Childhood & Early Life
Hetfield was born on August 3, 1963, in Downey, California, to Virgil Lee Hetfield and Cynthia Bassett (née Nourse). His father was a truck driver whereas his mother was a light opera singer. His parents were followers of Christian Science and they strictly followed their beliefs of not taking medicines or medical treatment, even when his mother suffered from, and ultimately died of cancer.
His parents divorced in 1976 and later, his mother died in 1979, when he was 16. He has two older half-brothers (from mother’s first marriage) and a younger sister. After his mother’s death, he lived with his older half-brother, David. Hetfield studied at the ‘Downey High School.’
He learnt piano at the age of 9 and later played his brothers drums. During his teen years he started learning and playing guitar. Hetfield played with local garage bands, such as ‘Leather Charm’ and ‘Obsession.’ ‘Aerosmith’s’ music was a major influence during his childhood and he was also inspired by many others, including Ted Nugent, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, Scorpion, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppling, Queen among others.
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Hetfield found a classified ad posted by drummer Lars Ulrich in a Los Angeles local newspaper, ‘The Recycler.’ They both got together in 1981 to form ‘Metallica,’ a heavy metal band. They were joined by guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Cliff Burton. Mustaine’s unpredictable behavior and drinking created some issues during the initial years, so in 1983, he was replaced with lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. The band relocated from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Initially the group had to face rejections from major record labels because of their aggressive sound, so their managers decided to launch their own label. Their first album, ‘Kill ‘Em All’ (1983) reflected British metal styles of early 1980s. Their next album, ‘Ride the Lightning,’ included social and political themes while the third album, ‘Master of Puppets,’ (1985) was considered as a masterpiece by the critics. This album brought their music to more mainstream audience and it was ‘Metallica’s first album that was certified gold. It sold more than 3 million copies and included tracks ‘Battery,’ ‘Damage, Inc.’ among others.
While touring for the promotions of ‘Master of Puppets,’ their bus rolled over a patch of black ice near Stockholm, and Cliff Burton was thrown out of the window and was killed instantly. Hetfield was disturbed due to this sudden loss. Jason Newsted was later selected as the new bassist.
‘Metallica’s’ next album ‘…..And Justice for All’ (1988) included the track ‘One,’ which was their first music video and was well-received on MTV. The album made to number 6 on the ‘Billboard 200.’
With singles, including ‘The Unforgiven,’ ‘Enter Sandman,’ and ‘Sad, But True,’ their next album ‘Metallica,’ which was produced by Bob Rock, sold over 15 million copies and debuted at number 1 on ‘Billboard 200.’ The lyrics of the song, ‘The God That Failed,’ from this album was inspired from his mother’s faith in Christian Science and her death from cancer. The number, ‘Enter Sandman,’ spoke about the fears of his childhood. With this 1991 album, ‘Metallica,’ also commonly referred as ‘The Black Album,’ there was a change in the band’s musical direction.
While touring with ‘Guns ‘N Roses’ in August 1992, a pyrotechnics accident on stage at ‘Olympic Stadium,’ Montreal, erupted in a flame and Hetfield received second and third degree burns on his left side. But he returned to perform in 17 days, though he couldn’t play guitar till full recovery. (On other occasions, he had broken arm due to skateboarding.)
Their next two albums were ‘Load’ (1996) and ‘Reload’ (1997). The track, ‘The Memory Remains,’ from the album ‘Reload’ reflects Hetfield’s mastery over songwriting. These albums were followed by ‘S & M,’ (1999) and ‘St. Anger’ (2003).
In the meanwhile, the group experienced strains, especially between the two strong-willed co-founders of the band, Hetfield and Ulrich. Hetfield had differences with Jason Newsted as well and this culminated in anger outbursts and drinking binges. So, in 2002, Hetfield entered rehab for his drinking habits and remained away from the band for 7 months.
A documentary film, ‘Some Kind of Monster,’ about the relationships among the band members and the making of the album ‘St. Anger,’ was released in 2004. It was produced and directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
After the exit of Jason Newsted (in 2001), the band recruited Robert Trujillo (a bassist from Ozzi Osbourne’s group). ‘Death Magnetic,’ released on September 12, 2008, followed the record of ‘Metallica’s’ previous albums and attained number 1 on Billboard charts.
The band released a movie, ‘Metallica: Through the Never’ and its soundtrack in 2013. Their tenth studio album, ‘Hardwired …… To Self-Destruct’ was released in November 2016.
On August 17, 1997, Hetfield married Francesca Tomasi, who hails from Argentina. She initially worked as band’s costume designer. The couple resides in Vail, Colorado, and has three children – Cali Tee (b. June 1998), Castor Virgil (b. May 2000), and Marcella Francesca (b. Jan. 2002).
Apart from music, he is also interested in farming, beekeeping and customizing cars and motorbikes. He is an accomplished hunter and a member of ‘The National Rifle Association.’ He sports many tattoos, including the ones that depict his birth year, and also the pyrotechnics stage accident.
Hetfield appeared in Dustin Hunt’s film ‘Absent,’ wherein he spoke about the absence of his father in his life after his parents’ divorce and the impact of this void in his life. Hetfield’s biography, ‘So Let It Be Written’ by Mark Eglinton, was published in April 2017.