Sad, but True

Not long ago I was in a public place—a pool hall in Connecticut, let’s say—where the radio was tuned to 107.3, The Fox. It was a Tuesday, for sure, because The Fox was running its “Double Shot Tuesday” feature. The station plays two songs, back to back, by the same band. So, for instance, if you’re hearing Tesla’s cover of “Signs,” you know that “Love Song,” one of the all-time great power ballads, is probably up next. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you almost never get to hear a tune like Faith No More’s “Epic” on Double Shot Tuesday, since for the purposes of commercial radio Faith No More is strictly a single-shot band. I suspect that 107.3 The Fox did not invent the concept. In my home town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, 92.1 The Keg used to run “Two for Tuesday.” Maybe they still do. Maybe your local rock station does, too, if you even listen to FM radio, anymore.

The song that caught my attention was Metallica’s “Sad but True.” It’s a big, lurching anthem, brutally repetitive and heavy on the downbeat. I remembered that “Sad but True” was on Metallica’s eponymous album, sometimes called The Black Album (1991), which was their fifth LP and marked their mainstream turn. Under the guidance of the glam-rock engineer Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Loverboy), Metallica abandoned the intricate thrash metal of their earlier records and took on a glossier, consumer-friendly sound. The band that used to write thirteen-minute symphonic laments was now turning out neat little singles. On a Tuesday, you could fit two “Enter Sandmans” into one radio segment.

A lot was lost in the rebranding of Metallica. Their music, especially in the Master of Puppets era, used to be ferocious and gorgeous all at once—technically virtuostic, richly layered, a mighty spectacle. The new songs were stripped down to the engine and gears. When I was twelve, learning to play power chords on my crimson red Kramer, I had been enchanted by this band. By 1991 I had picked up a black Les Paul and moved on to Fugazi. The Black Album confirmed that Metallica had sold its soul.

Still, one thing wasn’t lost—a certain angry sentiment that you could read in the lyrics and feel in the drums. It’s hard to describe this feeling, but I’m talking about a special mixture of abjection and spite, nurtured by every metal fan, that hurts so good. A Mookish resentment. Let’s call it The Fury.

The Fury is, partly at least, the bitterness of adolescent males, especially of the white, hetero-, adolescent males in rural and suburban North America (though Metallica was said to be huge in central Europe, too). For some of us, it was an aspect of our estrangement from the smiling evangelicals who seemed to be running things, and it gave us a sense of belonging to a progressive counterculture. But The Fury has its reactionary varieties, too, no doubt. The truth that hard rock is no enemy of right-wing anger has been revealed many times, most gloriously by the headbanging, bowhunting beefcake of the northern wilds, Ted Nugent.

Metallica were the high priests of The Fury. They specialized in revenge fantasies. Their songs were about what it would feel like to wield a terrible power against your enemies. Think of the refrain in “The Four Horsemen”: “Choose your fate and die!” One of their first albums was called Kill ‘Em All. In this music, as in superhero comics and role-playing games, losers dreamed of domination.

Mooks and Metalheads, I’m not condescending. In my lonely Arkansas nights, I was one of you, swaddled in consoling Fury. After all, the trip from corporate thrash to do-it-yourself hardcore didn’t take me very far from adolescent bitterness. But what did come into view, meanwhile, was that The Fury was a swindle. The tycoons and their technicians, the Bob Rocks, were selling us our own wounds, dressing them in black. And we were buying The Fury up, under the illusion that it set us apart, above and against the banal happiness of mass culture.

Now, here’s where “Sad but True’ wins its terrible victory. In case you haven’t cued up Metallica’s Black Album for twenty years, in case you weren’t listening to The Fox on Tuesday, here are a few lines:

They, they betray.
I’m your only true friend now.
They, they’ll betray.
I’m forever there.

I’m your dream, make you real.
I’m your eyes when you must steal.
I’m your pain when you can’t feel.
Sad but true.

There is some aggressive “address” going on here. A weirdly powerful “I” is speaking to “you.” He tells you that he knows you better than you know yourself. He tells you that you’re deluded about your own autonomy. “You’re my mask,” he says later. “Do my dirty work.” He tells you, more or less, that he owns your ass, not least because you feel betrayed by somebody else. And he says all this straight to your face, in the full confidence that the disclosure won’t change a thing.

Other Metallica songs are allegories, too. Some people speculate, for instance, that the speaker in “Master of Puppets” is the voice of drug addiction: “Taste me you will see / More is all you need.” But who, or what, speaks in “Sad but True”?

There are almost no clues in the lyrics. It’s as if the hectoring James Hetfield is calling to us in his own voice, then spitting in our faces. Or, to take this another step, it’s as if we are listening directly to The Fury itself! And it’s telling us that we’ve been had. The resentment commodity, a consumer society’s consolation prize, speaks its mind. “You know it’s sad but true.”

These, anyhow, were my thoughts on a Tuesday, before the Sandman entered.


Caleb Smith is working on a solo project. He dedicates this track to his sister, Macy Madison.