Rock Reads - To Live Is To Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton

by Anthony Kuzminski

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The first time I ever heard the name Cliff Burton was in my grade school newspaper. Done with mimeograph machine you could smell the ink when you got it. The guys in junior high who were in charge of the music section loved metal so I always would be getting updates and in October 1986, they ran a story how Cliff Burton had died tragically in a bus accident in Sweden. I didn't know Metallica's music at the time but it struck me at what a tragic event this was. Over the years, Cliff Burton's legacy has grown immeasurably to an almost God-like status and miraculously until now, no one has ever suitably documented this man's life. Metal journalist Joel McIver finally has in a biography that is more than a historical document but an emotional tour de force. As I finished reading the last fleeting words of To Live Is To Die, The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton, I closed the book, sat it on my lap and sat in silence for a few minutes contemplating my life. I thought about the many family members taken away far before their time and how I wish they were with me at this moment in my life. I thought of the pain of their premature departure and how the loss of someone forever alters one's life path. That being said, the deaths that have impacted my family over the years to an assortment of diseases (most notably cancer), all occurred to people their 40's and 50's. Cliff Burton, Metallica's bass player from 1983 to his untimely death in 1986 was a mere twenty-four years old. Twenty-four years old. When I was younger twenty-four seemed all grown up to me, today it no longer feels that way. The loss of any one person at a young age will rattle your faith in the world and its natural orders. I'm a believer that there's a higher power above us all and that things happen specifically for reasons unknown to us. That being said, I can't think of any reason for the world to lose Cliff Burton at such a young age. Despite being an inhabitant of this Earth for less than a quarter century, Cliff Burton didn't just live life, he lived it to the fullest, forever changing everyone he came in contact with and everlastingly changed the world of heavy metal music.

I finished this book a few weeks ago yet have had an arduous time writing about it because there's a part of me that knows I will never be able to give this book justice, let alone the life of Cliff Burton. Joel McIver's book is long overdue and is a magnum opus of rock biographies as it's meticulously researched, discerning and illuminating in ways I never could have anticipated. McIver has previously written a Metallica biography (Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica) and decided a few years back that the time was right to put Cliff Burton's life into focus for not just the metal community but for historical purposes. Many of the people who knew and loved Cliff are still alive and yet enough time had passed that maybe most of them would be open to talking about him for the first time. McIver does more than just offer the reader a distinctive viewpoint, but makes you feel as if you had known Cliff personally and intimately, hence why I sat in silence when I finished reading it. McIver interviewed many people who are speaking about Cliff Burton for the first time; his girlfriend at the time of his death (Corinne Lynn), old band mates (Ron Quintana), his music teacher (Steve Doherty), photographers (Brian Lew & Ross Halfin), guitar tech John Marshall, and just about every other person who appears to have crossed paths with Burton to illustrate the unique and personable human Burton was. These interviews, sprinkled with insight from McIver into Burton's musical background are nothing short of astounding. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize that Cliff Burton was a monstrous bassist, but McIver goes one step further giving Burton credit for helping Metallica reach heights no other metal band before or since has achieved.

McIver dug way back to Burton's childhood and in the first part of the book, we learn the Burton family endured the death of another song when Cliff was still a teen. Knowing the eventual outcome of the story, I couldn't help but have my heart break a little further upon reading this. We learn about Burton's musical appreciation, the close relationship he had with his family, his unbridled determination and drive and his no-nonsense attitude. McIver did his best to leave no stone unturned. While he doesn't glorify Burton's life and paint a picture of him as a saint, you can't help but marvel at the way Burton lived his life. Virtually everyone I have ever encountered in my life has some doubts about who they are, but not Burton. His self-assurance and steady conviction isn't just admirable but is an example of how everyone should live their life. This is repeated by almost everyone who was interviewed for this book. He may have worn bell bottom jeans and received tons of grief because of it, but he never swayed or wavered in how he presented himself. He was confident in who he was and nothing or no one was going to change this. As a result, the rest of Metallica (and almost everyone who came in contact with Burton) were in awe of him. How often do you meet someone in their late teens or early twenties who knows exactly who they are and what they want out of life? McIver sprinkles his personal insight into these first three albums and helps remind us what a force Cliff Burton was to be reckoned with. I don't think there's anyone out there who didn't believe that Cliff Burton isn't a one-of-a-kind musician, but McIver gives his legacy and legend credence. For someone who has listened to the first three Metallica albums a few hundred times over the last two decades, reading this book made me hear them with virgin ears once again. As I compared the songs on the No Life 'Til Leather demo and their final incarnation on Kill 'Em All I found this to be a gargantuan revelation. Burton brought a depth to the band's sound and instead of merely plowing along and keeping the beat. Burton infused his talent to become a second rhythm guitarist making Metallica's sound unlike any other metal band. By teaching James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich about melody from his classical music background, he had an indelible influence on the making of Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets and as a result, his impact stretched far beyond Metallica, but to the whole world of heavy metal. While I always knew this about Burton, McIver reminds us of it and with the release of his book, it will be out there for all of history to remember and reflect on.

There are testimonials from other musicians and journalists and McIver even ventures into a number of "what if" scenarios concerning Metallica's commercial ascension throughout the 1990's.This book embodies the spirit of Cliff Burton and if my review hasn't swayed you to buy a copy for yourself, then maybe this will; not only does Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett write the forward for the book, but Metallica's official website is selling the book, a first for a non-authorized one. There are those who believe this is one of the best books on heavy metal to ever be written. I'll go one step further and say it's one of the best biographies of music I've ever read. I felt as if I was right in the thick of the action during Burton's life and was sharing a beer with him on numerous occasions. McIver has a way of placing you right in the thick of the action and if you never even knew of Cliff Burton before this book, when you are done with it, you will feel as if you have lost a dear friend.

There is a lot to be learned from this book and the life of Cliff Burton. Burton never pretended to be anyone other than himself and as a result, he was loved and admired by virtually everyone he came in contact with, he embodied the Shakespeare quote "To thine own self be true" to the fullest. Despite his short time in this world, he managed to leave a legacy that will be studied for (hopefully) centuries. With this book, Joel McIver has secured the legacy of Cliff Burton. Fifty years from now when most of us are dead and gone, this book and the first three Metallica albums will serve as a historical document of one of the most influential, imperative and downright eminent musicians to ever play bass. The only question you should ask yourself is why you're reading this review and not the book.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.


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