Interview: Brian Lew, Coauthor of “Murder in the Front Row”
Brian Lew was a teenager who took his passion for metal seriously. He went to every stadium show, and collected ticket stubs and programs. Then he took an amateur photography class in high school, purchased a budget Canon AV-1, and became part of a story that changed the musical world.
Lew befriended and photographed Metallica as they started their careers, and witnessed the birth of thrash metal in San Francisco. Another local kid named Harald Oimoen (now the bassist of D.R.I.) was doing the same thing. Bazillion Points has combined their 1980s photographs in the upcoming book Murder in the Front Row: Shots from the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter. The near-300 page book documents the early years when Metallica was a group of kids dreaming of selling a few records, and Slayer wore makeup at shows.
Lew – also known as Umlaut – now works in Berkeley, California, for Global Merchandising, a company that handles merchandise for bands including Machine Head, Iron Maiden, and Slayer. He talked to us about how two kids from the suburbs documented some of metal’s defining moments, and his lifelong passion for the music. “Everything that started in the book has come full circle in my life,” he says.
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What photo in this book is going to surprise people the most?
It’s a picture of [James] Hetfield and [Dave] Mustaine backstage at the old Waldorf. It’s from Metallica’s second or third visit before they moved here. They are both backstage holding beers. There’s a pitcher of beer coming in from the side. It’s one of the pictures I’ve seen a million times, but it’s really interesting to see now because of all the stuff that happened. Mustaine had a chip on his shoulder because of Metallica and there’s been a real rivalry.
That picture shows when they were teenagers in their first real band, and friends. There was a time before all the animosity and public relations wars. It’s not like they were just in a band together; the friendship was the bond that started Metallica. And it’s not like Dave went away and became the Pete Best of metal. It’s an incredible story; there’s a guy who got kicked out of a band that became enormously popular, and also became enormously popular and successful on his own. I can’t think of another example of that happening.
When did you first start going to Bay Area shows? What drew you to metal?
I grew up in Sunnyvale, and classic rock was the entry level. There were about four rock stations in the 1970s when I was a pre-teen. When I was about 15, I started going to shows like Van Halen and Black Sabbath and the big Day On the Green shows at Oakland Stadium. Bill Graham organized them and the lineups were pretty unique to the Bay area. It was before packaged tours.
As far as entering the underground, I got into the band Y&T. The unfortunate thing is most people remember them as this wannabe hair metal band in the mid-80s with “Summertime Girls”. They tarted up their stage image. But in the early ’80s, they were a local bar band and image wasn’t a part of it. They were a blue-collar rock band and had an East Bay/Oakland Raider vibe. They were the first band I saw in a club. I’d been seeing bands in front of 5,000 people. To go from that to standing in front of the stage with just a small group of people was a game changer. I realized a band didn’t need to be in a stadium to be good.
You documented and saved almost everything from those concerts. What compelled you to save everything at such a young age?
I was just a dork, a total geek [laughs]. I was also into science fiction and Star Wars. I didn’t have a lot of friends and wasn’t in the popular crowd. When you’re like that, a hobby or a band can be your friend. It wasn’t a conscious thing at all. It’s just my personality. I just threw things in a box and thankfully the boxes followed me.
As I got older, it wasn’t that I consciously held on to the stuff, but the boxes stayed with me and didn’t get damaged. Especially my [photo] negatives… there were years when I wasn’t engaged with that part of my life. They sat in shoe boxes. Fortunately, I didn’t lose them, and there was no damage. It wasn’t like I was a meticulous historian. The stuff just happened to stay with me until I realized what I had in the early ’90s, and started taking care of it.
It reminds me of that program Amazing Stories that Spielberg did. There’s an episode where a guy is told to keep all of his comics and toys. He’s poor for most of his life and then someone discovers him much later and realizes he’s sitting on a treasure trove. [Editor’s note: The episode is “Gather Ye Acorns”.]
I totally remember that show. My negatives have been around me so long I didn’t have any perspective. I licensed some to be used in magazines, so I knew they were important. But when we started working on the book, things really hit me. We were working in this studio with a $30,000 scanner, and inputting negatives properly. We looked at them with this great gear, and it was the first time I saw my photos in a different way.
It was a huge epiphany. They were photographs, not just pictures. I’d only seen the prints I’d made at Walgreens or a photo drive up. If I gave them to a magazine, I would scan from a printer or just use a home scanner. It wasn’t an art quality scanner. It helped me realize the value of the pictures. I just thought of them as family photos from my teen years.
When did you first start taking pictures? Did you have any training?
I took some photo classes in high school as electives. I had no aspirations to be a professional photographer. It was just something I did. I’m sure the first pictures I took were of Y&T. Back then, it was so easy. Even for big shows you didn’t need a photo pass. You could just show up with your camera, and it was no big deal. When I started going to club shows and the early metal shows, I was right against the stage. You didn’t need a big lens. I only used a 50mm lens, and happened to be in the right place at the right time.
You had all sorts of encounters in the early years with King Diamond, and Slayer, and Possessed before they recorded Seven Churches.
