"If you look closely at the bottom corner of the picture, you can see my initials, 'D.B.,' in the grass," Don Brautigam told us in 2007. The world-class painter and illustrator was talking about the nightmare-at-Arlington-Cemetery-scene that he created for the cover of Metallica's 1986 album, Master of Puppets. "I wish I could remember more," he added, "but I suppose you just stop keeping track after the first few hundred paintings or so!" Considering his résumé, which includes illustrations for the covers of books by Stephen King (The Stand), Dean Koontz (Dragon Tears) and H.G. Wells (The Island of Dr. Moreau) — not to mention album covers for the likes of Mötley Crüe (Dr. Feelgood), AC/DC (The Razor's Edge), Anthrax (Persistence of Time) and James Brown (The Payback) — it was easy to understand why the details of an image Brautigam painted 22 years ago (in December of 1985, to be exact) might be a bit, well ... fuzzy.
What Brautigam did remember, however, is this: Sometime in mid-'85, he was commissioned by Metallica's management to create an image for the cover of the band's third album, a now multiplatinum disc that features such unstoppable thrash classics as "Battery," the title track and "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)." The album would also be the last to feature bassist Cliff Burton, who died tragically in a bus accident just six months after Puppets' release. Despite the presence of a soldier's helmet on the cover's leftmost cross — an apparent reference to the antiwar song "Disposable Heroes" — Brautigam didn't hear a single riff before painting the image. "Although it would have been possible to hear it, I don't recall ever getting an advance recording," he said. "But I'd have to say that [the helmet] has some relation to the song because the bands usually have a decent portion of input for ideas when it comes to image selection. In this case, it was certainly not my idea."
Indeed, the Master of Puppets cover image was conceptualized and designed by Metallica with their manager Peter Mensch, and according to Louder, the final painting was based on a crude sketch by the band's singer-guitarist James Hetfield, which was sent to Brautigam as a guide. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich had said that the image encapsulates the idea of people, whether they are soldiers ("Disposable Heroes") or drug addicts (the title track), being subconsciously manipulated — an overall theme of the record.
The painter completed the piece — in acrylics using a combination of airbrush and paintbrush — in just three days, while juggling numerous other commercial commissions. "When you had as many top-end jobs coming in as I did, you're forced to work at a grueling rate but are still expected to produce nothing but the best artwork," he explained. The finished work was 17x17 inches on an illustration board with a backing to prevent warping. According to Brautigam, the original was purchased by Jon and Marsha Zazula of Megaforce, the label that released Metallica's 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All. The artist told us that it was one of his favorites of the many covers he was responsible for. "It leaves a warm feeling in my heart to see artwork that I did over 20 years ago plastered on T-shirts and posters all over the world," he enthused. "I hope it has something to do with the painting and not just the popularity of the band!"
While shirt and posters emblazoned with Brautigam's Master of Puppets artwork may be highly coveted among metal fans, his original painting proved its worth in November 2008, when Christie's Auction House — which had listed it in its catalog under "Punk/Rock" — sold the piece for $35,000. Sadly, just 10 months earlier, in January 2008, Brautigam had passed away after a battle with stomach cancer. His initials remain immortalized, in the bottom corner of the iconic cover art he created for one of heavy music's true masterpieces.
Below, watch Metallica's epic performance of "Disposable Heroes" at the 2013 Revolver Golden Gods: