents’ usual WWIII bouts and clutching the Ride the Lightning album sleeve in my hands. I sat there in my room and listened to “Fade To Black” on repeat at a very low volume. I didn’t even remember turning on the stereo sometimes. I guess I faded with the music since it protected me. Metallica was my comfort in the dark; they were my hope, my encouragement. In some ways, these guys were my father figures without ever meeting them. I began to create this fantasy in order to escape my surroundings. In my head, Kirk was the cool uncle who took you to games and let you watch R rated movies. Lars showed you how to get in and out of trouble and make a strong statement. Jason was the heart of all things sincere and Poppa Het… he was the father I never had.

I found another lone metal survivor in Carolina and we discovered Kill Em’ All together. The punk energy felt rejuvenating and I’d swear it really was 1983 in 1999. I began to search for this sound in other acts – this relentless thrash spirit but within a current band from my generation. It was a difficult task. Luckily, gentlemen like Jon Schaffer from Iced Earth exist in this world. Iced Earth’s conceptual storylines felt like epic masterpieces even though it was more fantasy based than Metallica. Iced Earth’s catalog was simply brilliant. I eventually got into the classic acts like Slayer and Sepultura but not until I was ready for it.

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Interesting enough, I discovered Slayer through Diabolous In Musica (not a fan favorite among most Slayer listeners, except for this fan). I absolutely loved the down-tuned guitars. The cover art was creepy as hell and the lyrical subjects felt personal, as I like my music to feel. Other bands followed and it was fucking awesome but it honestly never felt as right as my experience with those Metallica records. The Misfits came into play, both the Danzig years and the fantastic Michale Graves era. The ethereal Deftones changed my life and they continue to get better with every album. After finding bands like System of a Down and Tool – I was “ready” to expand my horizons and appreciate these different styles.

Long story short, family issues led me back to New York so I could finish high school. Adam still lived there but we went our separate ways. I left for boot camp three months after graduation. Metallica was in my head when I marched and when I went to sleep. I lived it and breathed it – the music’s meaning changed from something ethereal and vast to something more direct and aggressive (Yeah, Metallica can certainly be aggressive too, think “Dyer’s Eve”). I was now a part of something – I was a United States Marine. I suffered through the most rigorous training available in the armed forces to earn that title. I still felt like an outcast but there were others like me now. There were other people who knew when the riff dropped in Metallica’s cover of “Astronomy” – it was the sweetest groove around. Friends who could respect the eeriness and ferocity in “Leper Messiah,” Of Wolf And Man,” “The Small Hours,” and “Am I Evil?” The stunning musicality of “The Shortest Straw,” “Harvester of Sorrow,” The Four Horsemen,” “Sad But True,” and ‘Wasting My Hate” (“Waste my hate on you, HEY!”). The epic-ness of “The Outlaw Torn” – I actually made my cousin listen to this track and we sat there in silence afterwards. Last but not least, the underrated sentiment of “Escape.”

At this point, my adolescence came to an abrupt end. I traded my Sony PlayStation (1 and 2 kids, 3 was but a pipe dream) for my M16A2 service rifle and Slipknot t-shirts for desert cammies. St. Anger dropped at an odd time in my military career when I was still stateside in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I spent the summer of 2003 listening to St. Anger in the barracks, mostly alone, as no one around me could get into it quite like I could. I thought the addition of the DVD where Metallica played the entire album live was fucking brilliant and revolutionary. It really instilled this new vibrant spirit that would influence Metallica’s live shows. The groove of “Invisible Kid” was punk rock as hell and Lars’ drumming was tight and violent. St. Anger made an overall statement about our temptations and recovery and even our adolescence. Some of these themes carried over onto the band’s 2008’s fantastic LP Death Magnetic. However, it was still 2003 and I fantasized about seeing them one day. Just simply going to a fucking show – this was a dream of mine yet it felt like it would never happen.

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After about a year of being stationed in North Carolina, I felt as if I would never get deployed and then… my name came up on the list. Someone told me, “Sorry kid, you’re going to war.” It was all very reminiscent of Metallica’s “Disposable Heroes.” I remember boarding the plane listening to a strange mix of Mudvayne’s L.D. 50 interspersed with tunes from …And Justice For All and Master of Puppets. This takes us back to my introduction but certainly not the end of my tale. In those dark quiet moments when the convoy came to a halt, I found myself thinking about Metallica of all things. I had my training and my weapon at the ready. I was duty minded, disciplined, and goal oriented and it dawned on me – music got me through everything in my life thus far. Music comforted me when no one else could, and it listened to my troubles and gave me satisfaction when I put forth the effort to understand it. Metallica saved my life to this point and I wasn’t going to let anyone take that away from me. It was a long, noisy and scary war. I did two 7-month tours, got out the Corps in ’06 and never looked back.

