Given the impossibly long shadow cast by Cliff Burton, it’s a minor miracle that Jason Newsted managed to carve out one hell of a legacy of his own during his time with Metallica. His tenure with metal’s biggest band™ was underpinned by an immense period of change for the Four Horsemen, from having to move on from Cliff’s tragic death to the sonic leaps they made across the 90s.
Through it all, he remained Metallica’s most grounded member, his steady but firey presence helping to propel them to unimaginable heights. In an exclusive new interview, we asked him about his very earliest days as a bass player, his initial audition for Metallica and what it was like stepping out with them for the very first time.
How did you first get into bass - was it your first choice of instrument?
“I got my first guitar when I was nine. I never really figured out the chords, the tuning, but I sat in my room and I wrote songs, even back then. My mom still has some of that stuff stored away somewhere! Imagine that. As far as working out the bass parts… 12 years old, junior high school, ensemble band, I was playing saxophone.
"A guy named Andrew Buckley brought [Kiss album] Dressed To Kill into the band room, and just looking at that front cover, Paul Stanley on tip toes and Gene Simmons in his clogs, that’s when everything fucking changed. I took it home and played it over and over as many times as I could before I had to return it.
I [wanted to] be Gene Simmons, obviously, he’s the biggest character, he’s the superhero, he’s the most attractive thing to a 12-year-old kid, right? So, I go to my little Sears Catalogue classical guitar, and it’s got three pegs on either side of the neck.
"I manage to take the middle pegs off from the neck and I get three strings at the top and one down the middle, and I just tune up to sound like the bass on Kiss and go from there. That guitar still sits in my father’s house. I still go in there and play Am I Evil? on it!”
Tell us about your time in Flotsam And Jetsam
“I ended up in Phoenix [with my band at the time], got myself into two different jobs, daytime and evening. February 1982, there is an ad on the wall of this place in Phoenix from Kelly Smith talking about Rush and Iron Maiden, and looking for a bass player.
"I borrowed someone’s car and put my bass rig in the back, drove the 15-20 miles up the road and set up in Kelly’s dad’s office, rocked out for a little bit. We messed around, got some other guys in and changed names and stuff, and after a year of pissing about we decided to form Dogz. Flotsam rose up from all of that.”
How were you feeling going in to audition for Metallica?
“Honoured to begin with – they were heroes and quite a bit above us at the time. So just to be amongst them was very special to begin with, but because of how I was raised, I was prepared for every goddamn thing. That’s how we did it in Flotsam, and so I went in totally prepared and confident. I got a 6.30am flight from Phoenix, they let me up in this complex and the fog is rolling over and the sun is coming up and I’m like, ‘Holy shit, I’m in San Francisco!’
"Few hours go by and I’m just there, practise, practise, practise the whole time, got my sandwiches with me. The guys finally show up about 10 and I’ve been there since 7.30. A guy comes up to me and says that I’m going to be in there last, and asks if I want a bottle of water. I’m like, ‘A bottle of water? Wow! These guys have got some money!’ I lived in Arizona, three dollars an hour, if you can get water, you get water, doesn’t matter where from. So bottled water? Fuck, we’re living, man! I finally, at the end of the day, go in, and James has had, I don’t know, between 10 and 16 beers.
“They’re still fucking self-medicating, grief-stricken [after Cliff’s death], running from this process that they know they have to be forced into. So already the ground is shaky, I’ve been awake for two days because I’ve been thinking about this moment. I’ve written the set that they played with Ozzy in Tuscon, I hand it to James and go, ‘Name one [song for me to play].
"He names one and we play it, play another and another, bam bam bam! We go outside and grab a drink and something to eat and they’re asking me questions about my experience: how long had I been playing, how many gigs had I done, how long had I been in Flotsam… their managers were already booking things in, making plans, and you have to have that schedule free.
"I told them that it wouldn’t affect me and that any time they needed me, I’d be there. I flew home that night and Lars called me the next day and told me to come back and learn these [new] songs, so I went back about 30 hours later.”
Cliff’s parents were there when you found out you got the job, right?
“That evening, it was the third day that I played with the boys, I think I stayed overnight in San Francisco for the first time, and you gotta remember that I had lived in a tin shed with no toilet and no bathroom in Arizona and now I’m staying at the Miyako Hotel.
"That third night, they had the ‘elders’ come in for their blessing. So, Torben Ulrich, The Burtons, a couple of the crew guys, people that had been there from the get-go, I’m not sure if there was a couple of the other families there. We got through about six tunes: Master…, Fade To Black, …Bell Tolls, the masterpieces! So I am just composing myself for a second, putting my bass down, turning off Cliff’s amp – I’m playing fucking Cliff’s amp, dude! Jan [Burton] comes walking in the room by herself, and she grabs me and gets my attention.
"She says, ‘Great job, son’, and I’m like ‘Oh, fuck!’ She embraced me and it seemed like it was quite a while, and she said, ‘You’re the one, you must be the one. Please be safe, we love you’ and she gave me a kiss. That was 35 years ago and I’ll never, ever forget it.”
What was it like stepping onstage as a member of Metallica for the very first time?
“I was nervously excited, anxious mostly. I did not have any lack of confidence in myself – I knew that I knew the songs, and I knew that I had the energy, which was required a lot back in those days to play in Metallica. It was very physical and very athletic, and I had that. But one thing I do remember – I’m not sure if I’ve ever told this story – I used to have these two pinky rings, custom-made skull things. One had a diamond in the eye and one had a ruby in the eye.
"I only kept one on, because you can’t play [with two] – I even have to wear my wedding ring around my neck because I can’t be smacking my strings with it. So, we’re on the way down and I couldn’t get the ring off. My girlfriend at the time was going down with me and she’s trying, and I’ve got one of our stage-hand guys who is showing me to the stage and he’s helping, but we can’t get that fucking ring off! I’m ripping, dude, because I’m all jacked up and I’ve been playing so much that my hands are swollen and the ring is just fucking with me! I gotta get this off, dude!
"I finally just rip it off and all this flesh comes with it – crunch. So that first time going on stage with Metallica, [I was] nervous enough already, but that ring added a little something else.”
Originally from Metal Hammer issue 355. Order your copy now (opens in new tab).