Released in 2011, Murder in the Front Row: Shots from the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter quickly became a dominating mainstay on the coffee tables of thrash fans young and old with its gorgeous, visual chronicling of the early days of the Bay Area scene. As time anointed the music and personalities that emerged from the region with legendary status, it became clear to Adam Dubin that more of the story needed to be told and a more dynamic medium would be required to do so.
With a behind-the-camera pedigree that reaches back to the mid-‘80s and his early work with the Beastie Boys, directing their “Fight for Your Right to Party” and “No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn” videos, Dubin culled his knowledge and experience as a filmmaker, metal fan and association with Metallica that dates back to 1990 and the A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica home video, to pitch himself as the man who should be sitting in the director’s chair in order to faithfully recount one of metal’s most enduring scenes and fruitful regional movements.
After about a year on the festival and screening circuit, Murder in the Front Row is set for DVD release on April 24th (also streaming on Vimeo). The film is a bright and informative, energetic and entertaining romp through the half-decade that changed the face of heavy metal forever.
The story is told thoroughly, lovingly and respectfully via revealing interviews with not only the usual suspects, but a heaping handful of those who knowingly and unknowingly played integral roles in fostering the scene via art, antics, friendship, behind-the-scenes business and simply being poser killing fans.
Where Murder in the Front Row excels is in its comprehensiveness and how it treats the voices and stories of the usual suspects (Metallica, Exodus, Megadeth, the book’s authors) as equally important as the voices of second-wave bands, radio DJs, record store owners, managers, fan club presidents, tape traders and drinking buddies. Included in the list of interviewees are most everyone you’d expect as well as a handful of surprise appearances, providing authenticity and authority to this documentation of a culturally significant movement.
That Dubin was able to nail down interviews with people who have either been difficult to track down or have been hesitant to open up about the past, not only gives the film an air of exclusivity, but also – if we’re being honest – stirs up a little bit of the green monster for hacks like yours truly who have previously tried in vain to organize interviews with some of these very people on these very topics.
We caught up with Dubin during the early days of the lockdown and because we both already had a ton of time on our hands, we spoke at length about his film, one that I’m going on record as labelling one of the greatest music documentaries of all time. Of course, Metallica features heavily and has its fingerprint all over the place.
What can you tell us about the genesis of the film? Do you know if it was always the intent of the book’s authors, Harald Oimeon and Brian Lew, to do a documentary and how did you get involved?
Here’s how it began: It’s actually through Metallica; they are the connection of it all. I’ve been fortunate to have worked for Metallica on-and-off since 1990 when I walked into their studio to do some documenting of the recording they were doing at the time which ultimately turned out to be the Black Album. That was the fall of 1990 and nobody knew what was going to happen; in fact it was very dicey as to whether I would even stay at all. Luckily, I won them over, did a little filming and eventually they accepted me and I became part of the goings-on there at One On One Studios.
So, as I’m filming, these wonderful and amazing songs are coming together. I’m hearing stuff like “Enter Sandman” and “Sad but True” and it was like ‘Oh my God, this is not just another album. Something epic is happening here!’ Through that association I’ve been fortunate in that the band has called me back at various times in their history to make films and they have become much more prolific at making films and that type of stuff.
At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2009, Metallica gathered a lot of people from their past and present; people who had helped them along the way at various times. So, there was this core group of old-school, Bay Area fans, some of whom I’d heard of in other interviews, but never met – guys like Ron Quintana and Brian Lew. And that’s where I met Brian Lew for the first time. Brian and I became a friendly and subsequently kept in touch a little. A few years later, I ran into him at a Metallica concert. He had just finished the book, gave me a copy and I absolutely loved it! You know how you have those few books that stay on your nightstand as the perennials so you can look through them at any time? Murder in the Front Row became one of the perennials.
As I looked at it, my filmmaker’s brain told me there was a lot more story here because the pictures grabbed me by the throat. They were so alive and real and I loved that everybody was young. I didn’t know Metallica in 1983 and all that, but I loved seeing them when they were really young people and weren’t that famous. They were the same as everyone else in the photographs, just hanging out with a gang of people.
In the back of my mind, I wanted to do this as a documentary and Brian had been thinking about it. I don’t know if he thought about a documentary being done by me, but when he made the book, the possibility certainly existed that a documentary could be made about it. Brian Lew is who I call the historian; he’s sort of the keeper of the grail of this early San Francisco thrash metal scene. Not just of Metallica, but of the many groups of the time and he wasn’t just going to give this story to anybody.
So, I finally approached him in earnest in 2016 and I said, “Look, I have the wherewithal to get this together and I think I can do this.” But the one thing that anybody who approaches this material, whether it was going to be me or anybody else, would need would be securing the cooperation of Metallica and having those guys in the film. I felt that my relationship with Metallica was such that I could get them to sit [for interviews] with me for the film. I figured I had that.
I didn’t know Dave Mustaine and didn’t know a lot of the other people, but I knew Brian and I got to know Harald Oimoen. So, we sat together and before we signed the contract, it was very important to Brian and Harald that I tell the story properly. We agreed on the approach. There wasn’t any haggling over that – they wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a rock star story. The real story of the Bay Area scene is the story of a group of young people who built a scene because they loved this music. Some of those people were musicians who became famous, but other people were just as important: the men and women who drew the flyers, the people who worked in record stores and so on. There was such a gathering of support in the Bay Area that young bands needed to be able to thrive and this is evidenced in any scene – like the punk scene at CBGB in the late ‘70s, in the London punk scene and in the Bay Area scene. There are those people who were there in different ways. It’s not just the rock and rollers; it’s the people who supported that activity, sometimes just by being fans. That was really important. We agreed on that and started rolling from there that happened very organically from that point onward.
From beginning to end, how long did it take to do the film?
That meeting between Harald, Brian and I, where we agreed on the idea, was in the spring of 2016 and I started filming that summer. I started with an agreement from Metallica. I called up their management and asked, “If I make this film will you guys sit for me?” They were like “Yeah, but they’re not going to be the first interviews.” I didn’t even want them to be first; I wanted to talk to a lot of other people before them.
So, in the summer of 2016, I started with a lot of the old-school thrash metal scene people who were there but whose names aren’t really as famous. Probably, the most famous person I got to straight away was Ray Burton, the father of Cliff Burton, who recently passed away. He became more well-known and something of a celebrity himself because of his carrying the torch for his son. He was a great interview. So, I had him and a bunch of the fans and I just kept coming back to the Bay Area.
I live in Brooklyn, I’m a Brooklyn-based film maker and somebody might think it’s odd for a Brooklyn film maker to be telling this story, but in a way I think it was also organic in that I had an outsider’s remove from it. I was able to look at it from the top down and see it from the outside. I had a certain perspective in that I had also been in a scene itself with the Beastie Boys and the like.
When the Bay Area was going on in the ‘80s I was involved in a very different scene in New York which was the punk scene that morphed into the hip-hop scene. I was there for that and understood the idea of a “scene” very well. So, we kept filming and it was kind of like a snowball. The more interviews I did, the more people heard about it. This network of Bay Area fans still talk to each other and they’re still a tight-knit community where they go to dinner with each other and talk and hang out. It started to build very quickly that we were filming this and that we were getting it right. That sort of rolled all the way towards Gary Holt, the first “celebrity” interview we got. Slayer was still going at the time and they were on tour in Reno and Gary Holt said he would sit for an interview. What happened was like a domino effect, and I have to credit Gary who might have said a word to Tom Araya who was then like, “I’ll sit for an interview.” Then, it filtered down to Paul Bostaph, who used to be in Forbidden, and then Kerry King came along and suddenly I had all four guys from Slayer. That right away lifted things as each step made it more legitimate and more real. So, onward we went. I never let up on interviewing those people who were involved in the scene but weren’t musicians or famous people and in keeping that credibility, we were able to keep on with it. So, to answer your question [laughs], we started in summer of 2016 and the movie was finished and premiered in April 2019 and did its screening run afterwards.
So, part of the angle I wanted to take in interviewing you has to do with you interviewing people I or my colleagues and fellow writers have been trying to nail down interviews with, specifically for Decibel magazine’s Hall of Fame series which stipulates that all band members have to be interviewed for a piece on a particular album to run. Did you have a similar difficulty in nailing down interviews or was that pressure eased by having the resume and background that you have and having Brian and Harald in your corner and vouching for you?
