Reluctant Exegesis: “Fade to Black”

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

For anyone who listens to heavy metal, and perhaps even anyone who doesn’t, “Fade to Black” is the ultimate Depression Song. There are many reasons for this. To begin with, it is about something other than depression, though just barely. It is about committing suicide. It is also, as my wife likes to point out, in A-minor, the designated Key of Depression. It is six minutes and fifty-seven seconds long in its recorded version, which resides on Metallica’s second album, Ride the Lightning. Live versions can run up to seven hours, not counting solos.

According to drummer Lars Ulrich, the song was composed during an era in which he and singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield were obsessed with death. Having listened to Metallica over the years, in various critical capacities, I’m not sure there exists an era during which the band has not been obsessed with death. (See: “Creeping Death,” “To Live Is to Die,” “Die Die My Darling,” et al.) Be that as it may, the event that seems to have spurred the composition of “Fade to Black” was, by the standards of thrash metal bands, cataclysmic: nearly all of its equipment was stolen following a gig, including a very rare amplifier given to Hetfield . . . by his mother . . . just before she passed away. It must have been a very moving, and loud, deathbed scene.

The song opens with a somber figure picked by Hetfield. At this point, it’s still in the neighborhood of a downbeat “Free Bird.” Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett elaborates on the theme with a subdued (though still convincingly screechy) run of elongated notes. We get some chugging from the rhythm section. Then Hetfield sings:

Life it seems, will fade away
Drifting further every day
Nothing matters no one else
Getting lost within myself

Translation: Dude, some asshole stole my amp. Also, I’m losing my connection to the animating forces of human existence. Hetfield continues:

I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free

Translation: My mom gave me that amp and she’s fucking dead, dude. It’s an heirloom.

At this point, an instrumental chorus begins. We get some galloping power chords, which give way to more keening notes. It’s like we’re in some teenager’s basement, only that teenager is playing Dungeons & Dragons and he’s just rolled a nineteen and slain the mythical Beast of No Name and spotted a way out of the Castle of the Symphonic Dirge. But then his mom appears at the top of the stairs and yells at him to turn down the music.

Hetfield elaborates:

Things are not what they used to be
Missing one inside of me
Deathly lost, this can’t be real
Cannot stand this hell I feel
Emptiness is filling me
To the point of agony
Growing darkness taking dawn
I was me, but now he’s gone

We now reach the essence of what makes “Fade to Black” such a potent musical experience for adolescent listeners: its aggressive assertion of feeling without an iota of concrete detail. It’s a purely abstract form of storytelling. “Things” have gone wrong in the life of the narrator; he feels lost, empty, hollowed out, but there are no events to which one might attribute this towering sense of alienation. There is only one actual image, of “darkness taking dawn,” and the unexpected use of that verb actually suggests a poetic impulse, as does the fact that it’s a metaphor.

The members of Metallica initially got shit from some fans for releasing “Fade to Black,” because it’s the first of their songs that might be considered a ballad. But just as disturbing, I suspect, was the fact that it’s an overt effort at introspection. It’s not about being angry and cut off from the world, but about feeling angry and cut off from yourself. In this sense, the song forges its own radical new mode: transcendent inarticulation.

Which is, of course, the default mode of adolescence. Any high school sophomore worth his (or her) BO is completely preoccupied by his tortured internal life, but, at the same time, clobberingly ashamed of it, and the solution—as recorded in countless journals—is to encode these feelings and their explicit causes in completely opaque “poems.”

I say this not only as a former high school sophomore, but as someone who has tried to teach creative writing to sophomores. You simply can’t expect a population quivering with self-doubt to tell the truth about the stuff that matters to them most deeply. Their very existence is predicated on the suppression of incriminating evidence. How was your day? Fine. What’s the matter? Nothing!

Even the music mirrors this ambivalence. Just as Hetfield starts to show too much leg—he actually lets a little vibrato into his voice on the word “agony”—the music kicks into agro overdrive. The table is being set for the Last Supper.

No one but me can save myself, but it’s too late
Now I can’t think, think why I should even try
Yesterday seems as though it never existed
Death greets me warm, now I will just say good-bye

Yes, we have reached the Promised Land! That’s what comes after the Last Supper, right? You might not have guessed this, but the narrator is going to commit suicide! Death is going to greet him, and death is going to be warm, unlike life, which is cold. “Fade to Black” isn’t just a Rorschach of adolescent misery. It’s an exaltation of misery, the ultimate teen wish fantasy with a built-in-from-beyond-the-grave guilt trip. (See, all you assholes? I did it. I killed myself. You failed to recognize my grief in time, and now I’m dead and you’re at my funeral and you’re all weeping, especially you Mom and Dad, and you Ashley, you two-timing slut!)

It’s no accident that the last two minutes of “Fade to Black” do not fade to black. On the contrary, they are grindingly triumphant. What began as a suicide note has morphed, rather ingeniously, into an opera of self-pity. This is the time for the listener to construct his or her own storybook suicide ending, a wash of most likely dark and foggy images happily set to the blizzard of notes Hammett wrings from his guitar in a performance that is considered, by the readers of Guitar World magazine, the twenty-fourth best solo ever.

Read an interview with Steve Almond here at TriQuarterly Online.