Friday, June 28, 2019

Classic Songs: The Unforgiven

Almost literally six years ago today, I wrote what accidentally wound up a one-off piece in my collection of article "sub-series" here on Retro Revelations. I typically write about movies, cartoons/animation, or video games the most often. Once in awhile I'll throw out a bit on comics or toys or something like that. But this time, pressed for time and wanting something I could just talk about fairly quickly, I decided to write an article about music. For the record, I had fully intended this to also be an ongoing sub-series, but for whatever reasons over these many years since, I've just never gotten back to it, till today. And ironically enough, it's largely for the same basic reason: I'm pressed for time to get a June article out, and wanted something I could write a "simpler" piece about.

The original "Classic Songs" article, was about what is basically my favorite song of all time, "Dust in the Wind" by the progressive rock band Kansas. That song is a timeless masterpiece, and in my mind one of the very best songs written, in any era, period. The song I'm here today to talk about, I would also personally include in that company, as I also feel that it is one of the best written, most emotionally powerful songs ever made. It just so happens that the band who made it, Metallica, is my favorite band of all time. But it also just so happens, that while I love and adore "Dust in the Wind", the song "The Unforgiven", for me, carries a lot more personal weight and meaning.

A band that would come to mean a whole lot to me in my teens.

For a bit of personal background, as I've mentioned in past articles, my childhood was not an easy one. In point of fact, it was fairly dark and lonely in a lot of ways. When my grandmother passed away when I was nearly 14 years old, in the fall of 1995, I felt at the time, like I was finally "free", meaning that I no longer had to live under her far too often very controlling, and sometimes downright scary proverbial thumb. I was not explicitly glad that she died, by any means. But I was glad that, in my mind, I was finally free to, within the limits of a young teen boy, live how I wanted, without having to walk on eggshells and constantly live up to the demands or expectations of someone else. In that, I was partially right. I certainly was more free from age 14 onward than I had ever been beforehand. And I never quite had to live under anyone's direct, overbearing control again. But that did not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that my teen years wound up being as fun and fancy free as I naively thought they would be at the time.

Unfortunately for yours truly, while free from my grandmother, and allowed far more autonomy and agency in my young life as a result, my teen years would bring with them brand new flavors of struggle and suffering. As a child, and especially as a pre-teen, I had to deal with abuse, and fear, and psychological warfare, and loneliness, and frustration, and anger, etc. But during those young years, most of that came from one source. As I drifted further into my teens, and more specifically once I started high school in the fall of 1996, as many teens discover, no matter how good and stable their home life may be, the world began to shift for me quite a bit. I spent most of my childhood, and even junior high school, being home-schooled. I voluntarily chose to go to public high school, because I earnestly wanted to give it a try, but also because I wanted to go to the same school as my friend Brandon. I had sugarplum visions dancing in my 14 year old mind, of us super-best-pals having a bunch of classes together, and how totally sweet that was going to be. Not only did that not happen (we had exactly zero classes together), but as I would gradually come to learn the hardest way possible, I honestly should have kept my ass back in home-school.

Such a classic, ominous album cover.

My freshman year was somewhat rough, but manageable. I was merely a somewhat "nerdy" (though I didn't really look the part) social outcast, who didn't have much in the way of in-school friends. Though I did have a couple I had made, in addition to actual friends who didn't go to my school, like Harold. But for one thing, my pal Brandon, who at the time I was very close with, had to move out of state half-way through the year, around Christmas in fact, due to his dad's work. And during the spring semester, while nothing major happened socially at school, my home life started getting worse, and I had my first real drama with a girl I liked. Sufficed to say, the pain and anger that already existed in me from my childhood and pre-teen years, those fires began getting stoked towards the end of my Freshman year of high school. If I had been smarter, I would have chosen to go back to home school after that. But instead, for no especially good reason at all, I decided to stick it out, which I would come to regret immensely.

