Metallica: The Tragic Real-Life Story Of James Hetfield

As a rock god from one of the greatest thrash metal bands of all time — Metallica — James Hetfield has both subconsciously and somewhat intentionally developed a rough and rugged persona for the stage that equals the intensity of the music. What was arguably even more tough and brave, however, was when the prominent frontman revealed to both fans and the public that he could be a vulnerable human being just like everyone else. 

That is not to say that the man isn't a badass. Not many people have been lit up like a firework and lived to rock on for decades afterward. But his formidable exterior appearance did not always come from a place of strength — sometimes, it was a shield constructed to protect himself after experiencing some deeply traumatic events and undergoing fierce personal struggles. Here are some of the tragic stories that have been pivotal to the formation of the heavy metal rockstar into the man he is today.   

His family's Christian Science beliefs made him an outsider

James Hetfield has said on more than one occasion that his parents' devout Christian Science faith made him feel like an outcast at school because of their strict belief that spiritual power is what healed people, not modern medicine (via "Justice for All: The Truth about Metallica"). Growing up in the early '70s, this created several awkward situations that made him the subject of ridicule by his classmates.

In an interview with Playboy, Hetfield said, "I was raised as a Christian Scientist, which is a strange religion. The main rule is, God will fix everything. Your body is just a shell, you don't need doctors. It was alienating and hard to understand. I couldn't get a physical to play football. It was weird having to leave health class during school, and all the kids saying, 'Why do you have to leave? Are you some kind of freak?.' As a kid, you want to be part of the team. They're always whispering about you and thinking you're weird. That was very upsetting. My dad taught Sunday school — he was into it. It was pretty much forced upon me."

Hetfield became so annoyed having to explain his unique situation that he basically stopped talking to a lot of the other students and kept to himself, so much so that when Lars Ulrich met the singer, the drummer thought he was the shiest person he'd ever met. As an outsider, Hetfield found joy with rock music, and as he became a professional musician, his unusual upbringing certainly influenced his lyrics.

The divorce of Virgil and Cynthia Hetfield was rough for their son

On top of the isolation teenaged James Hetfield felt at school, his life at home was also quite turbulent. In 1976, his parents, Virgil and Cynthia, divorced when he was only 13 years old (via "Justice for All"). As if the entire situation wasn't emotional enough, James was told very little leading up to the separation and was blindsided. He became furious over the actions of his dad as it was all happening.

When interviewed for the documentary film "Absent," the singer explained how Virgil left without saying goodbye to his son and instead just left a note, which was not even a personal message directly for James. The frontman admitted that he hated his father for that and was not afraid to tell him exactly how he felt, even though it shocked his sister that he spoke to their dad in that way.

His mother, Cynthia, died of cancer

Far more tragic than his parents splitting up, James Hetfield's mother passed away after struggling with cancer only three years after the divorce. In the book "Justice for All," his bandmate, Ron McGovney, recalled that horrible time and explained how Hetfield had to go live with his brother afterward, transferring to a different high school in the process.

James blamed his father for his mother's death not only because of the separation but also because of the Christian Science beliefs that prevented her from receiving the medical care she needed. Another bizarre aspect of the religion that was particularly frustrating for the singer going through this period was the fact that there was no funeral, and he was not allowed to grieve the loss either. Fortunately, the teen had already formed a band with some friends and was still able to play music with them on the weekends to help him get through this especially rough period in his life.

Metallica were devastated by the loss of Cliff Burton

While on tour with Metallica in 1986, James Hetfield and his bandmates experienced one of the worst mornings of their lives (via "Justice for All"). The band and the rest of the crew were all still sound asleep on the tour bus when the driver lost control of the vehicle. As the bus came to a sudden halt, bassist Cliff Burton smashed through the window next to his bunk, and the dramatic shift in momentum caused the large vehicle to fall over onto its side, crushing the musician under all the weight. Everyone else only had cuts and relatively minor injuries, so when they discovered the body of their friend, Hetfield and the rest of the band were absolutely devastated.

When talking about the traumatic event in 1993 (via "Justice for All"), the frontman said, "I saw the bus lying right on him. I saw his legs sticking out. I freaked. The bus driver, I recall, was trying to yank the blanket out from under him to use for other people. I just went, 'Don't f****** do that!' I already wanted to kill the guy. I don't know if he was drunk or if he hit some ice. All I knew was, he was driving, and Cliff wasn't alive anymore."

