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Cliff Burton’s Death While On Tour With Metallica – What Were His Last Words?

cliff burton's death

You don’t burn out from going too fast.

You burn out from going too slow and getting bored.

Cliff burton

The Jaco Pastorius of metal, the sophisticated beast of the bass guitar, writer of the chilling chromatics that launch For Whom the Bell Tolls like an ice pick into the ear, Cliff Burton is one of music’s most missed masters.

Cliff Burton’s death rocked the music world to its core. In his four short years with titans of the thrash metal genre, Metallica, he helped create three of the most beloved, critically acclaimed, and best-selling metal albums of all timeKill ‘Em All (their incendiary 1983 debut), Ride the Lightning (1984), oh, and a little number you might have heard of called Master of Puppets (1986). (Have a look at our article on the Top 10 Metallica Album Covers here.)

With these sonic strokes of genius already under his belt at the tender age of 24, the sky seemed the limit for Cliff. No one could have guessed that on one fateful day in the fall of 1986, so far from the autumn of his own life, the bell would toll for him.

Much to the delight of those who knew him, Cliff wasn’t just eloquent when speaking through his Aria Pro II bass, but remarkably so when speaking in general. His words tinged with wisdom that far exceeded his years, and perhaps his last were the most poignant of all.

What Were Cliff Burton’s Last Words? (Spoken To Frank Bello)

While nobody outside of the three surviving members of the 1986 Metallica lineup knows of Cliff Burton’s true final words, the words he spoke to Frank Bello of Anthrax the night before his death are accepted by many as his last, and they’re eerily perfect.

When both bands had finished their shows, the two bass players would head over to catering, grab some snacks and supplies for the journey ahead, and before retiring for the evening, kick back, sip some coffee and discuss their performances.

The pair would end their catch-ups with a running joke.

One would say, “Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?”, and the other would reply, “Maybe I will.” The humor of course was that they were on tour together and would definitely see one another the next day.

In an interview with Loudwire, Frank Bello reminisced…

We’d all sit down, have a coffee and talk about the show. Cliff and I would do that, and the last thing we’d say to each other jokingly was, ‘Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow,’ ‘Maybe I will’.

I started it the last night Cliff was alive. I said ‘Hey, Cliff — maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.’

And as he’s leaving the room the last thing he says is, ‘Maybe I will.’ God rest his soul. He was awesome in every way.

As soon as Cliff Burton tragically passed away early the next morning, what started as an almost Monty Python-esque bit was transformed into a dark augury that resonates with the doomy existential dread we all contend with on a daily basis.

Never has the word “maybe” rung out with such melancholy and foreboding.

I know it was a bit they did most nights, but isolating this example, it almost seems like he knew something wasn’t quite right, that something in the near future was uncertain, oscillating between possible outcomes that would eventually be decided by the simple drawing of cards.

Cliff Burton is a shining example of someone who, as they say, was too good to stay.

A prodigious musician, pioneer of a world-beating genre, and a unanimously beloved and respected human being well before he even had a chance to reach his 30s, he managed to cram more goodness into his short life than most do in their full lifetime.

Ever an original thinker, he seemed destined to break the status quo of the music scene and help forge something entirely new, dangerous, and exciting.

Hell, he even broke the mold in terms of his style…

In a candid interview James Hetfield gave for The Metallica Club, he spoke about Cliff being remarkably secure in himself, even in the face of mockery, sharing Cliff’s love of bell bottoms as an example.

Hetfield reports that people would say, “‘Those things went out ten years ago,’ you know… He did not care.”

cliff burton's death

Contemplating What Cliff Burton’s Actual Last Words Might Have Been

Chances are, Cliff Burton’s actual last words were a lot more commonplace than those he shared with Frank Bello.

Perhaps he said goodnight to his fellow Metallicats and slunk off to bed.

Maybe he even gloated about winning Kirk’s bunk (more on that in just a sec).

It’s possible he was singing the lyrics of one of his favorite country songs before going to sleep or reading a line of a book aloud to himself — Cliff was a voracious reader!

If he spoke in his sleep, it might be that the words that were technically his last were just gobbledygook, fragments of his dream creeping through and influencing his physical body.

Nobody but the band has any clue, but the story Bello shared with the world is enough to satisfy our yearning to know the man a little better.

How Did Cliff Burton Die?

Now, I know after reading about his last words we’re collectively balling our eyes out whilst raising our drinks to heaven in a touching display of adoration, but let’s try to compose ourselves and remember Cliff’s last day on this earthly plane.

The year was 1986 and Metallica were part way through their Damage Inc. tour in support of their seminal album Master of Puppets.

They made it as far as Sweden, and, apart from a minor July skateboarding accident in which vocalist and rhythm guitar god James Hetfield broke his arm, all was well.

The shows were electric, the band was conquering the world, and their uncompromising sound was redefining the sonic landscape.

There was, however, one small problem… The bunks on their tour bus were, shall we say, substandard.

