James Hetfield Reflects on the Anniversary of Cliff Burton’s Death: ‘He’s Here in Spirit’
During the days leading up to the 30th anniversary in 2016 of founding Metallica bassist Cliff Burton's tragic death, frontman James Hetfield shared his perspective on that loss — and how he's still processing the grief he avoided dealing with for years.
"I miss Cliff a lot. I think about him quite often," Hetfield's quoted as saying in a new interview posted at the band's official site. "But it also makes me realize that, you know, he’s here in spirit. He’s not here physically, but there are people that are here physically, and let’s have some good times now."
Asked whether it's possible he's only now "relaxing into" feeling like he can finally openly grieve for Burton, Hetfield immediately agreed, saying "there's no doubt about it" and briefly reliving the torturous lengths he and his bandmates went to in order to avoid facing their feelings head-on.
"We drank a lot. And then when Cliff passed away, it was doubled, you know? Took twice as much to stuff it down. And [I] never, ever really grieved," said Hetfield. "We just went back out, started touring again, and that was supposedly the remedy to shake it off and to get back on the horse, all the clichés. But you know, when I was in rehab in 2001, they said, 'You gotta hang out a couple more weeks because of the grieving. There’s your mom and Cliff, the two people that you have never been able to grieve around. You gotta do some work on it.' So we did. And I think just by [opening up to the] memories, just by thinking about him, feeling his presence, that’s how grieving is happening for me over a longer period of time."
As much as Metallica fans were saddened by Burton's death — and as profound an impact as it had on the group musically — it was the loss of his friendship that mattered the most to his bandmates. Saying he misses Burton "more as a person than as a musician," Hetfield went on to talk about the things he's learned about himself in the wake of his death.
"He and I were pretty alike as far as things that we liked and things that we liked to do. I think I learned a lot from him, and I learned a lot after he passed. You know, 'What would Cliff do?' But I think I’m able to be more myself," mused Hetfield. "He taught me that, you know? He helped teach me that it’s okay to be different and to stand up for what you believe in. You don’t have to have all the ammo in the world to fight the war, just be you. That’s enough."