Regardless of the initial rage that Hetfield felt towards the driver, the incident was ruled an accident, and charges were never pressed. In a more recent interview for the radio show "In the Studio," Metallica singer and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett opened up about how disbelief and fury were followed by heavy drinking to cope with the loss.

James Hetfield caught fire on stage

After already tragically losing one of its members, Metallica came incredibly close to the death of a second one while performing in 1992. At the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, James Hetfield stepped in the wrong space on stage, and a huge pyrotechnic blast roasted a significant amount of his body.

In an episode of VH1's "Behind the Music," the singer said, "A big colored flame goes right up under me, and instantly I squint and turn. So, I'm burnt all my arm and my hand completely down to the bone, the side of my face — hair gone – part of my back." He then added, "This is pain I've never felt in my whole life, and it won't go away."

The flame that erupted beneath him was 12 feet high and 3,200 degrees hot (via Louder). Hetfield suffered second and third-degree burns to his left arm but was quickly rushed to the hospital and miraculously survived the accident.

His father, Virgil, also perished from cancer

In early 1996, James Hetfield's father, Virgil, succumbed to cancer just like his mother had. The loss was especially heartbreaking for the singer because he had started to spend more time with him. Even though James had been furious at his dad for so long over his upbringing and the death of his mother, seeing Virgil more often was changing the way he felt.

In an interview for Metallica's fan club magazine So What! (via "Justice for All"), James described his relationship with his father towards the end and said, "I didn't really realize how much he had been a part of my life, and influenced me growing up, until later on. And when we finally got back together, I saw we pretty much liked the same stuff and got along really good after all the BS that happened in our family life ... While he was sick, I realized how strong he was and got a lot closer to him which was great, because a lot of people don't get to do that. Sometimes people just go, people leave us without warning. There was at least a little warning with him, and I got to get a little closer and even closer at the end."

Losing his other parent must have been rough for James, but the experience seemed to mellow him out some. When talking with Playboy, Kirk Hammett remarked that while James used to just get hammered all the time and get into fights, he became more patient and thoughtful after his father's death.

Skateboarding injuries forced him to stop

Early on in his career, James Hetfield was often messing around on his skateboard in between shows. When asked why he picked up skateboarding as a hobby, the singer told Thrasher Magazine, "Wanted something to do on tour, because there was a lot of idle time when we're not doing anything. And I don't drink as much as I used to, so it mellows me."

Hetfield would occasionally fall and admitted that he twisted his ankle a couple of times, but that didn't seem to bother him. However, it became an issue before a show in July 1986 when he fell and broke his wrist, forcing Metallica to cancel the performance. Fortunately, roadie John Marshall was able to fill in for him on rhythm guitar, but it was still not a good thing that he couldn't play for months. Then in March 1987, the frontman suffered an even more severe break to his arm after falling from his skateboard, so he pretty much had to give up the hobby so it wouldn't prevent him from performing.

James Hetfield has experienced alcoholism

The fact that James Hetfield had to skateboard considerably less is heartbreaking because it was a way to help with his alcoholism. As he said, if he was skating, he wasn't drinking. Throughout much of his life, Hetfield used booze to cope with his problems, from the traumatic experiences he went through in high school to the death of Cliff Burton.

In the interview with Playboy, the singer said: "I took more than a year off from drinking — and the skies didn't part. It was just life, but less fun. The evil didn't come out. I wasn't laughing, wasn't having a good time. I realized, drinking is a part of me. Now I know how far to go. You can't be hung over when you got kids, man. 'Dad, get the f*** off the couch!' Well, they don't say that—yet." He then added, "I wouldn't say I'm an alcoholic — but then, you know, alcoholics say they're not alcoholics."

Three months later, in July 2001, he entered rehab for his alcoholism, and in September 2019, he entered rehabilitation again.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Surgery from a jet-skiing back injury

On top of being lit on fire and experiencing various skateboarding injuries, James Hetfield has continued to hurt himself, most notably with a back injury in 2000. While jet-skilling, he aggravated his chronic back issue and needed to recover from a herniated disc. According to MTV News, the frontman was forced miss some shows as a result, but in his place, several other rock stars stepped in for him, including members of System of a Down and Korn, along with Kid Rock. 

