The first time I met Jan Burton was at a record store in San Francisco. I tripped out because I saw a middle-aged lady wearing a Metallica sweatshirt. I approached her and asked her if she was interested in some Metallica photos. She said, "Yeah, because one of them happens to be my son." I felt like a real fool. Over time, I came to know them, and Jan and Ray Burton are two of the most loving, genuine people I've ever met. They're still two of Metallica's biggest fans and keep in regular contact with James, Lars and Kirk. This interview was done at their apartment in Castro Valley, California, preceding a great meal cooked by Jan Burton. I would like to thank Jan and Ray for the interview and their hospitality.
Q: What was Cliff like as a kid?
JAN: He was a great kid, he was never a problem; he was really very quiet. He just led a really normal life except for one thing--he was always his own person, even when he was a little bitty kid. I used to say, "All the kids are playing outside, why aren't you out there playing with them?" And he said, "They're not playing, they're just sitting around talking. That's boring." Then he'd go in the house and read his books or put on his own music. Even when he was a tiny little kid he would listen to his music or read. He was a big, big reader and he was very bright; in the third grade they tested him and he got 11th grade comprehension. He just heard a different drummer; he never went with the crowd if he didn't want to. He was always popular and had a lot of friends. He was a very kind, very gentle kid but always his own person.
RAY: Cliff was 22 months old before he started walking on his own and we were quite concerned about it, but the doctor said, "There's nothing wrong with him. He's just smart enough to know that Mom and Dad will carry him around. (laughter) When we look back on it, it's quite humorous. He damn near broke Jan's back!
Q: What about his dedication to his playing?
JAN: He didn't take music lessons until he was 13, after his brother died. He said to a couple of people, "I'm gonna be the best bassist for my brother." We didn't think he had too much talent at all (laughs); we had no idea! We just thought he'd plunk, plunk along, which he did at first; it was really not easy for him at first. Then, about six months into the lessons, it started to come together. I thought, "This kid's got real potential," and I was totally amazed 'cause none of the kids in our family had any musical talent! He took lessons on the boulevard for about a year, and then he totally outgrew him [the teacher] and went to another place for a couple of years and outgrew him, too. Then he went to the school and took lessons from a very good jazz bassist, a very fine musician. He was the one who made Cliff take Bach and Beethoven and Baroque [music], and made him learn to read music and stuff like that. He was with him for a long time, and then he really outgrew him, too. He really got so good that he didn't need that anymore. He really did sit down and study and play Bach. He loved Bach.
Q: He practiced quite a bit, didn't he?
JAN: Between four and six hours a day, every single day, even after he got into Metallica. He was a very modest kid. He always said, "No, there's somebody in their garage that hasn't been discovered that's better than you are." Even in the last year with Metallica, when they had made it, it didn't make a difference to him. He still practiced every bit as much; he'd stay up all night and sleep late. But then when he got up, that's what he would do, is put on his bass first thing and play. One thing about him that probably was unusual was his consideration of us, 'cause he used to stay up all night. He didn't want to change his lifestyle; it was too hard on his body. Daniel [Donato] and Jim [Martin of Faith No More] would come over and they'd play Dungeons and Dragons or watch videos and he'd fix these huge meals, like omelets -- he loved to cook all this stuff -- and he'd very seldom wake us up. He was exceptionally considerate and loving.
Q: He was very honest, too.
JAN: Oh, he was so honest that sometimes you'd think, "Oh, Cliff, I wish you weren't quite so honest!" No little white lies for him, and sometimes that was kind of embarrassing. (laughter) We were talking about that once, and he said, "I don't have to lie for anybody. I don't want to lie." And that's how he felt about it. God, I think he hated lying more than anything. He was big on just being yourself.
Q: What about when he joined Metallica and things started taking off? It seems you always were behind him 100%.
RAY: Oh, yeah, we always felt it was Cliff's life and we respected what he felt he wanted to do. And even though the music wasn't the kind of music I would have really liked him to play, he wanted to play it. So I wished him all the luck in the world. You just can't fault him!
JAN: I didn't feel that way! I didn't care what kind of music he played as long as he was good at what he did. The fact that it was heavy metal made it kind of exciting to me, rather than some la-de-da pop or country. It was different to our lives, so I thought it was exciting; I still think the Metallica scene is exciting. We'd like to thank them, they've been wonderful to us. They've been attentive and loving and, you know, that should be known.
