Metallica and the Freedom to Roam
*This essay is excerpted and adapted from The Meaning of Metallica: Ride the Lyrics.
Metallica means freedom, and “Wherever I May Roam” is a declaration of individual independence, a freedom manifesto. The song starts with sitar, evoking visions of the far East, but this is an American tale in which the narrator abruptly announces, “And the road becomes my bride.” A striking beginning, it leaves us wondering who he is leaving and where he is going. We need not worry that this will be a cringeworthy song of self-indulgence in which a rock star complains about how tough it is to travel from town to town. Instead, the narrator is an ordinary person who pledges himself to the road life, embraces it as his wife. He thus becomes extraordinary and inspires us to aspire to be like him. It is no easy path ahead, but in the spirit of American adventure from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Kerouac’s On the Road, there will be much to learn.
We already know that the narrator will not be held back by anyone, but then we learn that he will not be weighed down by anything: “I have stripped of all but pride.” His provisions are minimal, and his pride is an asset. Rhymes bring us back to the bride as the narrator tells us, “So in her I do confide / And she keeps me satisfied.” We the listeners will not hear the narrator’s secrets. But he tells them to the road, and that is enough. As the metaphor plays out, the road is the lover who takes care of him emotionally and physically, “Gives me all I need.”
The second verse lets us know that this will not be a magical journey to a perfect place. The narrator depicts difficult conditions, “And with dust in throat I crave.” So we are not to imagine the airconditioned luxury of a sedan. He may be travelling by car, by motorcycle, or by foot. But whatever his mode of transportation, conditions are not comfortable. Nonetheless he relishes the road, because of the freedom it delivers. He takes what he needs and discards the rest. James Hetfield sings, “Only knowledge will I save.” As we’ll see, this is a journey of discovery, and it is self-knowledge that the narrator seeks above all else. He already knows what he is not; he already knows what he rejects, the life he left.
Switching to the second person, the narrator mocks those who are stuck where he was, “To the game you stay a slave.” He sees most people as pawns in a game that they do not control. They may think they are in charge, buying a house and climbing the corporate ladder, but they are really slaves. Without even realizing it, they serve the interests of more powerful people by trying to satisfy desires they did not create or choose for themselves. Every once in a long while, though, someone refuses to play the game and leaves. The response is predictable. People do not praise and admire the rebel. Instead, they mock and label him, as the narrator knows: “Rover, wanderer / Nomad, vagabond / Call me what you will.” The narrator has been labeled all his life, and these particular labels, like “wanderer,” are not compliments. They can be transformed, though. As Tolkien told us, “Not all who wander are lost.”
Indeed, Hetfield’s wanderer has embraced the freedom of his chosen life. No one tells him where to go or when, “I’ll take my time anywhere.” He faces no restrictions on his words and thoughts. Polite society no longer dictates what he can and cannot say, “Free to speak my mind anywhere.” Listeners can’t help but admire and desire such freedom, as we bite our tongues ten times a day and regret the results when we don’t. Of course, this freedom comes at a price.The narrator has traded the comfort and certainty of domestic dwelling for a life of nomadic wandering. To those he left behind, his bare-bones existence may look like hell. But in addition to the freedom from constraints he now enjoys, the narrator also has freedom to look at the world as he chooses. As he says, “I’ll redefine anywhere.” He has the freedom and ability to create something unexpected out of his circumstances.
In John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, Satan finds himself cast out of heaven. Rather than bemoan his fate, Satan reasons, “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Hetfield’s narrator is no Satan, but he is saying something similar in fewer words. His mind is free to redefine what a good and successful life is. Beyond that, he is free to redefine himself. Other people can label him however they want, but he is free to reject those labels and reconceive himself. And he will. In first-person narration, Hetfield sings, “Anywhere I roam / Where I lay my head is home.” It is the journey, not the destination that matters. Anywhere will do. Home is redefined. Home is not where the heart is, or anything silly or sweet like that. Home is where I am, wherever I am.
A powerful realization leads the narrator to declare, “And the earth becomes my throne.” Penniless, he is king of the world, servant to no one. It is a grandiose image but fitting to his freedom, not just freedom from societal constraints but freedom to create and make the world and himself as he desires.