Resilient as ever, Hetfield returned shortly after his absence and was in high spirits as he joked with the crowd to say (via "Justice for All"), "If you see me on the ground, it ain't because I'm doing my Angus Young impression!" But even though the singer's injuries do not seem to faze him much, no matter how severe, it was still frightening for fans when he fell in a gap on stage while performing in Amsterdam. Though unlike the catastrophe with the pyrotechnics, Hetfield was helped up by some crew members, and though he appeared to be in some pain, it was clearly nowhere near to what he had experienced before. He then addressed the audience and said, "Is everybody okay? Yes, I'm okay. My ego, not so much. But we're fine. Hurt my feelings a little bit."

Anger management issues have caused major tensions with bandmates

When the documentary "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" was released in 2004, fans were given a deeply personal glimpse into what it was like to be a member of the band. One thing that became apparent was that James Hetfield was not always great to be around because of his difficult attitude at times, especially with the high level of tension seen between the frontman and drummer Lars Ulrich. In an interview with the New York Daily News, Hetfield was brutally honest and said, "I was a rage-aholic. I would build up resentment, then explode." The singer then added that after his spell in rehab, he only became more difficult to be around. "I had been very passive-aggressive," he said. "I became aggressive."

Hetfield will be the first to admit that therapy helped him get through his issues, but anger will always be a part of him. He told Metal Hammer, "The creativity, it will come from where it has to come from. Anything can be digested and be spit out Metallica-like. I'm not gonna start writing about picking flowers now. When I'm happy, I'm writing the heaviest riff possible. Being happy is not overrated. But also, there will always be anger issues with me, no matter what. There always seems to be another cool piece of the puzzle revealed."

James Hetfield has felt insecure at times

Early on, when he performed in Metallica, James Hetfield was insecure about the sound of his voice and paid much more attention to his guitar playing than to vocals, according to producer Flemming Rasmussen. In an interview with Zane Lowe of Apple Music, the singer got personal as he described the extreme amount of pressure he felt as the band's fame increased significantly. He said, "There was such an expectation already on myself to not let the team down and be the best as possible. But then you add 60,000 people out there ... You need to be what they need you to be, 'cause this is what you've evolved to be. And it is a little bit of Oz. Like, the man behind the curtain, pay no attention, but this guy behind the curtain is just dying and struggling and freaking out and not knowing who he is."

Even after decades of success and the incredible amount he has been able to accomplish with Metallica, insecurity has come back to haunt Hetfield because of his older age, such as at a recent concert in Brazil. While on stage, the frontman opened up to the audience and said, "I've gotta tell you I wasn't feeling very good before I came out here. [I was] feeling a little bit insecure, like I'm an old guy, [I] can't play anymore — all this bulls*** that I tell myself in my head." But his bandmates helped him through the anxiety, and once again, they all hugged him in front of the cheering crowd.

Metallica mourned the deaths of Ennio Morricone and Marsha Zazula

Over the last couple of years, Metallica — and James Hetfield specifically — have endured the loss of two more individuals very dear to the group. Not only did Ennio Morricone inspire the classic song "The Unforgiven," but the famous composer had also formed close bonds with Hetfield and the rest of the band, so his passing in 2020 was rough for the singer. In an Instagram post under Metallica's account, the singer said, "The day we first played 'The Ecstasy of Gold' as our new intro in 1983 it was magic! It has become apart of our blood flow, deep breathing, fist bumping, prayers, and band huddle pre-show ritual ever since. I have sang that melody thousands of times to warm up my throat before hitting the stage. Thank you Ennio for pumping us up, being a big part of our inspiration, and a bonding between band, crew, and fan. I will forever think of you as part of the Metallica family."

Then, in 2021, the death of Marsha Zazula was especially devastating for Hetfield because of the role she filled for the band over the years. In a statement after her death, the frontman said (via Metal Injection), "Marsha Z is the Metal Matriarch of the East Coast. She was our mother when I had none. She made great sacrifices for METALLICA to grow. Thank you, Marsha. Love and positive energy to the Zazula family."