Today would have marked the 50th birthday of a bass guitarist named Clifford Lee Burton who played for a band called Metallica. You may have heard of them. Unfortunately, Cliff passed away in 1986 in a bus crash shortly before he would have turned 25. Of course, if you've ever had even a passing interest in Metallica, you're keenly aware of this. His presence can be felt all over their first three albums (see: "Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)," Cliff's legendary bass solo, or that trademark bass intro to "For Whom the Bell Tolls") and his distinct absence can be felt on their first one without him, in the bass-less mix of ...And Justice for All.
Even now, 26 years later, his absence is still felt. Metallica have never forgotten Cliff or failed to acknowledge his part in where they are today. The year after his death, they released a videotape (this is what people used before DVDs and Blu-Rays existed, kids) entitled Cliff 'Em All which featured footage of Cliff's performances with the band taken from bootleg fan recordings. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with them in 2009. Last year at their 30th anniversary shows, they held a tribute to Cliff each night, featuring guest speakers such as Cliff's father Ray Burton, Scott Ian from Anthrax, and Jim Martin from Faith No More.
Metallica aren't the only ones to be touched by Cliff's death. Megadeth frontman and former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine wrote the music to their classic song "In My Darkest Hour" immediately after hearing of Cliff's death. Anthrax dedicated Among the Living, widely considered their best album, to Cliff's memory. Even today, the love never stops pouring in from his fans. You can see it by doing a casual Google search. Hundreds of entries come up in the form of YouTube videos, threads on message boards, articles like this one, photo collages, whole websites, and even a book entitled To Live Is To Die: The Life and Death of Cliff Burton written by Joel McIver (reviewed by Rocks Off in 2009).
Not only has Cliff inspired tributes, but he inspired many to enter the music world to begin with. Case in point, myself. When I was 15, I picked up the bass guitar primarily because Metallica was my favorite band and I wanted to play like Cliff. I've since shifted to rhythm guitar, but I'd probably never have even started down the road of playing music if not for Cliff Burton. This story is the same for so many other musicians out there. Sometimes all it takes is someone truly gifted at their craft to inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
And Cliff was truly gifted (see the video above for even more proof). That's why we're still talking about him today. That's why it's important to remember the man's life and to celebrate today by busting out those first three Metallica records (Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets for reference) and playing them in honor of what was and what could have been.
If Cliff were alive today to celebrate his own 50th birthday, who knows where he would be and what Metallica would be playing. I like to think they'd be doing even more experimental things than they are. Cliff was considering that direction shortly before he died, as revealed in the very last interview he ever gave. Like it or not, he'd probably have been the first to jump at that opportunity to work with Lou Reed. I also like to think that he'd still be innovating in his way of playing bass, still shocking the minds of every musician that listens and making them wonder how the fuck he's making those noises with a bass guitar. Yeah, that's the way it should be.
Rest in peace, Cliff, and happy 50th.