Possessed is more Harald’s story. I saw them early on but I didn’t know them like Harald did. As far as the bands that came through the area, that wasn’t really my scene. I had friends that worked at The Record Vault who had more interactions with those folks in store.
When we launched this book project, we decided it wouldn’t be a history of the Bay Area metal scene. Harald and I couldn’t tell that. There were plenty of other people involved and they have their own stories. One of the things we talked about in the beginning was that we didn’t want to present ourselves as spokespersons of the original Bay Area metal scene. This is meant to be a time capsule. My idea was that you could open the book and be there. You’d be right there at Ruthie’s Inn. There’s not a lot of text to tell you what it’s about, but you’ll get it.
Your zine Whiplash came later, after you already started taking photos?
I started taking pictures in about 1981. Whiplash came out in about late 1983. I was also contributing to other fanzines. The first was K.J. Doughton’s Northwest Metal out of Portland. K.J. ran the first official fan club for Metallica, from the demo days all the way through Master of Puppets. He was the one who sent me the first Metallica demo. During that time I was introduced to Ron Quintana. I’d been reading his zine for a year or two before we became friends. Whiplash started soon after.
How did you meet Metallica?
I met them through K.J. The tape-trading scene was thriving and people became pen pals. You’d meet people in the pages of Kerrang!, because it was the most accessible metal magazine. In the early ’80s, it was it. There was also the newspaper Sounds, but Kerrang! was a little more underground. They had articles on Venom when they only had a demo.
You would run a pen pal ad for free. You’d mail it to Kerrang! and your ad would appear two or three issues later. That’s how I met everyone, initially. I ran this ad, and literally 100 letters showed up. It’s hard to describe to people who only grew up with e-mail what it’s like to come home to 15 letters in your mailbox. It really makes an impression.
Every letter was from someone like you. They wanted to talk about Mercyful Fate, and Venom, and bands you thought no one else knew about. The ads came from Holland and Germany and Los Angeles, all over the world. That’s why when you talk to people who were into tape trading they remember it fondly, because it let you know there were other people like you out there.
K.J. and I exchanged letters, and he sent me the Metallica demo. A few months later there was a Metal Blade showcase at the Stone in San Francisco. The bill was supposed to be Bitch and Cirith Ungol. Cirith Ungol dropped off and Metallica replaced them. K.J. called to tell me Metallica would be here and gave me Dave Mustaine’s number. Dave and [original Metallica bassist] Ron McGovney were sharing a house. So I called to make sure I met up with them at the show. The first time I ever met them was when they pulled up in front of the Stone for that show.
What did your parents think of all of these letters arriving at the house?
[laughs] To be honest, I don’t know. My parents are conservative, and my dad was in the military. For whatever reason, they cut me a lot of slack. There were literally times I didn’t come home. If I went to the city for a show, I’d crash at a friend’s house and just call my mom. It was never an issue. I don’t think my experience is the norm, where parents freak out because their kids listen to “Satanic metal”. The only thing that happened was I had a t-shirt with the first Mercyful Fate EP. It’s the topless woman tied to a cross with druids around her. The shirt just disappeared. I’ve never confronted my mom, but I’m pretty sure she chucked it. It’s the only thing I can think of where they might have questioned what I was doing. To their credit they let me be me.
What were the bands like in their formative years?
Just like us. They were just regular people. Before that, I followed AC/DC, and they were larger than life rock stars. Then you meet these bands that were the same age. It was like seeing your buddies. Who had any clue what was going to follow? We were just kids. That’s why it was a challenge to describe the old days. Maybe a few people in the scene were 20 or 21.
Has that early relationship with Metallica continued into adult life? You were a guest when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Up until the Black Album, I’d still go to shows and talk to them. But there was a good stretch of 10 years that we didn’t talk. I can’t claim to be good friends with them. I think it’s hard for people to understand what it’s like to be a celebrity on that level, because people always want shit from you. I remember having a conversation with Hetfield during the Black Album tour in 1991. It was the first time we’d had a good conversation since 1986. I hadn’t talked to him since he became famous and they were just on the cover of Rolling Stone. I literally asked him, “What’s it like?” He didn’t hesitate and said, “People always want shit from you.”
That’s not to rationalize or defend some of the misguided things they might have done in subsequent years, like with Napster, but it stuck in my head. You could tell they had a wall up. They weren’t used to interacting with people any more because people were always hounding them.
The whole Hall of Fame thing was amazing. It opened their eyes. I got a call from management telling me I was invited, and the band was secretly flying out about 100 people. I helped management find some of the people. It seemed like something went off in their head. They literally went to Kill ‘Em All and looked at their thank-you list, and tried to find all of those people. That’s basically everybody they invited. Since then I’ve seen them, and had conversations with Lars a few times. You can tell their attitude has changed. Who knows what it’s like to get that big? They are basically the Led Zeppelin of my generation.
What’s interesting about the timing of the book is that it’s right around these Big Four shows. There’s not a bigger stage than Yankee Stadium. Murder in the Front Row shows the times when they were drawing crowds of 15 or 20 people and paying their dues.
