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Revolver's new Fall 2021 Issue features an in-depth interview with Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett looking back on the risks and rewards of the band's 1991 breakthrough self-titled smash, A.K.A. the Black Album. The conversation took many twists and turns, including some digressions that didn't make print. One of those involved Hammett's remembrances of witnessing Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose's infamous dust-up backstage at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
The Nirvana and Guns N' Roses frontmen had been feuding in the lead-up to the event, and as the story goes, things came to a head at the VMAs, where both bands were performing, with Rose even threatening Cobain with violence ("I'll throw you down to the pavement!"), according to Nirvana's manager from 1990 to 1994, Danny Goldberg.
As it turns out, Hammett and his Metallica bandmate Lars Ulrich were there to see it all go down. Below, the guitarist recalls the much-mythologized clash of the rock titans.
METALLICA RECORDED THE BLACK ALBUM IN LOS ANGELES OVER EIGHT MONTHS BETWEEN LATE '90 AND '91. DURING YOUR DOWNTIME, WOULD YOU GUYS GO OUT AND SEE SHOWS?
KIRK HAMMETT Yeah. I was going to shows. I went to go see my friends in Nirvana at the Palladium and I remember seeing Kurt backstage, and I was like, "Kurt man, I heard the demos for your new album Nevermind, and you guys are going to be fucking huge!" And he's shaking his head, going, "Nah," as he takes a sip of some cheap-ass fucking beer, Schlitz Malt liquor or something. [Laughs]. I was like, "I beg to differ." But I remember a lot of bands coming through: Priest, AC/DC, Guns N' Roses played a theatre show previewing their Use Your Illusion songs.
METALLICA LATER TOURED WITH GUNS N' ROSES. WERE YOU TIGHT WITH ANY OF THOSE GUYS?
You know, Lars was tight with those guys. I mean ... it was weird because those guys were really accessible and it was really easy to hang out with them and see them around. But then they got huge and then they weren't as accessible. ... It was to the point where I couldn't have access to them, but Lars always figured out a way to have access to them. [Laughs]
THAT MUST HAVE BEEN SO WEIRD.
Bro, it was weird for us. … Our whole attitude was always [about] being accessible. And then all of a sudden these guys who we were kind of hanging out with during the recording of ...And Justice for All ... it was just different. They were the biggest band in the world … and nothing mattered. [Laughs]
YOU MENTIONED NIRVANA. NOT LONG AFTER THEY, TOO, BECAME LIKE THE BIGGEST ROCK BAND IN THE WORLD. DID YOU NOTICE A SIMILAR CHANGE IN COBAIN AND THE GUYS?
I remember having to call Kurt up, because we wanted Nirvana to open up the Guns N' Roses/Metallica tour. … This came down to me from my manager saying, "Okay, we've talked to Nirvana's management. They've told us no. … Kurt doesn't want to do it, because he doesn't want to be affiliated with Guns N' Roses… [He] doesn't approve of Axl's behavior." A long laundry list of stuff and it's all about Guns N' Roses and Axl. It had nothing to do with Metallica. They loved Metallica.
I had a personal relationship with Kurt and Krist [Novoselic] and Dave [Grohl]. … So I called him up. I talked to him two or three times. And the first time, he gave me his reasons, all of which I just told you. [But] he said he'd think about it. I remember calling him a few days later. Courtney [Love] answered. ... It was weird because she went to go get Kurt and I could hear her jabbering in the background. And then Kurt comes on and he's like … "Oh, I really don't want to do it. … I wouldn't feel right. It wouldn't feel comfortable." I'm like, "OK, I get it." I called him once more just to double check, to make sure he didn't have a change of mind. And then fast forward to the MTV Music Awards …
THAT'S RIGHT — KURT AND AXL HAD A CONFRONTATION …
Lars and I were there. Nirvana played. Axl was there. I think some of the guys in Guns N' Roses were there. I was sitting there talking to Kurt backstage, and all of a sudden fucking Axl walks up, sees me, and looks at Kurt and … I'm like, "Oh no!" And he goes right up to Kurt and says, "What's your problem, motherfucker, what's your problem!" And so Kurt's like, "Whatever, dude." … And [Axl's] like, "I'll fucking beat your ass. Come on. Let's go!"
And Kurt's just like, "Whatever, dude." [Laughs] … And then Axl backed up and [Axl's then-girlfriend, supermodel] Stephanie Seymour was there. She put her hand on his arm and kind of calmed him down, and he was just like, "Fuck you! … I'll kick your fucking ass." And Kurt's like, "Whatever." … Axl stormed off and Kurt looked at me and I was like, "Bro, that was fucking crazy." And Kurt's like, "Man, I don't know. That guy's nuts." And I was so shaken up. I said, "Kurt, man, I'm really sorry. I got to get out of here, man." He's like, "Yeah, man. That was just weird."
Then at another point I was just standing, minding my own business, and then Axl fucking shows up again and he says to me, "What's up with your fucking friend?" I go, "I don't know what's up, man. You guys have to work it out." And he goes, "Yeah, well, I'll fucking work it out with him." I was like, "Please man, just like ... it's between you guys. I don't know what's up with him. I don't know what's up with you. You guys just please, just work it out." And I was just being my usual apolitical self. I'm trying to just talk all this down, all this fucking confrontation, and somehow I felt like I was just fucking caught in the middle of it all rather innocently, you know?
WOAH, THAT SOUNDS LIKE A SUPER AWKWARD POSITION FOR YOU TO BE IN THE MIDDLE OF…
It was just a weird fucking place to be. And at one point, there were MTV cameras around that taped some of it, but then they turned their cameras off.
SO IT ENDED UP BEING A GOOD THING THAT COBAIN TURNED DOWN THAT TOUR.
Well, we ended up with Faith No More, and let's face it … at the end of the day that was not a bad band to end up with because we loved Faith No More. Both bands loved Faith No More, and it was great. And back then, Mike Patton was just as subversive as Axl but in his own way.