But one positive that did stick out during that latter part of my Freshman year, was that a school friend let me borrow Metallica's self-titled album "Metallica", otherwise known by fans and music aficionados as "The Black Album" (a play on the 1968 Beatles self-titled "White Album"). I had heard Metallica before, at least their biggest hit "Enter Sandman", and likely a couple of songs from their 1996 album "Load", such as "Until It Sleeps" and "Hero of the Day", on the radio. But I had yet to get super into them, or heavy metal in general. That all rapidly changed when I started listening to "The Black Album", as it instantly became, at the time, my favorite album ever.

To be fair, it's an epic work, with so many truly great songs. But on a more personal level, I felt like in my teen years it became something of a "Bible" to me, especially at age 15/16. So many of the songs really spoke to me, and resonated with me, about my life, about my own feelings and growing darkness within. I found that the fury and anger that a lot of heavy metal music possesses, I could not only relate to, but it also served to (at least temporarily) sooth the fury and anger I felt in myself. Songs like "Sad But True", "Holier Than Thou", "Wherever I May Roam", and even the beautiful ballad "Nothing Else Matters", really affected teenage me. But no song resonated with me more, for all the right AND wrong reasons, for all the most awesome, and most sad reasons, than "The Unforgiven".

"So I Dub Thee Unforgiven"

As for the song itself, while it bears no lyrical connection, both the title and the opening (reversed) horn in the song, are from the 1960 film The Unforgiven, a western which starred Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn. The song also starts out with a haunting, melancholy acoustic riff, that does carry a bit of "western" flavor. But then just when that opening has set the mood, the chorus storms in with a heaviness that absolutely belies the anger, frustration and bitterness that the song's character feels. Lyrically, the song tells the story of an unnamed boy, who is someone constantly being manipulated and controlled and oppressed/suppressed as he grows up. A child who doesn't get to be the person he wants or do the things or live the life he wants to, as he grows into a man.

Even if you 're unfamiliar with the song, knowing what little details I've shared about my own childhood, I'd imagine you can easily see how this song "spoke" to me. In a lot of mostly sad ways, it really felt like the song was telling the story of my own life. A feeling that I'm sure many who have heard it and cherished it over the years have shared. The song's verses are fairly heavy and angry, while the chorus is an alternately light and mournful refrain. James Hetfield, the frontman/singer and main lyricist of Metallica, did this deliberately, as he wanted to make a "ballad" that was against type (many rock/metal ballads, especially Metallica's, had soft verses and a heavy chorus). And on an emotional level, it is super effective, as the shift in tones from the angry verses to the lamenting chorus, really do help tell the song's story.

The story of a man who has struggled his entire life to be who he wants to be, while outside forces constantly try to subdue him and "keep him in line". Ultimately, he grows up to become what sadly far too many children in modern society do: hollow shells of their childhood selves, bitter and burnt out from being told to "grow up" and cast aside their dreams and passions. As an old man, the song's protagonist is too tired to struggle anymore, and he quietly, pitifully gives up and dies. Certainly not happy subject matter, but it wasn't meant to be. And given the progressive nature of the song's story, going from childhood to young adulthood, to middle age and finally old age and death, it is something that people of any age can relate to and identify with, even if for sad, shitty life reasons.

From left to right: Jason Newsted, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, and James Hetfield.

As a complete entity, "The Unforgiven", to me, is a fairly perfect song. It "fires on all cylinders," so to speak, and it really does hit all the right notes. both literally and figuratively. It has a perfect mix of heaviness and softness. It has an emotional resonance in the smooth marriage of instrumentals and lyrics, that both feels genuine, and is so easy to resonate with. It has a very strong storytelling quality, it's a song with a definitive story to tell, not just a bunch of slapped together lyrics that happen to rhyme. That is, as an aside, something I feel James Hetfield got better and better at as he got older, was being a storyteller with his lyrics. Instrumentally speaking, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, with the prompting of producer Bob Rock, was pushed to record arguably his best solo for this song. Most of Hammett's solos, and to be perfectly fair, most of ALL rock/metal solos, are more or less just the musician showing off, shredding and noodling their way through something that more often than not, doesn't actually fit the context or story of the song much. But Kirk's solo on "The Unforgiven" is near flawless, in both its execution, but also it fully fits the story and tone of the song, and feels like it actually adds to the song, instead of just being part of it.

