People always say they remember where they were when they found out that John F. Kennedy was shot. I’m sure my parents remember. I wasn’t born until the next decade.
I do remember where I was when I found out that John Lennon was assassinated… and when Princess Diana died in a car crash… and even when JFK Jr. died because one of my co-workers said “we will always remember where we were today when we found out that JFK Jr. died”; so, my memory of John Jr’s death is of her saying that… and nothing else.
None of these compare to the moment when I found out that Cliff Burton died in a bus accident in Sweden. I was in high school. Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone) was the top song on the charts that week. I was training for the Canada Games and spent my entire weekend in a swimming pool. Listening to Metallica between intense training sessions kept me sane and focused.
I found out about Cliff’s death on September 29, 1986, a Monday, and a full two days after his death. This was the pre-internet era and news travelled a lot slower than it does now but newspapers and newscasts had already picked up the story. It was my friend Janice who came running over and said, “someone from Metallica died in a bus accident in Sweden. But, I don’t know who.” We speculated who it was and the impact to the band. “Please don’t let it be James. I love him so much,” she said. In hindsight, that seems rather shallow.
It wasn’t James Hetfield, it was Cliff Burton who was killed by their tour bus when it lost control and tipped on its side. He was killed in what could be considered a series of ironic fate driven events: he happened to win the “nicest” bunk in a game of cards that night, the window happened to have a broken latch, he happened to fall out of the bus as it tipped on it’s side, and there’s speculation that he was still alive but while trying to lift the bus with a crane, it fell and killed him at that moment. The driver disappeared shortly after that and was never seen or heard from again.
Either way, this was a terrible terrible tragedy and I personally think the beginning of the end of the thrash metal scene in San Francisco… the musical equivalent of losing your project linch pin at a critical, defining moment. Without his stubborn drive, energy, and charisma, the life force that fed the music scene in San Francisco changed… it became less super charged as creativity languished for many years after. It seemed less invincible.
The spot where Cliff died is 12-miles north of Ljungby in Sweden; there’s a memorial stone that fans recently put on the side of the road to denote the spot. From Stockholm the memorial is a 4-hour drive South. From Copenhagen it is a 2-hour drive North. Ironically, Cliff hated Copenhagen and it seems extra sad to me that this is where he spent his last moments. I have experienced the fear and despair at the thought of dying in a strange place and hope that in his last moments he was completely unaware of what was happening.
Back in California, hidden behind the playground at Marshall Elementary in Castro Valley where he and his family lived, there is another memorial to Cliff, his brother Scott, and others who were students or teachers at the school. In 1975, 16-year old Scott died of a brain aneurism and some have said that his death was the catalyst behind Cliff’s desire to be a musician.
I visited the site to pay my respects. Cliff’s memorial stone was clear and free of debris while others were covered with tree foliage. I spent time cleaning up the little garden out of respect and it was not lost on me that even 28-years after Cliff’s death people still come to the site to remember him.
RIP Cliff. As the stone says: Thank you for your beautiful music.