To Live Is to Die: the Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton
A book review of Joel McIver's Cliff Burton biography
by: Quentin Kalis
Metallica's first trio of albums featured Cliff Burton, an enormously talented young bassist who died tragically in a bus crash in 1986, at the tender age of 24. Joel McIver's book _To Live Is to Die: the Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton_ is apparently the first biography on Cliff Burton, but is not promoted as an official biography -- though numerous interviews conducted with Burton's nearest and dearest strongly suggest that this undertaking has their implicit blessing. On the other hand, as the one of the world's best-selling bands, Metallica has its share of biographies, official and unofficial, including one penned by this author: _Justice for All: the Truth About Metallica_.

McIver starts with Burton's childhood, spending just long enough to provide a sketchy idea of his early years. Naturally, the bulk of the book is devoted to the short period between 1983 and 1986, when Burton had joined and was recording with Metallica.

Burton received bass playing lessons as a child, and when he joined Metallica he brought his love of both classical and punk, such as the Misfits. Together with Kirk Hammett, he brought a sense of musical theory to the band. McIver provides detailed analyses of Cliff's contributions to every Metallica song, but can get bogged down in excessive attention to detail. Take, for example, this description of Burton's definitive solo, "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth":

"It begins with a single note which Cliff hits and holds for seven seconds, activating the distortion pedal. He then slides quickly into the opening sequence of triads, plucked quickly and accurately..."

And so on and so forth. This may be interesting for those with a decent understanding of music, and there is a limited glossary of musical terms; however, the choice of entries appears to be random and is inadequate. For example, "arpeggiated chords" is provided with a definition, but not triads.

McIver does not ignore what Burton was like as a person, although how he affected Metallica, the nascent thrash scene and the wider metal world is given greater consideration.

Flemming Rasmussen, producer on _Master of Puppets_ states:

"Cliff was a really cool, really laidback kind of guy, really friendly and really nice to be around. He was really into making different sound; he was into just playing bass and getting the best out of it."

Similar sentiments are expressed by many others who knew Burton, and a wide number of people have been interviewed for this book, from his first bass teacher through to his girlfriend at the time of his death, his parents and, of course, the other Metallica members.

The book concludes by considering his legacy and the trajectory of Metallica's career since 1986, which is well known; 1988 saw the release of _...And Justice for All_, their most complex and technical work ever, which featured some riffs penned by Burton before his death. This was followed by the "black album" (_Metallica_) -- and the rest, as they say, is history.

However, Burton continued to have an impact on the band beyond contributions on _...And Justice for All_. In the words of Lars Ulrich:

"On the "black album" there aren't any specific direct things that I can think of, but the whole way me and James write songs together was shaped when Cliff was in the band and was very much shaped around Cliff's musical input: the way he taught us about harmonies and melodies and that kind of stuff."

McIver ventures into the realm of speculation as to whether Metallica would have followed the direction they did on the "black album" if Burton were still alive. He offers tentative suggestions and does not really consider what Burton would have thought of later works. However, he does consider whether Burton would have approved of Metallica's ham-fisted and bombastic handling of the Napster issue. Burton's age and the years since this death mean this is really just idle speculation, better suited to teenagers on Internet forums than the ruminations of a published author.

In considering his legacy, it is noted that none of the major thrash bands would use the bass like Burton and that he would be an aberration in a scene that favoured bass purely as a backing instrument. McIver accurately notes that Burton's influence has been the greatest in the realm of technical death metal, with bassists from Cynic, Atheist and Suffocation having all cited Burton as an influence.

McIver has used the contacts presumably made during the course of his previous book to provide a full and compelling a picture of Cliff Burton, as a person and especially as a musician. Despite a tendency to over-analyse, _To Live Is to Die_ is an immensely readable book that provides an insight into the formation of one of metal's best-loved sons. I can do no better than finish with a quote from Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse):

"(...) He was truly an incredible, well-rounded musician. He understood music theory and applied that knowledge skillfully; he had excellent playing technique; and most importantly, he had his own unique voice on the instrument."

(article submitted 5/7/2009)


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