Like most people, I’ve got a signed Metallica backstage pass on the back of my old passport. Here’s the story of mine…
Thirty years ago today, I was flying from San Francisco, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. I was on the first National Youth Choir of Great Britain world tour that would take 140 of us from London to California, to Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and back to London. Eight and a half weeks of sun, sand, sea and… singing.
But let’s go back a week.
On Sunday 12 July 1992, I had been on the first flight of choir members from London Heathrow to Los Angeles (LAX) and then (eventually) a connecting flight to San Francisco. That gave us a couple of days to explore before the rest of the choir caught up with us in the Bay Area.
I used that time to visit San Francisco with my friends before meeting up with my cousin Charlotte Anderson who met me at the famous Pier 39 ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’ and then sped me across the Golden Gate Bridge and up the freeway to her hometown of Healdsburg where I did some shopping and hung out with family and friends for 24 hours. I’d spent a couple of months in California after I finished high school in 1989 so it was like a home from home.
The following afternoon, when Char dropped me back at our homestay’s house in El Cerrito, near Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco, my choir friends—Danny, Andy, Mike and Nick—weren’t home. They hadn’t left a note, we didn’t have mobile phones in those days, I was left to my own devices.
I wandered upstairs to the kitchen. Our hosts, June and Howard Brown, had four boys; their youngest, Sid, still lived at home. He was in the kitchen listening to records, loudly.
“Hey! I’m Gareth.”
“I’m Sid,” he said reaching his hand out to shake mine.
“Is that… Suicidal Tendencies’ first album?” I asked, pointing at the turntable.
I only knew a couple of songs from ST’s self-titled debut, “Institutionalized” and “I Saw Your Mommy”, but I recognised their distinct style.
“Erm… yeah! How do you… how do you know Suicidal Tendencies? I thought you were in a choir.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I am, but they let us listen to other music too!”
We sat and chatted about music for about an hour. I told him about how I had got into Metallica, Celtic Frost and Slayer at Scripture Union camps. Sid threw on some other records and let me listen to some of his favourite bands and tracks. Our musical tastes weren’t wholey different although Sid veered more towards the punk and hardcore end of metal than my thrash leanings. ST happened to be a crossover point for us. But metal is metal and we were now brothers.
“Here,” said Sid, “I’m going over to visit my friend Jumbo this evening. He’s a big metalhead too, you should come along! You got plans?”
“I do now.”
I had no idea when the boys would be back in town and the idea of connecting with some other metalheads in the home of Bay Area thrash metal sounded like too good an opportunity to miss. I mean, I was literally in El Cerrito, the town where Metallica used to live and where they wrote their first two albums. The Bay Area was home to not just Metallica but other thrash metal legends: Exodus, Testament, Dark Angel, Vio-lence, Forbidden, Machine Head, and the amazing and genre-defying Faith No More.
I climbed into Sid’s battered Nissan Cherry and we sped off towards Berkeley, stopping at a 7-Eleven to pick up a crate of beers and a bottle of Coke for me.
Richard ‘Jumbo’ Sielert lived in a condo on the other side of Berkeley. Jumbo was a big guy – I guess, hence his nickname – and warm and welcoming and larger than life. We soon clicked and he was quizzing me about my knowledge of metal bands, big and small.
“Jumbo’s a friend of Metallica,” said Sid.
“Yeah,” confirmed Jumbo. “Aw, man! They’re out of town just now, but if they’d been around I’d have taken you over to meet them.”
“Oh, you’ll like this,” Jumbo said, raising himself up from his La-Z-Boy chair and disappearing into another room.
When Jumbo returned, he was carrying a huge cardboard promo display of the Pushead-drawn ‘One’ Metallica single cover. This guy…
It was about four-feet high.
“Kirk [Hammett, the guitarist from Metallica] asked me to grab this from the local record store after the promo was over. He collects this kind of thing. Next time he’s in town, I’ll give it to him.”
I should have offered to sign it or something!
While he was returning it to the other room, I picked up Jumbo’s acoustic guitar that was sitting next to his chair.
