My Friend of Misery could have been another glorious Metallica instrumental, a Ktulu of Jason Newsted. But instead, we have the epic tradition broken and a track that’s been buried in Metallica’s catalogue.
Don’t get me wrong. My Friend of Misery is still fairly cool, even as yet another Metallica track with vocals. The core of it is a melancholic bass riff by Jason Newsted, his second songwriting credit in Metallica after Blackened. Jason “Newkid” took a lot of crap from his then-new bandmates. However, a great musical idea is always appreciated by Lars and James, regardless of the author.
James Hetfield’s guitar riffs lay so perfectly on Jason’s bass, as if he wrote those first. As well as the harmony section, what an amazing piece that is! And all of that came from the two-chord progression by the bassist. The same as from the Anesthesia intro, by the way.
Only the chorus fully belongs to Hetfield – and that’s not a highlight of the song. Well, it’s hard to make a composition on just two chords, so James plugged another riff there. It would’ve worked best as a pace-breaking bridge in an instrumental. But as a chorus, the hook, it’s terrible. The section sounds like it wasn’t supposed to be sung over. They at least should’ve gone with the Fade to Black wordless chorus approach.
My Friend of Misery is one of just seven Metallica tracks with an amazing melodic interlude. It features, possibly, the best harmony on the album, and maybe ever since. This was one of the two times James used a B-bender guitar, alongside The Unforgiven II. Plus unusual instruments sprinkled here and there.
Tons of specials there. Such a massive potential for an instrumental that wouldn’t just repeat Ktulu or Orion. It was something Jason Newsted dreamed of, and was the initial plan for Misery.
Why the instrumental idea was denied
Bob Rock may have suggested adding the vocals. The premise could be “We’re making a record to break the charts, and people don’t get songs without singing”. Even though guys like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai were on fire back then, and other Metallica albums did well with such stuff… Anyway no one really opposed that decision. Jason could, but who cared.
Or maybe they just couldn’t make it click. They felt like My Friend of Misery fell short of Orion and Ktulu. Or maybe it was just easier to force James write lyrics and sing them, instead of putting extra effort to have the instrumental jacked. Schedule was tight, gotta give up something.
What if Lars and company were determined to preserve the tradition, and allowed a no-vocals track on the Black album? Would the sales have suffered? Yeah, maybe. Like, 14 million copies instead of 16. Or how about the opposite? Then the old fans would have not felt that much of a disconnect from the good “pre-sellout” days, while the new fans wouldn’t really care. Win-win.
Metallica ain’t play it anyway
Misery didn’t go as a single anyway, and it never made the setlist during the Black album tour. Why ignore it if making it more “poppy” was what you wanted?
Jason Newsted never had a chance to play his creation fully, settling for just jamming it alone, sometimes with Kirk. And the original bass line too suffered from abridgement. For some reason, half of the riff didn’t make the cut, even though it would bring the much needed development. They couldn’t see where to put it?
And what about the guitar and bass doodle from Cunning Stunts, where it’s complete and sounds great. The boys sure could have found ways to go with the whole thing, especially if the goal was to make a successor of Orion.
The song has been shelved, basically. Metallica ignored it for 20 years, played it on the Black album’s anniversary tour, and then forgot of its existence for another decade. Even though the fans loved it! I’m sure James had shivers down his spine when the crowd picked up the harmony.
And so, Metallica would’ve had nothing to lose, if Misery was instrumental. They ain’t gonna play it either way! But the track would have been part of a ‘private club’.
The “private club” of Metallica instrumentals
Metallica instrumentals have some unique aura. Firstly, because they are scarce, there’s only four of them (or five, if to count Anesthesia).
Also, the tradition began with Cliff Burton and each piece carried some of his spirit, including postmortem To Live is To Die. Here’s another possible reason why they cut the tradition after Justice: to keep it there, in the 80s, with Cliff, and move on.
My Friend of Misery was too close to the fresh wound. Subsequently, instrumentals seemed not relevant on Load/Reload/St Anger. But the time heals, and eventually we had Suicide & Redemption. And then, once again, none on the following album.