Drumming Into Metallica


Lars Ulrich of Metallica scored his first heavy-metal hit not by pounding his drums in a recording studio, but by putting his thoughts on paper for a teacher at Back Bay High School in Costa Mesa.

“I remember him very fondly,” recalls Judy Schreiber, Ulrich’s senior year English teacher. “He wrote me a composition about ‘Heavy Metal Rules the World,’ or something like that.”

Schreiber, now retired, says it was one of the best pieces of student writing she saw that year, 1981-82--so good that she filed Ulrich’s paper in her archive of superior student work, to be hauled out from time to time as “inspiration” for struggling pupils in need of good examples.


“I asked him how he knew so much about [heavy metal], and he said, well, he played some of it, and that’s what he was going to do.”

It can pay to have a sense of direction early in life. Led by co-founders Ulrich and James Hetfield, Metallica did its first year of woodshedding in and around Orange County, taking the first steps on a path to its current creative and commercial perch as the world’s dominant heavy-metal band--a status Metallica will seek to buttress with shows tonight and Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood.

It was during his 2 1/2 years in Orange County that Ulrich, who turns 33 on Dec. 26, changed paths and found his life’s direction. He arrived in Newport Beach from his native Denmark at 16, aiming to follow in the footsteps of his father, Torben Ulrich, a touring tennis player. He left Orange County in February 1983, in a rented truck full of musical gear, bound for the Bay Area, where Metallica’s brooding, innovative, high-speed brand of metal had found a supportive audience, unlike Southern California’s hard-rock scene ruled by foppish, fashion-conscious glam-metal bands such as Motley Crue.

Ulrich was a cheerful and willing talker as he reminisced Wednesday about his Orange County days, speaking by phone from a home in Marin County that, he says, commands a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was his last day off before Metallica, which has sold nearly 3 million copies of its current album, “Load,” began a five-month national tour.

Tennis was the reason for the Ulrich family’s arrival in Orange County. His father competed regularly in the United States; the Ulriches had friends in Newport Beach, including Australian tennis star Roy Emerson, and the idea was to enroll young Lars at Corona del Mar High School, which had a highly rated tennis team.

“It was not something that was forced on me,” said Ulrich, whose English was fluent when he arrived. “I wanted to do it. I was into the whole tennis vibe, and that was going to be my career.”


Soon, though, Ulrich found he didn’t have the single-minded dedication demanded of the would-be professional athlete.

“You hit 16 or 17, get interested in girls, have your first couple of beers. . . . The disciplinary side has to be so upheld [to succeed], and a lot of people jump ship. You’ve got to be so strong mentally and physically to stay on top of it. I’d always been into music, and I found I wasn’t as disciplined [about tennis] as I thought I was.”

Ulrich never was comfortable living in one of the leading hubs of American status-seeking.

“I wouldn’t say I was a misfit, but I didn’t feel there was much in that community I could relate to,” he said. “Some of the attitudes I found around me in Newport Beach were making me question [things]--the whole competitiveness and judging of people by the way they look or how they dress or how rich their parents were, that whole kind of food chain, which doesn’t exist so much where I come from.”

Ulrich burrowed into his passion for English heavy-metal bands such as Saxon, Motorhead and Diamond Head that, while little known in the United States, were forging a faster, harder brand of music that avoided Van Halen-style mainline metal. He had dabbled a bit on drums in Denmark.

“I took my dad aside and said, ‘I’m going to start a band,’ and he said, ‘Don’t you think you should learn to play drums before [you] start a band?’ I said I could learn to play drums in 10 days. I think he started laughing hysterically.”

Torben Ulrich, who now lives in Seattle, had no problem with his son ditching the family trade for music. He had moved in jazz circles in Copenhagen, playing flute, saxophone and clarinet, and was was friendly with the likes of Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon, the bebop saxophone great who became Lars’ godfather. The elder Ulrich is the sort of fellow who, having lost a match in the U.S. Open tennis tournament in 1968 after a butterfly flew in his face while he was trying to volley, answered with a mysterious Zen parable when asked later whether the incident had distracted him: “Was I then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming I was a man?”


“My dad is totally tolerant and open-minded and nonjudgmental,” Lars Ulrich said. “I could do pretty much what I wanted to do, but I had to find the means to do it. I wasn’t handed anything on a silver platter, except the freedom to do what I wanted to do.”

There is one exception to that nonjudgmental part, Ulrich admitted: “My dad still makes fun of my ability” and sometimes brings up that youthful boast Lars made about planning to master the drums in 10 days. “He’s the hardest critic of Metallica. He’s always telling me I’m too white in my approach. His background is more rooted in blues and black music. My dad’s always trying to get me to swing more.”

Ulrich started practicing his drums, taking lessons in the fundamentals with Joe Zawierucha, a veteran instructor at West Coast Drum Center in Santa Ana. Zawierucha says he found Ulrich “very centered in terms of that speed metal sound; he wanted to [learn] chops and endurance.”

Meanwhile, the young drummer put out feelers for compatible players. One day in 1981, James Hetfield, a guitarist and singer from Downey, turned up to jam in the bedroom of Ulrich’s home in the Park Newport development.

“Nothing much came of it,” said Ulrich, who grew discouraged and spent the summer and early fall of 1981 as the heavy-metal equivalent of a Grateful Dead camp follower, traipsing around Europe, shadowing bands such as Motorhead and Diamond Head from show to show.