Metallica would actually go on to make two "sequel" songs to this. The first, coming two albums later, on 1997's "ReLoad", was "Unforgiven II". Musically it was purposefully this song's opposite, starting with a heavier intro, and then sliding into softer verses, then picking up the heaviness again for the chorus. Lyrically, it was more of a love song, speaking more about the struggles within a relationship, though ultimately being a bit more hopeful than the original song's rather dire story. It even borrowed a few similar lyrical refrains, which I felt was a nice touch. Then many years later, on 2008's "Death Magnetic", they did "Unforgiven III". This song has a similar heavy verse, softer chorus vibe to the original, but it starts out with a very nice symphonic bit, led by melancholy piano. Lyrically, "Unforgiven III" tells more of a metaphorical story, of a man "lost at sea", lost in his own life, always out searching for that elusive "gold", while ignoring the perils and details of his real life. I like both songs a lot, though I like U3 better. In fact it's my favorite song off of "Death Magnetic". But I'll always love the original the most.

Metallica live.

Ultimately, as I foreshadowed, my choice to remain in public high school for my Sophomore year, was a massive and even tragic mistake on my part. My personal home life, and strained relationship with a mother who hadn't raised me, continued to get progressively worse, especially as 1997 turned into 1998. And at school, in some kind of teenage way to reflect my shitty life, and how it made me feel inside, I started wearing mostly all black, and eventually even got a (pretty sweet) London Fog trench coat, and black boots, and started painting my nails black sometimes, etc. In other words, while I was more of a "metal kid", for whatever that's worth, I still made the social mistake of gravitating towards the resident "Goth kids" at school, who I naively thought might be "my people" and would understand me, etc. Not only did that turn out to not really be true, but looking even mildly (and trust me it was mild by comparison) "Goth", wound up earning me a completely undeserved shit-ton of harassment and straight up bullying, on what would become a near-daily basis. I found no peace at school, no peace at home, and often enough even just being out walking in public, or somewhere like downtown or the mall, I would even find myself the victim of harassment purely over my vaguely "Goth" looks. Once someone even threw a full "Big Gulp" cup from 7-11 at me while I was walking somewhere.

It was a really brutal, painful, and difficult time in my young life, being only 16 by then, and even after I made the wise decision to (finally) go back to home school for my Junior year, the rest of my teens were still no picnic. I dealt with a lot of anger and bitterness and loneliness and depression. I was often suicidal, or at least thought quite a lot about dying. And one of the only things that helped me on any meaningful level, not friends, certainly not "family", was music. And more than any other band or artist, Metallica's music helped me quite a lot. It helped me deal with all the bullshit and pain, it gave me some small kind of outlet. It helped me to get by, to survive. And perhaps no song helped me, or certainly spoke to me more, than "The Unforgiven". Not to be too much of a bummer, but I'm sorry to report that even in my now basically late 30s, the song's story still resonates with me far too much. But I am still bound and determined, as I was as a headstrong teenager, to not let the song's final verse and ending, be mine. One of these days, hopefully sooner than later (it's been too long coming), I am hopeful that my life will finally fully diverge from the song's path. But I guess until that day finally comes, as far as "songs that tell my life story", I could do a hell of a lot worse.


Whether you've heard the song before or haven't, I'll leave you with the lyrics, and a link to the song itself.

New blood joins this Earth,
And quickly he's subdued.
Through constant pained disgrace,

The young boy learns their rules.

With time the child draws in,
This whipping boy done wrong.
Deprived of all his thoughts, 

The young man struggles on and on, he's known.
A vow unto his own, that never from this day,

His will they'll take away.

They dedicate their lives,
To running all of his.
He tries to please them all,
This bitter man he is.

Throughout his life the same,
He's battled constantly.
This fight he cannot win,
A tired man they see no longer cares.
The old man then prepares,

To die regretfully.
That old man there is me.

What I've felt, what I've known,
Never shine through in what I've shown.

Never be, never see,
Won't see what might have been.

What I've felt, what I've known,
Never shine through in what I've shown.
Never free, never me,
So I dub thee Unforgiven.

You label me, so I'll label you,
And I dub thee Unforgiven.