RAY: When he was about 21 or 22 he said, "I'm going to be a professional musician. I'm going to make my living as a musician." And that's what he did.
JAN: We said, "OK." 'Cause Cliff never gave up on anything! I've never seen that boy give up on anything or anybody. So I knew that when he said that, he 110% was going to go into it. Because we loved him very much and we respected him, we really tried to give him 110% because we felt he was very deserving of it. He had been playing with other little local bands up until that time. We said, "OK, we'll give you four years. We'll pay for your rent and your food. But after that four years is over, if we don't see some slow progress or moderate progress, if you're just not going anyplace and its obvious you're not going to make a living out of it, then you're going to have to get a job and do something else. That's as far as we're going to support you. It should be known by then whether or not you're going to make it, so he said, "Fine." And, boy, did he make it! Two years later. Of course, Kill 'Em All was the first.... You know, we had never really been exposed to heavy metal at all; it was so new to us. When Ride The Lightening came out I said, "Oh!!" It thought it was the best album in the world, you know. I was all scared and I said, "Cliff, how can you do a better one than that? It's impossible to do a better album." And then they came out with Master Of Puppets!" You know, they're just a talented group; and they're still a talented group.
Q: Did anything ever change after Metallica got popular?
JAN: No, nothing, not a thing.
RAY: He never acted like a bigshot, one bit. In fact, he really disliked anybody with that attitude.
JAN: He never considered himself a star. He said, "I'm just a good musician, but I'm not a star." He was a star, but he wouldn't recognize himself as that.
Q: You must be very proud of all his achievements.
JAN: Oh, God!! There are no prouder parents in the world! Nowhere is anybody prouder of their son. His achievements definitely.... But the kind of person he was along with it never changed, which I Dave and Jim think we're even more proud of. He always used to say, "Thank you, Mom 'n' Dad, for everything. Thank you for the support throughout the years." He never got bigheaded.
RAY: After he got popular he would continue to go out and jam with the kids he went to high school with, out at Judd's barn in Cull Canyon.
JAN: Fishing off the pier with his friends.
Q: What do you think he brought into Metallica? How did you see his role in the band?
JAN: Unquestionably, it was the uniqueness of a person playing the bass that had such extraordinary talent.... He was a very loyal person, extremely loyal, and he didn't want to leave Trauma. But Trauma wanted him to go plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk. He wanted to play lead bass and they said, "No way." He really became so frustrated at wanting to express himself musically. Metallica kept calling every week. They'd call him from L.A. and he'd say, "No, no." When they finally got together he'd say, "I wanna play lead bass. I want some spot in here where I can go off. And they said, "You can play anything you want, just come with us." They gave him a five-minute solo, and they still do that. Jason has that privilege now. I don't know about other bands, but there was never a bass player, unless he was the leader of the band, that took solos and wrote and played like Cliff.
Q: Yeah, he brought it out of the closet.
JAN: Absolutely. And many of the couple of thousand letters I got say that and just that.
Q: Is there anything you'd like to say personally to all the people who wrote you after Cliff died?
JAN: I'd certainly like to thank them all for their letters and for what I consider the whole heavy metal world and the Metallica world, for taking us into their hearts. Here, a year later, I'm still getting letters! That's real love and affection, and that's really helped us through this last year. I can't begin to express how much that has meant to us. I've written them, they've written back to me, and we've got a little correspondence going. It's a healing process, that love is being returned and sent.
Q: Ray, is there anything you would like to add?
RAY: I felt that he was an extraordinary young man, and the fact that he was my son made it all the more satisfying to me. He set his goals and made the choices of how to obtain those goals, and he did it. He felt that with Metallica there was a possibility of success. He stated that, "Every once in a while we may fall on our face, but we insist on doing what we wanna do." "We" was not "I." It was always we. He always took the other three fellows' points of view. I felt it was a very empathetic organization. He certainly had some bad times, especially on that first tour when they went back East.
Q: Yeah, they really had to rough it.
RAY: But it didn't stop him even when everything was stolen except three guitars. He still stayed in there and persisted. I can only admire and love the kid, along with Kirk, James and Lars. They were a marvelous team. He was doing something he definitely enjoyed and got that fulfilment from his job. It's just too bad that his part of it was terminated. Many of the letters have said that his memory will live on.