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A Metallihistory From 1985 To Cliffs Death

The inside story behind the tragic death of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, from the book Metallica Unbound: The Unofficial Story by band authority K.J. Doughton.

The summer of 1985 gave Metallica an opportunity to rest up and throwing around concepts for their next album. The relaxation was short-lived, however, as they embarked on a series of festival appearances. First up was the August 17th Castle Donington Monsters Of Rock Festival in the U.K., where Metallica was scheduled to play before 50,000 English fans. Since no gigs were planned in Britain besides Donington, and complete tour crew hadn't been assembled, guitar tech John Marshall assumed responsibility for shipping the band's gear and equipment to London and chauffeuring them around Great Britain.

"All the guys were always in the back, getting pissed drunk," he told an interviewer, recalling the band's excited response to arriving in England. "Cliff was in the front, crankin' the stereo and pounding on the dashboard. I'd stop to look at a map, and they'd all stagger out to take a leak, after which I'd have to round them up and kick 'em in the ass to get back on the bus." At Donington, Metallica was scheduled fourth on the bill that included ZZ Top, Marillion, Bon Jovi, Ratt and Magnum. Metallica fans crowed over the fact that the band was billed above Ratt, the innocuous platinum-sellers from the image-conscious streets of L.A. James, mindful of the strong contrasts between the bands, remarked mid-way into Metallica's set, "If you came here to see spandex, eye make-up, and the words 'Ooh, baby' in every f**kin' song, this ain't the f**kin' band!" Once they were back on home turf, the band prepared for Oakland's Day On The Green festival. A crowd of over 60,000 was expected for the day-long affair, which was to be held on September 30th. Metallica did not disappoint their fans. Their Day On The Green performance was a "home-town-boys-make-good" celebration, and served as a much-needed antidote to the overbaked posturing of other bands on the bill : Yngwie Malmsteen, Ratt, Y&T and Scorpions. Y&T, which at one time ignited the Bay Area music scene with such impassioned, all-American hard rock albums as Stuck Down and Earthshaker, now wore silk suits and were accompanied on stage by bulky, plastic robot mascot. In stark contrast, Metallica dressed in torn jeans and mingled with fans and downed beers before awakening the sun-baked California kids with bone-crushing set. Highlighting their performances was Cliff's throbbing bass solo and a tight rendition of 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' (both of which appear on the video compilation Cliff 'Em All).

This Day On The Green appearance also marked the first of James' many harsh encounters with Bill Graham, the legendary Bay Area promoter. Graham, a consummate professional, who hid not suffer fools lightly, read James the riot act after the guitarist trashed Metallica's backstage trailer. "Me and some of my rowdier friends were getting drunk and we started a food fight," laughs James. "Then someone got the idea to throw some fruit at this vent that went into the next trailer. We figured that when the fruit hit the vent, it would explode and spray all over whoever happened to be in there. So we were throwing all these things, and it got down to avocados, which were all that was left. The only problem was, the avocados wouldn't go through. So we took baseball bats and kinda smashed the vent apart. Then we went off on the furniture. Basically, the whole trailer got demolished." Graham was not amused. James was called into the promoter's office and scolded. "What happened in the trailer," reflects James, "was kind of what we used to do at our house in El Cerrito. We'd take all the furniture out of the place and throw parties, so you could get wild without breaking anything. If there was something there, it would get broken. So basically, we were treating the trailer like our home. But Bill couldn't understand how we could treat things like that."

