It’s been said before, but it’s always worth repeating: Cliff Burton was a true original. His life cut short at the age of 24, the Metallica bassist with the long, lank, stoner hair, defiantly unfashionable wide-bottomed blue jeans and fiercely individualistic outlook on life and music was a refreshingly grimly blot on the neon-colored, Spandex-and-hairspray-dominated metal scene of the mid Eighties.
A native San Francisco, Burton was playing in a local band called Trauma when he was spotted in 1982 by the fledgling L.A. metal outfit known as Metallica, who were impressed by Burton’s massive bass lines and distinctive windmill-style headbanging. After months of fruitlessly trying to persuade Cliff to join them in Los Angeles, the band, determined to enlist his services, instead relocated to the Bay Area. The only classically trained musician in the band, Burton taught music theory to his bandmates and introduced classical influences into their sound.
Four years and three albums later, Metallica was on the cusp of worldwide superstardom when the unspeakable occurred. While traveling along an icy Swedish road in the middle of European tour in September 1986, Metallica’s driver lost control of their tour bus after hitting what he clamed was a patch of ice. The bus careened all over the road before finally sliding into a ditch and flipping on its side. Burton, asleep in a bunk, was hurled through a window and killed instantly when the bus landed on top of him.
After recovering from the initial shock and devastation, Metallica soldiered on with new bassist Jason Newsted and became one of the biggest groups of rock history. Burton’s ashes were scattered in the San Francisco Bay. Burton’s memorial is located at Marshall Elementary school in Castro Vally, California, where Burton attended grade school.
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