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IN SEPTEMBER 1986, a tragic accident shocked heavy metal fans around the world.

The tour bus of California's speed metal band Metallica crashed on an icy road in southern Sweden, instantly killing bass player Cliff Burton.

The three remaining musicians — singer/guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Lars Ulrich — escaped with only minor injuries.

Metallica's future looked dark, even doomed. But the bandmembers knew they weren't part of rock history yet. Just two weeks later, they put out the word that they were auditioning for a new bassist.

More than 60 hopefuls from around the United States turned up in San Francisco for two weeks of auditions in October. Twenty-three-year-old Jason Newsted of Phoenix, Ariz., got the job.

"I'm the happiest kid in the world, there's no question about it," said Jason in a recent interview backstage at the Stadthalle in Offenbach, Germany. "But it still hasn't hit me yet. It's still too weird, because these guys have been my favorite band since 1982."

After a few warm-up gigs in California and a tour of Japan, Metallica returned to Europe to finish the tour where it had left off.

Metallica knew that some fans might feel the band had acted too quickly following the accident, but as Jason sees it, "it was the best thing they could do."

"They would have hung around and just dwelled on it. And if you dwell on something that hard, it could really mess you up forever," he said. "Cliff would have been the first to say, 'Get it together.' "

Jason is no newcomer to the rock music scene. Five years with the Phoenix band Flotsam and Jetsam gave him the skill and speed he needed to compete with the best of the metal bassmen.

He had just four days to practice for the audition. But instead of learning only the four required songs — Master of Puppets, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sanitarium and, his favorite, Damage Incorporated — Jason went one step further. A friend from a local heavy metal magazine supplied him with Metallica's entire set list, and Jason learned it all.

"I practiced more than 10 hours a day for four days

straight," he recalled. "I locked myself in my room with my amp and guitar and Metallica's tapes and a bunch of coffee and learned everything."

The Japan tour presented no problem for Jason, since Metallica was virtually unknown in that country. It was a gig at New York City's 5,000-capacity Felt Forum that made him sweat.

"Cliff was a great player, the bass solo god of the world, and I was worried about whether the kids were gonna accept me," he said. "I had only done four or five bass solos up 'til then, and James goes, 'O.K., we're gonna make the new ---- do a solo.' I was sweating. Then all of a sudden — I look out there and there's this huge banner the kids have, it says, 'Welcome Jason, Cliff rest in peace.'

"I proved to them that Metallica is an unstoppable force and that I could fill in and we could keep pounding on."

Metallica was formed in October 1981 by Danish drummer Lars and singer James. Based in Los Angeles, the two recorded their first track, Hit the Lights, for a heavy metal compilation album. The song quickly reached the top of the underground metal charts.

In 1982, Cliff replaced bassist Ron McGovney, and a year later Kirk took the place of guitarist Dave Mustaine. With the new lineup, Metallica earned a reputation as the fastest band in the West.

Relentless touring in the U.S. and Europe, opening for such acts as Venom, Armoured Saint and W.A.S.P., and the success of their two albums — Kill 'Em All and Ride the, Lightning- established Metallica as California's No. 1 speed metal band.

But it was with Master of Puppets that Metallica was able to broaden their legion of fans. The album hit the Top 30 of the Billboard charts, selling in excess of half a million copies, and prompted even Rolling Stone magazine to praise it for its "subtlety, musicianship (and) messages."

Jason is already in tune with the Metallica philosophy. "We don't try to put ourselves off as larger than-life gods, like Kiss or Bon Jovi or whoever's big right now," he said. "We're just kids, just like the kids who come to watch us. We just get to play more, that's all."

He despises the current glam-metal trend of glitzy costume and makeup, preferring to appear on-stage in typical Metallica style: jeans and T-shirt. For one thing, he said, the costumes are uncomfortable, but most of all, "it ain't real."

Neither does Jason espouse the stereotypical heavy metal credo. "Either side of the fence, if bands use the Jesus thing for a gimmick or the satan thing for a gimmick — and they don't feel it — it's stupid.

"James writes about things that matter to him, things that are real, that maybe make a difference to some people.."

Master of Puppets, for instance, is "about manipulation — whether it's by the government or churches or drugs or people or bosses."

One thing's for sure: Metallica will never join in the race for a No. 1 hit single. There's no pressure from the record company for them to do so, and, said Jason, "I don't think any of that really matters.

"We just wanna create cool stuff and play it and just have fun. Because that's what it's all about."

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