The day after the Day On The Green show, Lars and James jumped on a plane to Copenhagen, where they planned to lay down drum and guitar track for their forthcoming album, Master Of Puppets, in the familiar confines of Sweet Silence studios. They were joined after a few days by their Metallica comrades, who'd enjoyed some more time resting at home. In late December Metallica came home for the holidays. Feeling restless, they took on a gig opening for Y&T in Sacramento. Then, on New Year's Eve, they headlined a powerhouse, hardcore metal marathon at the San Francisco Civic Centre, which also featured Exodus, Metal Church and Megadeth. It was a bill made in thrash-metal heaven, but the event took an upsetting turn during the induction of the new year. "At the end of the gig we were pretty f**ked up, with the countdown, and all the balloons dropping and everything," recalls James. "We were singing, and we basically wanted people in the crowd to sing along, but I couldn't get the mic off the mic stand to throw it out. So, I tossed the whole mic stand. The big metal base on the bottom kinda cracked some kid on the head. I guess he wasn't lookin' or something. We went to the first aid tent to get him bandaged up, and then we took him backstage. We were really giving him the works : champagne, T-shirts, that kinda stuff, hoping he wouldn't sue us, but a few weeks later, we got a call from some lawyer saying he was suing us anyway. We said, 'F**k you - give us our shirts back. Ha, ha!"

Upon hearing of the incident, promoter Bill Graham once again summoned the relentless troublemaker to his office. "He got kinda rough with me," confess James. "He couldn't understand how a band could be so violent. The whole aggression thing he was not into, because he was a real Sixties hippie-type guy. He was pretty open-minded about things, but he just couldn't understand it. I remember he threw me out of his office, and he told me he wasn't gonna book us any more shows. I thought, 'Damn, he's the only guy that can book bands in the Bay Area.' Basically, he held all the cards, so I had to go back to him - and he wanted me to crawl. So I went back in and told him, 'Hey, we're young and we're doing this because it's what we feel. And I don't think you can do anything wrong if you feel it. We're young we're learning.' And he understood that, and said, 'Okay'" After James patched things up with Graham, Metallica returned to Denmark to polish up their new album.

Master Of Puppets, Metallica's third album, was the product of five difficult months of studio effort. There were the trademark fast songs, like 'Battery' and 'Damage Inc.' which reprised the 'metal is the massage' attitude of older songs like 'Whiplash' and 'Metal Militia.' But there were also several extended musical marathons, like the title track - a hellish tale of drug abuse. Master Of Puppets, which followed Ride The Lightning, continued down the same progressive path taken by its predecessor. The new album was glued together by a cynical theme : the manipulation of the powerless by some sinister, all-knowing group. Its cast of unsavory characters - an evil melting pot of oily preachers, drug addicts, asylum inmates, mythical sea monsters, and order-barking generals seemed the product of a distrustful, ultra-paranoid mindset. "We've been observing the way people get f**ked around, sometimes without even realising it," Lars explained during a fan club interview. "Many songs on this record explore various forms of manipulation." Bassist Cliff Burton elaborated further on Master Of Puppets. "The title song deals for the most part with the kind of things that happen when people get dependent upon drugs. 'Disposable Heroes' examines the military. Personally, I would say the 'master' of this whole thing is fate. Viewing drug dealers as being 'masters' is to look at it very narrowly, because they're just peddling their wares. I'm not really sure how James, who wrote it, looks at it. The way I see it, everyone gets ground under the wheels. Whoever is on the playing field is fair game, and it's up to them to avoid being used." Master Of Puppets was released on February 21st, 1986. It immediately entered Billboard's Top 30, and soon was certified gold. It was clear that a spot on a high-profile tour bill would be the one thing that could push the band even higher into the stratosphere. As it turned out, the band would not have to wait long. Enter Ozzy Osbourne.

Metallica was soon invited to open for Ozzy Osbourne, on the ex-Black Sabbath vocalist's Ultimate Sin tour. James Hetfield had long been able to hypnotize club audiences with his steely gaze, but there was some doubt whether he'd be able to do the same in arenas. But, these doubts were soon erased : When he chanted 'SEEK AND .....' the huge crowds on the tour responded with a deafening "DEEEEESTRRRROOOYYY!" It was clear that these concert goers had known about Metallica for a while. Things went exceptionally well on the tour, until James suffered a serious injury. Guitar tech John Marshall remembers relaxing behind an amphitheater in Evansville, Indiana, where the band was scheduled to perform. "I say Bobby Schneider, the tour manager, with James, who had this pained expression on his face. Obviously, he'd hurt something pretty badly. Then Kirk ran up to me and said, 'You might be playing rhythm guitar for us tonight!' I thought, 'Gee, okay,' not taking him seriously."

