31 Years Ago: Metallica Bassist Cliff Burton Dies in Tragic Bus Crash
Metallica emerged in the '80s as one of metal's brightest new stars. The upstart rock band consisted of singer/guitarist James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Cliff Burton and these "four horsemen" rode to the top of the metal genre on the strength of the Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets albums. But on Sept. 27, 1986, in the midst of a European tour, tragedy struck as Burton was killed in a bus crash.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn co-authored Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian's autobiography I'm the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax. Here he shares an excerpt from the book in which Ian recalls being on tour with Metallica at the time of Burton's death, as well as the days following the tragedy:
We had a day off and then we were scheduled to play 27 more shows in Europe with Metallica. The first date was in Lund, Sweden on September 24, and that was a good gig because no one spit at us and everyone loved both bands. The next day we played Lillestrom, Norway for about 4,000 people, which was also great. Then we went back to Sweden to play Solna near Stockholm. That was Cliff’s last show.
It was at a big gymnasium-type place that held thousands of kids. Normally, we'd stick around every night for Metallica’s show and then hang out and goof around when they finished, leave at the same time and head to the next city. We were on a bus now, which made traveling easier, but that night we decided to leave early because the roads were icy. There had been a storm and our driver wanted to head to Copenhagen as soon as possible to avoid the streets possibly freezing up. We figured we had another month on the road to hang out with Metallica, so no big deal. We saw the guys after we finished our set and I said, “We’re going to take off. We’ll see you guys tomorrow in Denmark.”
We got into Copenhagen and stepped off the bus around 9:30 the next morning. We had a hotel that night because we had the next day off. When we went to check into our hotel we were pretty groggy as we walked into the lobby to the front desk. I saw our tour manager talking to some guy, so I waved and said, “Hey Mark, what’s up?" Then I saw a look of total shock on his face. He had no color in his cheeks, he looked scared. Something was not good.
“The promoter for the show tonight says there’s been an accident,” he told me. “Metallica’s bus crashed on the way here.” Then he paused, and when he started to speak again he had to force the words out – almost cough them into existence. “Cliff was killed in the accident. Everybody else is okay. Lars had some minor injuries and was taken to a hospital.”
My brain started spinning like a gyroscope. I replayed the sentence, “Cliff was killed in the accident” over and over. After what seemed like five minutes, but was probably only ten seconds, I shook my head and said, “Really? Really? You believe that?!?” I was in complete denial. “There’s no way. I’m sure they just got too f--ked up to make bus call and they made up this crazy story. We’ll all laugh about it later.”
Anything seemed more plausible than the thought that their bus had crashed and Cliff was actually dead. I had never heard of anything like that before, I'd never ever heard of any band’s bus ever crashing let along killing a member. It seemed completely unreal. When you’re in this tour bubble and things are going great, you feel invincible. Something like this happening was out of the realm of possibility. I asked the promoter, “Are you sure?”
“Yeah I’m sure,” he said.
I didn't know what to say, didn’t want to believe it. Then reality hit me like a sucker punch. People around us started talking about what had happened. Fans showed up at the hotel to show their support. Somehow everyone knew where we were staying and eventually there was a big crowd in the street. Mark got a call that James and Kirk were on their way to the hotel. Lars had checked out of the hospital. He broke a toe, but would be fine. He had family in Denmark so I figured he was going to see them.
Mark asked if we would stay at the hotel to be with James and Kirk when they arrived. Of course we would. Our friend was dead and our other friends were grieving. It was insane. A couple hours later James and Kirk showed up. James was heavily sedated and drunk at the same time. Kirk said doctors had given James a bunch of sedatives because he was freaking out, but they didn’t put him to sleep so he kept drinking. We were all in a room together and James kept pounding beer, vodka, whiskey – whatever was within his reach.
Kirk was pretty drunk, too, but stable. He told us what happened. He wasn’t awake when the bus crashed. All he knew was he was suddenly getting thrown around like a rag doll in a clothing dryer. Then it stopped and he got out of the bus and everyone was screaming. It was pitch black. Everyone was trying to account for everybody else, and no one could find Cliff. And then they saw his legs sticking out from under the side of the bus and they fucking lost their minds. I can't even imagine what that was like and I never want to know. Even to this day it’s hard for my brain to wrap around that image.
James suddenly started crying and screaming, “Cliff!!! Cliff!!” Then he became destructive. He kicked over lamps and threw bottles of booze. Frankie and Charlie looked at each other and without saying a word, mutually decided to get James outside before the hotel had him arrested. They didn’t care that Cliff was dead. They just wanted to prevent their place from getting trashed. The two of them took James outside for a walk figuring maybe he’d calm down. I stayed inside with Kirk. We could hear James down the street screaming Cliff’s name over and over. I was completely heartsick. I hung out with Kirk a little while longer. He was finally passing out. He said, “I'm going to sleep, I don't think I'll see you in the morning,” They were leaving super-early to fly back to San Francisco.
We didn’t know what we were doing. People were scrambling to try and get us flights, but we were supposed to be on the tour for five more weeks. Now, we had to try to change tickets and get back home and no one had any money to buy new tickets. We were stuck in Copenhagen the whole next day, then Jonny Z figured out the cheapest way to get us home. We flew to London, stayed there for a day, and then got a flight back to New York. As soon as I got home I showered, packed my bag, slept then got up to fly to San Francisco.
I stayed at James’ little apartment in the city for four days, hung out with Metallica and then went to the funeral. I met Faith no More drummer Mike Bordin for the first time, and their guitarist Jim Martin; they were good friends with Cliff. We all hung out at Kirk’s house for hours and hours every day drinking beer and talking. Those guys were already figuring out what to do next.
Within a couple of days, we were sitting around Kirk’s house, making jokes. Someone said, “Get Lemmy.” We were just throwing stupid names out there to keep the tone as light as possible, so we weren’t all completely depressed. We drank and told stories about Cliff. It was so surreal. I half expected him to walk through the door and say, “Ha, ha. I got you guys!” It seemed like something Cliff would do.
Then Metallica were auditioning people. I thought Armored Saint’s bassist Joey Vera was going to get the gig. He seemed like the obvious candidate. He’s a great player and they were already friends. But he decided to stay with his band, which was doing pretty well on its own. Armored Saint had two records out on Chrysalis and were just about to record Raising Fear. Next thing I knew, they had offered the job to Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted. Michael Alago, who signed Metallica to Elektra is the one who told me. I had never heard of Flotsam and Jetsam. I said, “Jason who?”
I finally got hold of Kirk, and he said, “Yeah, Jason is a great dude. He’s ripping it up. He fits in really well and we’re getting along great. I think we're going to go back to Europe and try to make up some of the shows and hopefully you guys can come with us.”
I hoped that would work out and it did. When Metallica made up the European shows they canceled when Cliff died we went back out with them and they were absolutely triumphant. It felt like snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
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