30 Years of Master of Puppets and Philosophy
“Honesty is my only excuse”
By William Irwin
It was 30 years ago today, March 3, 1986, and I was about to turn sixteen. Actually, I remember hearing “Battery” for the first time on my friend Joe’s boom box weeks earlier. He had taped it off 88.1 FM WCWP, the college radio station that played metal on the weekends and which had illicitly played the song before the album’s official release. The opening notes sounded much darker than the opening notes of “Fight Fire with Fire” from the previous album, Ride the Lightning. They also sounded a bit off, a bit discordant. But then it all came together, and too soon the acoustic intro was shattered by the explosion of the song. What were we in for?
On April 21, 1986 Metallica opened for Ozzy Osbourne at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. To see them headbanging on stage was like seeing man walking upright for the first time. It was a triumph, the way things were supposed to be. They were metal fans playing in a metal band, supported only by other metal fans. Luckily, a friend and I got stranded in the parking lot after the show. That friend’s name was Eugene. Guys named Eugene aren’t usually lucky. The first unlucky thing that happens to them is that their parents name them Eugene. Believe it or not, I had three friends named Eugene growing up. One of the Eugenes called himself Anthony; the other called himself J.R. The third went by Eugene. He wasn’t usually the lucky one, but that night he was.
It was cold, and I was sick for a week after. But Eugene and I were lucky because Metallica briefly popped out of their tour bus to greet fans in the parking lot. We didn’t get very close, and they didn’t stay out of the bus very long, but I got a good look at James Hetfield. He was obviously the least friendly of the group. Hetfield was a moody, brooding presence. He was the real thing, the genuine article. Hetfield looked like I felt, angry and distrustful.
Metallica was indisputably authentic in 1986. They exercised their freedom for the purpose of genuine self-creation and self-expression. They did it their way. In “Damage Inc.” Hetfield sang about “living on your knees, conformity / or dying on your feet for honesty” and described their path as “following our instincts, not a trend / go against the grain until the end.” True to their word, Metallica had made it on their own terms with virtually no radio support and no videos on MTV. At that point, MTV actually wanted a video from them—Martha Quinn wore a Master of Puppets shirt on air—and would likely have played it in heavy rotation. It’s not difficult to imagine an artsy black and white video for “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” but that would have to wait until “One” from their next full-length album, …And Justice for All.
Something outsiders may not have realized at the time should be crystal clear to all 30 years later: Master of Puppets is serious music, a work of art. It is not mere entertainment, and it certainly is not party music. It’s meant to be felt and contemplated. Please don’t confuse Metallica with Kiss or Van Halen. Like ancient Greek tragedy, serious heavy metal can deliver a catharsis, a purging of negative emotions. With Master of Puppets, the chief emotions are anger and despair. The galloping guitar riffs and soulful solos, backed by the pounding bass and drums provide the soundtrack for alienated adolescent life. But it was the lyrics that spoke to me most.
A theme of manipulation and resistance runs throughout the album. “Master of Puppets,” the song, is most directly about addiction to cocaine and heroin, “needlework the way” and “chop your breakfast on a mirror.” You know the lines. Ironically, James Hetfield did not indulge in these drugs though he did have a very serious alcohol addiction, which he wrote about years later in the song “Sweet Amber.” The sweet amber of beer and whiskey had ironically become the master of a puppet Hetfield. The addict or alcoholic typically “drinks from the cup of denial,” denying that he has a problem and denying that the troubles in his life are caused by drugs or alcohol. “Blinded by me you can’t see a thing.”
Freedom is sometimes an illusion, as it is for the puppet who is unaware of his strings. This is a theme in Western philosophy dating back to Plato’s allegory of the cave in which prisoners sit chained by the neck and legs looking at shadows on the wall. Unfortunately, the prisoners do not realize that they are prisoners and that their reality is being produced and manipulated by their masters who create the shadow show on the wall. The only thing worse than being a prisoner is being a prisoner and not knowing it.
While “Master of Puppets” is most directly about addiction, it can be applied to political matters as well. The master promises to fulfill dreams, but, as it turns out, “promised only lies.” As in 1986, so in 2016, people worry that Big Brother of Orwell’s 1984 is watching and manipulating reality. The graveyard on the album cover for Master of Puppets depicts the final resting place of “Disposable Heroes,” soldiers who are of no real human value to the war pigs who send them to their death: “soldier boy, made of clay / now an empty shell / twenty one, only son / but he served us well.”
Religious manipulation is portrayed in “Leper Messiah”: “Witchery, weakening / Sees the sheep are gathering / set the trap, hypnotize / now you follow.” Both sides are guilty, the charlatan preacher will set the trap and the naive believer will “marvel at his tricks.” Hetfield chides, “need your Sunday fix / blind devotion came, rotting your brain.” The clear injunction is to be aware of manipulation and resist it through acts of personal freedom and responsibility. No easy task.
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” illustrates the difficulty of becoming aware and taking action, as the powers that be “whisper things into my brain / assuring me that I’m insane.” Who is truly insane? The inmate? Or the society that placed him in the asylum? As we’ve seen, things are even more difficult when the enemy is within, as when addiction becomes the master of puppets or when anger rules over intellect and “pounding out aggression / turns into obsession.”
Twenty years after these thoughts about Hetfield’s lyrics first occurred to me, I put together a metal militia of philosophy professors to write Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. Now, ten years further along, the struggle within continues.
My mullet has given way to a bald spot, and my paunch pours over my belt. But Joe and all three Eugenes are still in my life. So are many other friends from the metal daze. And so is Metallica. Master of Puppets is an old friend that has not aged. Listening to those songs, we are young again—angry and ready to take on the world.
William Irwin is the editor of Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery and Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality. He is the author of The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism.