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Drumming Into Metallica

Pop music: As a teen in O.C., co-founder Lars Ulrich was already separating metal from hard rock.

December 20, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lars Ulrich of Metallica scored his first heavy-metal hit not by pounding his drums in a recording studio, but by putting his thoughts on paper for a teacher at Back Bay High School in Costa Mesa.

"I remember him very fondly," recalls Judy Schreiber, Ulrich's senior year English teacher. "He wrote me a composition about 'Heavy Metal Rules the World,' or something like that."

Schreiber, now retired, says it was one of the best pieces of student writing she saw that year, 1981-82--so good that she filed Ulrich's paper in her archive of superior student work, to be hauled out from time to time as "inspiration" for struggling pupils in need of good examples.

"I asked him how he knew so much about [heavy metal], and he said, well, he played some of it, and that's what he was going to do."

It can pay to have a sense of direction early in life. Led by co-founders Ulrich and James Hetfield, Metallica did its first year of woodshedding in and around Orange County, taking the first steps on a path to its current creative and commercial perch as the world's dominant heavy-metal band--a status Metallica will seek to buttress with shows tonight and Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood.

It was during his 2 1/2 years in Orange County that Ulrich, who turns 33 on Dec. 26, changed paths and found his life's direction. He arrived in Newport Beach from his native Denmark at 16, aiming to follow in the footsteps of his father, Torben Ulrich, a touring tennis player. He left Orange County in February 1983, in a rented truck full of musical gear, bound for the Bay Area, where Metallica's brooding, innovative, high-speed brand of metal had found a supportive audience, unlike Southern California's hard-rock scene ruled by foppish, fashion-conscious glam-metal bands such as Motley Crue.

Ulrich was a cheerful and willing talker as he reminisced Wednesday about his Orange County days, speaking by phone from a home in Marin County that, he says, commands a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was his last day off before Metallica, which has sold nearly 3 million copies of its current album, "Load," began a five-month national tour.

Tennis was the reason for the Ulrich family's arrival in Orange County. His father competed regularly in the United States; the Ulriches had friends in Newport Beach, including Australian tennis star Roy Emerson, and the idea was to enroll young Lars at Corona del Mar High School, which had a highly rated tennis team.

"It was not something that was forced on me," said Ulrich, whose English was fluent when he arrived. "I wanted to do it. I was into the whole tennis vibe, and that was going to be my career."

Soon, though, Ulrich found he didn't have the single-minded dedication demanded of the would-be professional athlete.

"You hit 16 or 17, get interested in girls, have your first couple of beers. . . . The disciplinary side has to be so upheld [to succeed], and a lot of people jump ship. You've got to be so strong mentally and physically to stay on top of it. I'd always been into music, and I found I wasn't as disciplined [about tennis] as I thought I was."

Ulrich never was comfortable living in one of the leading hubs of American status-seeking.

"I wouldn't say I was a misfit, but I didn't feel there was much in that community I could relate to," he said. "Some of the attitudes I found around me in Newport Beach were making me question [things]--the whole competitiveness and judging of people by the way they look or how they dress or how rich their parents were, that whole kind of food chain, which doesn't exist so much where I come from."

Ulrich burrowed into his passion for English heavy-metal bands such as Saxon, Motorhead and Diamond Head that, while little known in the United States, were forging a faster, harder brand of music that avoided Van Halen-style mainline metal. He had dabbled a bit on drums in Denmark.

"I took my dad aside and said, 'I'm going to start a band,' and he said, 'Don't you think you should learn to play drums before [you] start a band?' I said I could learn to play drums in 10 days. I think he started laughing hysterically."

Torben Ulrich, who now lives in Seattle, had no problem with his son ditching the family trade for music. He had moved in jazz circles in Copenhagen, playing flute, saxophone and clarinet, and was was friendly with the likes of Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon, the bebop saxophone great who became Lars' godfather. The elder Ulrich is the sort of fellow who, having lost a match in the U.S. Open tennis tournament in 1968 after a butterfly flew in his face while he was trying to volley, answered with a mysterious Zen parable when asked later whether the incident had distracted him: "Was I then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming I was a man?"

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