“Do you play?” asked Sid.
“Yeah, a little,” I said.
When Jumbo returned, I was playing the intro riff to Metallica’s ‘One’, which delighted him.
“Show me how to play that,” said Jumbo enthusiastically. So I did.
“This is mad,” I laughed. “Here I am sitting with friends of Metallica, teaching you how to play a Metallica song.
What’s fun looking back at this evening now is that evening began with Suicidal Tendencies and ended with Metallica. In 1992, Robert Trujillo was the bass player in Suicidal Tendencies; he is now the bass player in Metallica. Now, I’m not going to claim that in the grand scheme of things my fun evening in El Cerrito had any influence on that, but you know… I’m just saying…
The phone rang—one of those typical black plastic American phones with the enormous curly cords and a long ‘brrrrrrrrrr‘ ringtone. After a couple of minutes, Jumbo held his hand over the mouthpiece and whispered to me, “Have you ever heard of the Spastik Children?”
“The band? Yeah, why?” I said.
“Do you want to speak to the lead singer?” said Jumbo pointing at the phone’s mouthpiece.
“Sure!” I said. Jumbo passed the phone to me.
The unfortunately-titled band ‘Spastik Children‘ (aka Spastic Children) became a drunken side project of Metallica, featuring Fred Cotton on vocals, Jumbo on drums and over the years James Hetfield (drums), Cliff Burton (bass and vocals), Kirk Hammett (bass), Jason Newsted (bass) from Metallica, ‘Big Sick’ Jim Martin (guitar) from Faith No More, Paul Baloff and Gary Holt from Exodus, and James McDaniel (guitar) from Pillage Sunday. It was like a rolling who’s who of Bay Area metal royalty. The band never practiced and played a selection of ludicrous songs. Being an avid fan of the major metal magazines (Kerrang! Metal Hammer, Metal Force, Raw! etc.) throughout the mid-80s and early-90s, I’d read a little about them.
“You’ve really heard of us?” asked Cotton once I’d introduced myself on the phone. “In Scotland?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Wow!” he said before I answered his question about why I was in California and our forthcoming tour agenda.
At the end of the evening, Jumbo reached over to a cabinet next to his easy chair and pulled a cloth backstage pass off and passed it to me.
“You’ll appreciate this,” he said.
I looked at it.
It was from Metallica’s ‘Damaged Justice World Tour 1988–1989’ in promotion of their ‘… And Justice For All’ album, hence the ‘… And Guest of All’ at the bottom.
“That’s Kirk Hammett’s signature,” said Jumbo.
I thanked Jumbo sincerely and pulling out my passport I stuck it to the back cover. It was the only place I thought I could keep it safe.
Of course, every single time I went through passport control over the next eight and a half weeks, I got quized about it.
“What is this?!”
“It’s a Metallica backstage pass…”
“… we’re musicians!” I said, gesturing to my many friends around me.
“Okay, whatever… but you really shouldn’t have this on here.”
“Sorry, sir,” I’d reply. “I’ll take it off.”
I never took it off.
Returning to El Cerrito was something of a less jovial experience than our drive to Berkeley. For a start, Sid was drunk. Or at the very least significantly over the legal limit. There were a few moments where I was convinced that I was either going to be, at worst, killed in a road traffic collision (as it would turn out, not the only time on that tour) or at best find myself in jail.
I think Sid was as relieved as I was to reach home without incident. We walked into the lounge to say hi to my friends who’d returned from their Bay Area adventures. They were watching American ‘shock jock’ Howard Stern on TV and as we entered Stern announced, “And would the real lesbians please kiss!”
“What on earth are you watching?!” I said.
“Where have you been?!” they replied.
“Aw, man… look at this!” I said pulling my passport out of my pocket. “Have I got a story for you…”
While I was researching this post, I learned that Jumbo died on almost exactly eight years ago. My sincere condolences to his family and friends. I only met him for an evening, but he left a lasting impression on me.
Richard ‘Jumbo’ Sielert, (19 February 1964–12 July 2014), Rest in Peace