Bassist Jason Newsted on why he really quit Metallica ... and why he is still awaiting ‘The Call’
Don’t let the resting scowl face fool you. Former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted is funny as hell.
Seemingly unaware, he morphs into each person he talks about, hilariously adopting the body language, accent, and mannerisms of everyone from a buzzed Ozzy Osbourne to his brash German and genteel Japanese fans.
And one cannot help but laugh when Newsted describes the shock of meeting female audience members who, thanks to distance, smoke and unworn eyeglasses, sometimes look vastly different up close after the show.
“We call it the 40-foot syndrome,” he said, doubling over with laughter.
Strumming a guitar is his Jupiter studio, Newsted is upbeat, animated, and candid — no topic is off limits.
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But as excited as he gets when discussing his life’s passions, like music or his charity work with children, there is a shadow that occasionally darkens Newsted’s face. It is evident when he talks about the insatiable, internal drive that keeps him working long hours in his studio and away from his family.
“I don’t allow myself to, a lot of times, enjoy things,” he admitted after a contemplative pause. “I’m still waiting for The Call.”
What motivates former Metallica bassist?
The Call is what motivates him, he said. It is the reason he rehearses day and night, pushes himself to his limits, refuses to be anything less than the best.
“I don’t want to be caught not being able to perform like I know I can,” he said. “If it does happen to come … I don’t want to let my guard down.”
The Call could be from anyone, he said. He cannot really be sure what it will entail until the phone rings. But he needs to be ready, because it is a call that will put him back on top.
It is, no doubt, tough to part ways from one of the most influential, enduring and lucrative acts in hard rock history, as Newsted in 2001 did when he left Metallica.
He is the first to admit to the virtual impossibility of achieving a subsequent level of success that could rival that of Metallica, with which he earned six Grammy Awards and was inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“I’ve already seen a whole bunch of really, really crazy stuff in a really hyper-exclusive club, and I’m not sure what’s going to top it,” he said. “But as far as the notches in the belt and the shiny part of the crown, I think that’s as shiny as they are going to get.”
At this point in Newsted’s career, he said, The Call would have to be from someone really, really special, like maybe ZZ Top, Gary Clark, Jr. or Joe Bonamassa. Offers from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and others have already fallen flat, he said, although he was excited to guest alongside Tina Turner on Italian pop singer Elisa’s “Teach Me Again.”
Still, when talking about whom he would like to be at the other end of the line when The Call comes, there is one band name Newsted conspicuously leaves out.
Why Jason Newsted quit Metallica
His departure from Metallica left behind a wake of frustration, resentment and disappointment that spread among band members and fans alike. More than 20 years later, stories of a contentious split run rampant, fueled mostly by claims that Metallica never really embraced Newsted and stonewalled his creative input from the start.
Today, Newsted shrugs that off, saying the real reason he quit came down to one simple thing.
“The absolute is still that I would be dead if I didn’t leave,” he said.
A permanent neck injury had left Newsted addicted to pain medication, he said, and he told the band he needed a six- to eight-month break to rest and recuperate.
“For some reason they weren’t willing to do that,” he said.
Why that is, he said, he still does not know. But he did say that stress levels were high when he joined Metallica in 1986 after bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour bus crash in Sweden.
“They were under extreme emotional demand when they lost Cliff,” Newsted said. “He was their teacher, he was their main guy, he was the man. It was a big, big deal.”
Newsted, who was only 23 at the time, said that while taking on a new bass player was tough for Metallica, it was a massive life change for him, too.
“In two weeks’ time, I went from landscaping, raking rocks and picking up cactus needles in Arizona in the desert in 110 degrees, to, two weeks later, touring Japan with Metallica,” he said. “That is nuts for anybody.”
Newsted is clear that he never wanted to quit Metallica — but he is equally clear that it was a decision he does not regret.
“It’s like a crazy-ass, hollow void that will probably not ever really be filled,” he said of leaving. “It was a really horrible, lonely feeling. I was like, why did you screw yourself so hard? Why did you? But I had to think, also, you wouldn’t be breathing right now if you hadn’t done it.”
Leaving Metallica, however, did not immediately solve Newsted’s drug problem. He quickly joined a year-long tour with Ozzy Osbourne, who, in hindsight, was probably not the best person to hang around for someone trying to get off pills.
“At one point, I remember 77 tablets he took in one day: meds, vitamins, supplements, Xanax and Vicodin,” Newsted said. “Folks said he must have Parkinson’s cause he was shaking. No man, no, he’s just vibrating. He’s not sick, he’s jacked up. And that’s what I stepped into.”