John Marshall took the situation far more seriously when he learned that James had been hospitalized and sedated as the result of a skateboard accident. It was soon determined that the frontman's arm was badly broken. That evening, when the other three Metalli-members announced to the crowd that they would be unable to play, they were met with chants of "Bull-shit! Bull-shit! Bull-shit!". Before leaving for Nashville, where the following evening's show was scheduled, James stumbled back to the Mesker Theatre and gathered his bandmate together. It was quickly determined that James, his arm covered by a cast and requiring weeks to heal, would be unable to play rhythm guitar. Metallica's management, Q-Prime, had already informed the band that forfeiting the tour would mean losing a considerable amount of money. Beyond the cash factor, there was another issue : Metallica's integrity. The band panicked at the thought of another round of angry booing. But James detailed a scenario that would allow Metallica to continue the tour. He would simply sing, while a replacement rhythm guitarist would assume power-chord duties.

Among the names tossed around as a possible stand-in was Anthrax's Scott Ian. However, the honor ultimately went to a different candidate : the ever-reliable, battle-scarred road dog extraordinaire, John Marshall. "The decision to have me do it," explains John, "was based on the fact that I knew all the parts. After all, I was the band's guitar tech. So while this other roadie and I drove the truck to Nashville, I played guitar along with the Master Of Puppets tape. The whole time I was thinking, 'Whoa this is gonna be a trip.'" When the band arrived at Nashville's Hyatt Regency Hotel later that night, James coached the anxious "fifth member" through various tricks of the rhythm guitar trade. When Metallica took the stage soon afterwards, John was hidden in a small compartment alongside the P.A. system, several feet behind the band. "The first night I played about five songs," he recalls. "I think the band was afraid it wasn't gonna work. Lars told me later that he'd been real skeptical about it, and that it had taken him a few gigs to realize that it was gonna be okay. I couldn't play like James, so it sounded different. As a roadie, you don't practice four or five hours a day. You tune up the guitar and play for five minutes. We'd open with 'Battery' and 'Master Of Puppets.' James would run around the stage, just singing, with guitar parts mysteriously coming from nowhere. So after those first two songs, James would announce : 'Obviously, I'm not playing : we've got this guy who's playing guitar.' Then I'd walk out and wave, then go back to my little hidden corner."

John played rhythm guitar for five more American gigs, at the end of which Metallica took a month off. The band assumed that James's arm would heal in time for their upcoming European headlining tour, so when September rolled around and the frontman's precious limb was still tender, everyone panicked. Reasoning that what worked once would work on a second time, they summoned Marshall. Beginning in Cardiff, Wales, on September 10, John once again shared the stage with Metallica, this time hidden behind one of the huge crosses that comprised the band's stage set. "I was off to one side where the crowd could kind of see me," he recalls. "As the night would go on, Cliff would look over at me and go, 'Get the f**k out here! Come out and play!' Four gigs into the tour, I was basically on the stage. I didn't move around too much 'cause I was really scared. I also felt kind of obligated not to do too much, since I wasn't really part of the band."

John did 12 shows in Europe. Along with his playing duties, he continued to serve as guitar tech. "I'd get there in the afternoon, help unload the truck, set up my amps, plug 'em in, do the soundcheck, put on stage clothes, eat dinner, do the gig, wave and walk off the stage, rest for a minute, start unplugging the amps, load them up, and haul them into the truck. I got paid double. I made more money in those three weeks that I ever made at one time in my life. Playing was fun, but it was hard, and I couldn't wait to get back to being only a roadie." By the time the band reached Stockholm, Sweden, on September 26th, the long hours of double-duty were affecting John's health. His diabetes, which requires daily insulin injections, put a further damper on his well-being. Burned out and battered, John decided to resign when the tour ended in November.