I’d say it was a little bit of both. My agreement with Harald and Brian was quite simply an option agreement on a book, like any option agreement, and part of the option was that if we went forward with the movie, payments would be made and for those payments we would secure the rights to use all the photographs. That was simple. But what also happened was a lot of good will. Good will begets good will and as we started to make the film, things started to happen.
I’m going to throw some credit to my producer Jack Gulick. He and I have worked on films since about 1990. He produced the original A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica video, I think we made one music video together before that, we also did a Warrior Soul video and have done many things separately over the years, but we enjoyed working with one another and seemed to have come together on Metallica’s stuff. Jack’s got an amazing ability. For some of the people involved, he talked to them endlessly on the phone as the producer to get them settled and set for an interview.
He would do it almost like a pre-interview in the way they do it for the Tonight Show or something where the producer is the one really getting the person prepped, it’s not just the host drawing stuff out of people like magic. Jack spoke to a lot of people and put them at ease about how we were telling the story the right way and that I wasn’t there to put people on the spot. I know there’s sex and drugs in rock ‘n’ roll, but I’ve always ruled it out because it’s salacious and usually the least interesting stuff. I go more to having an interest in how the music happens because I’m observer who wants to know more about the music.
The one that took the longest – I think he was the last or second-to-last interview – was Larry Lalonde. I’d been told a number of times he was well-known for not talking about those early days in Possessed for whatever reasons. I’ll credit Jack with that one. He kept on him with multiple phone calls and to Larry’s credit he was at least intrigued because I think he’d been hearing a lot of good things. Primus was coming through New York and they were staying at a hotel up in Westchester and we said we’d come to him and do whatever was needed to set it up and make it easy. What’s great is that once he crossed whatever personal divide he had, Larry was entirely forthcoming and really great interview. He talked about the early days, talked about Debbie Abono, which is a wonderful story and he remembered her very fondly. I actually interviewed all three of her children and that was great because there was a trust there. The Abono children weren’t early interviews at all and once we met, we talked and I said what I said to everybody about my job not being to unearth things that don’t need to be, but to honor people like Debbie Abono and Wes Robinson, who ran [legendary Bay Area venue] Ruthie’s Inn. Again, Jack had to really convince Durelle Ali, Wes Robinson’s daughter, and get her to understand what we were doing here, that we really wanted to honor her father.
Through Brian Lew I started to make contact with Dave Ellefson who is about a nice a guy as you’d ever want to meet. As I built this up, I had my sights set on Dave Mustaine. I had no relationship or previous meetings with Dave. I was aware in my mind that he could be leery of me, possibly seeing me as “Metallica’s guy” and that I wouldn’t do right by him. Those are just assumptions, but I could see how he could think that.
So, what happened is that I did all that I could to let everybody in the Megadeth camp know that I am not a “gotcha” journalist and that I’m not somebody looking to talk about Mustaine getting thrown out of Metallica because it’s been overdone and we’re not doing a Behind the Music episode.
I want to know about everything Dave Mustaine did after that because that’s so interesting. Don’t tell me about being put on a bus and all that, I’m not interested. Now, when we did the interview, I never even questioned him about it; he went into it himself. When I was interviewing him, he was somebody I had to be most on my toes with. He didn’t know me and it took about half of the interview for him to feel somewhat at ease. There was a point where he laughed and I felt he just dropped his shoulders a little bit.
It was probably the interview I was most on edge for and had the most anxiety about because he can be a prickly character who speaks his mind which is what makes him what he is – this great frontman and guitar player and it’s there in the interview as much as it is on stage. He really gave us some great material and I’m really glad he stepped up. I literally went out and celebrated the night that we got it; celebrating that it actually happened!
Megadeth was in New York on tour opening for the Scorpions, so we shot the interview. I had Brian Lew fly in for that one because I felt that he should be in the room as a familiar face for Dave Mustaine and to help him feel more comfortable. So, I interviewed David Ellefson, then Mustaine came in and we only had 30 minutes with him. I asked the questions I wanted and let him go wherever he wanted. It was great, he took a picture with us and went and did his thing. Me and Brian celebrated by going to Madison Square Garden and watching Megadeth. Haven’t had any contact with him since and I hope when the movie comes out he feels good by it.
