Cliff Burton will always be the central figure in Thrash Metal for me. I saw him play on May 19, 1986 during Metallica’s Damage Inc tour. Life was never the same after that. Artistically, I had changed profoundly, and at the core of that change, though I didn’t realize it at the time, was Cliff Burton. At the time of his passing, I had no clue what a deep and personal impact the man had on me. I was just a teenage punk, what did I know? Though seeing Metallica in 1986 with Ozzy was an artistically life changing event for me, I had no real understanding then that he, not the other members of Metallica, was the true musical/melodic/harmonic innovator of the band – The one most responsible for the quantum leap from Kill’Em All to Ride The Lightning, and an equally huge leap from Ride The Lightning to Master Of Puppets. To me he was just a bad ass Thrash bass player for a band I grew to worship. My primary musical influence was Metallica. They just set the standard at the time. Little did I know then that their primary musical drivers were split into two personalities that are no longer with the band – Dave Mustaine and Cliff Burton. Dave’s influence early on was primarily in the power of his writing and his powerful stage presence, he was in essence the real frontman back then, and his writing was considerably more mature than the rest of the bands…until Cliff Burton joined the band.
But at the time I was unaware that Cliff was so influential to the quality of the music that Metallica was creating. It was only through the process of my own musical maturity that I was finally able to see the musical monster that he was. And that since he was the primary innovator in Metallica, he was also a primary force in the elevation of Thrash Metal, and in turn the primary force in my own musical evolution. It became obvious to me that he had become the musical mentor of sorts for the rest of the band. He was just so much more skilled in musical theory, structure, and harmony. It was a revelation to me. And when this understanding came to me so did my realization that Cliff had become almost an afterthought to so many in my generation. The realization came in the early 90’s, right around when the Black album was released and Metallica became the biggest metal band in history. This popularity relegated Cliff to become almost an afterthought to so many Metallica fans, in particular the new ones.
As time moved forward my respect for Cliff grew and grew, especially as Metallica moved away from what made them great and began to experiment with music that I can honestly only describe as pure shit. To say I was disappointed in Metallica’s direction is like saying I would have been disappointed in losing my left testicle. It sucked that bad. Their downfall only solidified the point with me that Cliff WAS Metallica during their time together. The force behind their incredible music, the teacher that pushed the rest of the band to elevate their chops and songwriting to his level (which they eventually did), the innovative force that demanded the bass have equal time with the other more “glamorous” instruments, and the guardian of their metal purity. Consider this, from Kill’Em All to Master Of Puppets Metallica got progressively heavier, faster, AND more harmonic and musical. That is incredible. The force behind this continual improvement and innovation was Cliff Burton.
That said, where was the fucking respect? I mean, we had tablature books that taught us what notes he played, but no biography? Really? Well up until 2009 there wasn’t anything written in the detail that Cliff’s life and contributions deserved. I find that incredible even now. But thankfully there now is.
To Live Is To Die is written by Joel McIver, a veteran of heavy metal write ups covering many different bands and subjects withing the genre, and it is something that needs to be read by every metalhead in existence. Not that it’s the greatest book in metal history, or that it’s even particularly good (which it is), but because it’s the most complete write up of Cliff’s life and music every written. To be a metalhead and to not know that critical period in metal history (Kill’Em to Master) and the major force behind the band that established heavy metal in the musical conscience of millions is to be an absolute dumbfuck. This book brings this critical period to life, and the man that was pushing the envelope to innovative metal heights. I mean, this is the man who helped write Orion. Orion! Amongst other masterpieces.
There is no doubt that I recommend this book of course, if only for the aforementioned reasons, but there’s a real story underneath all my hype about Cliff. A well written one. The forward is by Kirk Hammett, and it’s not really that good but nobody has claimed Kirk to be a writer of words, just a damn good writer of guitar licks. But we do find out some important things about Cliff and Kirk’s bond, and one really cool one that I took to heart – Cliff owned a Les Paul and would use it to learn guitar solos with it. We also find out that one of Cliff’s famous quotes was, “I’m gonna do whatever the fuck I wanna do.” Man, if that doesn’t describe Cliff right there, nothing does.
We learn much about Cliff’s childhood at the beginning, as to be expected, and insight in what might have been the event that motivated his headlong plunge into music with laser like focus – The tragic death of his older brother Scott. It was after Scott’s death that Cliff discovered the bass and dedicated himself to it, and practicing, by his parents account, up to six hours a day. There are interviews with his primary bass teacher Steve Doherty, which really give understanding into Cliff’s progression as a player, and he praises Cliff’s work ethic at such a young age. He started giving Cliff lessons during his junior year of high school and was impressed at Cliff’s preparation for every lesson. The dude came to learn. Another CRITICALLY important thing that is pointed out early in the book is the incredible support he got from his parents, and that is key to knowing Cliff. He learned much from them and was always respectful towards them, and it became apparent to me that that is where he got his disciplined approach to learning the instrument. And to my surprise, I learned that nobody in Cliff’s family had any musical talent. A love of music yes, but musical talent no. I also love much of what was written about the characters and musician’s that were in the Bay Area during this historically important time. Guys like Jim Martin, he of Faith No More, who was a good friend of Cliff, and played with him EZ Street.
There is much more to this book that I don’t want to reveal, but as you can guess, there is a great amount of detail packed into only 274 pages. The book is organized first by date spans, and then by Metallica album and the events that were involved in the making of the album and its subsequent tours and notable events. I found the focus on the albums, and his bass playing on the albums, eye opening and informative. The author put some real work into documenting the highlights of Cliff’s playing on each album, at times going into the theory behind it in keen detail. There is a passion to his writing that shines through, if you don’t know much about Joel McIver I’ll just say that in addition to being a heavy metal author, writer, and historian, he’s also the editor of Bass Guitar Magazine. The dude’s a true player, and his knowledge of the instrument helps greatly in his descriptions of Cliff’s playing that are throughout the book. The musical aspect of this book does not leave you wanting.
I’ll also add that I think the star of this book, aside from Cliff and Metallica, is Cliff’s girlfriend Corinne Lynn. She provides a great amount of detail as to who Cliff was as a man, and his camaraderie with his friends outside Metallica during their rise to arena band. To us metalheads that “knew” Cliff, we have always seen him as a man of great integrity. True to himself and his musical beliefs, with no accounting for image or criticism. Corinne confirms this on every level. Her insights into his character are gold, and it was Cliff that stayed gold (to steal a line from The Outsiders) despite the distractions that came along with becoming a major label recording artist. He was, as they now say, “real”. I want to personally thank Corinne Lynn for opening up for our edification on this great man and musician.
Cliff Burton is probably my lone Heavy Metal musical hero. His influence on Metallica, in particular James Hetfield’s songwriting, influenced my own songwriting and guitar playing. It was only years after his passing that I came to that understanding, and it was after reading this great book on his life that it verified all that I had come to understand about his immense musical impact on heavy metal, and his personal impact on me. He was only in Metallica for about three and a half years, but they were arguably the most influential years of any one Heavy Metal musician we have every known, and most definitely the most influential in Thrash Metal. Read this book and learn about the man that helped shape metal as we have come to know it.
It is fitting that it was Orion that was played at his funeral…it is fitting that I end this review with that same song…
God bless Cliff Burton.
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