Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, The 30th Anniversary: “Ride The Lightning”
If you don’t understand what this is or why we’re doing this, read this.
In the ’80s, we loved James Hetfield. James the riff god. James the spitting contrarian. James the beer-chugging hesher. But that last James, the rad vibe longhair with whom every fan wanted to hang, never showed his face on proper Metallica albums. So at home, we loved to tweak his lyrics, to change the super-serious expressions of Metallica jams to something more in line with his stage banter. In “Fight Fire With Fire,” the second and last lines of the chorus became “Thirsty for beer” and “Hand me some beers,” respectively. (“We all shall die!” became “Budweiser!”) We sang that awesome line in “Frayed Ends Of Sanity” as “Fighting for Miller beer!” In the last verse of “Blackened”: “In minutes drink some beers!” The penultimate moment of “Disposable Heroes”: “I was born for Leinie’s!!!”
Over the years and many, many listens, our beer-themed lyrics took hold and replaced the originals in our minds (well, right up to the moment that Metallica itself became the joke). Via our revisions, no longer was Jaymz a metalhead aspiring to lofty statement; nay, he was just pissed off about encroachment on his right to beer. We did this to all Metallica songs, the more serious the better.
Except one: “Ride The Lightning,” one of James’ most serious — and most fertile for clowning. It’s about a man in the last moments of his life, facing a horrible death before an audience and at the hands of hypocrites. And with a few key changes, this album centerpiece and all-time classic lyric could become the story of a guy who (you guessed it) is experiencing a critical shortage of beer. Even so, we never ever fucked with this song. Never thought to. Our minds were occupied with something else.
Somethings, actually: “Ride,” just the second song on the album that was the world’s introduction to the true Metallica, starts with a jolt via the least noodly harmony lick to that point in metal’s history. Settling into a minimalist Hetfield riff — not much to it, but played with force enough to power a train — the jam pushes the story to the forefront, a more American telling of Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name” with less theater and more panic sweat. Like its intro riff that balls-ified harmony guitars, that lyric elevated metal with its nimble twist: Its narrator admits to guilt and promises that he’s learned his lesson. Now, please god help him out of the freaking electric chair.
But no, he’s stuck there, and us with him. And after his most frantic realization (“Ay-ee/Don’t want/To/Diyeeeeeeeee”), time slows to allow for reflection: Wordlessly, atop Kirk Hammett’s best solo, we visit the crime that has lead to the end of his life. The solo’s first phase illustrates the hard-luck kid at work on the “perfect” crime; phase two, with “Ride” back at full gallop, is its terrible commission and aftermath. Snapping back to the present, he has changed but his refrain hasn’t: I. Don’t Want. To. Die.
But we know the rest: By the end of the final chorus, the burning in his brain is no longer metaphorical. With the clinical preparations of his executioners, the pre-verse riff returns — but this time with agonizing suspension. Then, most cruelly of all, a flash and he’s gone!