Civilized society delivers certainty in the form of ready meals, prepackaged conversations, and warm beds. It is this comfort and certainty for which we trade our freedom. The narrator has struck a different bargain, welcoming the challenges and adversity of the road. As he tells us, “I adapt to the unknown.” In the absence of domestic certainty, he has become an improvisational actor who readily makes the most of what is thrown at him. More than that, he relishes the challenge because of the improvement it catalyzes. The verse continues, “Under wandering stars I’ve grown.” We can picture him travelling at night, camping under the stars. No pain no gain, growth comes only as a result of pushing past personal boundaries. He is stronger, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. Before hitting the road, he had been dependent and fragile, but now he is independent and firm.
The next line is paradoxical, “By myself but not alone.” How can you be by yourself but not alone? The lyric could be a reference to a divine guide, whether God or something else. That interpretation, though, is undercut by the final line of the verse, “I ask no one,” which suggests that the narrator is not praying to anyone for anything. So we are pushed to look for a different interpretation. You can be by yourself even when you are in a crowd or among a group. You can, for example, come by yourself to a party and be among friends while remaining your own person and going home by yourself at the end of the night. For contrast, consider George Thorogood’s line, “when I drink alone / I prefer to be by myself.” There are two ways to drink alone: in the company of others at a bar or party, or by yourself at home alone. A person could be alone and by himself, like a hermit who shuns contact with other people. But Hetfield’s narrator is not that way. Rather, he is by himself as a one-man team, interacting with other people but counting on no one. Sometimes alone but never lonely, he thus embodies the rugged individualism that is so much a part of the American spirit.
In case we have any doubt about the narrator’s personal connections, the next verse begins, “And my ties are severed clean.” We might have been tempted to imagine that he had some mixed feelings, that he missed at least some of the people he left behind. If he had any of those feelings, he has eliminated opportunities to indulge them. Likewise, he has not kept connections with whoever he worked for. Like the invading army that burned its ships at the shore—he has no option to retreat, no Plan B. This allows him to move forward with conviction and without hesitation. In the first verse the narrator has “stripped of all but pride.” So he has taken nothing of material value with him. Pride is what civilized society was trying to take away from him, perhaps telling him that it is a sin. He has rejected that hypocritical message. After all, the people who discouraged pride nonetheless took excessive pride in their possessions and accomplishments.
Poetically, the narrator realizes, “The less I have, the more I gain.” By freeing himself from material possessions, he has opened himself to much more. Unlike the people he left behind, he does not have to slave away at a traditional job to make money to buy stuff that no one really needs. So what does he “gain”? The answer was given earlier when he told us, “only knowledge will I save.” His hands are no longer grasping and holding on to mere things. His hands are open, and so is his mind. The journey is one of self-knowledge and self-discovery. He takes the road less traveled, the one where he is a king, servant to no one. As he puts it, “Off the beaten path I reign.” The narrator has blazed his own trail, and he lives by his own rules. Does he transcend all circumstances? Certainly not. He has no magical abilities to change the world. Rather, he has the ability to make the most of any situation, because he will not be defined by it. As he tells us, “I’ll never mind anywhere.” Why? Because “I’ll take my find anywhere.” His “find,” his discovery, is that he owns his mind and defines himself. As a result, he will only grow in the power of self-knowledge, tested by the ever-changing conditions he meets.
Hetfield’s narrator has set out on a journey of self-discovery that will only end when he is in the grave, or perhaps not even then. Envisioning his death, he tells us “Carved upon my stone / My body lie, but still I roam.” This is a curious line because of its ambiguity. It seems to suggest that his soul will live on after his death and continue the journey. That religious sentiment would fit with interpreting the earlier line “by myself but not alone” as referring to God as his constant companion. The traditional view of heaven, though, is not a place of roaming but a place of rest. So another religious way of taking the line is hinted at by the Indian sitar that starts the song. Perhaps his soul will continue to wander after his death because it will be reincarnated, as Hindus and Buddhists believe. Maybe he will come back as a wolf. Finally, though, we might take the line less literally to mean that no one can kill the narrator’s spirit. In fact, this is true. He lives on in song, in spirit, inspiring us. We identify with the narrator as we listen to the song, and we aspire to be more like him. We probably won’t leave everything behind and set out on the road, but hopefully we will follow his lead by shunning convention, seeking knowledge, growing from pain, and defining ourselves. James Hetfield himself is inspiring in these ways, though he too, falls short of the ideals set by his narrator.
*This essay is excerpted and adapted from The Meaning of Metallica: Ride the Lyrics.