Monday, August 23, 2010

To Live is To Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton

Just before a roadtrip down to San Francisco, Cliff Burton's home and Metallica's stomping ground, I bought Joel McIver's new book "To Live is To Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton."
McIver is an experienced scribe, having penned 17 books on bands as metal as Slayer and on bands as unmetal and questionable as The Kings of Leon. Having just heard that his next book would be a biography of Tool, my hopes were not exactly high, but nonetheless I was excited - basically nothing has come out about Cliff since Cliff 'Em All.
Although it's easy to dismiss Cliff as a country bumpkin, he was a complex creature: a determined, dope-smoking musical prodigy, interested in literature, art and philosophy; a quiet, reserved guy at times, but nonetheless an uncompromising, relentlessly raging force to be reckoned with. McIver's book is dignified and understated, just like Cliff, but it's a must-have for any self-respecting metalhead.
Spoilers follow, so if you don't want to know, don't read the rest!
The book follows a chronological timeline, beginning with Cliff's birth at 9:30 p.m. on February 10, 1962. We meet Cliff's parents, Jan and Ray Burton, who were integral in forming Cliff's mature, musically sophisicated personality. His mother, Jan, enthusiastically supported his ventures, once saying "I didn't care what kind of music he played as long as he was good at what he did. The fact that it was heavy metal made it kind of exciting to me, rather than some la-de-da pop or country. It was different to our lives, so I thought it was exciting; I still think the Metallica scene is exciting."
Cliff took piano lessons at a young age, but it was his brother Scott's death that prompted him to pick up the bass. Cliff is remembered as a musical genius, someone who knew more than anyone else in Metallica about theory, different scales and time signatures, truly a bass virtuoso, but it was not always so. Reading about Cliff's slow progress with the bass - how he spent two years on his own plunking away at the bass, and then another year and a half studying under Steve Doherty of ABC Music - gave me some hope. Perhaps mastering an instrument is not out of reach after all.
On the other hand, Cliff was extremely dedicated. He practiced his bass 4 to 6 hours a day, even after he got into Metallica. He never stopped learning, soaking up Bach, Beethoven and Baroque music, jazz, blues and country, influenced by the Misfits, ZZ Top, Blue Oyster Cult, Thin Lizzy, Rush, Black Sabbath and R.E.M. Cliff was definitely a force of progress, a constant source of evolution, and if he had survived, Metallica would surely never have released the stagnant radio-rock cesspools that were Load, Reload, St. Anger and their other embarrassments.
But I disgress, so back to the book! McIver follows Cliff's career with Metallica, providing a detailed analysis of every track, from how it was recorded to how it sounded on the album to how it was played live. He dissects tracks, minute-by-minute, describing the scales, riffs, and fills note-by-note, giving us plenty of insight into Cliff's techniques.
McIver also fleshes out the era with anecdotes of the times. We all know "The Call of Ktulu" and that it was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, but I for one didn't know that Cthulhu perpetuated the 80s, and during the Reagan era, there was even a t-shirt produced which read "Vote for Cthulhu... why settle for the lesser evil?"

There are quotes and interviews from everyone who knew Cliff - his parents, his girlfriend Corinne Lynn, Ron Quintana, Kirk Hammett, Hetfield, Harald Oimoen, Brian Lew - and from people who didn't but wish they had - fellow musicians and bass players in the realms of thrash and death metal.
If McIver's book has one flaw, it is only that it is a little too repetitive, especially at the end, describing the aftermath of Cliff's death, but the rest of the book more than makes up for that. I found out a ton of things I didn't know about Cliff, about Metallica, and about those good olde thrash days of yore, but more importantly, the book was a worthy tribute to such an important individual in the history of metal.

"When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die."
The Call of Cthulhu, H. P. Lovecraft

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