In addition to Larry Lalonde, there were some real surprises in the movie in terms of people you found and interviewed that I and others have been unsuccessful in tracking down and/or getting to talk about the past. Jim Martin has been particularly elusive for a long time. That was, as they say, a pretty good get on your part.
The way I got to Jim Martin was a particular case. He came down with Joseph Houston, who manages Machine Head. He came down and brought Jim and Jim is very leery of doing anything and talking about this stuff. He speaks very slowly and deliberately and it was difficult to find a way to use him in the footage. He didn’t like it when the camera was turned on; he seemed very ill-at-ease and I could never shake him of that.
But, as soon as the camera was off and we were hanging out after the interview, he seemed to lighten up. When we were talking about old times and talking about Cliff, he seemed to be much more easygoing and had a smile on his face. I just have to chalk things up to Jim Martin being his own guy; he doesn’t like doing interviews. He did this, I think, to try to participate and I was glad I could put him in, but it wasn’t easy and I felt bad that he didn’t feel comfortable in front of the camera, so I didn’t draw it out. I just realized I’d get whatever I was going to get and let it go and be grateful he did the interview.
I imagine that when you approached the people who weren’t musicians that they must have been surprised you wanted to include them simply because they weren’t in bands. Or were they more like, “Oh, it’s about time someone wants to talk to us!”?
For the most part people were very cooperative, but I think that owes to my working through Brian and Harald. I’d already interviewed Brian, Harald and Ron Quintana and the word had gone out through that group of early fans that we were the good guys, so I didn’t really have much of a problem getting them in and I think they were happy to tell their stories.
A guy like Mark DeVito who was one of the artists of the scene, saw my devotion to this and that I was willing to reach out, go track down and find somebody like Elizabeth Francoise, who was Paul Baloff’s girlfriend. I was also very clear that I wanted to portray that there were women in the scene who weren’t groupies; they were supporters and fans who worked with the bands and were fully-fledged metalheads there for the music.
One of the most dramatic and heartfelt interviews was Corrine Lynn, who was Cliff Burton’s girlfriend at the time. She was somebody who came a little bit later because she had heard we were doing the movie and doing it right. When I contacted her, I told her I’d come to Montana – where she lives now – to interview her and be happy to do it. She was great and gave fully of her heart to the interview which is why it’s so moving. There’s actually a really nice moment that happened as a result of this: When we had our very first screening of the movie on April, 20 2019, Ray Burton came up from Southern California where he lived and Corrine came all the way from Montana, which is not easy being wheelchair-bound as she is, and there was a beautiful moment where she got together with so many old Bay Area friends and got to see Ray. They hadn’t seen each other in all this time and everyone just backed away and gave them their moment. They held hands during the screening; it was beautiful.
You mentioned there was a particular story about how Metallica got on board.
Well, there is and there are a couple stories within it. As I said, when I initially started to make the film I reached out to their management and they were aware of the book and were certainly aware of Brian. They’ve used many in the photos from the book that applied to Metallica over the years as well and Brian comes in and informally does work for the band here and there, so there’s an understanding.
I had interviewed 25-30 people by the time I came calling for Metallica. There was a healthy showing when I said I was ready for whenever they could do it. Metallica said yes right away and I told them that I would do the interviews anywhere that was easy for them to do it; I’d fly anywhere to met up with them and get the interviews done.
At that point, they were on tour and doing a three-night stand in Mexico City and with a day off in between shows, that meant a week of living in Mexico. So, I was like, “Great, I’ll be there. We’ll set up cameras and make it easy.” Then, they asked if we could do them on two different days because they had other press obligations. So, we got two guys one day and two guys another day.
So, myself and my wife went to live in Mexico City for a week in the same hotel as the band. Again, I flew Brian Lew in as I felt these were the key interviews of the movie and that he would help bring them back. It was funny because during the interviews the guys would sometimes look off camera at Brian and ask, “Did that happen in 1982 or 1983?” And Brian would just bark back with an answer, usually with the exact date so-and-so happened. There was this back-and-forth and it was like having a fact checker on hand [laughs].
All the Metallica guys were great, but the revelation was this: I’ve had the honor to interview Kirk Hammett half-a-dozen times for various projects, but this was the first time I’ve asked for an interview for something that was my project, not something of theirs I was working on. I think Kirk felt very close to this story, that he wanted to tell his story and that this was the right time to tell it.
