Twenty four years ago, musician Cliff Burton was killed in a bus accident in Europe. Burton was the bass player for Metallica, at the time an up and coming heavy metal band, dreaming of the big time. Put up against other rock and roll casualties, Burton’s death is one of the most random and senseless- the other members of the band, any one of whom could have been killed, were essentially unhurt. Burton flew out of an open bus window and was crushed when the bus rolled over on an icy road.
Metallica, of course, has gone on to fame and fortune, relatively speaking. They have released more albums, and recorded more songs, and toured more countries, without Burton than they did with him. Metallica is now pretty close to being a household name-they have been staples of rock radio for nearly two decades now, after being anathema for the pre-1991 part of their careers. Even if you don’t enjoy their music, I think most people will at least recognize them as a musical group-a fate fans couldn’t imagine when they were underground sensations in the early 1980s.
I didn’t know Cliff Burton-I only became aware of Metallica in 1984 and 85, and he was gone by 1986. I never saw him perform live. I don’t understand music enough to know why he is well thought of by musicians and music fans-I have to take their word for it that his playing was as extraordinary as they say. My ears tell me he lended much to what became their sound-abrupt time changes, sweeping, orchestral instrumental sections, and a brooding intensity.
Of course, we don’t know how things may have played out differently. A Metallica with Burton may never have climbed to the heights they did- though that seems unlikely. But the band could have succumbed to infighting or substance abuse, as so many bands do. Of course, the whole band could have lost their lives on that road in the middle of the night, and Metallica would have remained a promising group with 3 albums and a tragic ending.
It seems impossible to cope with a world where the simplest decisions-I’m going to sleep with the window open, or I’m going to take the bottom bunk-have such enormous ramifications. Arbitrary, capricious chance-I missed my flight, I live, I don’t, I die. Seems to put the lie to Einstein’s rule, in a dramatically different context, about God not playing dice with the universe.
Here's a YouTube clip of Burton playing with Metallica in 1985: