Opinion: The Cliff Burton ‘Should’ve Been…’ Jokes Are Really Gross

On September 27th, 1986, Metallica were traveling through Sweden on tour when their bus hit a patch of black ice. The bus crashed, and bassist Cliff Burton was killed. This was a huge blow for so many reasons — the band had just released Master of Puppets and were on top of the world; Cliff was the thoughtful hippie-punk who many considered the heart of the band; and his death resulted in Metallica dealing with their grief in unhealthy ways, including substance abuse and tormenting Cliff’s replacement, Jason Newsted. It also marked what many consider a turning point in the band’s sound, leading countless fans to claim that Metallica died with Burton. Even worse, it sparked a series of shirts, stickers, and memes talking about the member of Metallica it should’ve been instead of Cliff. Should’ve been Lars. Should’ve been Kirk. You get the idea.

And that’s really fucking gross. And the people who make those cracks should cut it out. We all love a dark joke, but saying that one member of Metallica deserved to fucking die over another is shitty, and in poor taste. Not only that, it shows that you don’t know shit about how people work, because if any other member of Metallica had died, you’d be lighting candles for them and making a Should’ve Been Cliff shirt like an asshole anyway.

We can understand why people associate Cliff Burton’s death with the shift in Metallica’s sound. The band were never quite the same after Master of Puppets, in part because of the stultified mourning the remaining members were going through. …And Justice for All was long, harsh, and bass-less; the Black Album was a biker metal record; and the next three albums after that were a bit lost and confused. On paper, it looks like Cliff’s passing took the punk out of Metallica…

…except if anything, Burton was the homebody of the band. While everyone else in Metallica were excited to live the nonstop road life, Cliff began to think about a normal-ass future. In a classic interview dug up by Blabbermouth, Lars Ulrich remembered when the band first found out they could make money, saying, “I remember Cliff sitting there and going, “Fuuucccckkk, I can buy a house,” and the rest of us were, I mean, the rest of didn’t want to buy a house — we wanted to stay on tour! We didn’t want to go home!” 

Watch out, guys, whoever made this is a real badass.

That’s what makes an artist’s death tragic: the What Could’ve Been. Maybe Cliff would’ve helped Metallica get even bigger and more amazing than they ever could have been otherwise…or maybe he would’ve gone even harder on the Black Album’s direction, demanding that Metallica become a bar band. Maybe he and Trey Anastasio would’ve formed a side-project that sounded like crickets in the night. We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter — the dude’s legacy is really all that’s important. It’s sad that legacy ended on September 27th, 1986, but hey, that’s how it went.

Which is part of why the Should’ve been… jokes are terrible in the first place. Let’s say this oh-so-edgy T-shirt slogan had happened, and Lars Ulrich had died in that crash. No matter how Metallica had sounded afterwards, a body of their fans would’ve decided that nope, uh-uh, it isn’t Metallica without Lars. This would lead to metal purists talking about pre-Lars versus post-Lars Metallica, and saying that the way the band handled Lars’ death was unfair, and at the end of the day a Should’ve been Cliff shirt would’ve popped up. If music fandom has shown us anything, it’s that toxic jagoffs are always going to use an event to define themselves and their experience of art.

Because it is toxic. Cracking jokes about who should’ve died in Metallica lacks empathy and shows that you don’t consider those four dudes people. Hell, it shows that you never considered Cliff Burton a person, but rather some magical musician who in your mind was most important for his death. You don’t really give a shit about Cliff if you’re talking about who should’ve died in Metallica. No one should’ve died in Metallica. If James or Kirk or Lars had been killed in that crash, Cliff Burton would’ve been fucking devastated. But hey, guess you didn’t really like ReLoad, so who cares that these guys basically had PTSD for 20 years? Gross, man.

Yeesh, it’s just a joke, don’t be so sensitive, we hear some of you say. It’s punching up — those guys are millionaires, they’ll live. That may be, but if one of your closest friends died in a car crash, and you saw me wearing a Should’ve been you shirt, you probably wouldn’t be very happy. Worse, you might sink into a survivor’s guilt spiral, wondering if it in fact should have been you (I mean, depends on how much you love your friends, but one assumes). In that respect, the only people who get a pass for wearing one of these shirts are the guys in Metallica. It’s like how you can insult your own family, but when other people do, you get angry. It’s theirs to say, if they want to.

Let’s be honest, if you tweeted Should’ve been Kirk, and Kirk Hammett reached out to you and said, ‘What the fuck, man?’ you wouldn’t be edgy. You’d probably make an excuse  about your dark sense of humor and take down the tweet eventually. Because you’d suddenly be confronted with the humanity of what you’re saying, which would make you realize that your dark sense of humor isn’t helping anyone beyond venting a gritty thought. After Cliff died, Metallica never perpetuated war crimes, or abused children, they just made some iffy records. You think one of those dudes should’ve died for that? Come the fuck on.

That’s the thing — Metallica are just dudes. Sure, they’re the dudes who tried to kill free music sharing in its cradle, and they’re dudes who do and say some Dethklok-level dumb rich-guy shit from time to time. But they’re also four guys, three of whom lost one of their best friends to a terrible accident. While you may feel edgy telling the world which one of them should’ve died instead, that wisecrack loses weight pretty soon after the initial shock value.

You’re allowed to make that joke, sure. It’s a free country. It just makes you a real dick.

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Words by Chris Krovatin