To Live is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton by Joel McIver
2009 Jawbone Press
Ray Van Horn, Jr.
Let me preface this review with a personal anecdote regarding the death of Metallica's Cliff Burton...
It was 1986 as thrash metal was inching towards not only acceptability in the genre, but it was creating a veritable generation of speedfreaks who elevated the throwdown stakes of the poser vs. true metal fan controversy which was long-standing from the days of early Priest, Venom and Tygers of Pan Tang. What resounds in my mind at this critical shift in heavy music isn't so much the fact thrash, black and death metal were teeming in gradual popularity as a direct protest against the prefab glitz hazed atop Vidal/Aqua Net LA, it was the fact mainstream heavy metal was beginning to catch on amongst the "in" crowds, at least here in the United States. Far more frightening a prospect than to hear Wham was rolling craps at a metallized makeover like the ill-advised Pat Boone metal project that still turns my guts today.
I was a sophomore in high school in 1986 and if you've seen The Breakfast Club you have a fair idea of our student body makeup, only you would have to add in a farmer clique which was legion, plus the punk rocker sect, the alt crowd and a host of subdivided castoffs and crossover people who defied their own categories. I was fortunate in the respect I'd taken my heavy metal lumps in freshman year over my Motley Crue Shout at the Devil shirt and my fisticuffs-laced mouth eventually drove the "devil worshipper" accusations away, to be redirected to the other metalheads in school who didn't give two shits about defending themselves against the more popular crowds.
Getting into weightlifting for three years certainly raised my stock amongst the student body, thus I was almost comedically defending myself to other kids who teasingly ridiculed my heavy metal preferences, albeit at the end of the day we found an odd respect amongst each other. Thus it came to pass when the horrible news that Cliff Burton, the finest bassist thrash metal has ever produced finally hit us two days after it actually occurred when a truce of sorts went about North Carroll High School.
Entertainment Tonight couldn't have cared less that a virtuoso genius had lost his life in Sweden in a controversial bus flip which flung him out and then rolled on top of him. The newspapers--if they bothered--printed a short blurb about Burton's passing. MTV at least paid homage to the man as did the network morning news programs and local radio stations, because amazingly enough on the Monday morning after Cliff Burton had been killed, there was an eerie silence in the school.
For the first and only time, metalheads were allowed to pass without persecution. Somehow the rest of the student body realized how impactful Cliff Burton's death was upon the metal society. I won't ever forget seeing my fellow metalheads in the hallways, silently mouthing "What the fuck?" to each other without the need of addendum. The loss of Cliff Burton stung us very badly and the other kids oddly knew it. I happened to be the one most of the "outsiders" came to when inquiring about Cliff Burton. It felt weird to be one of the few approachable headbangers around considering I was known flipping old people off at the mall and mouthing off to people in general, doubly-weird anybody who took the time to get dressed in the morning actually cared to know who Burton was.
Ironic when you consider a good third if not two-thirds of this demographic would be swayed over to the Led Zeppelin of our time, Metallica, the biggest-selling heavy metal band the world has ever seen. Ironic that it took two days in a non-internet world for the general population in America to learn the shocking news. Ironic that Metallica would rise like a commercial phoenix of vengeance in the midst of Burton's death, albeit their sound would never be the same again. When Cliff Burton died, so too did a special fragment of Metallica that has yet to (and likely never will) be reproduced on their best day.
Author and metal troubadour Joel McIver, who previously wrote 2004's Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica, has a second go in the Metalliverse with To Live is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton, a daring and much-needed tribute to a voice only the true metal devout remember to hold a candle for. With Metallica having gone through two bassists now in the 23 years since Cliff Burton left us, it's forgivable to the younger generation who wasn't there to not always cue Cliff's memory to mind. Albeit they are a very studious bunch of youngsters who have learned what the rest of us have known ever since we'd heard the "immaculate trilogy." If I need elaborate upon what I'm referring to, then stop reading this review now.
