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Although he's being diplomatic, Jason Newsted is thinking something a little more pointed about people who say Metallica's gone soft. Part of his frustration comes from having to answer questions about how big the band has become, how tunes like "Enter Sandman" are pop and why the band that defined speed metal now wants to slow down.

"You sell out the minute you play a club or sign a record deal," Newsted says over the telephone from the band's hotel in Calgary, Alberta. "To those fans who only want to see us go fast, I invite them with open arms to come and see the show. With all the ground that we cover, and all the energy we exhaust, if they can look me in the eyes afterwards and tell me we were weak and have lost our balls, then I'll believe."
Newsted knows that's not likely to happen on this tour. The band has stacked the deck in its favor by designing and building a stage set that by most accounts is all balls. "It began with drawing on napkins. No shit," he says, laughing at the obvious parallel to Spinal Tap, heroes of the Rob Reiner heavy metal pseudodocumentary. (Earlier, Newsted had slain the most persistent Tap comparison dogging the band by denying that life imitated art. He said Metallica did not steal the idea for the all-black cover on its new record, Metallica, from the Tap's jet jewel, Smell the Glove.)

What came from the napkin turned out to be a colossus. "The initial idea was to challenge how people see a rock show--to get away from the traditional 60- by 80-foot stage. What it grew into was the idea that we had to keep moving, keep the focal point shifting."

To accomplish this, the band began with an unusual triangular stage. The base of the triangle was then fitted with nine microphones for James Hetfield's vocals, two full drum kits for Lars Ulrich's pounding and five pedal setups for Kirk Hammett's guitar. The entire PA system is flown, meaning it hangs from the rafters instead of sitting onstage. The band can hear itself through 32,000 watts of monitors that blast up through grates in the stage. It takes 5 buses, 12 semis and 70 people to make it all happen--a lot, even for an arena tour.

"The best part is that on any song in any town it can be different," Newsted says of the setup. "Sometimes we even move around between verses."
Carved out of the center of the triangular floor is what Newsted calls the "snake pit." With standing room for 80 people, it puts a lucky few at shin level with the band, on all sides. "The Pit" is filled with guests of the band and contest winners from MTV and radio. If there's room, the band will also send roadies out into the crowd to pick out diehard Metallica fans. And what distinguishes a diehard Metallica fan from the average concertgoer? Why, faded tee shirts of the band's first record, Kill 'Em All.

Once it's filled, the pit becomes a cross between the rock concert nirvana and Chernobyl.

"In the pit, you'll be sweat on and spit on. And you'll get ashes from the pyro bombs in your hair," Newsted says with obvious glee. "People who've been there tell me it's one of the most intense experiences of their lives. You're at the eye of the storm."
Newsted has been in a twister since he stepped into Metallica in September of 1986, after the death of bassist Cliff Burton when the band's bus slid off an icy road during a Swedish tour. Newsted began his musical journey here in the Valley in the early Eighties, playing in a band called the Dogs. (The group later metamorphosed into the Valley's most famous contribution to metaldom, Flotsam & Jetsam.) The first Metallica record Newsted played on was the cover-heavy $5.98 EP. By the time the band released its breakthrough fourth disc, And Justice for All, Newsted had settled in as an intregral part of the band. A fan before he joined, Newsted has a unique perspective on how the band has changed.

"There is so much more to Metallica now than there was back then," he says. "Each member of the band has continued to to grow on their instrument and continued to take in new influences. When James wrote the music on Kill 'Em All, he was still in high school. Today, if you read his lyrics in Braille, they'd still mean something."
Again this year, the most righteous part of this Metallica is the band's trademark home-taper section. There, with 50 seats available, fans can make audiotapes and videotapes of the event with all the equipment they can carry. For Metallica fanatics, trading tapes of different shows has become an honored ritual.

With most bands, taping is strictly verboten. Because bands don't make money on bootlegs, and even suspect they hurt retail sales of "official product," bands look on them as a plague. Metallica, not surprisingly, has a different attitude.

"Taping doesn't affect retail sales," Newsted says. "When you get right down to it, the effect is the opposite. It really fuels the fire."
If you don't get a chair in the taping section, never fear. The band itself is videotaping and audiotaping this entire tour. According to Newsted, the group plans to begin editing "miles and miles" of video footage next fall after its upcoming tour with Guns n' Roses. At the moment, the plan is to release a live package that will combine CDs and videotapes. Speaking of Guns n' Roses, Newsted was not surprised to learn about the ongoing fracas between local promoters and ASU over the Metallica/Guns n' Roses show. It had been scheduled for Sun Devil Stadium in August, but ASU canceled the concert based on its policy against concerts on "school nights."

Back to being diplomatic again--both about ASU and Axl--Newsted grunted out a one-liner.

"Well, they shouldn't be scared of us."


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Robert Baird