Newsted managed to play 62 shows in 31 days during Ozzfest, he said, joining his former band, Voivod, on the smaller stage during the day before headlining with Ozzy each night. And despite Ozzy’s incessant partying — and Sharon Osbourne’s never-ending attempts to control it — it would not have been possible to have worked with a more enthusiastic or dedicated musician, Newsted said.
“He got his gear on two hours before stage time with Zeppelin jamming, like ‘Let’s go!’” Newsted said of Ozzy rocking out pre-show in his dressing room. “That was the real person, and no matter what kind of stuff they tried to subdue him with, that was still the essence of that person.”
So was the side of Ozzy that few ever witnessed, Newsted said, like when Ozzy saw Newsted’s Chihuahua backstage sporting a pair of giant sunglasses.
“He lost it, like a child,” Newsted said, laughing and mimicking Ozzy’s mannerisms. “He’s like, ‘Oooooh, baby!’ That's the genuine person. There’s still this really big-hearted animal-loving dad in there, besides being the Prince of Darkness. He is that, too.”
It would be more than a year after that before Newsted finally kicked his drug habit. In 2004, he said, his heart stopped after he overdosed on opioids following a shoulder surgery.
“That was kind of the day it turned around,” he said. “From then on, I just worked on getting out of it. They build (the drug) so it gets right into your fiber, and it won’t let its hooks loose.”
He got straight, but in the process lost some of the best friends he has ever had, he said.
“Everything that I’d known was gone, everybody that had taught me about life and the world, all of the crew guys …. everybody that was my family on the road,” he said. “I divorced three people in the band . . . and then 85-105 family members just evaporated out of my life.”
Thankfully, Newsted said, securing a top-notch financial planner early in his career ensured he was financially flush after the split. And then, of course, there remains to this day the never-ending stream of revenue from merchandise sales, with Metallica gear ringing up worldwide sales second only to South Park.
That financial comfort allows Newsted to spend more time on his art, with his bold, vibrant paintings now selling for as much as $60,000.
“There’s no formal anything to it,” he said of his artistic style. “It’s all mixed elements. It could be anything at any time. And every one of them tells a story.”
And then there is Jason Newsted and The Chophouse Band — a passion project from which members donate 100% of proceeds to arts and music charities for underserved youth.
“It’s to put guitars and paintbrushes in kids' hands,” he said. “That’s the whole goal.”
Celebrating 30 years in 2022, The Chophouse Band is a far cry from the head-banging rock that defined Newsted’s time with Metallica and Ozzy. His “song bible” today, he said, is composed of music from his “heroes,” such as Neal Young, Tom Waits, Bob Seger, and his go-to favorite, the Man in Black.
“It’s Johnny Cash with long, sharp teeth,” Newsted said, making little fangs with his fingers.
The music, which Newsted calls “right close to bluegrass all the way to some pretty scary metal stuff and everything in between,” is also a far cry from the good-time rock music of Van Halen, which Newsted came within an inch of joining six months ago.
Alex Van Halen had already tapped Joe Satriani to replace Eddie Van Halen, Newsted said, and the two were searching for a bass player for a possible Van Halen tour.
Newsted said he agreed to go to California to jam with the guys and see if it felt right, but, in his heart of hearts, thought it would be impossible to do justice to Van Halen’s legacy.
“How could you?” he said. “There’s nobody that can top it, so how do you show it honor? I didn’t want it to be viewed as a money grab. And then it kind of just all fizzled.”
Newsted keeps plenty busy with The Chophouse Band, he said, so much so that he does not even partake of social media, which he called a “time suck.”
On the list of things he does not like about social media is that it has led young musicians to have a distorted view of what it takes to reach the highest echelons of success. And, perhaps most importantly, he said, it has robbed them of the sense of joy and accomplishment garnered from achieving greatness one show at a time in front of live audiences.
“You need to get your hands dirty, you need to break some strings, you need to fall down a couple times, you need to get a skinned knee, you need to get a chipped tooth, real world, breathing the air, sweating, getting sweat in your eyes and have it burn, right?” he said. “I want people to feel the visceral, not just the facade of the thing. Really do it, grab onto it and not be afraid to go down. I want them to feel what I felt, what I chase every day.”
And so, he practices every day, day in, day out. Chasing that feeling. Waiting for The Call.
Then, in a moment of raw vulnerability, when asked point blank if he would go back if The Call came from Metallica, Newsted responded without hesitation.
“Absolutely man,” he said. “I was all the way committed to that. I could not have been more devoted to that band. It’s not possible.”
Jason Newsted and The Chophouse Band
What: All proceeds from the show benefit the Goldner Conservatory
When: 8 p.m. April 23
Where: Maltz Jupiter Theater, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter
Cost: Tickets are $25 to $125, with premium packages $1,000 to $7,500.
More information: www.jupitertheatre.org.