To Live is to Die takes the reader into Cliff Burton's world, an assuredly private microcosm considering he let his bass do more speaking than physical words. McIver obviously had the uneviable task of assembling his book without the benefit of source material from Cliff, however McIver does manage to replicate the feel of those formative years of the Bay Area thrash scene by tapping into the network of California musicians who knew Cliff such as Gary Holt of Exodus, Spastik Children vocalist Fred Cotton, Faith No More's Jim Martin, Joey Vera of Armored Saint/Fates Warning, Cannibal Corpse's Alex Webster and members of Trauma, Burton's first official gigging group.
McIver also taps into other figures in Burton's life such as his mother Jan, girlfriend Corrine Lynn, area scenesters such as Harald Oimoen and Metal Blade Records guru Brian Slagel. Corraling bits and pieces of quotes from his previous Metallica book along with new footage (and a personally-written forward) by Kirk Hammett, McIver takes us on the journey of Burton's life and how it came to merge with his future three-plus years of surprise fame in Metallica.
The legend of Cliff Burton has always stated him to be humble beyond words, a class act, gentlemanly, standoffish from the general public, shirking off his stature to the point he took utter offense at being labeled a "rock star." McIver's guests confirm this and more to the point we hear stories of Cliff waking up at his parents' apartment to give a young boy an autograph to him taking care of a newly-met friend on tour to making sure his former Trauma bandmates were placed on Metallica's guest list.
To Live is to Die even brings Metallica's original bassist Ron McGovney into the picture as McIver sets the stage for Burton's entry into the metal front, not so much inheriting a position in which McGovney relays was filled with mistreatment, but to become the sage of a band in development. To say Metallica worshipped Cliff Burton is likely not an understatement, considering the chops and deep music theory he brought to the table which were lacking during the No Life 'til Leather demo days and to some extent on Kill 'em All.
McIver dances us through McGovney's departure as well as future Megadeth icon Dave Mustaine, whom we learn, had sincere admiration for Cliff, as did Mustaine's long-standing running mate David Ellefson. Though all wounds appear to have healed been Mustaine and Metallica, you have to wonder what might've been had Mustaine and Burton shared the saddles as Metallica's running four horsemen. Then again, we wouldn't have Peace Sells...But Who's Buying and Rust in Peace, nor would we have Mustaine's faster hijacking of his own "Horsemen" song, revamped for speed as "Mechanix."
If there's one quibble about McIver's work here, it's his insistence to use personally-imbued "I" and "me" quote lead-ins within his narration. A bit of a cardinal rule-breaking which at least for this writer's purposes, tends to get a bit intrusive into the story, however McIver really shows his salt in this thing with his outstanding tech and music theory knowledge. Even non-musicians can follow his points, even with the cumbersome depths of delineating arpeggios from tremolos. You will possibly be inspired to pick up your own instrument after McIver has dissected Metallica's music for you.
McIver also keeps the needles threaded in his punctuated chapters to the point you're almost astonished you're reading the details about Cliff's death. On another personal note, I was sitting in a Barnes and Noble sucking on java while waiting to meet up with a film crew as I finished To Live is to Die and as quickly as McIver enunciates "Cliff Burton died at approximately 6:45 on Saturday, September 27 by the side of the E4..." my stomach knotted up. Crazily enough, I had listened to Megadeth's Killing's My Business...and Business is Good! before entering the store, "Last Rites/Loved to Death" still chiming in my head as I slurped my first hit of machiatto.
Before this review assumes the same guilty offense of which it flags Joel McIver, the endpoint is thank God someone took a chance at telling Cliff Burton's story. If you were around when it happened, To Live is to Die finds closure to old business, particularly as McIver takes the reader beyond the reactions and the funeral.
As Jason Newsted receives the blunt of Metallica's wrath following Burton's death, the realization of how dramatic this event was for everyone, Metallica first and foremost, is the sobering air as one closes the cover on the book. Who honestly could stand up in the bellbottoms of Cliff Burton? One has to wonder how Newsted stuck through the abuse and hazing other than having the opportunity to play with his heroes who practically defecated on him in the first five or so years of his tenure. It also explains more why Newsted made the painful decision to leave for Voivod, another band which would present pain and misery with their own tragic loss.
Makes you appreciate how hard Robert Trujillo had to work to gain his spot in Metallica, doesn't it?
Thursday, June 25, 2009
To Live is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton by Joel McIver