Ed Kowalczyk was sitting on the edge of his brother’s bed, strumming a guitar when he wrote what would become “Lightning Crashes.” Kowalczyk, 21 at the time, was living in his mother’s house in York, Pennsylvania, after his band Live had finished touring for their debut album, Mental Jewelry. In a 2004 interview included on the DVD for Awake: The Best Of Live, Kowalczyk said, “To this day I have no idea where that song came from – and I love that.”
A meditation on the cycle of life
Lyrically, “Lightning Crashes” is a meditation on the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation. Kowalczyk’s vision of the song was a hospital emergency room where people died and babies were born, a never-ending transference of life energy: “Lightning crashes an old mother dies/Her intentions fall to the floor/The angel closes her eyes/The confusion that was hers/Belongs now to the baby down the hall.”
Just a few years before, Kowalczyk discovered the writings of Indian spiritualist Jiddu Krishnamurti, whose philosophy of living life from a place of selflessness and humility influenced the singer’s songwriting process, as well as the band’s creative philosophy.
“Lightning Crashes” was recorded and produced with Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison as part of the sessions for Live’s sophomore effort, Throwing Copper, at the famed Pachyderm Studio in Minnesota, during the summer of 1993. Around this time, Barbara Lewis, a longtime friend of the band, was killed by a drunk driver while fleeing from the police after a robbery in York. The band dedicated the song to Lewis, who was only 19 when she died.
“It was something that we hoped would honor the memory of a girl we grew up with and help her family cope with the sorrow – which it seems to have accomplished – keeping with the theme of the song,” Kowalcyzk said, in a 1995 interview in Spin magazine. Lewis was also a registered organ donor; when she died, she helped save the lives of many people, including a ten-month-old baby who received her liver.
An unlikely single
Throwing Copper was released on April 24, 1994. The album’s first single was “Selling The Drama” followed by “I Alone.” Live’s drummer, Chad Gracey, said when “Lightning Crashes” was presented to record executives, the band was told the song would become a single “over their dead bodies”. Clocking in at about five-and-a-half minutes, the record label thought the song was too long. “Of course, it became probably the biggest hit from Live, and so it was ironic that I was told that, but yet the people chose that to be the biggest song,” said Kowalczyk.
The band debuted “Lightning Crashes” at Woodstock ’94 and released the official single a month later, on September 24, 1994. “Lightning Crashes” owes much of its success to the extremely 90s music video that was played on constant rotation on MTV. Helmed by veteran music director Jake Scott, the video was shot in an old mansion in downtown Los Angeles and apparently caused some misinterpretations around the song’s intent.
“While the clip is shot in a home environment, I envisioned it taking place in a hospital, where all these simultaneous deaths and births are going on, one family mourning the loss of a woman while a screaming baby emerges from a young mother in another room,” said Kowalczyk. “Nobody’s dying in the act of childbirth, as some viewers think. What you’re seeing is actually a happy ending based on a kind of transference of life.”
For the next two years, “Lightning Crashes” dominated alternative radio and MTV, peaking at No.6 on the US Mainstream Top 40 and No.1 on both the US Alternative and Mainstream rock charts. At the time of the single’s release, Throwing Copper was a gold record. By the spring of 1995, the record had jumped to triple-platinum. Gracey believed the way the song slowly “builds from starting very quiet to the crescendo that comes at the end” is one of the things that made it stand out.
A nation grieves
On April 19, 1995, 168 people were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. A remix of Live’s single, created by an Oklahoma City DJ, which included sound bites from Bill Clinton and Tom Brokaw, as well as fire-engine and ambulance sirens, became the soundtrack for tributes for the event. “It sort of became the de facto song [for the bombing],” Gracey said. “It was definitely very bittersweet and surreal and strange to see this impactful event in our country and then have a song that we wrote be associated with it.” On May 6, Throwing Copper was the bestselling album in the US, shifting more than eight million copies in the states alone.
Now, more than two decades years later, the song is synonymous with a very specific time and place, and remains a staple of the band’s live shows, without leaving a dry eye in the house.