“I got to know them because I was pushy,” Ulrich said. “I was pretty good at brown-nosing my way into their dressing room.” There, he said, the main lessons he learned weren’t so much about playing music, but about what it takes to succeed--”tenacity, believing in yourself and doing things for yourself, seeing how bands at that level made things happen in promotion and spreading the word about what they were doing.”


Back in Newport Beach that fall, Ulrich says, he couldn’t stomach a return to Corona del Mar High School, so he enrolled at Back Bay High, which afforded a looser regimen with lots of independent study.

“Back Bay was great. I could work at my own pace. The people there were really cool. It was a lot less snotty and goal-oriented, and I liked that a lot.”

Mainly Ulrich concentrated on launching Metallica. He got back in touch with Hetfield, and this time a friendship and playing partnership blossomed between the Danish drummer and the suburban singer-guitarist, who had spent his final year of schooling at Brea High School, then moved back to Downey.

Hetfield’s roommate, Ron McGovney, became the bassist, and a charismatic Huntington Beach kid, Dave Mustaine, answered an ad and brashly talked his way into the band as lead guitarist.

“He was very driven and had an over-the-top personality that was pretty appealing at the time,” Ulrich said of Mustaine, who in 1983 had a sour falling-out with Metallica and left to start Megadeth, a high-profile, still-running speed-metal band. “We didn’t realize until a year later that it was an attitude we couldn’t deal with on a long-term basis. But he definitely had a rock star quality that was pretty appealing.”

Ulrich’s routine came to consist of late-night band rehearsals, followed by a couple of hours each dawn as a newspaper deliverer, flinging the Los Angeles Times on driveways and doorsteps in Newport Beach.


When Metallica played its first gig, on March 14, 1982, at the now-defunct Radio City club in Anaheim, most of the fans who turned out were followers of Mustaine, Ulrich recalls. Ulrich mainly remembers how terrified he was--this was his first time on a stage--and that the band ground to a halt after three minutes when Mustaine broke a guitar string, leading to a long, embarrassing delay.

While Ulrich scored a hit at Back Bay High with his English composition, his band bombed there in one of its very early gigs, a lunchtime performance at the school. “When we started out, there were 300 kids there. When we got to the second song, there were 100, and when we got to the fourth, there were 10. That just made us more interested in keeping going. In those days we were trying to piss off as many people as possible, and we were quite good at that.”

Gradually, Metallica made progress. A club in Anaheim called Woodstock became a regular gig, and the band picked up some fans. With the help of a like-minded Pasadena band, Armored Saint, Metallica was able to break into the Hollywood clubs as well.

A friendship Ulrich had struck up with a young heavy metal promoter, Brian Slagel, led to an appearance on a compilation album called “Metal Massacre” that Slagel put out on his Metal Blade label. Metallica played a promotional show for the album in San Francisco in September 1982 and found that the scene for the new speed-metal style was far more advanced there than in Southern California.

Soon after that, Ulrich caught a Hollywood performance by a San Francisco metal band, Trauma. He was smitten by its bass player, Cliff Burton, who struck him as the ideal addition to Metallica because of his combination of attitude, ability and eccentricity. Burton was willing to join Metallica only if the other members played Muhammad to his mountain and moved to San Francisco. Given the good reception Metallica had enjoyed on its Bay Area gigs, this was not a difficult ultimatum.

Mustaine was canned shortly after Metallica’s northward transplantation, with Bay Area player Kirk Hammett taking over the lead guitar spot. Burton died when the band’s tour bus crashed in Sweden in 1986; he was replaced by Jason Newsted.


Metallica had its commercial and critical breakthrough in ’86 with its third album, “Master of Puppets,” and cemented its status with “. . .And Justice for All,” a 1988 double album that featured the hit song “One,” an account of war’s horror based on the Dalton Trumbo novel “Johnny Got His Gun.”

The next album, “Metallica,” remains on the charts more than five years after its 1991 release, with more than 9 million copies sold in the United States. The album showcased a more pop-melodic side that also informs “Load.”

Metallica’s current tour features an innovative in-the-round setup that finds Ulrich using two drum kits on separate revolving stages. The band plans a fall release of its next album, consisting of material written and partly recorded for “Load” but held back because Metallica decided not to put out a double CD.

When not on the road, Ulrich is happily ensconced in Marin County. “It’s green, and you can breathe, but its not suburbia; it’s very eccentric.” He still has ties to Orange County. His parents split up around the time Metallica moved to the Bay Area, and his mother, Lone Ulrich, still lives in Corona del Mar.

“I come down once every couple of months and I hang out with her,” Ulrich said. A few years ago he popped in unannounced on his old drum teacher, Zawierucha. Ulrich says it’s not unusual for him to revisit his old Orange County schoolboy haunts, even ones he found not so pleasant as a teenager.

“I’ll go to Park Newport and stand in front of the house we lived in. I’ll go to Corona del Mar High School, usually when nobody’s there. I’ll go and walk around some of these places. People who know me say I’m a very nostalgic person.”


Retired teacher Schreiber, who lives in Huntington Beach, says she has been pleased to note her fondly remembered pupil’s success--but from a safe distance. At 60, she isn’t tempted to go to the Forum this weekend to see the kid who wrote “Heavy Metal Rules the World”--or something like that--sitting as an undisputed king of the genre atop his drum-platform throne.

“It’s too loud for me,” she said. “It helps you go deaf at an early age.”

* Metallica and Korn play tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood. Tonight’s show is sold out. Tickets, $27.50, are available for Saturday’s show. (714) 740-2000.