Kirk’s – the only bunk fitted with a window – was generally seen as the best, which is why on the evening of September 26th, Cliff decided that’s where he would like to sleep that night.

The men decided to draw cards, and according to Hammett’s recollection,

The first card Cliff picked was the ace of spades, he looked at me and said, ‘I want your bunk.’
So I replied: ‘Fine, take my bunk. I’ll sleep upfront. That’s probably better anyway.’

I know, I know… the ace of spades — How quintessentially metal.

The eeriness of Burton drawing “the death card” is also not lost on me, but I digress.

Cliff triumphed with his card selection, and claimed the spoils of his victory… Kirk’s window-adjacent bunk.

As the clocks were about to strike 7 a.m. on the 27th, the tour bus made its way through Kronoberg County when it careened off the road and flipped onto a grassy siding.

Sadly, the bunks had nothing in the way of safety restraints, and a sleeping Cliff Burton was violently thrown through the window and instantly crushed to death by the bus.

how did cliff burton die

Controversy Surrounding Cliff Burton’s Death

The driver claimed that the bus skidded off the road after coming into contact with black ice, but Hetfield claims to have walked the length of the road and been unable to find any such hazard.

Lennart Wennberg, a local freelance photographer who attended the site of the crash later in the day concurred with the band’s vocalist in a subsequent interview, reporting that black ice was “out of the question” as it had been a dry morning with temperatures reaching around 2 °C.

Police inspecting the scene claimed they couldn’t find any evidence to back up the driver’s claims either.

Later, Hetfield asserted that the driver was drunk, and Ljungy detective, Arne Petterson, claimed that the tire tracks left on the road were akin to those seen when drivers fall asleep at the wheel.

Still, the driver was found to be innocent of wrongdoing in a court of law.

What Does “Should Have Been Lars” Mean?

The metal community can be known at times for our particularly brutal sense of humor, there perhaps is no better example of this than the slogan “should have been Lars” that began circulating in various forms, a morbid assessment of the incident that asserts it would have been better if Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich was the one sleeping in the doomed bunk — Sorry, Lars!

One reason for fans desiring this grim reworking of the past is no doubt the comparative musical ineptitude of Ulrich — Burton was and still is considered one of the greatest bass players of all time, while Lars Ulrich’s drumming chops are frequently called into question.

Many consider Ulrich’s style – rudimentary as it may be when compared to his skin-slapping contemporaries – to be spinal in the anatomy of Metallica’s signature sound.

Others believe him to be the weak link of the group… a veritable Meg White of the metal world.

What’s more, adding fuel to the fire, it was leaked that, prior to the tragic accident that took Cliff Burton from us, Burton, Hetfield, and Hammet were contemplating parting ways with Lars when the Damage Inc. world tour wrapped.

Word on the wire is that plans to fire Ulrich were scrapped after Burton’s death.

Metallica’s Tribute To Their Fallen Brother

Despite losing a dear friend and primary songwriter, Metallica soldiered on, recruiting Jason Newstead as their new bassist and releasing …And Justice for All, the much anticipated 1988 follow-up to the now legendary Master of Puppets.

Nestled into the track list you’ll see the title “To Live Is to Die”, almost 10 minutes of instrumentals with only a few lines:

When a man lies he murders some part of the world.

These are the pale deaths which men miscall their lives.

All this I cannot bear witness to any longer.

Cannot the Kingdom of salvation take me home.

Featuring original Cliff Burton riffs, this song is Metallica’s tribute to their fallen brother, the title of which is a phrase he was particularly fond of.

Being that this is the last Metallica track with a Burton writing credit, many consider the lines set out above to be his last, symbolically speaking.

cliff burton death

Final Thoughts

In 24 short years, Cliff Burton cultivated a legacy that will endure until the end of days.

A musician’s musician, his knowledge and love of his craft endeared him to people across the globe he would never even meet, and his uncompromising and kind personality, to those who were lucky enough to cross his path.

His last words to Frank Bello are nothing short of remarkable, and really, none of us should be surprised, as he was truly a remarkable individual.

RIP Cliff — We miss you!

If you want to see the last interview with Cliff Burton and James Hetfield, be sure to check out this video from A Metalhead’s Journey.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where Was Cliff Burton Born?

Cliff Burton was born in Castro Valley, California

How Old Was Cliff Burton When He Died?

Cliff Burton was only 24 years old when he tragically died.

How Did Cliff Burton Die?

Cliff Burton died when Metallica’s tour bus crashed in Sweden in 1986.

Who Are The Other Members Of Metallica

The current members of Metallica are:
James Hetfield – vocals and rhythm guitar
Kirk Hammett – lead guitar and backing vocals
Robert Trujillo – bass and backing vocals
Lars Ulrich – drums

Former members of the band are:
Dave Mustaine – lead guitar and backing vocals
Ron McGovney – bass and backing vocals
Cliff Burton – bass and backing vocals
Jason Newstead – bass and backing vocals

How Many Albums Did Metallica Release?

Metallica has released 10 studio albums and 4 live albums and has sold more than 125 million copies worldwide.