The Professor's Book of the Year Club

Here at City of Devils we try to read one book of year, which happens to correspond to the yearly number of worthwhile books about music that have more words than pictures.  This year we chose To Live Is To Die, Joel McIver’s biography of classic-era Metallica bassist Cliff Burton.   I remember when Burton was crushed by the bus in Sweden and my idiot (dorm) roommate said “I guess that guy from Metallica should have done more bench pressing.”  That pretty much sums up the public understanding of Burton at the time; 23 years later, people are catching on to what was actually taken that day in Sweden. 

McIver does a great job with the young Burton, portraying an old-school stoner who lived with his parents, liked staying up all night and knew a fuck load more about music theory than his younger bandmates.  By the time of Ride the Lightning, Burton had schooled the bitches on harmony and melody.  The depiction of the early Burton brings back memories of growing up on Northern California during a time when classic rock, punk and metal all existed -- not necessarily side by side -- but accessible to anyone who wanted them and not in the more overwhelmingly cliquey, self-conscious manner of LA.  Burton’s knowledge of Bach and love of all music of quality provided a perfect foil for Hetfield / Ulrich’s LA attitude and the invention of palm muting.  In the book we learn that Burton (unsurprisingly given those bell bottoms) was a big fan of Rush and Skynard.  But we also learn he had a fondness for REM and was almost solely responsible for Metallica learning anything about punk rock.  He never lived at the Metallica house in El Cerrito, and enjoyed the green more than the booze.  It was fascinating to find out that he usually added his bass parts after the rest of the record was recorded.  McIver does a great job dissecting Burton’s interesting lines and fills. 

There has been an unbearable amount of “what if” surrounding and what may have happened with Metallica if he had lived.  McIver answers this question by rightly pointing out that Burton would have done whatever he wanted.  The picture emerges of a talented musician who was at the right place at the right time to make a major contribution to popular culture.  Burton certainly doesn’t appear to be wearing a “metal til I die” straitjacket.  Given his classical training and understanding of the placement of bass, it’s probably true that Burton would have eventually been involved with a drummer who didn’t spend his time chasing the rhythm guitarist around the track.  He probably would have been in several different bands and not stood for the Hetfield iron rule of Metallica (which probably would not have been necessary if Hetfield could have continued to rely on Burton for assistance with musical direction).   

In sum, it is mind boggling what Burton accomplished with Metallica before reaching his mid-20’s.  He was a fascinating, multi-dimensional character and musician.   Joel McIver’s To Live Is To Die --  metal book of the year.  Let’s hope the next one comes out sometime after March because reading is hard and we need to rest.