Having interviewed him before, I can say I’ve never seen him as animated as he was in the Murder in the Front Row interviews. He was so forthcoming and I was surprised because he’s usually a reserved person in interviews. When I asked him about the first time he met Paul Baloff, he didn’t just tell me the story, he acted it out and played the different parts with voices and everything! He was pretty much playacting the thing for me, so I just leaned back and let it go.
He wanted to tell it like that and was very animated about it, so I was like, “Great! Just let him go!” I know it meant a lot to him because when I showed him the movie, he liked it. We’ve talked about it and he’s talked about it on podcasts and stuff. It was very emotional for him. After talking about the early days for over an hour, it overcame him and it became a beautiful coda to the scene and the movie. There’s no interview after Kirk’s part at the end because there’s nothing left to say. Having said that, the Metallica interviews were all great; they were in a great frame of mind and in a good place. They were playing three sold-out shows at this stadium in Mexico which I think speaks a lot to the longevity of thrash metal.
After working in film and video for thirty years, what would you say that this experience taught you? What did you learn and was there anything that was surprising about doing Murder in the Front Row?
The story is a great story and I had to make a film that was equal to the material, so I think in every way I worked at the craft. Craft is something you work at. There are people with natural gifts, but even with natural gifts, you sometimes don’t see the hard work that’s put in. Nobody plays guitar like Kirk Hammett or Alex Skolnick without a work ethic behind it. So, my work ethic for the film was to come in everyday and really concentrate on how to make it better. How did that realize itself?
A lot of people have commented on how much they love the animation in the film. I always had the idea that there would be parts of the story I couldn’t tell because there are no pictures. But, I love animation and knew an animation company called Augenblick Studios here in Brooklyn so I went to them to see what they could do and they rose to the task. There was one animator named Mark Burns who was great and he got the feel of the flyers and everything and the artwork he turned in made us want to include more of it.
So, we had the very first screening of the film on 4/20/19, which I’ll always remember because it was my daughter’s ninth birthday. We had it in a theater, but not just any theater – it was a private screening at the Kabuki which is now a movie theater, but used to be a club that a lot of these bands played in back in the day. So, we felt it was the right venue and a historic venue. That night Metal Allegiance was playing, so we timed it to coincide with everyone being there; there would be the debut of the movie then everyone could go see to the show.
Everyone was there and I pretty much knew the movie worked, but it was so emotional for everybody because I was showing it to the people who lived it and they were a bit knocked out by it. I knew it was a success when I walked out. There’s a bar in the theater and if something isn’t a success people will say, “Yeah, yeah, that was good” and disperse very quickly because they don’t want to face you [laughs]. I walked out with Mr. Burton – we were the last ones to leave the theater – and when we walked out everybody was in the bar drinking and talking. I was like, “We did it!”
I knew that they loved it and people started coming over and saying and telling me this and that. That was in April, but here’s where it blew up: the very first public screening that the public could buy tickets to was when we got picked up by the San Francisco Doc Festival – the perfect place to have the debut – and they had two screenings. The first one was May 31, 2019. The first screening sold out in a couple of hours and the second screening, a few days later, sold out in a day or so. The guy who runs the festival stood up at the first screening to introduce me and said he’d been running the festival for 18 years and in all those years they’d never sold out a movie as quickly. The screening was like seeing my movie but with the crowd from the Rocky Horror Picture Show!
Some of the people in the movie were there, but a lot were the thrash metal people from the area and you knew it because in line you could see the shirts, the denim vests and the battle jackets and it was like a party with people drinking in the street and drinking in the theater.
At the beginning of the movie, each person is shown during their slate up, and during Kirk’s he says, “Wait, one thing before we start: posers must die!” quoting Paul Baloff and the audience just broke out in cheering! It was epic! That was when I knew this thing works on everybody and on different levels. I knew metal fans would love it, but I wanted to give it a broader reach, so I designed the movie so someone who isn’t necessarily a fan of thrash could enjoy and appreciate what these young people built. I’ve shown it to enough people now and have had enough people come to me and say, “I’m not a fan of this music, but I love these kids!”
And that’s something I feel very proud of, that we reached beyond the thrash metal community and showed people that what happened was something that was culturally important.
Photos from Murder in the Front Row: Shots from the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter, available now in hardcover.