Here’s where my story gets more “average” and less metal I suppose. I married my high school sweetheart, finished college, had two kids, obtained my master’s degree, and became the father that I never had to two lovely boys. ….And I also went to a few Metallica shows! Who do you think was the first person I called to see my first Metallica show in Jersey in 2009? Adam, of course. Our lives were vastly different but I couldn’t have experienced that show without him. The phone conversation was like, “Hey, do you want to go see Metallica tomorrow?” I think there was a hesitated pause and the “Yes” finally came. I saw them again the following year at Madison Square Garden where Lamb of God, the greatest modern metal band, opened for them. Things were good. I accepted that Metallica and music in general had quasi-raised me and I was downright successful. Or so I thought.

One night after a rough day at work, I received an e-mail from the Met Club (the Metallica fan club) saying that I won the coveted “Meet and Greet” pass to “The Big 4” show at Yankee Stadium on September 14, 2011. I FLIPPED OUT! I jumped for joy, banged my head against the walls, and my wife thought I was nuts. I was going to meet my heroes! I was going to meet my family! I was going to meet METALLICA!!!!!!!!

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The day before however, due to events beyond my control and a big misunderstanding, I was fired from my job. I am the sole provider in my family so you can imagine this hit me hard. I somehow told myself that despite everything going on in my life that I needed to make this show and shake these gentlemen’s hands. They gave me so much without ever knowing it and I followed my gut instinct. After I arrived to the show, I stood in the “bowels” of the Yankees locker room waiting in line alongside 15 kids to meet Metallica. It was intense as hell. This is where I met the man who has given me the opportunity to write this article, Anthony Toto. A young metalhead who instantly connected with me and I just knew from speaking with him that his metal roots were branded with the ninja star of Metallica M’s.

I had no clue what to say to each band member but I didn’t get stage fright. In fact, on metallica.com, there is a video from this show, and I’m featured in the locker room scenes. Rob Trujillo came out first and his presence and professionalism precede him. Everyone knows that he’s a nice guy but when you meet him – he’s so sincere and kind to the fans. Anthony and I had this question going where I’d ask each member if they were going to play their instrumental “Orion?” Rob said, “Yes.” Kirk jokingly said, “Rob keeps running his mouth and talking that shit.” Kirk was fun; he was the way I had pictured in my head. I realize it’s a duty of theirs to meet the fans and I imagine it could be a chore, but it never felt that way. Shortly after, I was talking to Lars Ulrich about tiny New York airports. When I asked him about “Orion,” he said, “How about we play it because YOU want to hear it?” Now I’m sure he’s used this line before but this man is so sincere and awesome and he really speaks to you directly with no bullshit. When you’re up, he’s interested in talking to you; he’s almost as a big of a fan of you as you are of his.

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Not too longer after, James Hetfield entered the room. James is taller than I realized and there is a presence about him that is legendary, however, I want to remind everyone of how we’re all human. The man was very aware of how in shock we all were – how in shock I was that he was standing there talking to me (just watch my crazy nervous blinking eyes – the meet and greet begins at 6:48 in the video) but I managed a great conversation that touched into the heart of all thing’s Metallica. When I asked James about “Orion,” he rolled up his sleeve and pointed to his tattoo and began humming the bass lines Cliff Burton wrote. He had the notes for “Orion” tattooed on his arm and he was humming along with his finger in time. He said, “We’ll play it but we need a singer.” This being an obvious joke since it’s an instrumental, I responded, “I know there are no words but I’ll make them up.” Then the magic happened…we both proceeded to hold our imaginary microphones and we shouted “Orion” at the same time! This was the connection I’d been searching for all those years. I digress…

I would not be where I am without the second solo in “Orion,” without the double bass drum click of “One,” or the intense vocal delivery of “I Disappear,” “Through The Never,” and “Fuel.” From the insane riffs and solos of “Creeping Death” and “The Frayed End of Sanity,” to the brutal honesty of “Nothing Else Matters.” Metallica was always there for me in the night, when it was cold, when I was hurt, or hungry, and unsure of what lied ahead. Whether I was scared, deployed, alone, nervous, awkward, suffering from PTSD, or simply just human, they were there. Even when I was successful, resilient, and happy; these Bay Area thrashers fueled my strength. I write this story as a thank you to the members of Metallica and also as a personal awakening to the art of music listening. Art is meant to be admired, questioned, judged, appreciated, argued, deciphered, enjoyed, loved, and most of all respected. Thank you to the members of Metallica for allowing me to overcome my struggles and thank you for allowing me to define who I am in this crazy world. Thank you for never labeling me as I’ve never labeled you. Thank you for proving that a metalhead doesn’t have to travel in packs of mindless indulgence. You are the true outcasts, Metallica, and for that, the world is lucky, especially me!

Sean Rooney
USMC Veteran
Father
Husband
Metalhead! \m/\m/
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Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.

3 COMMENTS

  1. This article is AMAZING! Thank you for serving our countryand giving us a piece that reflects what real music can do.

    • Thank you for saying what a lot of us have felt, but never been able to tell anyone else…Been a Metallica fan since 1988 and havent looked back. Right now, St. Anger is helping me heal from that which i went through…Great piece man.

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