Cliff Burton: "He Was Just A Beautiful, Beautiful Human Being"
Jonny and Marsha Zazula, founders of Megaforce Records who first signed Metallica, recall the band's earliest days and the always 'warm and respectful' Cliff Burton that they knew
Jon and Marsha Zazula are the husband-and-wife business partners who became Metallica’s first managers, and who formed their own label, Megaforce Records, in order to release Metallica’s first two albums.
They were running their own record store in New Jersey, called Rock’N’Roll Heaven, when they first met the band in 1983. Blasting out Metallica’s early No Life ’Til Leather demo cassette every day, says Jonny, “Everybody was coming round from everywhere going ‘What the fuck is that?’ Before you know it, the siege of Metallica started.”
Each night, Jonny would sit in his living room with the band making more copies of No Life… to sell at the store for $4.99. “So they had some money to eat and live while they were here. And we sold tons of them.”
Marsha recalls how Lars would hang out at the store every day. “Lars was always the one. He just was always, ‘I’m gonna get there. I’m gonna do this and we’re gonna do that.’”
They were less enamoured of original guitarist Dave Mustaine. The first time he came to the store, he was so drunk “he spent the entire time throwing up outside. As people were leaving, he’s there with long hair and vomit all over the place, just puking up a storm.” Jonny, who was getting complaints “all the time” for playing his records so loud, “didn’t need this” extra aggravation.
Recalling the days when the band slept on the floor of their house, Marsha says: “If I have to say who was I closest to in those days, who did I bond with the most, it was Cliff. He was a treasure to have in my home. He was great, he was respectful. He was warm. He would help me out with our daughter Rikki, because she was so little and I would be busy. It would be time for her to go to bed and so he’d read her a story or sing her a song.
“He was really a hippy in a heavy metal band, with his bell-bottoms and his whole persona, just a beautiful, beautiful human being.” She adds, “In terms of the decisions that were made, Lars was the ringleader and he said it and that was it, they moved in that motion. Cliff wasn’t... involved in that aspect of the band. He was a musician, pure.”
The last time they saw Cliff was the day after the final show in London on the Master Of Puppets tour, where Anthrax, who they were now managing, were opening the show.
Marsha: “Not knowing that would be our goodbye, it was such a lovely afternoon we spent together that I felt somehow comforted by it when he did go. It was a day off and so we all had gone out to Carnaby Street. Cliff had a [skull] ring that he had made at [specialist jewellery store] The Great Frog. So we went over there and he picked up his ring and we just went out and had lunch and sat and caught up. He was always respectful of what Jonny and I had taken from our lives to give them that time. We sat and reminisced about the old days when they lived in the house and the things that had been done, and then of course we parted ways and Jon and I got on a plane and came back to the States.”
Jonny and Marsha were in San Francisco, looking to sign a band named The New Order, soon to become Testament, when they received a call from Anthrax tour manager Tony Ingenere giving them the news.
“We were in our hotel, pretty excited about finding this new band,” Jonny says now. “It was about three in the morning when the phone rang. I was like, ‘What’s wrong? Why are you calling us in the middle of the night?’ Tony was like, ‘Cliff Burton is dead. There’s been a terrible accident.’”
Unable to get back to sleep, Jonny and Marsha went for a long walk down towards the Bay. Marsha: “That was just devastating beyond our wildest dreams that [Cliff] of all of them – that warm, settled soul – should be the one who lost his life in that episode.” Wandering towards the rehearsal complex where they had earlier met with Testament, they were amazed by what they found.
“Every room, there was some bass player wailing away doing Metallica songs. Cliff had only been dead a few hours and the Bay Area was already full of young guys thinking they might replace him. It was sick-making.”