When this book comes out, it will help humanize Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth. You’ll see them when they were kids. Even when Metallica was putting out albums I wasn’t into, you can’t deny they paid their dues. Nothing was given to them on a silver platter. Sure, there were things they did that their older fan base didn’t dig, but you can’t say they didn’t pay their dues. They toured like crazy. They didn’t have any mainstream success initially. They did everything by their own rules until they broke big. So it’s interesting to look at all these photos. Harald’s photos are even more personal because he got to hang out with them at home and in bars. So there are a lot of snapshots of the bands hanging together. It wasn’t like, “Here’s the band and here’s the fans.” It was more like a gang. We all knew each other. It wasn’t like there was any separation.
You said earlier that you were a geek – how did an Asian kid in the suburbs fit in with all of these long-haired white kids? Was there any exclusion in the scene, or was it totally welcoming?
I’ve been waiting for someone to bring that up. If you grow up in the Bay Area, you grow up in a melting pot. Going back to the 1960s, the Bay Area has been a launching pad for music. It’s not just white people. There were a lot of Asian and black and Hispanic kids in the metal scene. Kirk Hammett is part Filipino, and you also have Death Angel.
If you were into the bands, you were one of us. In the later 1980s, when crossover happened, that’s when jocks and that mentality came more into play. Other people I grew up with say the same thing. The crowd got more aggro, more like a jarhead crowd. I can see that some people think of metal as a white dude’s music, but it was never like that here. Look at Slayer. Tom Araya is from Chile. Dave Lombardo is Cuban. The scene was very diverse.
Was that perception something put on the crowd by the media that didn’t understand metal?
Of course. Once metal got bigger and starting spreading out, the ’burbs are more white. But if you speak about the Bay Area, there are so many races and nationalities. That openness led Metallica to come up here.
People here have such eclectic music tastes in general. Ron [Quintana] was listening to jazz fusion, and loved Devo and the Ramones. A lot of metalheads in the Bay Area weren’t super dogmatic. If the music was good, we listened. And back then, radio was very local and had a local personality,
You can see how some of that played out with a band like Neurosis that was branded as treasonous by the punk community for changes they made. They said they had to change to grow.
Neurosis is a perfect example of a Bay Area band starting in a certain place, and going somewhere else. In the late 1980s, I was introduced to the band, and became friends with them when they were doing demos on Souls At Zero. It reminded me of being around Metallica again. They were about to go to another level. I toured with them a few times, and saw them play pizza parlors in Orange County with skinheads in the crowd. The skinheads didn’t get them because they were doing their own thing.
They didn’t care if the audience got it. I remember thinking they need to stick to it, and the audience will come because they are that good. It comes back to the Bay Area, where diversity is embraced… whether it’s opinions, or music, or who you hang out with.
Your love for metal has never waned. You still go to shows on a weekly basis.
I listen to a lot of different music and bands. Landmine Marathon is a band I like a lot. When you go to metal shows, there’s still a different vibe than any other genre. My wife doesn’t go to metal shows, but we’ll go see more mainstream stuff. When I go to a metal show now, most of the crowd is still there for music. If you go to see indie rock, half the time people are there to be seen. But when you go to a metal show now – even if I go to Thee Parkside – it still has the same vibe as when I was a kid. The way you listen to and find music is so different, but the metal community is still the same. It’s kind of inspiring. Most people my age aren’t going to bars to see metal bands, but I’m glad to see the energy that drew me to it as a kid is there.
What are the differences of the scene you grew up in and the scene you are part of now? Now there are blogs and comment boards instead of stolen copies from Kinko’s.
It’s just different. When we were kids putting a zine together, so much work went into it. When you got a demo tape you weren’t flippant about it. You would listen to it. The classic example is Hellhammer. I had forgotten that Tom G. Warrior sent Whiplash a copy of the first Hellhammer demo. Then I read Only Death Is Real, and he mentioned the zine, and it blew my mind. I remember I had this old folder in the attic, and I went in there, and sure enough, there was a piece about the Hellhammer demo. I didn’t really get what it was about, but I listened to it because the band took the time to send it from Switzerland.
Now, music seems so disposable. A band comes out and you can listen to a stream. I’m not knocking the scene now, it’s just how it is with technology. Things are so accessible and easy, and that makes it hard to put value on music. The blogs and internet are cool because of the diversity of opinion, but there’s so much stuff. A lot of metal seems like it’s based on image and more disposable.
If you want to find some rare South American black metal, you don’t need to go on a global hunt, you can just perform an Internet search.
It’s almost like science fiction. It’s cool that you can find stuff so easily. But I go back to being a kid, when everything was so special that I kept it in a box. There was that mentality where you had to have a first pressing of a record and you’d drive three hours to a store that might have it just to get it.
[Editor’s Note: Invisible Oranges will run an interview with Harald Oimoen later this month.]
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SNEAK PEEKS AND PREORDERS OF MURDER IN THE FRONT ROW
This massive volume is due December 2011
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