James resumed his rhythm guitar playing that night. "They just slayed," recalls John. "It was the first gig in which James played guitar in three months, so they were really up for it. They just slaughtered." The vibe that night was one of relief and recovery. The band was now 100 percent, a well-oiled machine. It looked like the next two months, in which the band was scheduled to conclude the tour and close the books on 'Master Of Puppets', would be a breeze. After the Stockholm show, the band hopped on the tour bus and into their bunks for the long drive to Copenhagen. On board were the four band members, along with drum tech Flemming Larsen, guitar assistants John Marshall and Aidan Mullen, and road manager Bobby Schneider. The driver, an Englishman who had been hired for the duration of the multi-country tour, was behind the wheel. About 6:30 a.m. the band members were awakened by a violent jolt. The vehicle had been in an accident, and was now lying on its side. How did it happen? John recaps the horror, and sheds some light on the question of what exactly occurred :-

"We were on a two-lane road. The bus went off to the right, and I think the driver overcorrected, cranking the wheel to the left to get us back on the road. The wheel grabbed, and the bus swung completely around. During this time, the tail of the bus was sliding, kind of fishtailing around and bouncing on its wheels. That was right when we all started to wake up. I think I bounced right out of my bunk. The bunks were like trays with foam in them. The foam was held in place by a wooden lip. When the bus started rocking, my back bounced across that lip. Afterwards, I could barely walk, it hurt so bad. The bus eventually slid to the dirt alongside the road. When the wheels caught, the bus rolled over on its side."

Schneider had shattered two ribs. Lars had broken a toe. Kirk's eye was blackened. Kirk, who'd blacked out after being thrown from his bunk, snapped to consciousness and made his way through a side emergency hatch. Outside, his eyes widened at the sight of Cliff, his body limp and lifeless, pinned under the bus. Cliff Burton, master bass playing, composer, rager, and bandmate, was dead. "Cliff was on the top level of the right rear bunk, and I think that as the bus was bouncing around, he was sort of pushed through the window," speculates John. "Then when the vehicle fell over on its right side, he was halfway out the window and it fell on him." Meanwhile, the bunks had toppled like matchsticks, teetering into one another and collapsing into what resembled a pile of kindling. Mullen and Larsen, who'd also slept in right-side bunks, were pinned under the rubble for nearly three hours before the fire department jacked up the debris and rescued them. "When the bus first stopped on its side," continues John, "I remember hearing this noise that sounded like water. I was afraid we'd landed in a creek and were halfway underwater. But the noise was only that of the motor still running."

Within minutes, John and the band had pulled themselves from the bus and were huddling outside. "We were all sitting out there in 35 degree weather, with me in my socks and underwear before someone gave me a blanket. I remember Kirk and James yelling at the driver. By then, everyone had begun to realize that something was wrong with Cliff. I remember James walking up the road a bit to see if there was ice on the road, because the driver had claimed he'd slid over a sheet of ice. Kirk was crying." When asked what he remembers of the rest of that nightmarish evening, James poignantly responds, "I just recall our tour manager Bobby saying, 'Okay, let's get the band together and take them back to the hotel.' The only thing I could think was, 'The band? No way! There ain't no band. The band is not "the band" right now. It's just three guys." John who was routed to the emergency room of a nearby hospital, remembers coming to the realization that something was very wrong. "I remember Bobby lyin' next to me, as they were taking our blood pressure and stuff, and saying, 'Cliff's gone you know.' All of a sudden, the reality of everything hit me. Right then, I looked above, at the ceiling, and thanked whoever was up there that nobody else had been seriously hurt, and that it hadn't turned out even worse than it was." By afternoon, band and crew had checked into a hotel. The dazed group dealt with their anxiety in the manner they were most accustomed to : drinking. James broke two hotel windows and screamed, venting his rage. John remembers that he and Kirk were so shaken up that they slept with the lights on in their room that night. Two days later, Metallica, minus one, returned to America.

An uncharacteristic silence veiled the Metallica camp in the days that followed. Flowers poured into the band's fan club. Radio stations that had always ignored Metallica's music now broadcast over-the-air condolences. The Bar Area newspapers were filled with downbeat articles announcing the death. The music community - artists, road crew associates, record company executives, studio professionals and fans - mourned the loss of one of its own. What was the eccentric, earthy charisma that made Cliff Burton so special? Brash and compassionate, twisted and studious - and scrupulously honest - Cliff cut a presence which few who met him ever forgot.